I've been trying to write something about Ty - but the words aren't coming out right now. Or rather, there are too many words, too many thoughts, too many feelings.
He asked me to write liner notes for A Work of Heart. The album artwork was beautiful; photography by Benji Reid, graphics by JM.
My words were edited for space. Seeing them on the gatefold LP was a special moment for me. Here are the full liner notes:
Ty – A Work of Heart
On album number 5, Mercury-nominated hip-hop artist Ty, celebrates the highs and lows of 20 years as a recording artist. A Work Of Heart is a testament to the independent artist, to staying true to an artistic vision and to the mix of creativity and sheer bloody-mindedness required to stay successful in the midst of comments like “you’re not from the right country, you don’t have the right accent, skin and bone no you’re too fat, don’t have the right skin tone, who produced that?”
Following the Workingtro, Ty opens the album on Eyes Open acknowledging that we’re “In a place where sometimes you can’t even interact with the people you know” and implores us to keep our eyes, ears, mind open. In a genre where “keeping it real” is a term used more than demonstrated, Ty resists the pressures to dumb down or to play gangsta: “I’m not from the gutter but I’m from my Mum’s yard” he comments before giving way to Iman Rootz (fka Durrty Goodz).
Somewhere Somehow begins in the live jam, a place where Ty is most at home. From “Ghetto Grammar” in the ‘90s to the hugely successful “The Bridge” jam on the Southbank each summer, Ty is an MC in the truest sense of the word, conducting a crowd, knowing when to raise the energy levels and when to make space for the music to do its thing. “Coming from a tribe popularized by the DJ” he considers what hip-hop means to him and others like him: “It’s kind of spiritual but we don’t need a vicar... How the spirit moves you, some kind of Ju Ju”. Here, as in other joints, Ty plays with creative tension of tradition and innovation as he offers respect to his musical ancestors – Umar Bin Hassan of the legendary The Last Poets guests - but doesn’t wish to merely replicate them: “I don’t follow the code or the Yellow Brick Road”. A pioneer of rap and the Mercury nominated MC are united in their “commitment to communicate or suffer insanity”.
Along with “African made Brixton raised” Mpho, Ty offers an ode to the village that raised them in Brixton Baby. The most locally specific song on the album still manages to joins the dots of the diaspora by echoing Roy Ayer’s “We live in Brooklyn Baby, adding power to the line “The relationship with po po is so so.”
The title track, Work of Heart sees Ty reflecting on what it means to be an MC:
“This is not a game it’s a calling, that’s why I write furiously in the morning”. Whilst he does not shy away from connecting his art with a higher power - “It’s never coincidental it’s divine” – he remains humble and doesn’t claim to have all the answers: “Scribbling to find my own religion”.
The challenge of getting by is the topic of Marathon, where Ty announces, “I bang the drum for many who just rub pennies together”. How to ‘keep the anger in check’ and maintain hope in a society when you’re ‘intending to stay black’ and where ‘the miseducation is key’? Having posed such pressing questions, he offers no pat answers, and the there are only glimmers of hope to be found here. The sound is hip-hop, the mood is blues. The theme of Marathon is extended into the reggae-tinged No Place To Hide. Ty is joined by genre-defying singer Julie Dexter and Jazz Warriors legend Jason Yarde to lament ‘these hard times’ where education cutbacks and police harassment mean there’s “No safe haven for our children”.
You Gave Me is Ty at his most personal. It seems fitting that he name drops Spike Lee (check his Instagram for photos of the two of them) whilst offering a vivid slice of the joy and pain of family life that evokes Crooklyn. Harper’s Revenge is a move to more upbeat territory musically and lyrically, justified by Ty in the verse, “Before you feel the wows you must feel the woes”. Indeed “Every breath I breathe is a world premier’ can be heard as standard rapper braggadocio but following Marathon’s “Sometimes when I wake up, I don’t wish to carry on” we should perhaps recognize it as an affirmation. By Folks Say, People Say, a classic beat plays backdrop to Ty welcoming us to his arena and leading his people through a call and response where General Levy and Nat King Cole get mentions in successive bars - ‘Fist up in the air if you’re unsure.’
On World of Flaws, Ty meditates on broken relationships, family trees and roots, over the funkiest of basslines, “Trying to live good but there’s dirt on my halo”. John Robinson adds a guest verse and the song plays out with an excerpt from the film ‘The Color of Fear’ – another song that offers no easy assurances. More funk with the subtlest of vocal samples provides the backdrop to Raindrops as Ty declares, “My mic sounds nice, tasty like jerk chicken and ground rice”. The often-thin line between success and failure is beautifully captured in the line, “I found life/hard”. On The Raspberry NFA and Remi join Ty. On the hook he raps, “Destiny called, didn’t budge, she wore a raspberry beret and bore a grudge” with a nod to one of his musical heroes. The album closes with As The Smoke Clears, one of the darkest joints lyrically, but one that keeps true to a central theme of the album, survival. Ty and Malik from MD7 trade tale of potentially life-changing events.
All of this is has been about the lyrics. But Ty’s skills on the MPC and as a producer are deserving of a great deal more attention. Props must also go to long-time collaborator co-producer Drew Horley as well as the many guest artists featured. It is testament to Ty’s musical vision that by collaborating with so many people he has created a coherent work of (he)art. Funk, Soul, Jazz, Reggae and Afrobeat are all in the mix but this is a hip hop album - one that takes production seriously and is at home in the dance as it is played at home. Just as the musical influences are varied, Ty’s lyrical references come thick and fast and are equally broad ranging.
Listen out for references to:
Carl Douglas, Public Enemy, Maya Angelou, Randy Crawford, The Avengers, Prince, The Matrix, Bill Withers, Jimmy Cliff, Maybelline, Barack Obama, The Dalai Lama, Vivienne Westwood, Samantha Fox, Linda Lusardi, Slick Rick, MC Lyte, When Harry Met Sally, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, South Park, Lidl, Smokey Robinson, Horus, Jesus, Murder She Wrote, EPMD, General Levy, Nat King Cole, Penelope Pitstop, Ming the Merciless, Maya Angelou, Billie Holiday, Fela Kuti, Rakim, Yazz, James Brown, Cinderella, Redman, and Spike Lee.
Or better still, given the visual nature of so many of these songs, try to picture them all in a collage, like the covers of Sergeant Pepper or Electric Circus. Add in the many guest artists on this album. And there in the foreground picture Ben Chijioke aka Ty, the Brixton local-boy whose music has made him a global artist. An arm across his chest and a palm on his heart. On his face, a look of stoicism, perhaps defiance, with just the hint of a smile...