BlackBook Interview: Theophilus London on Rihanna, New Album ‘Bebey’, and Keeping it Caribe

 

 

It’s befitting that Theophilus London decided to jump right back into the light just in time for Valentine’s Day. Dropping his first full-length album in five years, Bebey, the Trinidadian-Brooklynite pillar of suavity has emerged from a self-cocooned hiatus as smooth and fabulous a butterfly as he ever was.

The vibe, as he calls it, is New Wave Caribbean. The result is an easy island tilt on many of the collaborative friendships dear to his heart. It’s also a pretty hilarious (but respectful) call out to all the sexy ladies from here to Soweto and back again.

The international man of love and leisure surely has a knack for procuring the best of his jet-setting friends to assist him with his musical projects, and his latest is certainly no exception. Released on his own Bebey Records, the album brims with everything from steel drum flourishes to collabs the likes of Wu Tang Clan’s Raekwon and Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, as he walks the fine line of keeping it real as an NYC-Caribe kid and a heavy hitter in the scene in the way that only this man called Theophilus London possibly could.

 

 

 

 

London doesn’t only drop hype albums. His personal style has famously gained him admiration everywhere from downtown NYC art parties to getting Karl Lagerfeld to collaborate on his 2014 album Vibes. Indeed, the late fashion icon directed the album’s design, did all the photography, and hand-drew the lettering on the cover.

Flash forward a couple years later, and the then-unreleased “Revenge” (which has finally seen the light of day on Bebey) rocked Virgil Abloh’s Off-White 2017 Spring/ Summer Paris Fashion Week show, leaving Frank Ocean, Kim Kardashian, Kanye West and the style cognoscenti grooving and bobbing their heads in the front row. A collaboration with Ariel Pink, it’s actually a cover of English new wave band New Musik’s 1981 track “They All Run After the Carving Knife.”

Abloh and London have long been friends and collaborators. The former was named Louis Vuitton’s men’s artistic director in 2018, and serves as CEO of his own Milan-based streetwear label Off-White, which he founded in 2013. The two have kept tight throughout the years, and came back together for Bebey, collaborating on the cover art and designing a pair of fancy streetwear cowboy boots, along with a soon-to-be released fashion collection.

We caught up with London to discuss Bebey’s release—her name standing for self-love, which is the “essence, love and beauty” of the album, as he says—along with where he’s been for the past few years, and how he’s created this beautiful universe of which he’s firmly proud.

 

 

 

This album has been long gestating during what has been perceived as a hiatus you took from both fashion and music. What made you feel it was ready to be birthed?

It was done. It was ready for the world to get it. What better than a new decade? I thought about dropping it in November of 2019…but if I dropped it in 2030 it would still leave an impact. The music is timeless, in a sense. I’m just going to foreshadow that. Vibes became an instant classic. It’s not self-proclaimed or anything, but when you see everyone’s comments on it. Vibes was five years ago—some people have gone through high school and middle school since I dropped a new album.

What had been going on in the past few years if an album really hadn’t been?

I’ve been going around the world and A&Ring this record, going through my phone book and the relationships that I have. Each moment I spent on this album was priceless. Being in Australia with Tame Impala, being in London with Giggs, being in LA with Ariel Pink…and also being in LA with Tame Impala when he was on a hiatus himself, after a great album that he had just written.
His label couldn’t get him to clear any other tracks for other rappers. It was like, “How the hell does Theo get to work with Kevin Parker, and we can’t even get in touch with him?” Anybody who I had brushed paths with, they wanted to get on Bebey. There was a hype about it.
After the Louis Vuitton show in summer 2018, I made a pilgrimage to Los Angeles and I haven’t left since. I made a new home base here and started a new record label. After all the travel and changes, the time was just right. And here we are.

 

 

 

There has been plenty of talk that Bebey is a getting back to your roots as a Trinidadian-born kid from Brooklyn. How valid is that view?

It’s more a roots in terms of my energy. I am not going back to my old style in this album at all. To be clear, this is something completely new. I had DM’d the album to Rihanna and told her that this is “New Wave Caribbean.” We both laughed. I wanted to set new expectations for myself, and I am still learning about myself and the album when I listen to it today—I still listen to the lyrics, and I’m like, “Oh, shit! That’s what I meant?”
[I’m] the only person that really survived that era who was a real New York niche, Trinidadian or Guyanese kid from NYC. You grow up in the city, but you stick to your roots and eat the Caribbean food. I actually played in a steel drum band for four years and became the bass leader for the band. So, sure that is in my roots.
But there’s nobody in [rap], except maybe Busta Rhymes, who can comfortably spit patois but also keep it cool. Perhaps Safaree or Casanova, whose parents are Caribbean; but those guys are straight rappers. So, I am really holding the crown when it comes to being so normal cool. I may bust a line in the street, but it’s like, “oh he’s still cool.” It’s like a very fine line between being, “I’m an island boy, and I’m a city boy,” but I bridge the gap.

Are the steel drums you hear in “Bebey” synthesized or real?

No, those are definitely real!

 

 

So where exactly do Tame Impala and Ariel Pink fit into this patois, if you will? They are definitely not Caribbean.

Yeah, thanks for asking that. Tame Impala and Ariel Pink…it’s funny. They are a very important part of this project. Three of my favorite songs on the album, “Only You,” “Revenge” and “Whiplash,” were from working with them. Why would any artist not put those tracks on their album? I don’t care if I was doing a dubstep album, those three tracks would still make it on there!
When “Pretty” and “Bebey” came along, it’s when I started to get more excited about the Caribbean [tip]. But these songs were written long before, 2015ish-16ish.

Around the time you connected with Virgil Abloh…

Revenge” was premiered during his Off-White Business Woman fashion show, in Paris, in 2016.  People are just ready for it to be on an album. Now that it’s out, people are ready to pay for it too—the streams are going nuts.
But overall, it’s never been like, “oh yeah I’m gonna get Tame Impala!” or that the album needed to be Caribbean or anything else. I just follow the heart of love. It was never like a case of me wanting Kevin Parker and hitting up his label to get on my album. It was more like, “oh you’re in town? I’m in town too. Let’s get together tonight and work!”

 

 

 

Spontaneous is always best.

Yeah, and it turned into seventy nights of work. But it was never me really asking a label person or a manager one single thing. It was the same with Ariel Pink. It would be like, “Yo, come over to my crib, I’ve got six cute black girls at my house.” He wants a black girlfriend, I am sure.
So, he runs over in a nice blazer and his leprechaun accent. And we’re doing skits, and whatever the hell. I’m always bridging cultures. And with me bringing Ariel Pink and Kevin Parker onto the album, it’s me just bringing in different cultures into my world. And everyone can just hang out at the party.

You have put out a pair of haute streetwear boots with Off-White for Bebey. Beyond promoting your personal style, what is the strategy behind the fashion collaboration?

With each album, I try to communicate through different media. For an average kid, my songs may not get to him as quickly as say, a Justin Bieber song. So that Off-White collaboration—or any other type of fashion format like that—is so that kid may be able to see a piece and think, “hey, that’s cool!”…and then learn about my music. I always make sure there is space to make fashion. I always try and bring friends on board to do that, and this time it’s Off-White—they’re one of the top three brands in the world at the moment.
Virgil, as a designer, everything he does…I get him up at 4am. He has two brands to sort out for Fashion Week. I don’t even understand what’s going on with him, but somehow I can get him on text for three hours to discuss the line. I have the upmost respect for Virgil. He’s been a good friend to me for a long time.

How did the cowboy boot design come to be?

Yeah the LIFE’S WORK boots, it’s a cool tagline—like graffiti. It’s a 10-year introspection for me. I’m 31 now, and I can finally make sense of things, and that’s just a reflection of my life’s work. Those boots honestly were designed as leather high-end boots that are one of a kind. I’m sure they’ll be copied by every designer next season. I used to wear these boots for the last six years around New York City and I just wanted to recreate them.
It’s cool, Rihanna has flaunted a pair and they’re up for sale on pre-order now. We are doing a collection for the album, designed by Virgil and myself. You see my Caribbean flag heavily throughout the collection. The graphics are Bebey and they include the beautiful face that represents the beautiful Bebey Universe. A small, tight knit crew of my friends hand-drew our own logos and whatnot, and created this new little universe. It’s just fun to step into our own little world, and they can understand me and that world really easily. It validates me as an artist when other artists can step into my world and say, “I see!” They can see where the bathroom is, they can see where the living room is, and they can say, “this is a great house!”

If there is one thing that has been consistent about our conversation, it’s that you aren’t so much trying working hard to make something happen. It comes from the heart, and so it comes to be.

That’s true. But I mean, that was Vibes too. I didn’t ask for Kanye, and I didn’t ask for Lagerfeld. It just happened. It was the same message then. It’s just that I put out the most perfect version of Bebey that I could.
It could have been that I didn’t get much of a satisfactory job out of it, but that’s not true. I’m just super proud of it. I could have been scared when I put it out, being like, “holy shit!” But that’s now how I feel. It’s just incredible. In this project, I immersed myself in the culture, I disassociated myself from whatever celebrity hype. I blended together whatever circles I go in, from Rhode Island to LA and Australia and everywhere else, and I just made this album. No Rolex on, no chains, no dumb cars, no stupid shit…just back in the basement, you know, working on the album. And it’s gold. It’s diamond. It’s making that universal language translate.

 

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