This article originally appeared on Nation of Billions.
Early one autumn evening Tiggs Da Author stares into the soft fuzzy glow of a towering street lamp and bathes in the shades of subdued orange as if he had just taken stage for a solo at the Palladium. Its rush hour in central London; and we’ve hooked into a discreet side-street just off the Strand to finish up a photoshoot.
The road –narrow and hilly – is a rare inner-city enclave; anchored in limbo somewhere between London’s strung-together, much-romanticised past and its exclusive, monotonous present. There is a row of aged Victorian houses that now hold King’s College’s Philosophy Department and a discreet entrance to a Roman Bath house. Aldwych tube station –once amongst The Strand’s busiest –lies hopelessly idle; barricaded with thick iron shutters; silently awaiting a renovation that will never come.
The hill carousels sleepily down towards the embankment and crowns with a grubby demolition site. The work men have left the job half-done and the huge grey building bares it’s wooden and metal interior like a sandwich severed with a sharp blade; kicking up a clogging scent of dust and rubble. An antique city block is being flattened to make way for plush flats and a hotel. It seems nowhere is safe from London’s grand regeneration.
Tiggs is average height with a natural stockiness that fills his fitted black sweatshirt. He has on a pair of grey trousers and a deep-sea blue ‘Sox’ cap that conceals a headful of twisted dreads. He stands quietly, hands in pockets, on the gentle bank and takes directions from the photographer; Ray; who is pushing for a few more shots before total darkness descends and calls it a day.
“Could you move to the left a bit?” he asks.
The lens flutters. *Snap*
Ray reviews briefly on his camera and then instructs again: “Now look up, just so your hat doesn’t block the light”
He peers down at his camera once more…“I think we’re good.”
Tiggs is a tolerant model but no sooner than the shoot finishes has he pulled out his phone and started facetiming with a friend. He’s not keen on interviews, not an avid fan of photoshoots either, nor any of the other mediums that require him to elegantly shout about his music in the hope that people will look him up and buy it. Evenings like this would rather be spent labouring on his as-of-yet-untitled debut album that is due for release sometime next year. The first single ‘Georgia’ is a gentle, rousing, soul cut; distinguished by a well-placed Bobby Bland sample and Tiggs’ sharp-poetic verse and slight nasal drawl.
When the shoot is finished we climb the slope and mooch along the Strand –caught amongst the scuttle of evening commuters –eventually settling in a small family-run Italian café. It’s filled with tourists and home-county day-trippers making one final stop before they head for the trains. Tiggs orders a peppermint tea and whilst it brews, plumps himself gently at a bench by the window. Ray uses the moment of down time to grab a few more shots. He heads outside, and almost pressing his lens to the glass, fires, as Tiggs wistfully gazes at the flutter of evening traffic; at the cars and buses and bikes and scooters that give rush hour its title. When his tea is ready he heads for a table at the back; tucked out of reach from the bitter draught drifting through the open front door.
It’s the brink of winter but after eighteen years on these isles, Tiggs is by now used to the British cold. He spent his early childhood in Tanzania and left for England and South East London with his mother and sisters when he was eight. He remembers picking up the language playing football in the school playground and being enthralled at the white fluffy specks that would sometimes fall from the sky during winter. Though nearly two decades have passed since he left, Tiggs has maintained a tight bond with his homeland, and when asked, still crowns himself Tanzanian. He visits every Christmas with the family. During these brief homecomings he watches the jazz musicians play at bars and local venues, singing and performing for hours at a time; often for little money and without a yearning for worldwide fame and fortune.
“All literally for the love,” he says whilst gently stirring his tea. “Watching them do that gives you a completely different mind state…Do whatever you feel.”
It was in Tanzania that Tiggs picked up his ear for melody. The soul and jazz influences heard in ‘Georgia’ are a by-product of the country’s fondness for rhythm over wordy waffle. Before that it had been Grime and Old school garage for Tiggs. His friend was a DJ and encouraged him to start writing rhymes or, as he labels it, “Eight bars, just chatting shit.” In school Tiggs and friends branded themselves the ‘Top Kat Crew’ (TKC) and would make the short journey from New Cross to Old Kent Road to parade their latest scribbles on Pirate Radio. The set up was the ideal sparring ring for Britain’s aspiring pre-internet MC’s and demanded a brew of guts and imagination in a setting where the ability to adapt outweighed any particular on-air clout.
“You just learn to deal with the worse situations,” he says. “The whole aura that we used to have back then builds your confidence up. It’s proper hard to explain. You can only find that aura in MC’s.”
“We literally had a mic and we put a sock on it and we just used to spit on it like that. You just teach yourself so much shit. It’s good though, a proper learning curve.”
Stirred after trips to Tanzania, Tiggs began edging away from Grime and started to experiment with his vocal range. He made a deliberate effort to conceal his new hobby from friends. As a teen he worried about how jumping into rap cyphers with impassioned croons would be received by his mates.
It was a worry that he would soon be rid of. Friendships struck up at fifteen are often not the one’s we keep at twenty five; and he was no different. Though they never fell out, a natural distance unofficially closed the chapter on TKC and gave him the space to lose himself in his new hobby.
For Tiggs; whose heart had been taken by Jazz, the end of school granted him the lease to truly find himself. He taught himself to produce; first on Fruity Loops and then on Logic. He began to song write and keenly deconstructed the Motown era; studying the likes of Ray Charles and Bobby Bland, captivated by their cultural impact and their ability to transcend music. In studying the greats he came to admire the boldness of the sixties and seventies; the desire to do different and the unflinching daring he sees absent today.
“The problem we have now,” he starts, “is that a lot of people have a fear of doing something and failing.”
“If you have that fear, you’re going to do whatever you can to fit in. If you fit in, you’re never going to fail but it’s never going to be incredible. It’s always going to put a ceiling on your creativity. You just need to stop caring and channel some sort of energy through yourself and put that into your music and be ready for people to say your shit.”
Did people tell you that you were shit?
“Yeah of course,” he says; laughing. “When I first started singing I wasn’t a good singer. I actually was shit.”
As a flowering adolescent, mired in that period of personal discovery, Tiggs uncovered a rugged confidence, which even today as he sits opposite me in this Café, bubbles silently under his peaceful manner.
He never intended to perform. The early dream was to song write and have the yield vocaled by others. But after a few early demos were met with high praise, he quickly scrapped Plan A and decided to keep the material for himself. In moments of self-doubt Tiggs would think about the singers in Tanzania; performing for the love; desiring little more than to provoke an emotion in those who were willing to listen.
“The second you understand what message you want to get across to the people, is the moment you stop caring about what other people think, because the only thing on your mind is to get that message across. You know what I mean?”
“You’re not really thinking about ‘ohh what if that person thinks that I’m shit?’ It doesn’t matter to me.”
When I ask him if he is ever deterred by the critiques, the answer is firm.
“Nah. I feel like once you have an understanding of who you are, you become comfortable in your skin and you stop caring about opinions too much.”
There is a silent steel present in Tiggs that belies his relative calm. When in the studio he prefers to record alone and even asks the engineer to leave when he wants to write. When finished with a song, he keeps it to himself for days at a time. If it clears this personal acid test he will play it for a handful of carefully selected friends and mentors. To pen songs Tiggs needs to find himself in a cloud of inspiration, not a room full of opinions and distractions. The low-key desire to keep things to himself seems to spill over into other aspects of his life too. He’s scarce on social media; posting a few tweets a week; if that, and admits that he prefers to figure things out on his own before making a presentation to the world.
He’s taken this focus into his record deal, which he inked last November with RCA. The label and those he works with are by now familiar with his at times tunnel-visioned approach to recording. It’s too late for Tiggs to change; not that he wants or needs too. In the fast-paced industry he now finds himself a part of; where the music can often play second fiddle to ‘the business,’ Tiggs has not lost sight of himself. Whilst number crunchers and desk-types busy themselves with sales projections, branding campaigns and intricate marketing roll outs, Tiggs focuses on the album; so much so that he has paid little thought to what follows its release.
“I don’t know man, I really don’t know,” he says. “I just want to release it first, you know what I mean?”
“Some people don’t even get to release an album. If it does really well [then] thank god, if it doesn’t then it’s not the end of the world. I’m not one of them people that will cry if my album doesn’t sell.”
The privilege to record for hours on end is a luxury not lost on Tiggs, who up until the ink dried on his record contract, was working part-time in a call centre. On some days the frustrations of a tough shift would follow him home and he would find it difficult to write music. When his head was in the right space, he would bounce to a friend’s studio and attempt to tread water with a dream threatening to drift off into the distance.
“I told my Mum that this is what I was going to do but I didn’t believe it.”
“You always say to yourself that you want to get signed but I didn’t think it was going to happen. Honestly. I was just making music and seeing what happens. But if you’re willing to do it without getting paid then you’ll be able to ride it through.”
Nowadays he spends most of his time in the studio, writing and recording. Slowly the album is beginning to take shape. He has settled on the idea of a concept project, with a deeper story woven into the fabrics of each individual track; hoping that he can meld the desire to produce something cohesive with that knack he has for standalone singles like ‘Georgia.’ It’s a thorny process and as he searches for balance in his music, a rockiness has crept into his personal life.
“I’ve spent less time with my friends; I’ve spent less time with my family,” he says. “They tend to side track you.”
Does your Mum get it?
“Yeah she gets it. I mean I still speak to her whenever I can.”
What about your friends?
“Nah, it’s more difficult for them because they feel like I’m being a prick. Some of my friends ask me to come chill for the weekend…Come chill…Chill, chill, chill. That’s what people want to do, come to this drink up, come to that drink up.”
“And because I used to do that with them before, they’re probably thinking I’m trying to move like a superstar but really I’m just working on music.”
As we sit there in the emptying café; dusk rapidly fading to dark, I ask about his indifference to interviews and the necessary hoops he must jump through to promote his work. He feels like the music should always come first, “Then speak after.” But after taking a few moments to ponder, smiles and concedes that the frills are perhaps useful in getting the word out about himself in such a way that his music can’t.
But there’s no escaping where he would rather be. His thirst for the studio perhaps comes from his acknowledgement of how different things could have been. He’s seen the other side of the coin. Talented artists; some perhaps even more so than him, bogged down in the pressures of life, burning hopes of long-impactful careers as musicians edging regrettably, inevitably, out of reach. And with that thought his desire to be elsewhere is forgivable. After all, he has an album to finish.