As I step inside Tinchy Stryder’s plush living room space, the platinum-selling MC leads me to a shelf of awards, grinning as he picked up a giant metal snake. “This one means a lot to me,” he says, of his Best Newcomer gong from 2003’s Sidewinder Awards. From the age of thirteen, Stryder would juggle school whilst doing pirate radio sets and getting reloads in raves; his classic line, “Yeah, let me see the gun-fingers!” would echo around venues like Stratford Rex and cause complete chaos in the dance, while “Tings In Boots”—his debut performance on wax—remains a sonic treasure within the grime scene.
After releasing a catalogue of now-undeniable classics with his crew of friends in Ruff Sqwad, Tinchy Stryder’s persistence led him into a second phase that saw him focused on breaking the glass ceiling—getting signed, gaining mainstream money, success, and fame. With collabs with Taio Cruz, Pixie Lott and Dappy, tours with Rihanna and Usher, and a load of No. 1 and Top 10 singles under his belt, Kwasi Danquah has completed the mission he set out to do: open doors for everyone around him, while securing his future. Now in his third phase—independent and focused—Tinchy’s opening up with his new project, Private Life In Public, where he reveals (with the support of producers like Sir Spyro) the troubles of everybody knowing your face. Complex spent the day at Stryder’s Essex abode to talk golden era pirate radio, the pressures of getting a No. 1 single, and how he uses music as therapy.
“music is the best life lesson.”
What was it like growing up in grime’s golden era? Are there any memories you really cherish?
Loads of memories! In those days, me and the rest of Ruff Sqwad would go pirate radio, we’d go to Deja, then do raves, like Young Man Standing. Then about the same time, I started doing raves with Roll Deep and Wiley. Then we started doing Sidewinders and getting mad reloads. All of a sudden you’re at Sidewinder getting mad reloads and it’s bigger stages; performing there was like a big deal, and obviously Eskimo Dance as well. You might be at a rave and there’d be bare emcees there. Everyone’s from different areas and everyone’s kind of clashing, but not in that way. They’re the moments you cannot get back. When you’d hear everyone passing the mic and they’re fully in it, those times were just sick! When you’re in it, you don’t really realise how sick it actually is. It was a really special time.
How young were you when you were going to these raves, and what was it like spitting alongside the top MCs who were hot on radio at the time?
It was weird. Some of the raves I just thought, “What if I don’t get in?” But if I went with certain people, like Wiley, it’d always be cool. I was about 15 when it started getting easier. When your name starts getting about, some will allow you; they weren’t really meant to let you in, but somehow you got in there [laughs]. I’d get there and it’d just be all older people to me; bare mandem, bare girls. And it’s a big venue and then you say your lyric and everyone’s going mad... I’d just be there chilling in my hoodie [laughs]. Going to school, people kind of knew because when I was in year 7, I was MCing. I started MCing from the six-week holiday between year 6 and 7. Obviously I’d go to youth clubs, raves, so people knew you but it got to the stage where it was like, “Rah, man was on Deja with dem man?” It was cool, but it was a weird feeling. And because I was the small one, I was just bait—everyone knew I was Tinchy Stryder from that radio set, or that rave.
Looking back on Ruff Sqwad projects like Guns N Roses, what do they mean to you today?
Ruff Sqwad’s just got that sound—Rapid’s got that sound, Dirty Danger’s got that sound. You know the song “Anna”? That was the first track we did a video for and it was a really big moment for us. Through that whole Guns N Roses mixtape, we felt like we were making music and sparring at the same time. Wiley had this studio that he was kind of running, that everyone was using, and we used to go there literally every day; we made the majority of Guns N Roses there. Whenever I hear those tracks now, I’m just like: “Wow! We were really ahead of our time.” There were so many of us as well, but we were close so we could focus on one story or idea together. You know when you listen to some music and it’s like therapy? We can express ourselves through music but it’s still always fun. The truth always wins.
It seems like you had quite a grown up view, though. A lot of the things you were touching on were really mature, but also you were approaching them in a really correct manner. I feel like, at the time, a lot of people were maybe putting up masks about what lives they were actually living.
Yeah, we were just talking about our real lives. Obviously, mandem might have a couple bars here and there that’s just young teenage flexing. But at the same time, there’s a lot of tracks where you kind of open up. For me, I was cheeky with it. That was my thing. I still wasn’t at a stage where I was grown enough to say how I really feel but, bit by bit, you just learn off each other. Music is the best life lesson.
When did you know music was your true calling? You were big on football at one point, so when did that realisation come about?
I was doing music and playing football; it got to the stage where I was playing for Wimbledon Youth Academy. Training was like three times a week, and I’m from East London. I used to do homework club at school a lot, where if you were a bit bad or not getting your work done, you leave school at 5.30pm instead of 3.30pm. Then I had to travel all the way to Wimbledon on the train. I was playing, but you had to eat the right food and I wasn’t eating enough anyway. Then I’m at radio, go to this rave, gotta be up early, go there, do this. The lifestyle, the girls, mandem hanging about, it was all a lot for me. Music started building naturally and then, one day, I just had to choose.
“When you’D hear everyone passing the mic and they’re fully in it, those times were just sick.”
Looking back now, what were the benefits or pitfalls of being a young local star?
On my Star In The Hood album, I say: “They say I’m a star in the hood because they think I’ve burst and I ain’t even blown yet.” Obviously, my people were cool because we make music together and we roll. But the pressures that come with it, it’s like, okay, now I’ve got to maintain and do this and do that. You’ve got something to live up to. But these days, having success can also bring the other side; the envy, the jealousy. That also comes with it. Outside of music, they feel like you do this and then the money’s there. Someone told me once that they heard every time a video gets played, artists get paid a grand. Where did you hear this one? [Laughs] And they’re like, “But look at your videos!” Boy, you pay for a video—not the other way round.
What would you say are your key tracks that highlight your journey?
My tunes? OK, you’ve got “Tings In Boots”—that’s Ruff Sqwad. Was that the first track we done? Maybe. We done a few that time, but I’m sure that was first. That’s when things popped off for me, specifically, because of the lyrics and that specific reload bar. I guess, for me, the next one is probably “Underground” and after that, probably “Mainstream Money”.
Did you feel like after that, that was your focus: let’s get this money?
Yeah, yeah. “I wanna get mainstream money!” Then after that, it’s probably “Something About Your Smile”. It’s just one of them songs, innit? It’s bare singalong-friendly, sweet to girls. Then after that, probably “Stryderman”.
Fraser T. Smith produced that, right?
Yep. Around that time, I was supporting a few tours. I did a Kano tour and Fraser was about, and we just got in the studio together. That was a moment because after that, I got playlisted on BBC Radio 1. Then I guess “Stryderman” was the first single that got signed. That was big a moment, too. If you go from there and “Take Me Back”, then the next big moment would be “Number 1”. After “Number 1” was another big song, it was “Game Over” with everyone on it.
I feel like “Game Over” was kind of like you bringing everyone into your mainstream light. I’m sure Giggs, Devlin and Chip appreciated that look.
That track obviously came from grime culture, and there’s a lot of tunes where everyone’s on it like “Pow!” But this wasn’t quick hooks or quick verses. And the beat was different: it was dark. I guess we didn’t expect everyone to jump on it, but the line-up was sick: Giggs, Pro Green, Example, Devlin, Chip, Tinie. “Game Over” was major, man.
What was happening around “Spaceship”? That was a big, big tune. Were you signed then?
I was signed to Island Records. That’s an interesting story. I had just done “Number 1” with Dappy, then people at the label... I don’t know exactly who it was, but I was getting told by management that they didn’t think we should go with it. They said they liked it, but you’re coming out with another song with Dappy and you have got to top it.
How do you top a number one?
I was trying suss that one. When I work it out, I’ll let you know. I done alright in maths, but I don’t know that one [laughs]. Jokes aside, anyway, I was shook. So I had another song with Dappy and I was like, “It bangs.” It wasn’t just a song—we came with a big video idea and everything. It was quite expensive. It got to the stage where they were like, “If you want, you can pay for it and if it hits the top 10 we’ll give you your money back.” So I did it. I stuck to my gut. Although it was fun to shoot and put together, it was very expensive. With some things, you just have to go with your gut. If you believe and love music, you’ve got be willing to put that money there. So we put it out and it went to No. 5.
So you got that money back?
Yeah, man. A few months after “Spaceship”, I released “Bright Lights” with Pixie Lott. That was a whole other world to me. She’s doing this, doing that. But me? Away from the music, I was just a normal guy. Then I was doing tours with Usher and Rihanna, and that was all just crazy. I love performing, more than anything, but having your songs playing front of all these people was a mad experience at first.
How do you think the music industry has changed over the years? When you started out, it was all pirate radio and raves. Now it’s engagements, Snapchat etc...
Real talk! I saw it coming, but I didn’t see where it was going. Even from music sales, now it’s all streaming, whereas before, it was hard copies. Hard copies aren’t even around like that now. But at the same time, the industry, how it is now with social media, is quite powerful. People are watching videos and judging them based on views. I’ll talk to younger people and they won’t even watch something if it’s not got many views. How does views tell you if it’s good or not? So that’s changing, and sometimes you’ve just got to change with it. It’s easier said than done, though. I’d rather 100 sure fans than a 1,000 unsure fans. You can do an intimate show with a couple of hundred people and then do 10,000, and if the couple of hundred fans are more into you and follow you, then it’s better. It’s good in a way though because it’s easier to get access to people’s music now. Streaming is the thing right now.
Private Life In Public is the title of your forthcoming EP. How are you feeling about putting this project out in today’s musical climate? Where are you at right now?
Where I’m at right now is a place where I went through kind of a dark place but have come through the other side. Everyone that knows me thinks I’m always chill. It’s a mad, scary place to be: lonely in a public place. I’m not alone, alone, but inside your mind you’re thinking: “It’s lucky you’ve got these close people around you.” You’re feeling like you want to do this or that but it’s not really working out that way. From whatever age, I’ve been doing this for more than 15 years and people know your face from time! It’s like every day people know what you’re doing. And now there’s social media, which adds to the pressure. People think your life is one way and you have to maintain ‘being you’, but that is just a lifestyle. Even if one day you’re seen with this car and then next year people don’t know what your life is like, what you’re earning or what you have to pay for, now what happens is you feel like you’ve got to keep that up for other people. It’s not like you don’t know different because you’ve been in that role for that many years. And then you realise it’s weird. It doesn’t feel like you get space. I’m not complaining, but I don’t remember the last time where I went out in public and I didn’t have to take a picture—it don’t matter how I’m feeling, either. Because I’ve been living my life in public for so long, that’s where I was at. So when I was coming out with so many tracks, I thought in that period: “Let’s make a project.”
We were talking earlier about how music is therapy, but in ways, it’s also stress. I guess that’s a balance everyone has to go through. Sometimes it’s easy to lose the balance, right?
Definitely. Sometimes it’s like a mad, mad rollercoaster. You don’t know what’s next. Things happen so fast! But you’re Tinchy Stryder with number ones so, to the world, you’re that guy now. You’re not allowed to have a downer or a low point. It’s a test, and all the greats have to go through it at one point or another. It’s not an easy place to come out of though. Like I said, you let it all out through the music; you feel like it’s a moment you needed. I always feel good about music but, sometimes, I’m like: record this, record that, because that’s what people expect. But nah—this is what I’m making.
'Private Life In Public' lands on Aug. 18.