I don’t think I have ever been so nervous before an interview. Tommy Tee, a true Norwegian hip hop legend in my eyes, has agreed for me to go over their under construction studio and answer a couple of questions. Needless to say I was in awe and a bit overwhelmed, also worried. Just knowing his work without much background information, it was a bit (a lot) intimidating.
Convincing myself it is good – I am only judging him by his music, that is what made me gravitate towards Norwegian rap and hip hop in the first place, I ring the Tee Production’s doorbell and am soon greeted by the man himself.
We make it to their studio and I can already see how fantastic the place is and how many great projects he is going to accomplish there. We are also kept company by Harlekin (not talking about him in this article, but I do recommend you check out some of his mixes and as a friend said – „short version: he has been rapping forever“), who is also a part of TP.
I awkwardly hand over my Estonian goodies and we exchange a few words about Estonia and Norway as I get comfortable and ask if recording our chat is alright. I am going to call it a chat, a conversation, rather than an interview, from now on. (This was also a tip given to me by Sondre Lerche himself after I saw him a few days earlier at his show.) Tommy Tee laughs at me complaining about having to listen to my own voice later, and it is indeed pretty horrible, but we start to talk about his past – something I know a little of, but not enough to be content.
Even though Tommy Tee (or Tommy Flaaten, born in 1971) was introduced to hip hop culture in the 1980s, he starts by talking a little about his childhood, me steering there with the first question about him getting into music at young age. “I actually grew up around the music in early 70s,” he starts. “My mum and pops, they worked at a bar kind of place where they had a live band. I got really interested in the music from the young age. It was much before hip hop came around.”
Already the start is impressive. I admire people who are interested in different styles and don’t think the stuff they make is definitely the only right one. And Tommy Tee is a perfect example of someone educated in music area all around.
He proceeds by telling me about his first record player that he got when he was 4, and piano lessons from around late 1970s. Being an impatient and active kid, all the classical music wasn’t his favorite, but he states having picked up a couple of things here and there, still playing keyboards to this day, even though his style is far from what he was taught. “I started to instead make pause-play mixtapes with double cassette player, or radio, record player… I would make my own edits of songs, little mixes.”
Soon enough he filled one of his dreams which was working in the radio station, at first as an engineer and later working in an actual radio show, which was actually first hip hop broadcast in Oslo around 80s. “During that time I also got my first sampler.” I asked if he would say that he was rather self-taught in what he does and did since that seems to be the case. He agrees but also mentions having many mentors, people that got him into music and let him see studios, gave advice on doing radio. “I also did some megamixes. That was the thing back in the day. It was all about just being creative. And so… after a while it transferred into music.” He is very humble as he says that.
Being a bit lost on my way figuring out who I want to become, I used another tip given by Sondre and asked if he was always aiming to work in music industry, and working there for such a long time. “I was always set out to do music. Especially rap music. I was also doing some house music, techno… I was doing DnB before it even had a name, around early 90s, maybe 1991.” He agrees that there are many other things he could have done. “But by now, having done around couple of thousand beats or producing few thousand songs. I still can’t-… I am still looking for the perfect beat, so to speak.” He briefly talks about what he should do as he is getting older, but it is different from his rhythm, from what he wants in life.
“I think that… that is why I got into hip hop in the first place,” he explains to one of the most burning questions I had. “It was a very, very different time, at least here in Oslo. It was a small village-like place. Very homogenic.” He explains that people were expected to be in one way or other, depending on where exactly did they come from. “And that never fit me. To me, music was an outlet for feeling a little more free, knowing I don’t have to be like somebody else.”
It may sound cliché, but he felt different. The way how it is explained by him, though, shows how down to earth as an artist Tommy Tee is. My next question was about what he would do if he was in his twenties right now. Would he still take the same route? “I mean, sure. But I wouldn’t necessarily make hip hop music. I would probably do something more progressive. Rap music today is not necessarily progressive music. When I got into it, it was. It was something brand new. But I still thrive to put the same feeling into it.”
I comment on one of my favourite albums he produced, Gourmet Garbage by Opaque, from 2001. It does have a vibe of being valid, being legit right now and that is what I love about it. “It is very non-compromised. We did it just the way we wanted it, we were tired of having people tell us what to do and what to be. We didn’t care about anything. We just made music. We were feeling a bit like… anti-music industry. There is a lot of pressure on people to make popular things. But there are starting to be also a lot of artists who are popular doing their own thing.”
He makes a good point saying that it is dangerous game: running after big hits. Because you end up running after someone. “How is this making art?”
I decide to turn topic more into the future and ask about international market. He assures me he has had going further from Norway in his mind a lot. “It has been the plan to go international for the last couple of years. We have always looked outside.” It does feel like this excites him and in my honest opinion, it is a fantastic something to look forward to, for both the fans and also other artists. “We only started testing out Norwegian in rap music in the end of 90s. Rap in Norwegian was used as a joke during that time, it was a ridicule to us. We are much more comfortable in English.”
I thought I was being clever with my last questions but Tommy Tee beat me to that. Since he is a graffiti artist, broadcaster, DJ, mixer, record producer – I asked him to pick his favourite job. “I am a producer. That is my heart. That is what I have been working towards.”
“ A lot of things we did, we did out of necessity. We wanted a magazine – we did it. We wanted to see someone live – we made it happen. It is the same thing right now. We want a studio so we are making it.” It is not his first studio so he knows what he is doing. “I am in a way of learning for life,” he adds.
Lastly I ask him to share one good tip for getting into producing – something I find really fascinating and would definitely like to try myself. “Aside from the cliché “being original” I’m gonna say this – try to create your own drum sounds. It doesn’t have to be drum sounds, it is rather my thing, it could be keyboard, sampling… I don’t care what it is but – have some style! Put some style into it, some flavour! It doesn’t get more hip hop than that.”
With this to ponder over, I finish up our talk and thank him for taking time out of his busy schedule to meet me. I ask him to sign a sign I got from a small shop in the Oslo hipster area. “Hipp hopp er farlig” (eng. “hip hop is dangerous”) it reads and it makes him laugh a little. I think it is perfect. Time has flown by and I suddenly feel motivated.
To conclude, Tommy Tee is an amazing producer. He definitely has a lot of passion for what he is doing and I find it admirable. He is building his own studio and he knows they are going to make great things there. He is yet to find the perfect beat. He knows who he is in his heart. He is also very honest, smart, genuine and sincere. Saying that many things they did over time was out of necessity and finding his own outlet via music he creates makes me happy and hopeful. I have a whole new level of appreciation and recognition for this guy. Also I have a little hope that somewhere along the way I can see their new studio and maybe, just maybe, hear the perfect track. Studio time is coming and surely this as well.
Make sure to check out the classic Bonds, Beats & Beliefs album by Tommy Tee on Spotify here.