Brave new word

tempestKate Tempest may have won the Ted Hughes award for innovation in poetry last year – the first person under 40 ever to do so – but that doesn’t mean her debut hip-hop album is a step into unchartered territory. Having grown up in Lewisham on a steady diet of American rap, from Big L to Bahamadia, she says her debut album ‘Everybody Down’ is a return to the artform that first made her want to show her writing to the world.

“My friend was a rapper and he’d always be free-styling,” she explains. “One day I rang him and told him this little rap I’d written, down the phone, and he said it wasn’t bad. He took me to Deal Real, off Carnaby Street. It’s an amazing place. Every Friday night all these rappers would come in, like Ghostface Killah and Mos Def. It was a real hub. It felt so alive. It was obviously quite a male environment, and it was competitive. People thought I was a fucking weirdo but I just fell in love with it. I developed this crazy hunger to just rap at everybody.”

She formed a band, Sound of Rum, to play “hippy festivals and protest marches”, but eventually drifted into performance poetry rather than straight-up rap. “My friend told me about these things called ‘Slams’, where you could win £100,” she says. “I went down to one in Ladbroke Grove. It was very different from Deal Real, but suddenly I found this world where I could do the same lyrics that I’d do over a beat but people would be really listening. At those hip-hop nights sometimes everyone there would be a rapper, so they’d just be waiting for their turn.”

Poetry opened doors for her, including a commission from the Royal Shakespeare Company and ‘Brand New Ancients’, an hour-long “spoken story” backed by classical musicians. All the while she was keen to find a way back to rap. “My heart has been hankering after doing a hip-hop record for so long,” she says. “Taking a break from music has been amazing and challenging, but it’s exciting to think I’m going to be back on stage playing music again rather than telling poems.”

She got the chance to put together the record she wanted when she got studio time with the producer Dan Carey, who’s worked with the likes of The Kills, Franz Ferdinand and Mystery Jets. “We made a few demos and then his manager said he could have two weeks to work on it,” she explains. “Making it was fucking crazy. We sent it to Big Dada and I was worried people were going to think ‘What the fuck is this poet doing…?’”

The album follows a set of characters through their lives in London, and Tempest is keen that the album’s story be understood as a whole. “The idea is that each song can exist on its own,” she says, “but that heard together they become part of a bigger narrative.”

There are moments of sharp-toothed social comment, as with the drug dealer who sells in boardrooms rather than bars, but Tempest didn’t want that to overshadow the story. “That stuff can be so clunky,” she says. “Stuff about the times that we’re living in will come out, but I never begin thinking I must hit certain topics.”

The inventiveness that won Tempest that Ted Hughes award is there in every bar. “Rapping is wordplay,” she says. “Listening to rap was the first time I ever encountered people that really fucking gave a shit about how they could put words together. It makes you passionate about language.”

Originally published in NME, 3 May 2014.