Theophilus London feels misunderstood. By his record label, by the press, by me. His label wants him to be a pop singer who works with the top producers in pop and makes chart hits that sell millions of downloads; he would prefer to make records with the likes of Leon Ware, a soul legend who, among other things, produced Marvin Gaye's iconic I Want You. He would very much enjoy it if the press, especially the music press, reported on him and his music; however, nine times out of ten interviews (even interviews ostensibly set up to promote his music) only deal with Kanye West, his friend and collaborator who served as the executive producer of his recent album Vibes. When journalists do ask him questions about himself, he says, they have it out for him.
"Some girl from Elle Magazine wanted me to meet her at this deli," he says. "I met her there, and she bought me oxtail and then wrote an article like, 'Oh, he didn't buy me oxtail; he ate sloppy in front of me and didn't buy me a drink.' I'm not on a fucking date with you!" One might argue, on the other hand, that London also has it out for the journalists who cover him: The actual Elle quote only says that London can "cut your cynicism by sweetly apologizing for getting his lunch... all over the table." Similarly, London recently took issue with Complex posting about his album sales, tweeting that "a weak journalist at complex magazine wants to write about Taylor swift outselling me" and that "Complex magazine writes 'VIBES SUCKS' do u agree?" when the news post he was referencing simply comments that "not every album can sell a shit ton of copies in the first week like Taylor Swift," which may be an unfair point of comparison but is still objectively true and not at all "VIBES SUCKS."
This adversarial relationship is all a shame, because Vibes is, on its own, a highly impressive record. The product of two years of hard work—including a year spent in seclusion in Palm Springs—Vibes incorporates elements of hip-hop, post-punk and new wave, classic soul and funk, reggae and dancehall, and glam rock into something not quite classic-sounding, not quite contemporary. It's full of good ideas and clearly a product of his own sensibilities, which often find him wisely getting out of the way of himself and ceding the spotlight to his collaborators. Though it's tempting to place him within the continuum of West's futuristic, post-everything aesthetic, a more apt comparison to London would be his friend and collaborator Dev Hynes, whose 2013 record Cupid Deluxe is probably the closest thing Vibes has to a spiritual cousin: a record that amalgamates classic sounds with a fervor and open-mindedness that couldn't be anything other than hyper-modern.
As for me, I misunderstood the 27-year-old Theophilus London by asking him if he was a member of the fashion world. "I want to be clear about that: I was never in the fashion world," he says to me over the phone, calling from Miami on his tour of the various branches of the exclusive SoHo House club. "I'm not a designer for a fashion brand, neither am I a store buyer, nor am I a fashion journalist," he says. Still, London definitely has cultivated a reputation for representing a fashionable, aesthetically curated lifestyle in a way that can overshadow his music. When I ask if he feels often misquoted, he says yes. At another point in the interview, he will suggest that journalists who write negative articles on him are jealous of his successes. I don't necessarily think that's true—London's far-ranging influences can yield ideas that come across as a little half-baked, and his social media presence can, in fact, be grating to the point of inspiring mocking reactions—but I understand why he might think that.
There are ideas floating around London's head at a rapid pace—in conversation, he jumps back and forth between different ideas and tangents and thoughts, not always with the utmost clarity. It's not surprising something might get lost in the translation from conversation to the page. And if you're in a situation where you're required to give linear, compact answers (i.e., an interview), and you're an artist who's sensitive about your shit, and this happens enough times, you might develop something of an adversarial relationship with the media that covers you.
So, below is GXNXVS' remix of London's Jesse Boykins III-featuring "Tribe." Below that is an extremely candid interview with London in which we discuss his spirits (high), his level of belief in his fans who he hopes to inspire to become the next generation of genius artists (very high), the first week sales of Vibes (low), and his levels of shit-giving about his label, online music journalism, and anyone who might claim that selling only 3,000 records means you don't have an impact on culture (VERY low).
Noisey: To me one of the things that you're very good at is taking a lot of higher-fashion and culture stuff, combining that with the influence of older music, and synthesizing that into a package that someone who has no context for something like that can understand it.
Theophilus London: There are definitely a lot of new things in the older culture that are still new to a lot of people. Things haven't been tried just because technology changes the way people think about things. With my music, I always try to go back and have a theme or reference something cool that has meaning to it. Like the cover of This Charming Mixtape was modeled after an Elvis Costello album cover. I flipped Amadou and Mariam’s "Sabali" to rap over before Nas did it. I just want to stay ahead of the culture. Go to London and get on some grime, or make a song like “Crazy Cousins” on some Jamaican London vibe. I'm not a genre-based artist, I'm just a voice. I can make a Brazilian album if I wanted or an African album or I can make a home/house/bed collection. I'm bringing this idea of “Yo, you can be a young rapper and creative director at the same time!"
I think with Vibes you have an album where the quality of the tunes matches up to the ideas at play. With your previous records, I’m not sure you were quite hitting that nail on the head.
The best thing is I got fired by my label. When I first got signed, it’s like they take me to Hollywood, and they bring out all these bullshit-talkers and desk-doubters and you start getting inside with all the songwriters and producers, and you think it's about you, but it's totally about the producers involved and who gets paid. I had a vision about being signed to a label like Warner Brothers—I'm thinking about Prince, I'm thinking about Talking Heads, I'm thinking about Madonna. So, I wanted to make a record that echoes those artists. But I kind of hit it short. So that's why I ended up calling my first record Timez Are Weird These Days, because I was still stuck in a weird place. I knew I had to make Vibes isolated, to keep my vision sacred. I let no label A&R inside my house. I lived in Palm Springs, and I stayed there for a year. Afterwards I traveled around for a year. I worked in Paris, I worked with Kanye, Brodinski, Leon Ware, and then I brought it home.
When I saw the list of collaborators, Leon Ware was the name that jumped out to me.
Yeah, I really feel bad because Leon Ware was the first executive producer of Vibes. The other names kind of overshadowed him, and it sucks because I've been a superfan of his for so many years. Me and Dev Hynes used to wake up and just play the I Want You album over and over when we were broke and living in Williamsburg. So now to finally come full circle and not sample him anymore or use him as inspiration, but to have him in the room playing chords, listening to my music, telling me everything that should change, helping me write... We sat down together and wrote “Water Me” side by side. He was telling me stories about him and Marvin Gaye—all the crazy drugs they'd take to make their record, how they'd have sex with girls in the studio booth to make these sex sounds. It was so great to hear these stories; it really changed my life as a songwriter. I'm going to get better as a songwriter. Kanye gave me one helpful comment before he decided to work on the record. He said, “Go and cover really obscure songs with really good melodies but no one knows about, remake these songs in your likeness. That was how “Neu Law” and “Take and Look” came about.
In that vein, let’s talk about “Based God.” [Editor’s Note: Theophilus London’s track “BasedGod” interprets Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” as a plea to Lil B to not steal Theophilus’s girl.]
Lil B is dope, man. Me and my girlfriend got into him around 2010, 2011. The guy is like a modern day Tupac to me. He talks how a prophet would, very humble and always praising you, and I was like, “Man. This guy's special.” I’m happy his work blew up, but that’s not what he’s doing it for, you know? He's not doing it to be strategically on the blogs every day or whatever the case is, he has his fan base and has his following and I really appreciate that. I'm one of the artists that, I don't have the type of following that I drop an album and it’s like, “OK, I know my following is crazy about me and they're going to go buy my album right away.” I can’t give my fans a name like they’re the Beliebers or something that has to do with my last single. I don't have that. So I really respect someone like Lil B who's got a hardcore following, like if you talk shit about him they’re going to fuck you up on Twitter or come at you for him.
The Task Force, man, it's fucking real.
Exactly, the Task Force is fucking real. I hope to build a Task Force with this whole Vibes project so we're just connected into the future.
Vibes sold about 3,000 copies its first week out. Is that what you expected?
Yeah, I knew that was going to happen. I didn't have an official video for my single, the label didn't really set it up or anything; they were just hyped about Kanye West being the Executive Producer, and that's why wanted to put the album out. Just because I have names on the album, people think it's supposed to sell? No. That's like the work ethic of the label: I put together an amazing record, and I bring it to Warner Brothers to sell it, and that's what they did. But to me it's like, first week sales, what does it mean? I never was that type of artist. I'm a part of a generation that drops free music. It's an interesting thing. Either it sells badly or it sells good; I don't want no in between. So, my work begins now. I'm gonna go present this record to the world for the next two years for me. I'm not disappointed at all, man. It just a sign of the times, this is real.
It's about the people who go out and buy it. Do I have a strategic team thinking about Theo for six hours a day in an office? No. But Theo thinks about himself, though. Don't depend on a shitty label; it's not about the label. My music is for the tastemakers. People are listening to my music while they're making their own art projects, while they're creating their own musical projects; I'm the new inspiration for them. That's bigger than an album sale, man, it's about affecting people's lives. I don’t see a full dollar for a song that gets sold, anyway. I'd rather get dropped by my label, but they wouldn't wanna do that. Now, it's about me taking those stats and flipping them back on their head, seeing where I'm at in eight to ten months through the work that I put in. I'm excited to see it grow.
I think that your label definitely sold you short, because basically the entire marketing plan was just, "Kanye!"
That was their whole marketing plan! Kanye! I wanted to see like the cum residue all over the marketing guy's face. His fucking plan was to get me to get Kanye to do a 15-second Instagram video saying, “Go buy the album.” His other plan was to get Kanye to come to the listening party because he's a fucking fan and a dickrider groupie. The marketing guy, Ayal Kleinman, he sucks. My job is to show him that the kids have more ideas than him, and I'm going to use the kids of this generation and hire them. It’s like yo man, don't even e-mail no one. I got this. I’m just happy I get to expose these desk-doubters—I did Letterman and they wouldn't even pay my dancers, or even pay for me to get to New York or pay for my hotel. They're really cheap. I don't know whether they spent the money on Wu-Tang or Taylor Swift or Jason DeRulo. But man, they got a cool-ass project there, so I'm gonna let them to know. If the kids could sign this project or sign me, how would they market me? That 3,000 records shit doesn’t matter. I have more fans who bought the album in Paris or the UK, but my job isn't to correct people. I don't care about those numbers, because I'm in Miami right now and I'm about to go meet up with a bunch of innovators. When I’m in Paris in front of 700 teenage influencers, that means more to me that all those kids have my records.
Record sales aren’t really a reflection of anything at this point.
Like, CDs? I don't have a CD player on my laptop, and I got it in 2012. I don't think kids are buying CDs anymore. My job's not to sit there and complain, my job is to do innovative shit.
From the outside, it doesn’t seem like you care about your sales, but I think you care that people seem to use the half-sentence quip “Theophilus London sold 3,000 copies his first week out” to discredit you.
The people that try to discredit me secretly hate me. They're secretly mad about me making all these moves, showing the kids that make your records as cool as you want it to be and turn your record into a brand. Now, when you say the word “vibes,” you might think of me. They’re mad they see all these basketball players trying to wear like the shit that I wear. Or you know, how I secretly worked for Donda helping Kanye design the Adidas, stuff like that. People are kind of mad about that, they want to see me lose. People wanted a reason to hate on it; you can't hate on Vibes! It's just good, spiritual music. I don’t make music for money or to try to get more gold chains. I did this for the kids and for the culture.
I think that one thing that people might have taken issue with was when you were tweeting "Ah, why is Complex comparing me to Taylor Swift?" I did a search on Complex for your name, and I was like, “OK, maybe this is the only thing they written about him.” But they covered a lot of shit you did, so I think some people may have taken that as like, you getting mad at a site that has helped you gain popularity.
Oh, fuck Complex, dude! Complex can suck my nuts. It's not about some journalist magazine writer, or my relationship with him, man. It's fine, dude; they make stories about my tweets and my Instagrams. That's not real journalism to me. I read the Guardian, VICE, the New York Times; I read real journalism and go see films, so if a magazine wants to keep writing about my tweets; that's fine. They're just trying to connect the dots and put together any little detail about Kanye's wedding. It's like a tabloid. I'm not here to support no magazine. A lot of these guys want to be rappers, anyway. Like, I go to their offices. They want a relationship with rappers. They want gold Rolexes and to wear sneakers, they want to go to the parties and feel like a fucking rapper with a VIP writer pass.
I think that's just a problem with a lot of music journalism in general, the pace of it is so fast; and this idea of traffic takes precedent over real stories.
Yeah, exactly! And they're the reason why the label made Kanye West’s name was so big on my project. Like, he mixed a song and these sites will be like, "Kanye, Kanye!" because they're just doing it for clicks and don't even listen to the music. They just screengrab the artwork and are like, "Put it up right away, so we can get the clicks! Use the name Kanye, so we can get clicks and brand money!" That's what it's all about, so that's why I'm blank when it comes to caring about it.
It’s also like, you might not have sold many albums, but at the same time Kendrick Lamar just wore a jacket you designed at SNL. It’s hard to measure actual cultural impact when you’re dealing with metrics like that.
At the end of the day I still won, you know? I'm doing what I do for the culture. I'm working on six projects every three days. If one part of it doesn't work, then it's onto the next. I'm a dreamer, and I know how to make a dream into reality. So that's cool that Kendrick saw a jacket that came out a year ago, wanted to wear it, and called me for that. He's not calling me to do a verse or nothing like that. Same thing with Kanye when he calls me asking for my opinion, like "Yo, what's up? I don’t like my cover artwork, maybe we can get changed?" I can't go and change it, but maybe I can find someone who could. Or like helping him design his new sneakers and be like, change this, change that. I'm honored to do those things. There's all this art that's out there like it's the 1920s again. I'm just trying to catch the vibes in the streets.
One thing that you do really well is incorporate the high/low aesthetic into pretty much everything that you do.
It creates symbolism. Like Blood Orange, Dev Hynes, you know? He's a highbrow/lowbrow guy. Just coming from New York City, that's what it is. I didn't come from any money, any crazy heritage family of like kings or billionaires or wealthy people. That's just me coming from New York, it allows me to come from Brooklyn to date some, like, princess from Africa like I did when I was making Vibes, whatever. New York is a city that got me prepared for that.
But you live in LA now, right?
I have a house in LA right now; I live wherever I'm supposed to be.
Wait, did you say you were dating a princess from Africa?
Yeah, I was dating this girl, she was a wealthy girl from Cameroon. I talk about her on “Tribe.”
What is the best piece of advice you have ever gotten?
Stop being so cool, and just be fucking crazy. Stop being so cool. Don't play it safe. Just go. I want to get my ideas out and mentor kids, because without the kids we wouldn't have no future, just a bunch of old people telling us what to do. If I mentor the kids that are leading the culture, then my job is done.
Follow Drew Millard on Twitter.