The hustle was a hunt and Tion Wayne chased trails until the land bore gold. It led him to sound stages across the country and jail cells at 15. That deep ache to make something of his life, to outrun the broke days and sufferings of his Edmonton come-up, was, in many ways, his greatest ally and most troubling temptation. It had led him to grave mistakes, and made daydreams a reality.
“My plan was to always make it out,” he told me, “I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I knew I wanted to be successful. I didn’t want to be doing road when I was 35. I needed to have something that was going to save me, I wanted to be legit somehow. Everyone was shotting or doing F [fraud] but they didn’t have a plan to get out. I never knew music was my plan, but I wanted it to be.”
We sat at a studio in south London, that lay in the shadows of Southwark’s low railway arches. London was in the early stems of her summer stolen by the COVID-19 epidemic. A soft drizzle wet the roads, and through the corridors you could hear the iron tracks ferrying empty carriages into the city. The room we settled in was small and windowless. Tion Wayne rested on a computer chair, a black hood curled over his forehead.
It was the first time we had met. Before then, my image of the 26-year-old was storybook. For my generation, Tion Wayne had been ever present on the UK rap circuit. He was the charismatic north London rapper with ambition bleeding from his aura, with songs like “Can’t Go Broke” and “Minor”. His music blended summery, brass-stained melodies with sing-easy hooks, carried by the grittier tones of street hustles and illicit incomes.
He came out of Edmonton, north London in the late 00s – a small town “full of hustlers”. The area had their own history of grafters from around the manor, MCs like Scorcher and Terminator. The latter was a maverick who piled money into rental properties. Their success made Tion hungry.
“Money was my motivation from when I was young,” he said, “Music was my passion, but money was my motivation. I was just used to speaking about getting money, trying to get money or how I got money.”
You can hear it in his early work. Debut mixtapes Wayne’s World 1 and 2, released in 2014 and 2016, pull us into his psyche. “Had dreams of being an accountant,” he says on the intro to Wayne’s World 1, telling listeners how his mother fell ill at 14, how he “hit the strip” not long after – the money a “medicine” when he felt low. There are the first convictions at 15 on “Letter to Supporters”, how he took “a knife in his back” at 19 on “#Streetheat Freestyle”, and turned 21 in prison on “I’m Living”. Tion’s early songs are the confessionals of a kid turned reckless and how tomorrow fades to trivial when your only aim is to survive the day.
“When we was young everyone I was growing up with was doing time or flipping dying,” he said, “I was in and out of jail, back-and-forth, like four times. So I didn’t know how long I was going to be on road, so man was living for now.”
“I wasn’t thinking about the week after. I was thinking ‘I’ve got to live my life now because you never know what’s going to happen.’ I never knew I’d be able to come out of that cycle.”
But even then, in the mid 2010s, there were hints of what Tion would become. He nipped between sounds, preparing by chance for a time like today, where he crosses Black British genres with ease. Today, Tion Wayne is a star on many recent UK rap, afroswing and drill anthems.
Tion Wayne doesn't rap on songs; he dances. His flow skips all over instrumentals, lively but graceful, like a pebble cutting the waters. In the past few years, he has graced “Options” with NSG and “Bally” with Swarmz, “Keisha & Becky” with Russ and the “Gangsta” remix with Darkoo. When there is a hit to be composed, one designed to jerk limbs into movement, Tion Wayne shows up in some fashion.
“I feel that’s my best ability,” he said, “it’s how to make a song. I know how to orchestrate a hit if I’m in the studio with an artist. People underestimate how good I can write.”
Tion comes from the second generation in UK rap, where artists like Mover and J Hus and Rimzee arrived on the scene when commercial interest was still quiet. It was a time where the university rave circuit paid £150 a show. To turn a profit, you had to bend pop sounds like Tinie Tempah. They are middle children, who bridged new school and old school – immediate descendants of Giggs and Blade Brown and Streetz Selected DVDs.
“I had a mad love for music,” he said, “I loved being in the studio, I loved making the videos. I loved working but we weren’t making pees bro. I didn’t know how to find a balance. I was hustling, and the people I was hustling with started to recognise me from music. I was thinking ‘shit, am I going to have to stop hustling? But if I stop, how am I going to make P [money]?’”
By 2018, Tion was signed to Virgin EMI. The music industry was changing. The dams had burst on the rivers and Britain had its ear open to Black music. There was an opportunity to make good on years of no pay. An EP titled Transition would be Tion’s personal passing of the guard.
Instead, he watched the new dawn break from a jail cell. In early 2017, a club appearance turned violent down in Bristol. Tion was found guilty of affray and sentenced to serve 16 months.
Alone in his cell, he thought he was finished. “I was watching man go silver and gold,” he said. “I was watching man go number two in the charts. I’m hearing the radio every day and it’s UK artists getting battered, and I’m thinking ‘shit, I missed it, I missed my chance to be where I’m supposed to be.’”
But away from jail, listening was picking up. Months into his sentence, Tion asked his manager about his streaming numbers. “I couldn’t believe it, bro,” he said. “I made that much Ps from music?’” Then he walked back to his cell smiling, thinking quietly to himself, “when I come out, I’m going to get proper stuck in, it’s time to push properly.”
His departure from jail was captured in the music video for “Home”. Released in summer 2018, he steps through a car park, hair long overgrown, holding a phone camera to his face: “What don’t break a nigga, make a nigga, you get me.”
Since then Tion has flourished. In 2018, he released a third instalment of Wayne’s World and grabbed a hold of the UK rap baton and ran. The cult singles with NSG, Russ and Swarmz have cast his name in stone. “Made half a mill last quarter,” he rapped on “London” with Brixton’s M24 in February, “original Edmonton boy just charted."
Tion’s rise has been crowned with 2020 track “I Dunno” – a ghoulish rap cut alongside Dutchavelli and Stormzy. The three heavy-hitters toss verses like tennis balls, warring a haunting instrumental on a searing anthem for the summer that never was. It was released while Tion transitioned between labels, and he spent 20 grand out of his own pocket on the visual.
“When the track’s done that’s 20 percent of the work done,” he said in an interview back in 2017, “80 percent is the video,” and so before the shoot he sent the song out to his friends, made sure they understood the heated energy needed when they showed out. When the video was done, he sat in an editing session with the director, prepping the single for release. Years deep, the hustle is still in him – just different, now.
The path looks a straight road from here on out, an easy ride into the distance. But despite the upturn, a wariness still lingers. In a climate where there has never been more money on the table for British rappers to forge careers without compromise, many of the scene’s stars, like J Hus, Headie One and Loski, have stumbled back into old troubles, landing themselves back in prison. The transition is not easy.
“People don’t understand,” Tion said. “Rappers might go jail in the prime of their career, but they’ve only been doing music seriously for one year. The ten years before, they were in a cycle. All their behaviours and routines they had isn’t going to snap out of them. They’re still going to be the same person, even with the success.”
“If something happened to me tomorrow, I know I’ve got a lot more to lose, so I might be more hesitant to take action that I would before. But I’ve still got elements that I grew up with.”
A year after his own release from prison he took to the stage at Brixton Academy for the London leg of his headline tour. They sold 2,300 tickets in the first hour. The venue sold out in three days.
“It’s all my fans that were listening to mixtapes from back in the day,” he said, “even though we wasn’t making Ps, bro, it wasn’t for nothing.”
He was greeted by a crowd of nearly 5,000, their phones dazzling torches. He ran down from the ramp, moved to the right corner. The crowd tilted with him. Elated screams stretched from the galleries to the stage front. Bouncers lifted a few suffocating supporters from the frenzy. It was mania; the hustle had paid off. Tion Wayne had arrived.