Growing up, British rappers made doing it seem possible. Touring America makes the places she'd heard about on records come alive.

kate tempest photo
Kate Tempest

British hip-hop has rarely translated to America. The lack of hood signifiers and outlaw themes often makes it seem like an entirely different genre—something lighter, almost parodic—particularly when paired with distinctly British voices. The Streets and Lady Sovereign failed to make the jump, and Dan Le Sac Vs. Scroobius Pip’s “Thou Shalt Always Kill” from 2008 was treated like a novelty song in America by those who heard it at all, due in part to the duo’s name, but also a beat that drew more from techno than R&B, and verses that reflect a meta-consciousness American hip-hop rarely shows. It didn’t help that some took the song’s title and Pip’s declaration of it at face value and didn’t pause to consider in what way he meant “kill.”

Kate Tempest has the best chance of any British rapper of making an impact in the States. The beats on her debut album, Everybody Down, are largely synth-based as well, but time has brought them into vogue. Her milieu is South London, which isn’t as storied as Compton or any number of cities or neighborhoods that come with built-in cred, but it carries similar weight in England, which you come to understand through the songs.

“South London is a place when I was growing up with a lot of hardship, a lot of poverty, a lot of difficult life happening around me,” she says while driving from San Francisco to Portland, the first stops at the start of a month-long tour. “People in trouble, but there was also great beauty. It’s really green, and there’s are very strong, creative networks of musicians and writers. South London is like big inner city kind of place. Culturally, it’s very mixed with people from all over the world. Where I grew up was a massive Afro-Caribbean community, and you get this mix of life and people and pain and ambition and the strange, fierce resoluteness of the city and what it tells you about life. I don’t know how you grow up in South London and not be a writer.”

My Spilt Milk is pleased to present Kate Tempest at One Eyed Jacks Monday, and Everybody Down isn’t only a depiction of an urban landscape but of the people who live in it. She tells the stories of three young people, though that wasn’t her plan. She began with one song, “Lonely Daze,” and went into the studio with Dan Carey to cut it. Carey has also produced Hot Chip, Sia, Kylie Minogue, and Franz Ferdinand among others, so he was in demand, but he wanted to work with Tempest and fit her in for a session here and there when he had downtime in the studio. While she waited to get back with him, she had time to think about the song and its two voices and realized that they articulated two distinct people.

“By the time I got back with him, these characters were living and breathing, and I understood their narrative arc,” she says. Tempest became so involved in the lives of Becky, Harry and Pete that she is now working on a novel that involves them as well as characters from her earlier plays. “I know more about the characters than I did when I wrote Everybody Down. I know who their grandparents are and how they fell in love. I know what their first jobs were,” she says. “Now we’re touring and I know everything about them. As a writer, you need to know everything about them so you know what’s necessary to tell. Now, the love I have for them is so strange. They’ve become real. They live in this universe that runs parallel to this one. They’re just there all the time.”

When Tempest talks about her work, she’s serious and enthusiastic, speaking with obvious pride and excitement about Everybody Down and the experience of making it. At the same time, she often ends thoughts on a self-deprecating or uncertain note, as if she’s worried that the vagaries of creativity are too ephemeral or too personal to make sense. In her case, the process is often clear and practical.  

Most of the beats for the album emerged from a two hour jam session in the studio late at night with Carey on keyboards. Although she knew her characters, she freestyled verses while he played. 

“It was this psychedelic, intense experience,” she says. “In Dan’s studio, he’s got lasers and smoke machines, and the whole point is to take yourself out of the idea that you’re recording and just perform.”

The next day, she felt bad that she finally got time with Carey and they spent it musically goofing off, but when they listened back to recordings, Carey heard sounds he’d never made before and ideas that seemed distinct to their musical relationship. Those jams provided most of the music for Everybody Down, and when they got back in the studio two weeks later, she had crafted the lines that appear on the album to replace those she ad libbed that night. Each song was a chapter in the characters’ story that leads to a genuinely dramatic ending. 

The album is literary by habit not design. Tempest won the Ted Hughes Award for Innovation in Poetry in 2013 for Brand New Ancients, a “spoken story” that took more than an hour to perform, and at the time she made her living as a playwright. “I was just learning about narrative and dialogue and characters and stuff, so that’s where my brain was at,” she says. “The idea of putting everything I’d learned into my music wasn’t a decision; it just happened. I wanted to make a straight hip-hop record, but every time I tried to write just a rhyme or just a rap, it wasn’t as exciting. Even talking about it now makes me excited. It was such an exciting time.” 

Carey enjoyed it too, so much so that he’s on board as well for further collaboration and is performing with her on tour. As a hip-hop fan, touring America gives her visuals to put with all the references she had only heard on records. She considers Wu-Tang Clan, Organized Konfusion and Lauryn Hill as her introductions to hip-hop; she heard The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill when she was 13 and Wu-Tang before that. She became more actively involved in rap through her teenage years.

“I was absolutely blown away by lyrical MCs, the MCs that were playful and dexterous, like Mos Def, Pharoahe Monch, GZA, The Gravediggaz,” Tempest says. “I love their record, The Pick, the Sickle and the Shovel. I love Too Poetic from Gravediggaz. His verse on “The Night the Earth Cried” was like—,” and her voice trails off into a sigh.

Still, it was British hip-hop that made the idea of rapping possible. For her, the key names weren’t The Wild Bunch, Massive Attack, Tricky, or Portishead—the Bristol artists commonly associated with hip-hop’s beachhead in England.

“When I was growing up, there was this UK hip-hop movement with a rapper called Chester P who was in a group called Task Force, and he was incredible,” Tempest says. “One of our greatest living poets. An unbelievable rapper. A guy called Jehst, Roots Manuva—I’m sure you guys know Roots Manuva—a guy called Rodney P. There was this gathering at this record store called Deal Real on Carnaby Street in London, and every Friday this record shop with get flooded with MCs, and we’d all be rapping out into the streets on the way home, rapping on the night bus home. Hip-hop lived for me because of British hip-hop. I learned about the craft from American albums, but I realized it could be something I could get involved with because of what was going on in London at the time.

“It’s a very specific kind of thing, the British hip-hop thing. It was quite poetic, quite introverted. It was very political, so the emphasis was on complaint or struggle. Wisdom. Knowledge. You had to be saying something or it was time to go home. There were these two scenes. There was the battle scene where it was all about braggadocio and I’m better than you school of things, but then there was this whole other scene that was knowledge, power, complexity, wizardry—all this stuff. That’s what really got me going. There’s something about the gray weather of London and the drizzle and the political situations we find ourselves in that makes for a unique song of complaint.”