Kate Tempest: The Girl In The Corner

High stakes reality of a rapper-poet.

“The gods are in the betting shops, the gods are in the cafe, the gods can’t afford the deposit on their flat”… These are the words that lined the walls of my higher conscious in 2013. It came to me on Facebook, a shared link to the Battersea Arts Centre’s Youtube account. I can recall thinking… where had I heard about this poet? I honestly wasn’t prepared. Warning, you are about to have your mind blown. Her humility belies her strength, her words cut through and her words enriched my visualisation of God and humanity.

So, along comes this poetic painting that Kate created placing the gods under one roof raving, the gods living a painfully ordinary life, the gods slipping through this life into the next with little to no consequence. Her poetic consciousness too deep for someone so young I could only pray we’d meet and reason. As if in a dream, she came to me once again but this time under a strobe light, in front of a Turbosound speaker pumping the syncopated beats of a Roland drum machine. At the helm of this dance is A God called Gerald navigating through sound in our space ship in Peckham called the Bussey building and for a brief moment we speak and then I think, was that Kate Tempest? Were we dancing to the same beat? Like gods having a conversation with themselves, figuring out what’s good – and it was good. I wasn’t too sure, that is, until we meet again…

My names Kate Tempest I grew up in South East London, in like Brockley, Lewisham, New Cross area.

The poem that you’ve been reciting for us what’s it called?

That’s the last verse from a song called ‘Tunnel Vision’, on the album ‘Let Them Eat Chaos’.

And your new album, how does it sit in the great scheme of things?

Well it’s my 2nd solo record, well solo album, kind of release properly, but I’ve been making music for 15 years and putting things out. Like I had a couple of white labels, you know ancient [laughs] back in the day with another rapper from New Cross, a guy called Manage. And then I put out an album with my band, I used to be in a band but this is album 2 of Kate Tempest solo on a record label.

We know the journey we’ve been on, that’s how you stay humble, that’s how you stay hungry

The band as it is now is Gee on the drums, this girl called Claire she plays the synths she’s really cool, she came into the project a bit later on. Dan Carey is a synths player and a multi-instrumentalist, he’s the producer of the record. I started working with him, through this long process of trying to get in his recording studio, and trying to get some time with him. Now our minds are so keyed into each others process that we can kind of hatch ideas without speaking which is an amazing thing. But there was a time when I couldn’t get any recording time with him, his manager was just like “no way am I gonna pencil out two hours of his day to work with this poet, I don’t know who she is” but me and him had met and connected. He’d been to an early gig of mine and was really blown away by the kind of energy or something. So now that’s the unit and plus we have my soundman who’s an old old friend, that I’ve known for ever, it’s a family thing which I think is very important. As I hope that as we move on that never changes, I think it’s very important that your team is your team and that you didn’t just assemble it.

It’s been the same crew since we were playing to nobody, since I literally couldn’t get out of the New Cross Inn, which was this one pub where we used to play or record or whatever. It’s the same team, so we know the journey we’ve been on, that’s how you stay humble, that’s how you stay hungry. Because we know the whole journey and when we come out on stage and you watch people that have that relationship with each other, you become a part of that journey. Whether you know why it feels the way it does feel, suddenly you’re entering this high stakes reality with us. Because we know how important this is, we don’t take a minute for granted.

Tell me about the first time we met , where you came up to me and said ‘could you thank Gerald for playing a good set and then you walked off into the distance with your drummer and his mob and all I got was shots of them lot and I’m gonna send it to you tonight. So tell me about that, tell us about the first time we met in the Busey building in Peckham?

Well we were just down there for a dance man, we love what A Guy Called Gerald does, obviously he’s a massive legend, and the fact that he was on our doorstep playing in Peckham. It was Gee’s birthday that night so we’d all been out, and I was just amazed by watching this live electronic re-imagination of some of these songs. Musically it was really mind blowing and often I think dance music, rave music, people forget the musicality of this music, which is ridiculous right? So I was just buzzing off that, and obviously buzzing that it’s Gee’s birthday and everyone’s having a rave. Gee actually hung out and managed to stick it out to the bitter end and I think he met Gerald and I think they did have a chat. I was too shy, I don’t like to kind of inveigle somebodies attention, especially when it’s not a shared moment, because you’ve been given so much. Actually that moment is about just receiving it, you don’t have to like… when you see somebody that you’ve really enjoyed their music, the minute you stop them to try and talk to them, it’s actually not about them i’s about you. But I just wanted him to know I’d been really moved by what he did, so I saw you there with the camera and I was like right ok, this guys in the team, and I just thought this is a nice moment to just say thanks.

So that’s the beginning of our journey where we met in a rave in the Bussey Building as it’s the beginning of most journeys in South London, in the rave, and you lean over to someone and ask ‘have you got a rizla’. And that’s how the conversation starts…

Hip hop for example it teaches so much about authenticity, keeping it real, it’s very important and I had to realise that for me to be real, I have to just be this kind of odd girl

But I’m so grateful to everything, the culture, what I absorbed and everything I learned, I learned so much from South London but also from Hip Hop culture in South London. From the kind of sound system and rave culture in South London, that is a very formative part of my life, taught me about self knowledge, self worth, skills, holding your station, your carriage, this whole thing. But then I had to learn this through filters that didn’t quite apply to me, so for example being a woman, there was something that I was expected maybe, a way of how a female should be carrying herself in that environment. That just didn’t come naturally to me. So I had to learn how to apply these filters but be genuine and real with myself and where I was coming from and that was an interesting journey. Like hip hop for example it teaches so much about authenticity, keeping it real, it’s very important and I had to realise that for me to real, I have to just be this kind of odd girl. I was just this weird little girl that would just be in the rave or be in the cypher or whatever, not fitting in, but would just be there, holding my station in the same way, learning the lessons.

I used to go on a bit moody, I’d be there, I had to deal with my own kind of South London. I was kind of moody and I’d be in my hood and everything and kind of arrogant and all that shit, but it’s a beautiful thing, it’s a beautiful thing to have known. Especially as you grow older and you get to know yourself in a different way, it stays with you, and then it’s nice and you meet someone else and you’re like ok cool.

Were you conscious of being someone switching from a consumer to a producer, who takes in hip hop takes in the culture, and becomes someone who starts throwing it back?

Interesting… well I always felt like it was influencing such a huge part of how I understood my identity, that I never really divided that moment up. For example, when I was 14, I started working in this record shop in Lewisham in the market there, which is now a posh bar or something. But back in the day there was these 3 record stores, and I worked in the hip hop, soul and ragga shop of this record store and I learnt so much in that moment. Cos I could listen to anything I liked and they’d let me take CD’s home and bring them back the next day, and record them and I could take vinyl, listen and bring it back. So like I was at school, I was learning and learning and learning, and then you’d go out and you’d be too young to get into the rave, but if you stood long enough outside, the MC’s would come out and you could cypher in the car park. Just in like Jamm in Brixton and things like that.

I feel very lucky to have grown up in London because hip hop culture, it was not yet grime, it was before that.

So for me it was like, it was always a living thing and I feel very lucky to have grown up in London because hip hop culture, it was not yet grime, it was before that, but there was an identity that felt like it had a London, UK identity to it. You could do down to Deal Real and you could be like Chester P or whoever would be coming through, it was an interesting time, it never felt like I’m just consuming this, I felt like a part of it. It was moving through, there was this exchange going on, it was a real living, breathing thing. When I started to actually rhyme, it was just exhilarating man. I felt like I’d unlocked this like portal into another dimension, because you just carry this ability around and everything feeds into it. You could be sitting on a train or standing on a corner, or I could be in a record store at work, and like just at any moment I could just open this door and the universe would just explode, because you could freestyle and you can share your lyrics with someone. You’re allowed into someone else’s reality because you’d just be swapping lyrics, amazing.

I love that time, that Deal Real time, because Estelle was part of that time, Chester P, Skinnyman was almost the don of that in a way, because he was just older, and he would still just turn up, sell weed and spit bars.

Yeah in like a Avirex jacket, in the boiling heat [laughs]

I remember just standing on the peripheries of these things, before I had the confidence to take the mic.

The point about those guys and I remember Roots being a part of that, Roots Manuva, none of that happened on wax, none of that happened on radio, none of that happened in Twitter, it happened in physical spaces when you guys did your thing…

I remember just standing on the peripheries of these things, before I had the confidence to take the mic. When I would just be running my lyrics under my breath to myself, just be watching, observing just getting ready, for a couple of years. But exactly as you say it was there, it was happening, it was happening in a room, or outside in the street, in a way that I think is just inconceivable for me to imagine having the same kind of visceral response to it if I’d have just heard it on the radio, or seen it on YouTube or something.

It was about from what I understood of it anyway, for me it was about getting better. It was like what you had on a Friday night, by the next Friday night you better have some new lyrics and you better be coming harder. If you’re gonna stand there in the cypher and take your place, you better be saying something serious like. So it was a good training to have, like a 16, 17 year old like going up against these quite big older people, it was good training man.

Its funny cos they won’t remember you until they see a picture of you back then.

They won’t remember me even so, I was holding it down, you know, I was like, I absorbed so much. Actually a few people are like “fucking hell it’s you, I remember that girl”. For me the position it occupies in my heart is just huge, cos I know how important it was for me, strange. But what’s interesting is like Chester P now working on his poetry is really exciting and inspiring.

Is that where he’s taking it?

Yeah man, it’s amazing what he’s doing and he’s working on this big project distributing sleeping bags to the homeless. He’s doing his thing, it’s really inspiring and exciting because he was such a big influence to so many. And then I suppose where else it could go, that was a particular time, and then through raving, dancing, like kind of garage, drum and bass, jungle, like seeing MC’s in a different light. Understanding that an MC’s role can change, like you said about the mystical nature of the jungle MC for example or like the kind of party starter or technical like, the kind of exuberant ridiculous flows that you would get. And then you know like Skibadee and Shabba D and even like the Eksman a bit later on.

Feeling what happens to your body, when an MC is holding one syllable for half a tune, it was a different schooling about flow, charisma, stamina.

For me, when it came to the hip hop MC it was so direct, it was all about the content and what you’re saying and I didn’t really have any time for party MC’s it had to be real, or it didn’t grab me. But then feeling how it felt to be in a big space, right up against the speakers cause I had to have my head in the speakers, like the Valve Sound System right. Feeling what happens to your body, when an MC is holding one syllable for half a tune, it was a different schooling about flow, charisma, stamina. And I remember the first time, getting on some faster beats and experimenting with that stuff. It was like a whole journey of just learning and then I moved into doing poetry and again it was like a whole other thing opened up, a whole other world of learning. Each little moment contributes to the next one and you end up carrying this wealth of experience, that you didn’t plan to experience all this stuff but it makes but it makes you the artist that you are.

Once you’ve embarked on this journey, you’re living this life through poetry or forms

Yeah man. Also… who is allowed to be moved by art? You don’t have to pay £50 for a theatre ticket, to be the kind person that can be moved by a story. So I’ve got all these ideas about just opening this arts festival up a bit, especially in these times where we’re more divided by the minute, all this fear everywhere. I think that it’s the role of the arts being someone who works so closely in them, our role is to cultivate empathy.

Yeah, art is societies canvas…

When you stand together with a group of people in a crowd suddenly you are part of something, part of something bigger than yourself and it’s an amazing feeling. So it’s up to the arts now to start rectifying the damage done by politics.

This is now where I’m at with my work, like I went on this big journey, starting with lyricism, which is necessarily from the perspective of ‘I’ and you’re telling people your perspective, your life, you’re telling your story but its from you. And then I’ve been on this huge journey with it, where now what I’m excited about is other peoples stories, narratives, like collecting stories and retelling stories, so that in actuallity the ‘I’ is ‘You’ and that you the storyteller can just accommodate and facilitate stories that have got nothing to do with you. Because what happens is when the listener hears the story, hopefully it clicks something in them.

So the conclusion of the piece is not you telling someone how it is but it’s them thinking, that’s interesting and this makes me think that what you’re saying is this. I only learnt that stuff through having to take this big digression from hip hop. I learnt it in writing theatre, writing fiction, I suddenly begin to think of myself as a writer, and with all the hip hop sensibilities that I’ve learnt, and which were so valuable to me, suddenly it’s in this moment that I realise, actually the kind of work I wanna be making.

It reminds me of that Mutabaruka poem, ‘Dis Poem’, and with the last line he says “Dis poem is to be continued in your mind”….

In support of her forthcoming eagerly anticipated album Let Them Eat Chaos (due Oct 7th), Kate Tempest will embark on a UK tour this December. Having just sold out London’s Roundhouse, Kate’s new headline date will take place at the Brixton Academy on May 27th 2017 with tickets going on general sale this Friday 30thSeptember. 

Kate has recently been announced as the Guest Director for Brighton Festival 2017. At 31, Kate Tempest will be the youngest Brighton Festival Guest Director to date, taking the mantle from pioneering artist and musician Laurie Anderson, who led the 50th Brighton Festival this year.