The Real Mayor of Brixton – Remembering Ty Chijioke
The past is a foreign country. I first met Ty, Ben Chijioke around 1992 at a meeting of the Young Igbo Society in Brixton. The Igbo are a tribe from Southern East Nigeria, famous for their adherence to democracy, producing writers such as Chimamanda Adichie, and their defeat in a civil war so bloodthirsty it inspired the creation of Medicins sans Frontiere.
Brixton in 1992 was the centre of the Black British cultural identity. To walk out of the station was to float into a semi-high of exotic smells and politics. Turn left or right and dotted among commuters shuffling to their destinations were Rastafari in dashikis selling jasmine incense on folding tables and tall young black men with bald heads in suits and bow-ties distributing the Final Call. You could get your flat top shaped at Twinz, survey photos of the Brixton riots at the BCA and afterwards shuffle through albums at Red Records. If you hung around until the evening you might even catch Soul II Soul, D’Influence or Abashanti at the Fridge.
I had no idea Ben wanted to be an MC but I recall the meeting because he already had charisma. Even though we met again several times over the decades and his godmother is my aunt, he was only ever Ty to me because like meeting your favourite school teacher as an adult, he could never just be Ben.
Ty had wit and punchlines with a nonchalant, staccato flow which it would be a little lazy of me to describe as reminiscent of the Native Tongues, since it was grounded in UK slang and crafted to remain unique. In the early 90’s when aspiring MC’s from across the city called in to freestyle on Choice FM (DJ 279), Kiss (Max ‘n’Dave) or Capital (Westwood), Ty was distinguishable by his utter originality. A mild, sly, witty antithesis to the hyper masculinity that would later dominate the early nineties. Part of that distinction was his Nigerian heritage.
It may seem surreal in this age in which African MC’s sell out stadiums and Burna Boy is one of the biggest artists in the world but twenty years ago few MC’s explicitly acknowledged their heritage, he really was ‘one of the first to say I’m from the N.I.G’. His distinction bred such authority that it seemed only natural when alongside contemporaries he set up a Ghetto Gramma, a school for learning the classic arts of hiphop; rapping, deejaying, graffiti and b boying. A little later he began releasing records with a young aspiring deejay, Shortee Blitz.
UK hip hop is such an awkward term that it seems oddly immature to describe it as heart-breaking. Yet it inspires such devotion that sites such as ‘ukhh.com’ have been able to document the scene for over a decade powered largely by the goodwill and love of volunteers. In the nineties it felt like there was so little recognition for the style, wordplay and verve of its chief proponents that it was with an almost Euripidean sense of dramatic irony that we expected each of our heroes to meet the same fate; rise, shine and be slain by a label. When he used to appear on DJ279’s show on Choice FM in the early 90’s, I had no idea that Ty was Ben but I do remember arguing with my brothers that he was one of the best MC’s in the world.
I knew he was because in the eighties and nineties, the world of hiphop was small. This was before the internet transformed the local into global. We knew the best hiphop MC’s went to the annual New Music Seminar in New York to battle and we heard cassette tapes of MC’s from France, Japan and the rest of the world. The ability to freestyle was a tenet, still is, of being considered a great MC. Few MC’s could freestyle like Ty – refer to ‘Fire in the Booth’ and tell me I lie. So; even after almost two decades I can recall the visceral surprise and pleasure of holding Ty’s second album, Upwards. It signified continuity or as he put it; this is not a game, it’s a calling.
By then whole scenes had risen and fallen, Rare Groove, Jungle (sorry, I still feel a little grubby calling it drum n’bass), Acid Jazz, Trip Hop, Garage. Record shops opened and closed; Liberty Grooves, Deal Real, Fat City, Mr Bongos, Red Records. Yet from the outpouring of grief across the UK and world, it’s clear Ty continued meeting people, making music, influencing. After leaving his label, it was back full circle to poetry. He’d been amongst the beautiful people at Mannifest and Urban Poetry Society events a decade earlier and now here he was performing alongside a new generation of poets with Apples & Snakes.
As any Nigerian child can attest, there is a proverb for every occasion. There’s a particular Igbo one that goes something like; to look forward, you have to look back as we sit between ancestors and descendants. Yet for diasporas it can often feel as if each generation has to start afresh, learning lessons without parental guidance. It may be that Ty’s enduring legacy was a determination to bridge generations and share battle scars. He made music with his father’s generation, most notably with Tony Allen the co-founder of Afrobeats, but also with the grime generation, even appearing on the remix of Bashy’s seminal ‘Black Boys’. He made music with stalwarts of hip hop and broken beats such as IG Culture but also recently started ‘Pass the Torch’ at the Jazz Café, a night dedicated to showcasing new talent.
At some point a few years ago, I heard he left one label (Big Dada) and then another (Tru Thoughts). Twitter messages hinted at his internal anxieties, I guess wondering if he could continue to sustain a career from his passion. It can’t be easy in an era in which music is consumed as data and for each download a musician receives only fractions of a penny. However, by then all the scenes and people he had been part of had transitioned him into becoming an elder statesman. The next thing I heard he was a DJ on Soho Radio and inevitably, a new label came knocking.
Jazz Refreshed, a label at the beating heart of an invigorating UK jazz scene, recognised the opportunity and released Ty’s final solo album, ‘Work of Heart’. I listened to it alongside all of his other albums in the days following his death. There is a quote by Anthony Wilson, the dandy television presenter and co-founder of Factory Record, on what stood out about ‘Joy Division’, when he first saw them, he replies; ‘integrity and insistence, they had to be there’. That’s what each of Ty’s albums display; integrity and insistence alongside an abundance of joie de vivre.
Some artists have a straightforward back catalogue of singles, followed by albums and repeat. Others seem to touch so many other artists that unraveling their catalogue is like a travelling through a worm hole. Ty was firmly in the latter category. His final solo album was not his last contribution to music. That would be Kingdem; a supergroup with Rodney P and Tony Rotton. It’s hard to overstate the pedigree of this trio. Rodney P alongside Bionic formed the London Posse, the first MC’s to translate the braggadocio and swagger of Saxon and Jamaican sound system culture into a hip hop style and sound unique to London. Tony Rotton better known as Black Twang, revert back to my earlier comments about dramatic irony and heart break.
The last time I saw Ty was a few months ago at Herne Hill market. I was heading to the station after an afternoon wandering with my wife and he was just arriving. Same charisma. I was a little star struck, after all by then he was so well-known that his nickname was the ‘Real Mayor of Brixton’, but his hand clasp was firm and his hug warm. I made a vague promise to go to more gigs and we went our separate ways. It strikes me as a little strange that my memory of each our meetings is so distinct but maybe that is part of what charisma is; the ability to make moments in time more vivid.