LIMF Academy 2019: Tee
Our final LIMF Academy artist is a face you may well know – an integral figure of Liverpool’s R&B scene, Planet Slop talks to Tee.
If you have seen pretty much any R&B act in the city over the last few years, the chances are you have come across Tee. He has played with Mic Lowry, XamVolo, Sub Blue, Deliah, Katy Alex, Jasmine Johnson – a whole cavalcade of artists who make up the very fabric of that local scene.
This, in turn, means Tee himself has become an almost indispensable figure.
The 24 year old multi-instrumentalist was born in Leicester, but moved to East London when he was five. Significantly, there is a distinct similarity he shares with many classic R&B legends. “I grew up in the church,” he says. “When I was a kid, around 75% of everything I listened to was gospel – people like Kirk Franklin. The first pop CD I ever rinsed was Usher’s Confessions. I also had D’Angelo, Musiq Soulchild. That’s what I grew up on.
“But my whole family is musical. All of my aunties sing. I couldn’t, so I started playing bass and drums.”
Music is only a small part of what Tee does. For all his skill as an instrumentalist, it is perhaps his ability to combine music with verse that truly sets him apart. “I started writing poetry at about 15 or 16. My cousin was doing the same thing, and we created a duo called Spxken. We were doing open mics – straight poetry, no music. That didn’t come into it until I came to uni.”
Indeed, Tee moved from London to Liverpool to enroll in LIPA. It was during his first year that he watched a performance by Mutant Vinyl, and had an epiphany; “I thought ‘I want to be able to do that’, and that’s when I started taking it seriously. My brother played drums, I had friends playing keys. It was initially just a jam kind of set up, but the songs evolved from there.”
But, of course, Tee was in Liverpool while his cousin stayed in London. This ultimately meant that Spxken were destined to move into opposite directions. “When I came to Liverpool, I got interested in different things, like how a pop band works, writing a hook. I was concentrating on reaching for proper intensity. When emotions are up and down as a performer, people respond. I wanted a piece of that in my music, so that when it is time to be silent, you’re sucked in and feel emotion that emotion and vulnerability.
“At our first gig, we played four songs, and there was this one emotional song, and that’s the song where everybody came up to me and afterwards said ‘that was unreal’. I want to tell a story, but a story needs highs and lows. For me, that’s what makes it move. That revelation hadn’t hit him yet.”
This also meant that when they were recording as Spxken, the two were unable to reach an agreement on what they were recording – the old musical differences chestnut.
“We come from a family of entrepreneurs, so we put loads of pressure on ourselves,” he admits. “We tried to record an EP between my second and third year at LIPA, but we never got it quite right. So, we said ‘Let’s do it separately’ – and that birthed this whole Tee project. Before, I would tread carefully because it was a partnership. But now I have no excuse, I can go full steam ahead. I’ve got a message, and I’ve got to get it out.”
Tee hesitates before he answers when I ask what that message is. He seems to know instinctively what he wants to convey, but putting that into its most digestible form appears to be something he has never actually been asked to do before. “I think the whole thing is, it’s OK not to be OK. Sometimes you need to get some aggression out. Sometimes some things may hurt. And that’s OK.”
That freedom has given him a whole new sound. Where Spxken walked a careful tightrope between spoken word and hip hop, his work as Tee is something far more unique, and creative. At times, we would go as far as to refer to it as bordering on avant-garde. As he puts it himself, it is “way more powerful. Especially when it is spoken word, I find it better to be out of time rather than having to hit in rhythm. If I’m saying anything important – you have to listen.”
The EP – titled A Dozen Roses: A Love Story – is fully recorded, with the first single dropping soon. In a format suited to Tee’s style, the release will be a concept record, focusing on a twisted love story between a man and a rose.
The first single will be the Kaine-featuring Real, the rose’s song. “It’s the journey of how she got where she is, that state of self-worth, and then back to a state of vulnerability. I’ve been in relationships where that’s the worst thing in the world – ‘Why do you love me?’”
The abstract concept leads to a discussion about his lyrical influences. Surprisingly, he isn’t particularly enamoured with a lot of poetry, which he often finds “very higher than thou. I struggle to listen to it. For people who have inspired me lyrically; Kanye, Wretch 32, Andre 3000. Smart rappers. Those people inform the lyrics more than anything, because I don’t want to come across as condescending.”
For swathes of the local scene, this will be something of an anticipated release. Everybody knows Tee. The artists we listed at the top of the page is only a fraction of those he has played or collaborated with. For his part, Tee believes that this is more a product of circumstance. “I don’t think there are many people who have the same background I have,” he ponders. “There are a lot of visionaries in Liverpool, of course, but maybe not in the same way. Being a musical director, doing things in an R&B and pop format and from a gospel background. There’s not many of us!”
His level of demand has even seen him teach artist development, mentoring those who are just starting out and conveying his own experiences to them. “I enjoy the mentoring thing. Half of my week is just thinking of ways to give back with my music.”
I mention how the other LIMF Academy artists I had met seemed to have a similar outlook, and that it is refreshing to hear younger artists not viewing each other as direct competition, but as equals. He agrees; “I feel like this scene has grown more. We’re all just trying to win together. Let’s all do music together and share the knowledge.”
Another belief that Tee shares with his fellow “Most Ready” artists is his realistic expectations. For each of their ambitions, they’re not focused on being stars, but simply living off the music they want to make. If there is one thing he wants, it is freedom. “I love the idea of financial and creative freedom. So, if I want to work on a new project, I can just hire out a studio for two months”.
Touring, in particular, is something he has his eye on. This is something he has already had significant experience of, as MD with XamVolo during his 2018 arena tour with Paloma Faith, an experience that was something of a eureka moment. “That made me go ‘this is the life I want to live – I want to do this more often’. To be able to watch Paloma’s show and how the crowd reacts, thousands of people night in, night out who laugh, cry, dance with you, that was great.”
Tee plays Liverpool International Music Festival on Sunday 21st July. Tickets are available now.