Always one to defy genres and labels, Theophilus London returned to music with ‘Bebey,’ his most energetic album yet. He shares the motivation behind this triumph, hints at new music with Miley Cyrus, and talks about his fashion collection.
“I think the most important thing was finding out that I didn’t want to go with the same image of myself,” says Theophilus London. Though he’s speaking of the new collection inspired by his 2020 album Bebey, it could be taken as the Trinidadian-born, Brooklyn-raised rapper’s mission statement. Bebey is a reinvention, a declaration, and the evolution of his sound, one that has grown and “matured” since 2014’s Vibes. Bebey sees Theophilus deftly weave together the Caribbean sounds of reggae, calypso, and dub with New York City hip-hop, classic Soul, and modern electronica.
It’s a joyous experience, one that seemingly condenses a summer block party into 49 minutes over 13 tracks – and all of his friends are there. Raekwon, Lil Yachty, Giggs, Ariel Pink, Ian Isiah, Germaine, Kristian Hamilton, and Tame Impala appear on Bebey, but the focus never leaves Theophilus. Never one afraid to paint with all of music’s colors when it comes to genre and sound, Bebey sees him deftly weave together the Caribbean sounds of reggae, calypso, and dub with New York City hip-hop, classic Soul, and modern electronica. The results are an album radiating with undeniable vibrancy, a warmth that is only matched by Bebey’s striking (and soon-to-be-iconic) album art.
Theophilus’s signature style has earned him many fans and friends in the fashion world. Recently, he teamed with longtime friend and collaborator Virgil Abloh for the Off-White™ c/o Theophilus London “LIFE’S WORK” Boots. With bursting creativity that could never be restrained to one medium, he launched the Bebey merch line – which is just the first adventure into the Bebey universe. As he tells HollywoodLife, there’s more on the way – including a zine, and more music. He also dishes on what shoes he wants to design, the fashion advice he gave Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, and what’s changed about his style.
HollywoodLife: When it came to designing this new collection, what was essential for these clothes to capture the essence of your new album, Bebey? Was it something physical – color combo, fabric choices — or was it more of an attitude issue, that these clothes needed to capture the vibe of your album? Or both?
Theophilus: I think the most important thing was finding out that I didn’t want to go with the same image of myself. I tried a couple photos for the album cover, but just being me, throughout the year, I rethought it, and I started coming up with this character where it’s this black woman with blonde hair. I reached out to my friend, artist Alexander Harrison from Brooklyn, and I loved his paintings, and I started talking to him and showing him some references. I had this blonde wig, and I put it on this girl and took some photos of her and sent it to him, and we started coming up with the Bebey girl.
It’s been a cool story because these are like comic books and magazines now. With the merch, I’m doing a lot of graffiti and arts and crafts, like cutting letters out and putting them on a couple different things, making 3D letters, writing notes in my iPhone, or drawing up sketches with my thumb on my iPhone, and then have it coming out as t-shirts. That’s what it’s been. It’s not like hiring some guy to photoshop words together. It’s more like you sit down and start with your hand and scan it in, take it back out, write some more, scan it back in, and that’s drop one.
Bebey is your first studio LP since 2014’s Vibes. What is the biggest sound difference between you in 2020 and you six years ago? And, in regard to the collection, what’s the biggest style difference between you now and you six-years ago?
I would say Vibes, I was younger and eager so that I could eventually make an album like Bebey. I was ready to change up everything that I knew and do everything as a mistake. I really look up to Rick Rubin, and he always puts out these quotes that would make me feel validated, like I was doing the right thing. Stuff like, “Seven mistakes is ok, but nine mistakes is better.” They’re the greatest quotes.
I would look at all these things, for example, how I was making music. I would leave New York City, move to Palm Springs, and just shut out from the world and try to have my own perspective. I think for Bebey, I went back into the world. I got back into all these small little scenes, got back into these small subcultures. Kind of got away from fashion for a little bit because it was distracting. I just wanted to keep working on this record until I knew I was ready to be exposed. Exposure is crazy – it just changes your mind space. I feel like I’ve grown and matured a lot since Vibes.
The biggest style difference is that I used to wear Dior jeans on the plane to sleep, and now I’m just wearing sweatpants every day. I feel more like I have two kids. I don’t have any kids, but I feel like I’m chilling. I’m rocking braids now. My hair has been in an afro for seven months. Wearing a lot of prints and tie-dye. I feel like my style is more California now.
This album was released on your My Bebey Records label. There’s also talk of you releasing a Bebey’ zine, and this makes me think of the punk/hardcore punk scenes of the ’70s and ’80s, and their DIY underground culture. Did you look at any prior music eras as an influence on this chapter in your story?
Yeah, I did. The era in London in the 60s/70s, like when all the Caribbean people left for London or lots of Caribbean people rushed to New York. My family was one of them, but one of my great aunts went to London, and my grandmother went to New York, so they were building two families, one in each place. We had all these Caribbean families around us and Caribbean cultures, but also just my current lifestyle is the biggest growth factor for the zine.
I actually met the zine’s creative director in a carpool. I was living in Rhode Island in 2017, and we carpooled to New York City together. We started talking, and he was telling me that he’s a photographer, and I was like, ‘oh shit, I need someone to shoot photos next week.’ I didn’t really care who it is. So I had him take the photos and then we became friends. It just clicked. The zine features artwork based on our lifestyle, like him coming out to LA for the first time and jumping into an Airbnb, shooting some videos with this girl getting her hair braided and me recording. We were like driving around town with no license. It was really a fun, free, beautiful summer for us just finishing this record and having so much fun. Even all the clothing choices. Every time I needed to get strength, I wore those Jordan 5’s, the black ones. That was 2006, and now it’s the most popular shoe. Nike and Off-White just did a high-end one. So, it’s funny to see that you just get back in style automatically.
You said that you had the album ready in 2018, but “faced some struggles.” Considering the positive response to Bebey, you think the struggles were needed, like how pressure transform coal into a diamond? Or was this album going to be this cool without those two extra years of “struggles?”
For sure. I feel like there’s some sort of spiritual presence in my life, like there is in everybody’s life, but I’m very in tune with it. I don’t know if it’s God or if that’s just the word to say for it, but yeah, I feel like I just wasn’t ready for some things.
Even when Vibes came out, I was meeting with Apple, before Apple Music had even started, and they were like ‘we want you to be the leading guy for Apple music and basically write you and the story of how you made Vibes.’ The iPhone 6 was coming out, and they wanted me for that commercial. I was like man, I got it made for myself. Boom, boom, I’m walking on this million-dollar set, and it’s all about me. Two weeks later, everything changes. U2’s album [Songs of Innocence] was being released on the iPhone, not mine.
It created this depression. Then I got over that a couple months ago and thought, maybe I just wasn’t ready for it all and what that came with. It took a while for people to understand that so I’m making this new album like ‘man, fuck all this. I’m gonna show these people’ – not Apple, I love Apple – but ‘I’m gonna show people that doubted me like I doubted myself.’ I feel like with Bebey, I made a real sick album.
With the zine and other merch forthcoming, what can you share about this Bebey universe you’re creating? Related – what’s one creative project/merch is still on the ‘bucket list’?
Yeah, I just dropped this new merch. My Bebey Records is the channel, but I got this other new drop that’ll be out soon, and I’m going to try to take my interest back into fashion with that. I’m really excited about it, and I’m just like that for the fans. I gotta be like the daddy in their lives, like ‘here’s some merch, here’s some clothes, kids.’ Every two weeks. Here’s some new music. Here’s a new perspective. Here’s a new artist I like. Here’s their song with me. Here’s this new Miley Cyrus song I got. Here’s this new thing I got coming up with Virgil. Here’s this, here’s that. We just want to keep it interesting over here, like even in a year from now. It’s like a crazy tornado, and we just gotta keep it going.
I want to create a Jordan 5 for Nike. I have been wearing them a lot over the years. They give you Michael Jordan wings, like these shoes especially. I just really took a liking to them. I’ve always worn Nike SB’s or Jordan 5’s, and both of those sneakers are back in the hype channel out of nowhere. It’s just like in 2018 when Virgil called me to walk the Louis Vuitton show. I was like this is really cool, and everybody’s response to it was amazing. I love it. I love watching my friend Kevin Parker from Tame Impala have the most support and success with his release and watch that money propel him. I see my life being like that. I just have to keep going.
Speaking of which, you team up with Tame Impala on this album. How was it like working with him? Kevin Parker’s known for wearing just a t-shirt and jeans on the stage. Did you give him any style tips? Or do you think he’s fine, as-is?
Yeah, Kevin Parker is one of my favorite collaborators, along with Ariel Pink and Virgil. He’s just himself. I met him on tour with Mark Ronson and we became really good friends and have a great relationship. He’s known as this unicorn. When I got into the room with him, we really hit it off. I told him I’d teach him dance moves, and he’s giving me beats in return. It took me about three years to write to the beats that he gave me, but when I finally did, they were bangers.
He happened to be out in LA, trying to figure out what his new album was going to be around the same time I was in LA working on this album. His label didn’t know where he was, but I got in touch with him, and we were working a bunch. Then his label finally figured out he was in California hiding out, and they were like, ‘you can help with Theo’s record, but you gotta start your record. ‘So that was really fun to know that he was working with me before he started his record. He doesn’t really work with anybody, so that’s cool. It was a fun back and forth of telling him different things about my culture and hearing things about his culture. To me, I’m like the Run DMC to his Aerosmith. It’s a crazy collaboration where it’s hip-hop, and all these genres that we don’t see on TV or hear are blowing up. We’re like masters of our sermon, and it’s just really fun to be in a room with a guy like him. He is just straight to the floor. I’m very eager about things. I’m not gonna force it, I’m gonna have fun, and he’s very laid back and reserved.
As far as style tips, I told him not to wear any scarves on stage. He’s like this suave scarf guy, like an ‘I’m so cool I’m just going to wear a scarf today’ kind of thing. I like the flip flops, though. I usually wouldn’t like flip flops, but I like them on him. He’s Australian, so he’ll wear flip flops, skinny jeans, and a good plaid shirt and it’s cool.
Bebey is out now.