Ty, A Special Kind Of Fool
Let me take you back to Amsterdam, December 2006. Ty is preparing to play the smaller room of the Melkweg, while Mobb Deep headline next door. It’s a situation our hero is intimately familiar with; preaching to a small bunch of the converted while the masses flock to see US heavyweights. Except The Infamous have neglected to catch their flight, so Ty is promoted to the main stage where he’s faced with the herculean task of placating a thousand very angry, very disappointed people.
The first signs aren’t encouraging. Ty and his band launch into “Everybody,” whose stabbing organ gets the front rows nodding, but the vast majority remain glued to the walls, glowering and downing beer in equal measure. A witty MC from the UK flowing over the funkiest of beats wouldn’t appear to be their cup of tea. So Ty does what he always does; he amps up his performance, jumps into the crowd and by hook and crook cajoles them into engaging with him. And as always, it works. Well, at least a few people are smiling by the end of the show. With this particular crowd, that’s no small achievement.
It’s typical of the man and how he overcomes the obstacles he’s had to face throughout his career. A man who has produced album after album of consistently brilliant and innovative hip hop, but four years on is still trying to knock down the same doors he faced at the Melkweg. Fortunately for us, his new album is full of the same irresistible combination of compelling raps and fat tunes he’s always brought to the table. A Special Kind Of Fool is the story of Ty’s life in music and his love for hip hop, told with a positivity and passion undiminished by time or adversity.
“What I wanted to do with this album, what I’ve always tried to do, is push the standpoint of ordinary people. Hip hop is an art form that suggests you have to consider yourself special or different, but the story for me has always been about being a normal person, not a superhero or a supervillain, supercool or superordinary. This record is truthfully how I feel sometimes, and these are things I’m afraid, or other people are afraid, to tell you. So let’s explore these avenues, but let’s do it beautifully.”
These particular avenues include suicide, racism, knife crime and death. Not exactly light subject matter, but issues we’re all sadly familiar with. Each is handled with the sensitivity and intelligence we’ve come to expect from such an accomplished lyricist. Like on the highly charged “I’m Leaving,” a stunning requiem for two people close to Ty who passed away. His delivery is perfect, the lines devastatingly direct, the music heartbreaking, and all three elements are given enough space to develop in their own time. It’s powerful stuff. As Ty suggests on the lead single “Emotions,” A Special Kind Of Fool might take a few of your emotions. Not just sadness or soul-searching either – there’s joy to be found here too, whether in an unexpectedly witty turn of phrase or a hook that makes your whole body jerk.
For A Special Kind Of Fool Ty draws on a palette of soul, funk, jazz, two step, and of course, hip hop to create one of the most impressive albums of the year. It bounces, it bumps, it’s inventive, challenging and ultimately, well, it bangs. Not that it should come as a surprise to anyone who’s familiar with his past work.
“Anyone who studies what I’ve done, musically, would have to clap their hands and say that for a hip hop artist, I’m actually knocking more boundaries down for people to understand and appreciate how good UK hip hop can be.”
“But I didn’t wanted to get patted on the back for doing anything clever with this record, as I felt like in the past I was given a lot of props for changing it up, but what does that really say? That you don’t like my album? But you give me props because I’ve put Mum in a different raincoat? Mum is mum, hip hop is hip hop. So this time I really wanted to make sure the hip hop aspect wasn’t overshadowed by anything else.”
“As I’m a hip hop artist, man. A rapper, for me, is someone who raps, makes and hopefully sells records – wants to be known as pretty good, wants you to hear his words, wants to be on the radio, blah blah blah. I’m a little bit more than that. There isn’t an element of the music in my songs that you hear that I didn’t have a hand in arranging or doing or playing myself. I’m all over it. I’ve been shy of saying that I actually make the beats; people know that I make music in collaboration with Drew, but the general assumption is that he really does the music and I really do the rapping, and that’s not the case. So as far as titles go, I’m an artist, MC, producer, enthusiast and politician.”
That’s what makes Ty really special; he embraces all those roles with fervor, skill and dedication. He’s a passionate and articulate ambassador for hip hop culture who gives workshops, promotes fundraisers and goes to great lengths to share his love (and concerns) for hip hop with the world. Yet for many, he’s just a UK hip hop artist, stuck in a genre as unloved at home as it is abroad. Unsurprisingly it’s not a label Ty’s particularly happy with; he derides it as “a curse word, almost a word you attach to something so that people don’t buy it.” It’s his music that he wants to be judged on, not his origins, as he lays out on “ME”: “I don’t want to be loved for my skin color, I want to be loved for what I bring for you.”
It goes back to one of hip hop’s founding tenements, ‘it’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re at’, but the vast majority of the hip hop world wouldn’t appear to share the same opinion. Certainly in The States, where non-American MCs are greeted with suspicion at best and outright scorn at worst. It’s an attitude that Ty takes obvious exception to.
“This is a question I’d pose to all Okayplayers: do you think it’s okay to sell hip hop music and the culture for thirty years, all over the world, and nobody else should be allowed to do it? So when you heard the symphony, we heard it a month later. It inspired us too. But we don’t have the right to give you hip hop to listen to, just because you’re American? George Bush is no longer President, wake up! Hip hop is international. If you go to Lebanon, you’ll see Lebanese hip hop artists, if you go to Japan, you see Japanese hip hop artists, France, Hungary, it’s the same. Anyone’s that’s listening to music and is not open to the idea that hip hop could be dope from other places are more likely to be the people that don’t travel outside the USA.”
“In their defence, they’ve had terrible examples of UK hip hop to reference. They’ve been thrown record company projects, they’ve been thrown Lady Sovereign, all these sorts of things that aren’t good enough examples of what we do as a whole. If I was from the States, and that was all I was getting, I would be mad at everything I was hearing too. As the quality they’ve been exposed to from the UK has been weak until now. Weak.”
And in Ty’s defence, he practices what he preaches. He’s a relentless traveller, touring the States, Europe, Africa and beyond. It’s led to collaborations with De La Soul, Rich Medina, Tony Allen, Erik Rico and a host of others. If he hadn’t broadened his horizons, well, he might just be at home today.
“Things that I saw, and the way I was treated, abroad, made me realise what we’re missing here. Hip hop in the UK is like walking into a bank and asking for a loan, and as soon as a manager claps eyes on you or your surname, the computer says no. Whereas overseas, it’s more like a conversation. You feel like you get a chance to pitch for what you want, you might even get dinner! I think that if I didn’t travel, I wouldn’t be rapping now.”
And thank goodness he is. For Ty is someone who hip hop needs. Not just for his undeniable musical talent, but as someone willing and able to push hip hop culture forward. Worldwide. You’d be especially foolish not to lend him your ears.
– Will Georgi
Main featured photo by Nathalie Gordon
Click here for more Ty.