A little while back, in last year’s blue-sky summer, Youngs Teflon and I sat in an office block kitchen. Lunchtime had petered out into late afternoon and the room had run quiet. Ceramic plates dried on steel washboards and soaked in sinks, glass tumblers waited for cleaners, cutlery waited for tomorrow. Youngs Teflon waited for Eid. Because on that dormant afternoon out in North London, it was still Ramadan and he had abstained from recording and releasing music. It was a self-imposed break from his craft, a reconnection with his religion, a matter of discipline waited out in foreign territories like these: still, empty kitchens where windowless walls brought an intimacy into the place, made the room’s four corners close in on you.
Life is about shuffling through phases, an opening and closing of doors until we find the room that most fits the fantasies played out in our daydreams. It’s an inevitable course, one that grabs us as toddlers in our playpens, hovers over us from childhood into our teens, from our twenties into middle-age, a puppet master in the shadows promising sweet pleasures and peace of mind. We’re all at it. Embroiled in the game, rolling the same dice, only separated by the codes that govern our own far-flung corners of these territories we call home.
The stakes are higher for those like Tef who have lived days on the razor’s edge, where the margins are fine and the missteps risk freedom. He speaks on the lottery lifestyles—the fast ones, played out far away from communal kitchens and office blocks. He’s a South London spokesperson, painting the city with his pen, offering up sermons of quick wins and hard losses; street parables, sometimes painful, that float to the world coated in low-fi instrumentals and glossy visuals. For more than ten years now, Tef’s life has been on display, a gallery of sound, consumed by the many but truly understood by the few.
So we spoke about it all, laid life bare in the boxed kitchen where time had frozen and the smell of food still lingered in the air. It was water cooler talk gone awry: about South London (his canvas), about Islam, about sacrifice, about hustling through phases in the forage for our fantasies.
Have you been fasting?
I have been, but not today.
What do you feel like you gain from fasting?
There’s certain things you do daily that you don’t realise you’re doing, but when you take time away from it, it gives you time to reflect and think. The whole point of Ramadan is that if you live your life pure for this month, then it should incorporate into the other 11 months of your life. So the more you do, the more spiritual you become. For me, the hardest things around Ramadan are swearing and women—looking at them, thinking about them. When you cut that out, it gives you a lot of time to reflect. It’s good for the mind, and the soul.
Have you noticed an impact on your life?
I feel Ramadan is always a peaceful time of year for me. Even though sometimes it’s bang in the middle of summer, sometimes it’s been around my birthday, so it’s hard to stay focused. But it gives you a purpose and it’s for a good reason in the grand scheme of things.
How long have you been Muslim?
Since 2007 or 2008. About ten years.
What made you take the religion up?
I had a lot of family members that were Muslim. On my mother’s side, they are all Muslim—so my grandmothers and uncles, they’re all Muslim. Then my dad’s side were Christian, and I grew up in a Christian household—read the bible and all of that. But then I started questioning certain things myself. I had a few friends of different religions and I was trying to find out more, but Islam just started making a lot of sense. I visited the mosque a few times, and then I made the decision.
And it’s been a good one?
Yeah, it has. Even when I was young and getting up to no good, I still knew there was an Almighty power. I would go to church, and no one didn’t have to force me to go because I would go by myself. I’m a believer in information, always have been. So I would always have questions: Why does that work like that? Why does that look like that? Where does this come from? Who made this? I’m someone who will sit at home to Google one thing and then be there the whole afternoon. It’s the same with YouTube. The other day I found myself watching videos about Is the Earth flat or not? It sounds crazy but I was actually into it. I was watching videos about Antarctica, and thinking: “Do people actually live there? How can there be a continent that’s bigger than Africa and no one lives there?” I’m always someone who’s eager to know what’s going on. And that’s how I found Islam.
You mention your mum in quite a few of your songs. Did she raise you?
I was raised by both of my parents. My dad was always there, but before I was born he was more of a military father and he travelled a lot. Then he worked for Shell and all these other companies, so he was always in and out of the house. But my mum was always there so I was raised more by her and my bigger sisters. Me and my mum have a strong relationship.
Do you think being raised around a lot of women has had an impact on you?
I’d say yes and no, because at the same time I’ve got seven brothers and two sisters. I was always around boys, and my mum doesn’t have any sisters, so I was always around a lot of boys. But the love came from the female side because African dads, they’re not really affectionate. I can probably count how many times I’ve kicked it with my dad. It was more my mum and sisters that would take me out—my sister bought me my first pair of Nike Airs [laughs].
On your most recent Fire In The Booth, you were talking about ‘being far off deen’ and how ‘cash rules everything around you.’ Is it hard balancing music with your personal life and religion?
No because I feel like my music is a bit more transparent. Whatever I’m going through in life, if it’s not too personal, it will probably come out in my music. Even if I’m not detailing it, the type of music I’m making might be more mellow. I feel like all artists are spiritual, even if they’re not religious. I feel like they’re spiritual in some way; some people meditate through making music. I find myself feeling a bit depressed if I’m away from the studio for too long—I just need to be in the studio environment. I might be in another artist’s session just to see buttons clicking, beats playing, screens, mics, speakers. It’s therapeutic to be in that sort of environment. When I’m not releasing music, I’m not the happiest. Or should I say, I’m happiest when I have music out and released no matter what I’m doing in life. If there’s no music being released, I’m not at my happiest point.
On the religion side, there’s no music that can pull me away from my religion. Okay cool, I’m having a drink now, but this month I haven’t recorded anything, I haven’t released any music to respect Ramadan. Even if I’m not fully on my deen, I’m not going to disrespect it and show you. I wouldn’t post myself drinking this month… I know I’m a role model for certain individuals, not that I want to be. But they might think it’s okay because Tef showed it. But it’s not okay. So I try to keep it separate. At the same time, I won’t overdo it because I’m not an activist or a religious speaker, but I want them to know that there’s more to life.
What’s it like being a role model?
[Pauses] It’s very important, especially with what’s going on within the inner cities and communities, the black communities. Someone like me is very influential to a 15, 16, 17, 18 year-old growing up. Obviously, we’re not angels—I’ve never had a 9-to-5 job, I didn’t graduate uni, so I’m not the perfect role model. But at the same time, for what I do, I am the perfect role model because I’m more connected to these kids than the guy who has left the area to go and better his life. There’s nothing wrong with what he’s done, he’s just not connected to them. They can’t listen to a graduate or a lecturer but they can listen to that rapper that is wearing the jewellery they like or the car they want to drive. They listen to him. I get people in my DMs like, Bro how do I get that? How did you get that? Where did you get this from? How do you get up? Bro I want to go country. I’m not gonna say stick to school because if you didn’t go school or school ain’t for you, then I can’t stay stick to school. But I do tell them to do what they know. Do what’s best for you! Don’t follow the next man. Even me, I find myself doing crazy other things to get by. Then I stop and I think this is stressful, I’m better… I’m best at making music. I have to make the music work. I have to do things around the music to make money off of it. But why am I doing all of this, if music’s what I’m best at? I can go jail for this, and then all of this is over. I can’t go jail doing music.
Music takes a lot of time, money, energy, but bro, there’s nothing better than doing what you love and getting paid for it. So you have to make it work. I want to be selling out shows, I want to be touring the world, I want to be doing arenas. I can’t get that doing other stuff, that’s what I’ve been doing my whole life. I’m not good at it; if I was good at it, I would be rich. That’s what people don’t understand sometimes: they say I’m just going to do it to get by, but you have to have a means to an end.
Is it ever hard to stick with music because it’s inconsistent?
Imagine running a marathon—a lap marathon—and you started with these ten guys. Now you’ve got halfway and there might be four of you now. Six of them have dropped off, but on the way another six new guys have come along and they’ve gone past you. They’ve learnt everything that you’ve learnt and done it better. And that’s how I see the rap game. People come in, see what they want, run the race and they’re out of here again. I’ve seen so many people come and go.
On “South London Press”, you talk about seeing junkies in flats since you were 12. Reflecting on that, do you feel like that’s something you were too young to be exposed to?
I don’t think it was too young. I think as young as you can understand the craziness of this world, you should. It will prepare you in the longer run. I don’t have children but when I do, as soon as they can understand English, I want to teach them certain things and certain dangers of the world, so they’re exposed to it from young, so they can’t come home and say ‘I saw this today and it was crazy.’ You have to ease them in. I don’t think it was too young for me—I think I needed to see that.
Because it gives you a conscience. When I was young, I used to see crackheads in my estate. I knew they weren’t normal people, but I didn’t know they were on drugs. I would talk to some of them… I remember this guy that used to live in front of my house, he used to play his guitar all the time and smoke his crack, and we would have convo. I knew he was dangerous, but I was still excited to see what he was up to. My mum would always tell me not to talk to him, but I was like, “He’s still human!” You know what I mean? He’s not hurting no one. But certain people would be like: “Ahh, you’re a crackhead!” Then they shut themselves off to certain things. So when crazy things do happen, it’s harder for them to handle because they’re not used to this. They haven’t been exposed to that kind of energy. But if a crackhead broke into my house now… [shrugs]… it’s a crackhead, that’s what they do. A crackhead might break into someone else’s house and they’re traumatised, they don’t want to live there no more, but that’s what crackheads do: they break into things. I needed to see that.
How do you feel like those experiences shaped you?
What living around such environments?
It made me realise that there’s not much difference between the rich and the poor. There’s not a big gap. One day you can be living normal, the next day you’re finished: no family, nothing to live for, nothing, no house, no job. But yesterday you were that guy. It’s very easy to fall below. But I’ve also seen people that were living that life clean themselves up, come up and now they’re in big businesses, the corporate world, well-respected. There’s never too low and there’s never too high—you can go either way, and you see the same people.
What’s the most recent lesson you’ve learnt?
The most recent lesson I’ve learnt? Trust. I feel like in the past I gave people trust before they earnt it. And that’s the important thing: you shouldn’t trust anyone and everyone—you should give people the opportunity to earn your trust. You can’t expect everyone to act how you would act. Whatever your norm is, isn’t the next person’s norm. You might think it’s normal for some to say ‘thanks’ for opening the door for them. But in their head, they’re thinking, “why didn’t you open the door quicker?” People feel like they’re entitled to certain things, and so I’ve learnt that not everyone can be given the same sort of respect. There’s different strokes for different folks.
On your 2015 track “Pressure”, you say that “everybody thinks a nigga’s good now.” What’s it like leading a double life: being a musician—a bait face—but still being a person at the end of the day?
It’s tricky, because on a normal day, I like to be by myself and enjoy my own company. But it’s hard when you wanna do simple things, like go petrol station or Tescos. I’ve been in little lowkey places and people are like, “Tef! What are you doing here? You shouldn’t really be here?” I know, but I’m human bro. I don’t want to go somewhere where no one is. I need to be where the people are! But sometimes that’s not where you should be. I’ve learnt lessons from being in places where I shouldn’t be, or being with the wrong crowd. I’ve learnt the hard way, and things have ended up in violence. But I still want to be normal and get to do the normal things. Yeah, I have to take precautions and stay safe, but I still want to do regular stuff. And that’s a challenge.
So you’ve had to make a few sacrifices?
Yeah, most definitely. You might not be able to eat at your favourite food spot today because it’s too hotand there’s gonna be a lot of people there. A few sacrifices, but they’re very important.
What kind of pressure were you under at the time you were making that song?
Financial pressure. Relationship pressure. Family pressure. All sorts of pressure! Even that video, you can probably tell that I wasn’t in a happy place in life. You could just tell I wasn’t happy—you could see it. But one thing I’ve started doing since January this year, is I’ve changed up my diet. I don’t eat red meat anymore; I eat a lot of seafood, veg, fruit. I make a lot of smoothies as well. I dropped out a lot of fast food, greasy food, chicken and chips, McDonald’s—dropped it out. I started thinking more positively and seeing the best in situations. If I can’t change a situation, don’t stress it. That’s the mindstate I’ve had from January till now and I have seen a difference. Me thinking like that has meant I’m not in certain places. I find myself being in the house on the weekends, evenings—by myself, no worries whatsoever and no urge to go anywhere, and I’m fine with that. The more I can stay in the house, the better for me. I don’t spend money, there’s no dangers—I’m not going to kill myself in my own house. That’s a win. I’m just trying to incorporate that whole positive thinking into my whole lifestyle.
Was that a New Year’s resolution?
That was a talk. I had a chat with Clarke, Giggs’ brother. We were sitting down one day and he said, “What you need to do is shut out all the negative energy and think positive.” Mans’ life is stressful! The average young black man who lives in this country and who isn’t a legit 9-5er, they go through a stressful life, let’s be real. So you need to see the best in everything. Yes, life is stressful, but you’re only gonna make it more stressful if you don’t appreciate the best things you have already. Not financial, but family, friendship, spirituality, religion. All these things, you have to see the best in them to be a better person. In the long-run, that will help you be that person you want to be. How do you cook eggs if the chips are burning in the other part of the kitchen? But if the chips are fine and you can see it, then I’m cool here. For you to leave your house and do what you need to do, it needs to be in order. But how I’ve been living for the past five to ten years? Nothing was in order. It’s just let me get to this. But even if I do ‘get to this’, I’ve still got to come back and make up my house. You see it? But if you wake up and clean your room and make the bed, when you come back at night, even if you had a bad day, you’ve got a good home.
You can’t box things off in life. Every part of your life affects the other.
You always try to lock it off, but you can’t run from life. I was using the drugs—the weed and the alcohol—as my escape. But all that does is make you forget. Once you’re sober again, the problems are still there. Maybe even double now! And that wasn’t the way. I was blanking out what’s on the outside, thinking all my problems were gone. But the problem was on the inside. I had to clean this first before I could deal with that, because I was toxic.
How did you come to that realisation that you were toxic?
When I had that conversation with Clarke. It’s like he knew! He was like, “I don’t know what’s going on in your life, but this is what you need to do.” Then there was a book he told me to read. The book is basically about self-power, the power that’s within you. Nothing religious, nothing else, but you as a being. But you have to watch what you feed into it, your mind and stuff like that, so I started drinking a lot of water. I realised that I was toxic so anything I tried to do would have a toxic energy on it. I had to get out of that mindstate.
You freestyled over “Pain Is The Essence”, and at the end of the freestyle, there’s a clip from an interview Giggs had given where he says: “When I start doing well in the music and I start living in fucking Disney World 24 hours a day, then I’ll start talking about Mickey Mouse.” In your own way, are you looking forward to the day when your music can shift too?
[Laughs] No, because I always want to be able to connect with where I’m from. I want to be a success and I don’t want to have to life that life, but I don’t want to be disconnected from where I’m from. That’s where I owe it to the most.
What scares you the most?
Not being successful. Not making it… Not making it where I need to be.
What brings you joy?
Being able to make other people happy, knowing I’m the reason for someone else’s joy. That’s very powerful.