America's got talent, and his name is Theophilus London. And despite a British-sounding name and Brooklyn home address, London is universal. This 21-year-old entertainer bridges hip-hop, indie-rock, and electronica while pointedly avoiding any pit-stops in disco rap. Because that would be lame and he is anything but. Theophilus' dance-driven sound yielded two (incredible) mixtapes, Jam! and This Charming Mixtape (which Complex named the #21 Best Album of 2009). And while Theo's musical chops make him as memorable as any headliner on his U.S. and European tours (with A-Trak and britpop singer Jack Penate respectively), as you can see, he's just as visually enigmatic.
With over 20 countries under his belt last year and presently on tour with DJ Treats, Theophilus chopped it up about his exclusive fashion shoot in the February/March issue of Complex Magazine, collaborating with Mark Ronson and Gucci (red and green; not Mane), and where he gets his remarkable personal style...
Interview by Richard "DJ Treats" Dryden
What are your thoughts on your Complex shoot?
Man, I thought it was very striking. A lot of the wares today... I never had someone dress me up in all these different moods. It was great. I can appreciate that we pulled some Louis Vuitton, Ralph Lauren, and Y-3, and Levi's because those are some of my favorite brands, especially Levi's. Everyone wanted me to feel comfortable and let me do my own thing. They kept reminding me—this is about you; be yourself; be you, let you come out in the photos, and I just did that. We had some great jams on the playlist. We had a really good day, very fun.
Do the images complement your personal style?
I'm very particular about angles and shapes. And I like the angles and shapes here and I always wear a hat and sunglasses [in life]. It's just great to project my aesthetic in pictures, not just present myself in a photo. I wanted to present a statement without talking. My personal style is edgy, a little raw, and not just high-end. I get a lot of stuff from the thrift store and Goodwill. I like to wear a lot of one-tone color outfits—same color trousers, same color shirt. Or have a contrast. People seem to like it and kind of look at me as this fashion icon but I never look at myself like that.
Speaking of icons, you modeled your This Charming Mixtape cover art after an Elvis Costello album cover called, This Year's Model. What other statements were you making with the album?
The album was a charming statement. It could have been this charming shirt, or this charming hat, this Charming Blog, I created the title from ["This Charming Man"] which comes from Morrissey—one of my icons. And it's a charming record. It's love songs, emotions, moods, raw R&B, hard-hitting beats over smooth staccato voices. I focus a lot on my voice because I want it to be an instrument as well. I want my voice to add color.
And what color would that be?
Whatever color I choose to paint the song. I look at it like a painter. Before he paints, he thinks about what colors he's going to use. I'm going to use red—I'm going to alert someone... I'm going to use yellow. With "Cold Pillow" I used blue, you know, cold blue. That's just how I see it.
How did you find yourself collaborating with Mark Ronson?
Mark did a collabo with Gucci and designed a couple of shoes, and one of the premiere shoes was a blue boat shoe. Gucci wanted us to make a theme song. So we were like, 'How can we make a boat shoe connection?' It's like, 'Oh I know, we can compare a boat shoe to a woman, to like, love.' On one of the lines I said, "With socks or without it's all good." You know how you can rock your boat shoes with socks or without? You could rock your girl, with socks or without. "Brooklyn is your neighbor—no 'hood.'" I prefer socks though.
You had a fitting with the tailor at Gucci, what was that like?
I'm from Brooklyn, so I walk in there, lint on my hat, lint in my pocket, dog hair on my socks and stuff; that shit was so upscale. I'm walking on a black, clean carpet with no white spots, this huge mirror, expensive chairs, all these expensive hangers. I was looking in the mirror like, 'Damn I look so out of place.' I slept in the sweater, I had on dirty Vans. I wanted to take a before and after picture [laughs]. I thought it would be real funny. So the Gucci guy came and tailored me. I dunno, he didn't really want to talk. He's very all about his business. He knows the Gucci cut. I'm like, "Hey I really like my skinny fit." He's like, "Nah, I gotta give you the classic Gucci look."
Are you as particular about fashion when you're creating music?
I always tell myself, 'When I'm working on my record I won't cut my hair.' I get so focused on the music that I'm not really going to the hair shop and getting cut up. I just have one thing to focus on. I'm here to make music and create. I'm a huge fan of Marvin Gaye, and Teddy Pendergrass. These guys in the '80s and '70s are just natural, they focused on so many other things rather than trying to get fresh. I'm not on a record like some rapper trying to boast about my clothes or where I'm from. I'm creating stories, experiences, the way places make me feel, the way a person makes me feel.Â First record, second record, third record, they're different.
You're traveling extensively this year, too. How are you documenting your experiences?
I found this really cool, obscure camera. It was a Hasselblad. I put a blog up and was like, 'I want this camera, where can I find it?' And one of my fans sent me a German eBay link. I was like, 'Oh my God, this is it!' It's very old school and still works. I've been taking some personal photos on it. I just been documenting my life this year, how I've been living. Every year for me has been a step up each season. The moves and the things we're doing. So it's good to document the early days. You're only young once. You only have your first single once, your first album once, and then it's on to the next.
Check back later today for an exclusive Theophilus London video!