FEATURE: Theophilus London and the Subtle Art of Snatching Your Shit

Photographer Jason Nocito
June 25, 2009

To represent the early adaptive skills of our recent icon, David Byrne, we selected Brooklyn's own mixtape maestro Theophilus London, who jumps on wildly varying beats like it was his job (it is) and usually only takes the space of a welcomed guest instead of taking the whole thing for himself. Read Peter Macia's story after the jump and listen to London's new remix of The Very Best's "Warm Heart of Africa" with vocals by Esau Mwamwaya and Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend here.

Right before lifting a mic from his hip to his lips to thank the people for coming to a recent New York show, Theophilus London paused for effect. He froze in a wide stance, his slender six-foot-plus frame glowing fluorescent, backlit from the floor by cheap track lights. The crowd, a mix of drunken NYU students, uptown hustlers, adoring Brooklyn girls and various inquisitive types stared moonstruck as the frames of London’s black-rimmed Moscots and plastic prism in his signature cardboard camera necklace sparkled purple. He offered a brief bit of gratitude before inviting everyone to join him in a karaoke singalong of the Edwin Hawkins Singers’ “Oh Happy Day”—the Ryan Toby version from Sister Act 2, probably ripped off YouTube. Just as they had been during the previous hour of London’s rapping, singing and generally dancing his ass off, the crowd was his chorus, not necessarily knowing or caring where they might have heard the beat before London owned it.

Standing in the middle of his sparsely furnished loft at two in the morning, he wants to know what’s on my iPod. I hand it over and he cues up some brand new wobbly dubstep we’d talked about earlier, listens, and dances a little while his bulldog Prince bumbles around and his manager sleeps on the couch. He offers to sneak preview a few new instrumentals from the LP he’s soon to record but keeps going until we’ve heard most of what could be an outrageously hot album of pop-rap anthems and swishy electro. One instrumental, almost solely built on a punky, rubbery bassline and twirling synth, is edited from “My Whole World is Falling Apart” off LA weird waver John Maus’ Love is Real album, which can’t have sold more than a few hundred copies. “In the right hands, this could be the number one record in the world,” London says. Presumably, those hands are his
red ones.

London spent a stint playing prep school basketball in Pennsylvania at the behest of his Trinidadian father, Moses, who wanted to keep him out of trouble. But he couldn’t stay out of Brooklyn and recently returned, quickly posting up in the center of a new diverse pop movement bubbling in his home borough. He is working with Michael Angelakos of Boston indie band Passion Pit, whose new album was recorded in town. He’s done shows with BK crazy rappers Ninjasonik, works frequently with producer Machinedrum, an electronic music fixture from Williamsburg, and presently attempting to ride a skateboard in the corner of the loft is one of London’s friends, local soul singer Jesse Boykins III. This is London’s new Brooklyn, a playground of potential collaborators whose only boundary to entry is his taste in music.

As with the rest of us, the music comes to him from all over the place—the internet, of course, but also face to face. On a recent trip to the actual city of London, eight just-met relatives brought him to the family bar in Brixton and told him what he needed to hear. One of the songs they played, a UK funky radio hit named “Bongo Jam” by Crazy Cousinz, was totally unknown outside of England at the time. London renamed it “Crazy Cousins” after the crazy cousins who played it for him in the first place, and put it on This Charming Mixtape, his latest free street album from which he’s built a legion of fans from random kids to Mark Ronson. London will now be on an official remix of the original.

Another song jacked for the mixtape, Malian duo Amadou & Mariam’s “Sabali,” simple synth pop produced by Damon Albarn and sung partly in French and their native Bambara, landed in London’s lap on the flight home from that same trip to England. “Man, the colors I saw when I heard this song,” he says. “It’s a recession and we had countless seats to ourselves, so I got up in the rows and just started dancing and singing and wrote the whole record on the way back to New York. I didn’t even know what [Mariam] was saying, but I wanted to complement her. I just wanted to contribute and take the record to another level.” His lyrics, Can’t you see my sky is turning gray/ When you turn to me it takes it all away/ A misty night and a stormy smoke/ Makes me go oh oh just happened to perfectly match Mariam’s sweet promise of big kisses for her darling love and gentle la la’s. His take earned him a spot on Ronson’s remix of Amadou & Mariam’s next single. This is the kind of good fortune that seems to follow London when he swipes a song—where most people would get a cease-and-desist, he gets breathless requests to make it real.

Eventually every person on Earth will have the history of music readily streaming through some kind of handheld device. It will be awesome to have so much at our fingertips. But we will still need someone to tell us where to start. In the past, this might have been a DJ, a critic or a sibling—in the future it might be an algorithm. It might also be artists like Theophilus London who, by luck, get to a song a second before we do and pass it on to us with a little bit of themselves attached.

FEATURE: Theophilus London and the Subtle Art of Snatching Your Shit