Theophilus London makes his name – and his brand

Boston Globe, October 23, 2011

So it actually happens this way: One moment, you’re a kid in Brooklyn with a mixtape, riding classic samples from the likes of Prince and Michael Jackson. Next moment – OK, three years later, but still pretty darn fast – your major label debut is out and playing a different city each day, to crowds that know your lyrics by heart.

That compressed ride to stardom is now well underway for Theophilus London, 23, born in Trinidad and Tobago, raised in Flatbush and Bed-Stuy, now a globetrotter recently back from, let’s see, Europe, Australia, and South Africa.

“Meeting the kids in Johannesburg was amazing,” says London, now speaking by phone from a tour stop in Austin, Texas. “And them singing my lyrics back to me, people stopping me in the streets, in the mall, it was exciting. Kids were even looking like me – they had my look.”

That’s because London isn’t just an MC and singer at the revitalized crossroads of rap, pop, and electronica, where there’s more exchange going on now than anytime since the 1980s. He’s also an emerging style icon – dapper, understated flash – who modeled covers for his mixtapes after classic album jackets and graces advertising billboards for brands like Nike, Gucci, or, recently, Bushmills whiskey.

Along the way he’s made a few friends, some names he doesn’t mind dropping. He’s pals with Damon Albarn, and with Andy Rourke, who played bass in the Smiths, one of London’s favorite groups. He sought out and befriended Leon Ware, who wrote and produced for Marvin Gaye. He seems open to short-term friendships too: “There’s amazing girls,” he says, in every new city.

On Thursday London plays the Paradise, opening for the British indie act Friendly Fires. The bill is a measure of his chameleon style and a clue to his commercial strategy. But when you hear London – let’s say, from the very first verse on his album “Timez Are Weird These Days” – you know instantly that his roots dwell in the soil of classic, boom-bap East Coast hip-hop.

On the three mixtapes of increasing sophistication that earned him notice in the industry, London’s formula was to rap and sing over soul, funk, and new-wave samples with a strong but non-exclusive ’80s bent. By the third, “I Want You,” he was taking risks, brash enough to tackle tracks from the Marvin Gaye classic album of that name, uninhibited enough to cover “Oops,” the, um, self-love hit by the female rapper Tweet.

With “Timez Are Weird,” it was time to let go of samples and advance his point of view through originals. “My mixtapes have all these different genres, and I wanted to keep that aesthetic for the kids,” London says. “But I had to create my own, tell my own story.” And he cites David Byrne as an example of the “wittiness and confidence” he seeks in his own work.

For all its ’80s references, London’s sound – refined by producers including Dave Sitek of TV On The Radio and Sweden’s Jokke – is resolutely current with all today’s electronic bells and whistles. As for the lyrics, we’re talking party fare mostly. There are guest turns by indie singers Holly Miranda and Sara Quin (from Tegan and Sara). The refrain on one of the catchiest songs, “Girls Girls $,” is not printable here.

“I’m not here to show struggles and poverty,” London says. “I want to show kids a good time, how to stay awesome and confident in yourself. I want to get kids excited to hear themselves.” And he’s having fun while he does it, hitting the boutiques every place he visits, buying antiques for his SoHo apartment.

Beneath the surface of London’s charmed life is a lot of work and drive. Though he dropped out of college to focus on his music, he spent a year as a marketing major and is versed in the language and methods of branding. He says he was always outspoken and a natural performer: “The class clown, the most likely to succeed, all those things. I liked to star in talent shows, just to occupy my mind.”

The focus makes London an unusual artist to work with, says Todd Moscowitz, the co-president and CEO of Warner Bros Records, which signed London on the strength of his mixtapes.

“He’s incredibly disciplined about his vision,” Moscowitz says. “I don’t think we gave him much guidance. He had people gravitating towards him. We were able to get tons of interest from relevant brands and tastemakers. It made our work really easy.”

The rap on London is that he might be a tad too entangled with product and advertising. When asked how he picks which campaigns to take part in, he rhapsodizes like an ad exec about how a certain brand “aligns” with him, and its “legacy.”

He has a retort for the skeptics, however. “The ultimate way to do it is to build your own medium – your domain, your logo, your vibe, your culture. But that depends on what you’re starting with. If you’re Steve Jobs’s or Bill Gates’s kid and you’ve got all this money, you can just start a company.”

“Brands are all over the world, and they already have a life.”

One is left with the impression that Theophilus London – MC, style maven, brand, whatever – is enjoying the ride but is nobody’s fool. And though some may choose to see him as a flash in the pan, he knows he’s been building toward this moment most of his life.

“It’s like ballerinas,” he says. “They’ve been doing it since they were kids. I don’t think you can start something, like, last year, and be cool at it.”