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In the surreal era of COVID-19, we were already stunned by the new normal. We were already protecting our elderly, terrified at the thought of this virus taking them before their time. But what we never expected was that it would take one of us, our crew, at the age of 47.

Ben Chijioke, known to all of us as the rapper Ty, was someone I met in the late ‘80s in Covent Garden (every weekend) when acts like DJ Pogo, Cookie Crew, Demon Boyz, Blade, Derek B and Billy Biznizz were already a staple on the UK hip-hop scene. Ty was one of those early rap music fans and, thereafter, an innovator himself. A British-Nigerian educationalist, Ty was an activist way before it was a millennial trend, and he was our gentle giant buddy.

Whilst Ty was planting the seeds of UK hip-hop, making music, hosting shows with British talent and supporting his community, I was still obsessed with the American music I championed as an exec at MTV News International. While I was running around NYC and Los Angeles creating MTV shows with Snoop and Puffy, Ty—always keen to put South London and Brixton on the map—was doing photoshoots for his 2006 Closer album cover at Tooting Bec Lido (it showed him emerging from a swimming pool, invoking the spirit of Grover Washington Jr.’s 1975 album, Mister Magic).

Ty’s personality was multilayered and I got to see many sides of him throughout each chapter of our friendship. In the early years—the mid-nineties—he was ‘MC Ty’ onstage at hip-hop shows in London spots like the Borderline club in Charing Cross, and he always had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand. To watch him live, you would witness a showman who knew how to control the crowd and had a magical rapport with people. His passion for the culture and keeping it real was relentless. He moved amongst many groups and many circles, fitting in everywhere easily and nowhere too permanently.

When I was the MTV News presenter for many years from 1997, of course I would interview Ty and our hip-hop scene peers at numerous shows at Jazz Café and Dingwalls, as well as local spots in Brixton. In these exchanges, he was seemingly happy, boisterous, loud, holding-the-throne Ty. Around 2004, when I took over as the Head of MTV Base production, I had been frustrated by UK music gatekeepers not believing in black British music. Up until that point, the TV channel had pushed mostly US hip-hop and R&B, but I was out and about nightly watching the black British music movement getting bigger and stronger, and I could no longer accept the knock-back from mainstream tastemakers to music from my city, by black artists who were in my world. This is how Ty and I bonded.

On a whim, I brought together a group of key music, media and brand influencers and friends who, in the past, had shared with me their passion for black British musicians and a drive to see them win. We started as a group of around 20, but over the years, this became a strong 12. We 12 have become family: monthly dinners, debates, daily chats, support during our careers and the personal ups and downs. 

As we discussed the UK black music scene and how and who we could support silently, under the radar, through our respective platforms, Ty was a crucial cog in the conversations holding us all to account. He was zealous that we should support, celebrate, champion and reward healthy hip-hop talent, and was often frustrated at how new, young artists were being overlooked. Ty was rankled by bright emcees who were catapulted to fast fame, but had little experience on the live stage. He thought they should’ve had slower nurturing and supportive paths for career longevity. He was also adamant there should be more balance with regards to women in music, specifically dark-skinned women.

A pain I felt Ty held private for many years was the childhood trauma of parental separation—something he often spoke of as “being left as a child” with white foster parents in the coastal village of Jaywick, in Essex. This had given him a sense of both abandonment and survival.

Between the 1950s and early 2000s, tens of thousands of kids like Ty were handed over to white parents who were paid to raise them, and today, many are exploring their history. I know Ty had plans to do so himself. He always thought that it was a travesty that the history of “farming out’’ young African children to Britain hadn’t been better researched. He told us that he had not long ago contacted newly-found family members on Facebook, and had always spoken of his hope to research these stories one day. It’s tragic that he left without fulfilling this yearning.

The crew and I will miss Ty forever. We recently got together on Zoom to talk about our memories of him and raise a glass to his enduring legacy.

a-toast-to-ty
Image via Jasmine Dotiwala

Noel Clarke – Actor / Director / Filmmaker

Ty was special to me. He was very much like me, in that he always spoke his mind, believed what he was saying, and meant every word of it. When he first met me, he interrogated me. He’d heard a lot of hearsay and wanted answers. He got them, and from that day we were friends. We never bullshitted each other and, in our group, we were never afraid to be real about what we felt. Being able to have his music in my movie was something we were both happy about. He deserved to be there with the artists of today. I’m gonna miss him, for real.

Cookie Pryce – The Orchard (former member of Cookie Crew)

Memories of Ty; that dude, our friend, the guy with the funniest facial expressions and a heart of gold. What always stood out for me was his genuine excitement when retelling me his childhood story of watching the Cookie Crew on Top Of The Pops and how that moment impacted his life, and how much it meant to him even in later years as our friendship became family. Ty became an artist himself, and he went onto play a huge part of the London hip-hop scene. He loved hip-hop. He loved music! And let’s not forget that his catalogue and legacy has contributed massively to the economy of the UK music industry, an accolade that this country needs to acknowledge. Ty was always about his craft and creativity; he was also a part of many, many friendship circles. So if you were honoured to have him seated at your table for a heated debate, belly laughter, sharing of life stories—ups and downs—pure love and plenty of food, consider yourself extremely lucky to have called him your friend and your brother. Ty, we miss you.

Jodie Dalmeda – Media Consultant

I don’t recall the first time I met Ty. The UK underground hip-hop scene in the nineties was exciting and fresh and he was one of the players. I knew him from the London scene, which was relatively small, before I went to work for Columbia Records, where I looked after publicity for most of their R&B/Hip-Hop roster; Nas, Lauryn Hill, Destiny’s Child. I would see Ty at various spots over the years. He was always so polite, respectful, like an old-school gent with a big smile—a gentle giant. Years later, our mutual friend, Jasmine, did an industry gathering and Ty came along. That first dinner evolved over more than a decade into a family of movers, shakers and influencers, of which Ty was one. Ty could be serious, although he had a real playful side to him. He loved a bit of insider gossip and would jump up and down doing a Mexican wave with excitement. He showed his vulnerability and shared his truth with us, like family. A principled man, he didn’t hold back if there was an injustice that needed to be aired. As well as his passion for music, he was also passionate about his community. A social activist and a man of the people. Since his passing, I’ve heard so many stories of how much he gave—time, kindness, and knowledge. I will remember Ty as a pioneer and a man with a huge heart. A Lionheart!

Paul Hampartsoumian – Hip-Hop Photographer

Many artists, once established, look for ways to ‘give back’ to their roots and communities. Ty was doing this before he even launched his career: as the host of the Ghetto Grammar workshop for aspiring emcees in the ‘90s, he encouraged and supported kids who, like him, had big dreams. I still recall him and a group of wide-eyed, inspired young rap artists passing the mic while Shortee Blitz rocked the turntables. His debut album title, Awkward, perfectly described him as an artist; he didn’t fit any of the boxes that existed for emcees at the time. He was thoughtful and humorous without any pretensions. One moment permanently lodged in my memory from those early days was his rendition of “Hercules” at Jonzi D’s Apricot Jam, where he had the whole crowd sing the chorus to the tune of The Magic Roundabout—“Hercules, remember me fool? You and me used to go to the same primary school.” Working a crowd with new music is a challenge for most artists, but Ty proved he could do it right from the get-go. His presence on the scene was as much statesman as it was artist, and social media provided a perfect platform for this. I could always picture his knowing look when he commented with a simple ‘sips tea’. Ty’s final album title, A Work Of Heart, described all his work. I would sometimes give him a lift home when he lived in Vauxhall and, once we arrived, it wasn’t unusual to chat in the car for another hour or so about the hip-hop scene he clearly loved and was devoted to. I will miss him.

Paola Lucktung – Paola Lucktung Consultancy

Ty and I were hi-and-bye friends until 2004. I was in my early junior level seat at adidas UK and responded to an email for product support from Ty for Upwards album promo. The request didn’t fall in line with those on the hype and rise at the time, but we made it work. Mutual respect was the start of our friendship. We would spend hours in the stockroom talking shop, hip-hop and cultural shares. Ty was a natural educator and lyricist who was passionate about his craft. Definitely underrated. Definitely deserving of all the glory and show of love that his passing has elevated in his honour.

Jarren Dalmeda – Actor / DJ

I will always remember Ty for his unwavering commitment to his craft as rapper, for his passion for music and his love for his community. He was authentic, and although his opinions would often run against the views of the majority, he wasn’t afraid to speak his piece and I liked that. He was a sensitive and complex guy, an old soul. Ty was an integral part of our family; he had the ability to make us laugh, cuss us, challenge us and show love—all in one sitting! We will miss you, Ty. Thank you for your friendship and support, not just to me but to all of our crew. Your crew. Rest peacefully, brother.

JP – Former Artist / Creator / Popular Loner Clothing

I first met Ty at a Brixton Fridge hip-hop night with Rampage and Boogie Bunch Sound. Back in the early ‘90s, Ty had some very cool dance moves and he never lost that. I called it the ‘Ty skank’ and anyone who saw him perform would have seen it. We were both pursuing rap careers and were both on Choice FM’s rap show together, freestyling in our teens. We stayed friends until he sadly passed away.

Taponeswa Mavunga – Columbia Records

I was in college when I first met Ty. We were in the same friendship circles and then became good friends. I remember, I used to hang out with a crew that included him and his cousins back in the day. I spent whole summers in Brixton. Music and laughter were constantly on the agenda, and that has remained to this day. It’s a different friendship circle but the energy has always been the same.

Jay Davidson – BBC

I first met Ty in the early nineties. I was one of a handful of chicks that went to the Borderline club on the Charing Cross Road. Although we were part of the London hip-hop family, we were reconnected by Jasmine and started a brand new crew. He always spoke for the independent artist. He knew there was a lot of talent that the mainstream didn’t know about, and he championed them. He supported them. He was a fan; he went to their shows. He was always about the community. After Grenfell, he came to Aklam Village—I bumped into him on the Portobello Road and he was focused, wanting to help. I’ve seen him on marches in support of the community. Once, I interviewed him and Jonzi D outside Scotland Yard: he was passionate, and his love for his community shone through. He honoured women, stood up for women’s rights and defended them. He would be the first to call out someone who was speaking out of turn.

Kwame Kwaten – Music Manager / Musician / Consultant, Ferocious Talent

I first came across Ty around 1994. I can’t quite remember how, but Ty somehow found his way to me. He came to play me a song that he had written with Shortee Blitz. My reaction was pretty instant and you have to remember, at this time, rap music from the USA was dominating the UK charts all the time. I listened and smiled and remembered thinking that it was really good. For context, we were being offered music artists from the UK as well as artists from the US. The music that Ty and Shortee Blitz had produced was simply brilliant. I told him then and there that I would release the music on the Freak Street record label, a label that myself and D’Influence—with the assistance of Paul Kennedy and Robbie Ringwood—had set up to release new music. From there, I think Ty just took to me and was in my life forever.

Fast-forward to 1997/1998, I remember touring with him vaguely, but when the 2000s hit, Jasmine had got a group of friends from the world of entertainment together. I remember feeling that the group was really important and would play a part in UK entertainment. Ty was a major part of that group. He always managed to get his point across and, no matter what, stood his ground, even sometimes when everybody was saying: “Hold on, Ty! We hear you, but there may be another way of looking at this.’’ We still meet as a group, but it will be very hard to not have him there.

Ty was also a huge influence on my son. When I say huge, I mean massive! He encouraged him at every turn with his beat-making. I think my son loved the fact that a person from UK hip-hop, that he genuinely loved, gave a shit. Ty even performed with him at the Jazz Café on a night that celebrated the Jazzmatazz album—a re-creation from top to bottom, with Ty as the emcee. Ty hadn’t rehearsed properly and this angered my son and angered me, and we were close enough friends that we could let him know that. He even apologised. But when the night came, Ty’s performance was close to perfection. He had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand; it was really incredible to see and sad that it would be one of the last times that I saw him perform. My son cried and cried and cried when he passed away.

Ty was also a huge supporter of my band, D’Influence. I think he just loved the fact that we were British and were appreciated by many outside of the UK. I think that he saw parallels with his own career. Before he died, he told me how much he appreciated everything that I had contributed towards the scene. UK music. UK black music! Seriously, what a guy.