You can tell just by looking at Theophilus London that he’s a pretty enigmatic dude. The 24-year-old Brooklyn MC can often be seen decked out in skinny black jeans, a Lanvin blazer, a pair of Jordans, and a Borsalino. And while one shouldn’t judge a rapper by his threads, London’s high-end-meets-low-end sartorial aesthetic has basically made his career; before his debut album, Timez Are Weird These Days, dropped in July, he was already collaborating with Gucci, designing shoes for Cole Haan, and planning a fall campaign with Tommy Hilfiger. (Heck, even Mountain Dew wanted a piece of him.) London’s carving a new career model for young artists: Pimp your image first, and then—after filling your coffers with luxury brand sponsorships—build your musical rep.
Of course, it helps that London’s music isn’t half-bad. Much like his fashion sense, Timez melds disparate elements together, from hip-hop to house to new wave. He’s a new-school rapper for the Playlist Generation; his music recalls The Police, Morrissey, Michael Jackson, and Marvin Gaye—sometimes even in the same damn song.
The A.V. Club caught up with London before his show at Johnny Brenda's this Tuesday, Feb. 7, to talk about his multiple genre disorder, the death of hip-hop, and why selling out is fun.
The A.V. Club: You’ve managed to establish quite a name for yourself in a difficult industry. How’d you do it?
Theophilus London: Yo man, I just stay true to myself, you know? I keep a creative group around me. I’ve been blessed with good taste, and I travel everywhere.
AVC: I guess understanding the Internet has a lot to do with it, too.
TL: Definitely, man. That’s definitely a huge part of it. That’s where I reach most of my market, by just showing them my style and culture; taking what I see and putting that into photos and music and a lifestyle for people to take in and breathe in. With this record, I created a soundtrack that’s based on traveling and the culture that surrounds it.
AVC: So would you say your music is so eclectic because you’ve traveled to many places?
TL: No, that’s not why. It’s because of all my influences. My songs have so many different sounds because I’m not scared to do anything, and I’m just experimenting and just growing with my music as I put it out. I review catalogues of work. When I find out about something, I just review it and check it out. I find out everything there is to know about it, listen to it, and move on and check something else out.
AVC: Is your iPod playlist as eclectic as your records are?
TL: No, my playlist at home is more chill. Mostly just 12-inches and 7-inches of chill music. Nothing crazy. Things like Percy Sledge, the Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, some early Radiohead.
AVC: What does the title of your album, Timez Are Weird These Days, refer to in particular?
TL: Just the crazy year I’ve had, and where we are with pop culture right now. I think it’s at a weird, steady, growing pace. Everyone in it and everything about it is weird. Timez Are Weird These Days actually has a remix album coming out called Timez Are Weird These Nights. It’s going to feature a whole bunch of awesome remixes.
AVC: You’re recognized for your style as much as you are for your music. Do you consider yourself a fashion trendsetter?
TL: Well, that’s what they’re calling me. I don’t know if I’d call myself that. But it’s very flattering, and that’s cool.
AVC: Why wouldn’t you call yourself that?
TL: I don’t really put much thought into it, you know? But people are getting excited about my image. That’s tight.
AVC: How would you describe your style?
TL: Just chill, man. I’m into matching high-end with the low-end. All the time, man. Right now I’ve got on some Chanel jeans with some Jordans. I really dig it, man.
AVC: What made you decide to work with so many brands?
TL: Aw man, because it’s exciting. Brands are in your face 24/7; I’m sure you’ve consumed a couple brands today. So it’s fun working with them. People recognize brands, and people are starting to recognize my brand. It’s just awesome to team up with brands and come up with something exciting for kids to collect.
AVC: You mentioned on Twitter the other day that you were hitting Occupy Portland. Do you support the Occupy cause?
TL: Yeah, I just took a walk down there. There are a lot of issues going on. I’ve been away from home for so long, so I never got to go to the one on Wall Street because I’ve been on tour.
AVC: But doesn’t having affiliations with massive corporations contradict Occupy’s principles?
TL: Um, I can’t really talk about that.
AVC: Some people would call what you’re doing selling out. Would you agree?
TL: Of course it is! I’m selling out, and I’m paying my fucking rent. I’m fucking swaggin’ out all over the world. That’s what selling out is about. Getting bitches and swaggin’ out. Selling out is cool. I’d rather be selling out than being in someone’s basement hanging out and smoking a joint.
AVC: Hip-hop purists argue that what you’re doing isn’t really hip-hop. What do you think?
TL: It’s not. [Laughs.] It’s pop. It’s popular music. Hip-hop is like underground. I don’t know if hip-hop exists anymore. I don’t know if it does. Tell me one hip-hop artist right now that’s hot.
TL: Drake’s way more than hip-hop, if you define hip-hop. He’s a pop act.
AVC: So is hip-hop dead right now?
TL: I don’t know. I just said “What is hip-hop?” I don’t know what it is.
AVC: Is your motto “Accept The New” a reaction to hip-hop purists?
TL: Not really, man. It means exactly that: Accept the new shit. My music’s not really for hip-hop purists. My music’s for awesome, smart, progressive people who wake up in the morning and they want to play some cool shit. It’s for people that are progressive and are ready to take on the future and shit. Hip-hop purists were born in the ’60s and ’70s, but I’m reaching out to people born in the ’80s and ’90s and ’00s.
AVC: Is it music for the Playlist Generation?
TL: Yeah, man. Everyone has a lot of different tastes. They’re not only exposed to just hip-hop; that’s like old-timer. You got an iPod, you got a TV, there’s a lot of other things besides hip-hop to get into, and kids are getting into it.
AVC: What would you call your genre?
TL: The thing with my music, no one knows what I’m getting to next. Only I do, and people just have to write about it. But my music’s changed all the time, from record to record. It’s never been the same. I don’t know what category to put it in. There’s nothing more awesome than jumping in the studio and trying to do something completely fresh for the first time, instead of trying to duplicate what you did on the first album. So, of course I would love to switch it up every time I jump in that studio and make some hot shit.
AVC: Would you ever do a death metal record?
TL: Well, what is death metal? [Laughs.] Um, I don’t know. I mean, to me, it’s all about instruments. I don’t really see things in terms of genre. I see things in colours and sounds.