Tendai hates early starts. He loathes them, even. However, on this damp Thursday morning, the artist, producer and self-professed east London ambassador zipped through to Cambridge Heath station to make his call time.
Making music that sits beyond the constraints of a genre, with an aesthetic that feels extremely natural, yet intricately considered, tendai seems a complex character: an artist unable to be placed. It’s no wonder, then, that he’s found himself signed to 0207 Def Jam just two years after his debut single ‘Not Around’ and boasts an executive producer credit on Stormzy’s album This is What I Mean. As we anticipate the completion of his three-part EP series and witness tendai achieve so much in a relatively short space of time, there’s no doubt his feet are still firmly on the ground.
The way he speaks is evidence of his modesty. “I’m just a real person…a sensitive being at heart, where there’s no separation between self and art”, says Tendai. He constantly speaks about being “super specific” in every aspect of his being; in his music, his style – even with the food he orders. He’s also very particular about what he wears with his New Balance 991v2. And he is deeply deliberate about how he considers the impact of his music. “There’s certain records I’ve released that have a timestamp in them that predates the time they were made, just because of the emotion they evoke. I love the idea that I’m unintentionally reintroducing my generation, and generations to come, to a certain kind of British music. It’s funny because the word ‘British’ is just so specific.”
As we drive towards Tower Bridge on the rare and unfortunate day that it’s stuck open for about an hour, we joke about how this is part of London’s charm: it will always delay your schedule but it’s still our proud and abiding home. We also talk about how growing up in London has undoubtedly shaped tendai’s sound. “My music feels really British. The music I’ve made that sits deepest within me always feels like London,” tendai says. He goes on to reel a list of artists he feels are and have been making music that feels quintessentially British, names spanning from The Streets to Elton John, and speaks how he feels he sits amongst that melting pot of sounds.
Our journey takes us into the famed Number One Cafe, which serves as an integral meeting point in British series Top Boy. We find ourselves discussing the spoken and unspoken traditions, a conversation that somehow comes from trying to describe what “good chips” smell like. “That’s the thing about London’s culture and tradition, it’s so many things, where I’m from [Newham], it’s embracing all the culturally rich facets we’re surrounded by, whether it’s food, the music, the architecture, I think it makes us [east Londoners] have such an eclectic taste,” says tendai. “I pull from the road signs, from grime culture, the blocks of flats, the artists that are from here.”
Delving deeper, he speaks about the importance of understanding east London’s lineage – those who have succeeded in creative pursuits before him. “It contextualises me, not just as a musician too. I don’t see myself as just a singer or just a producer. I’m a director, I see the music I make in scenes.” A homage not only to the musicians of the East End, he extends that beyond, reeling off another long list of names that includes the likes of Idris Elba to Alfred Hitchcock.
While also looking to what came before him, tendai likes to fantasise over fortuitous interactions that are yet to happen. “I get inspired by the emotional breadth that can come just from meeting someone, that’s the pool I usually draw from” he says. He often muses on relationships that have a romantic edge to them, and what they might become can be the trigger for a new idea that becomes a song.
Before even beginning to lay anything down, there’s a few tendai-specific traditions that are part of his music making process. Pulling out a beautifully crafted incense box and placing it on the table as he lays back on the sofa and listens to an old vinyl, he explains the importance of being surrounded by a particular energy, especially when in creative spaces: “I guess it’s a ritual. It’s always important to create a certain calm in my space, so I always have this with me,” tendai says. “I also go to the ends of the earth to ensure something feels right musically, I won’t touch the mic until I’ve got a verse, pre chorus and chorus.”
Speaking so much about east London and being part of a region that has not only birthed the likes of Kano and David Beckham, but is home for the fictional borough of Walford, where cult classic soap opera EastEnders has been running since 1985, I ask tendai what made him different from the rest? Perhaps a deep understanding of his Ugandan heritage, shared with him by his mother? All of this combined? Surprisingly, it’s not something tendai ever really considered: he is way more focused on how he unites with people.
“The beauty of this all is that it doesn’t make me different. I, like many others, am sharing the story of a black kid in the diaspora, and that doesn’t separate me. It contextualises me and brings me closer to say many people, their lives and their stories.”
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