Kate Tempest

Kate Tempest on Raves, Rhymes and Wu-Tang

Stuart Turnbull

By Stuart Turnbull

on 05.19.14 in Features

File under: English urchin rap, literate grime-hop, word-power pop
For fans of: The Streets, Speech Debelle, Saul Williams, Roots Manuva
From: Brockley, South London

Kate Tempest (real name Calvert) is an aptly-named force of nature, a spoken-word phenomenon redefining the maligned art of performance poetry for the 21st century. Acclaimed as South London’s heir to punk poet John Cooper Clarke, with whom she has toured, Tempest has gigged everywhere from the Old Vic Theatre to Holloway prison, written for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and just recently signed a deal with heavyweight hip-hop label Big Dada. Her fans, impressively, include Roots Manuva, Chuck D and Billy Bragg.

Drawing on influences as diverse as William Blake and the Wu-Tang Clan, Tempest’s second album Everybody Down combines fierce lyrics with fat electronics, its grimy beats and squelchy synths backing a sparkling verbal flow. It tells the story of a group of London friends falling in and out of love; an accompanying novel, where each chapter mirrors a track, will be published by Bloomsbury, no less, in 2015.

Tempest is a drop-out of the Brit School of performing arts — whose alumni include Adele and Amy Winehouse — and while her words deal with poverty, class, material greed and emotional hardship, in conversation, she is full of laughter. At 27, her literary credentials are beyond doubt: She has taught creative writing at Yale and, last year, became the first person under 40 to win the Ted Hughes Award for innovation in poetry for Brand New Ancients, a poem-set-to-music about two families.

Tempest calls herself a “female MC” first and foremost though, displaying the same imaginative elasticity in her music as in her lyrics. She spoke with Stuart Turnbull about raves, rapping and the brilliant, “bonkers” Everybody Down.

On struggling to get heard:

I’ve been relentlessly rapping every night, every weekend, for almost 12 years now. Making tracks in my bedroom, not being able to get on microphones, having to stand outside raves rapping at the crowds because I was just this little girl that no one knew. All that stuff has been really helpful for building my conviction in what I do.

On the “glamour” of gigging:

There was this relentless period where I was gigging all the time, getting in a car and driving for six hours to a gig. Then I’d find eight people in a bar who just want to watch the football. If you’ve gone through that as an artist then you really appreciate a full house, and the promoter getting a bottle of water for you.

On London’s squat scene:

I lived in a squat for a little bit, it was a safe place to stay, but I don’t want my interviews to say, “Kate Tempest: Squatter!” I was involved in the squat scene but it didn’t define me. It was good for my music because there was this particular squat in Peckham, called The Spike, where they had this little recording studio and a rehearsal space, and in return we played at the parties that they put on.

‘I like the old stories, but because I never studied them there’s a lot that I get wrong. But that’s OK because the stories belong to whoever reads them.’

On the Wu-Tang Clan:

If you’re a saxophone player, you’re going to listen to John Coltrane and it will blow your mind. My instrument is my voice, so when I heard the Wu-Tang Clan for the first time I was blown away. It was all about flow, with no hooks, just incessant lyrics. And it was so foreign and magical to me, so far away from where I was from, but I could still connect with the rawness of it.

On mythology:

I used to go to charity shops and buy any books on myths that I could get my hands on — Greek myths, Hindu myths, the Bible — because I thought they were such wonderful stories. I like the old stories, but because I never studied them there’s a lot that I get wrong. But that’s OK because the stories belong to whoever reads them.

On John Cooper Clarke:

John Cooper Clarke is the king of it all, really — not just for his poems, but for making poetry an experience that cuts right through any bullshit and gets right to you. I first came across his work at school. He’s a legend forever.

On performance poetry’s difficult reputation:

I’ve found it’s either great or it’s pretty awful — there’s no middle ground, and that’s what’s exciting. You get these people who are fucking amazing and they make you feel and laugh and hit you with all these different layers of truth. Or you get those you just don’t care about.

On performing in the Holloway women’s prison:

It’s tough for a human, being locked up. These people need creativity, they need something to take them outside of the environment they’re in and if they connect with what you’re doing and they look at you and tell you, “I felt that, thank you,” it means the world. And all this shit now about stopping books and guitars in prison, my blood boils at that, because that’s how you connect with remaining human in a place like that. It’s fucking crazy.

On being economical with words:

It reads like the easiest thing in the world, when a writer can be economical and not overwrite and over-say, but it’s the hardest thing to actually do. You feel this elation when a big, baggy, chubby sentence becomes three sharp words, or a loose chapter is whittled down to 30 seconds of rapping — it’s such a buzz.

On her haphazard recording process:

I managed to get in the studio with Dan Carey [who produced Everybody Down and has worked with everyone from Bat for Lashes to Toy, Franz Ferdinand and Lily Allen] and we started mucking around with these amazing analog drum machines, bizarre synths and crazy stuff. He would call me when he had some down time at the end of the day and say, “Right, I’ve got three hours, get down here,” so I’d run across town to his studio and we’d work like maniacs. This went on for a year until we eventually got a whole two weeks to finish the album.

On what people will make of Everybody Down:

I hope people will say, “Fucking hell, that’s bonkers.” People will either love it or hate it, I think. I know that it is quite a relentless listen, it’s quite long and there’s a story to follow, but I hope that it gives more each time, and that the listener will find exciting things in it on their own terms.