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Tion Wayne has officially arrived.
While it may have taken him over a decade to get here, the rapper’s success story is one of hard graft and persistence paying off in due course, grateful for the time to perfect his craft and ready himself for this current season of wins.
Inspired to get into music by watching local grime legends such as Scorcher and Terminator on their rise, since the early 2010s, Tion Wayne—real name Dennis Junior Odunwo—has been on a mission to put Edmonton, North London, firmly on UK rap’s map via now-classic freestyles and street-certified mixtapes. Though Tion respected grime music, it was the grittiness of road rap that spoke to his way of living at the time: the hustle and bustle of those cold, cold roads. And with that came a few stints in prison, which he learned a lot from.
“I think a few mishaps throughout my career definitely slowed me down,” he says. “But I honestly believe that this journey has taken me to where I’m at right now. In my new documentary, I talk about how it was long, but it motivated me to do better and take my career seriously. Every great story has great tribulations, and that is one of them.” Indeed. In the same film, Tion talks about getting stabbed by the people he considered to be friends at one point, all from him inviting other friends from other areas down to his video shoot. But that didn’t stop him from pursuing music. In fact, it just made him work harder to succeed.
From early hood bangers like “Can’t Go Broke”, “Bae”, “Minor” and “F U” to recent chart-invaders like “Keisha & Becky”, “I Dunno”, “Body” and “Wid It”, Tion’s career trajectory has been nothing short of amazing to witness. And although the dramas and scandals have been sips-tea-worthy at times, it’s his vibes-inducing music that wins every time.
We caught up with Tion to discuss ‘old vs new-school Tion’, why he rides so hard for Edmonton, the concept behind his new album, Green With Envy, and much more.
“The new-school Tion wouldn’t exist without the old-school Tion, but the new-school Tion is a beast because of the type of animal old-school Tion was.”
COMPLEX: Firstly, congratulations on your new album, Green With Envy. From that epic freestyle over Big Pun’s “So Hard” in 2011 to now being a platinum-selling rapper, it’s been a journey of many ups and downs for you. How does it feel to be Tion Wayne today?
Tion Wayne: Wow! That freestyle there is old-school [laughs]. Life is good, Mimi, but I’m still a hungry hustler with loads of ambition. I should add that I’m a very creative guy as well.
It seems like everything you touch turns into gold—or, should I say, platinum! How did “Body”, your No. 1 single with Russ Millions, actually come about and what was it like hearing the news that you topped the singles chart?
It was a surreal moment and I can’t thank God, my fans and my team enough. Me and Russ had been talking for over a year trying to get another collab in together. We set the bar so high with “Keisha & Becky”, but we knew we needed to come back with even more heat. We couldn’t just release something mediocre, so Russ sent me the beat and I was like, “Yep! This one can work.” I mumbled the whole track, so we knew what direction the song would be like, and Russ came in with pure energy, “Vida-loca, high as a kite never sober…” I was looking at him with excitement, and then we literally went to work and made history. BOOM! We’re here now; we’re number one.
Where does the story of Tion Wayne, the artist, begin? Take me back to your earliest connection to music.
All the olders in my area inspired me. I always had a love for music, but seeing guys like Scorcher, Dynamic, Terminator, Cold Blooded, they inspired me a lot. When I was younger, I taught myself how to play the drums and I used to research so much music, from Ja Rule to Biggie then rock and a bit of Bieber. But the rap thing came from me seeing those guys from my area straight spitting. But my generation at the time had nothing. I wanted to be that guy to represent and wave the flag for my area and put Edmonton firmly on the map.
You go hard for Edmonton, that’s for sure.
Come on! From the lingo to the way we dress, everything about me is Edmonton. We’re a small place in North London, and being from a small place builds character. I go so hard for the area—mainly because all of the life experiences that’s shaped me into the person I am today, and the people around me. The majority of my team all grew up together so it’s like a small family because we all know where we came from. If I grew up somewhere else, like Chessington, I don’t think I would be Tion Wayne; I’d probably be a whole different person.
[Laughs] Not Chessington! Now, Tion, it’s no secret that you used to be on badness, and you’ve been to prison a few times too. Do you regret it when you look back on it, in terms of your career?
I think a couple of mishaps throughout my career definitely slowed me down. But I honesly believe that this journey has taken me to where I’m at right now. In my new documentary, I talk about how it was long, but it motivated me to do better and take my career seriously. Every great story has great tribulations, and that is one of them.
“Bring old-school Tion back!” Quite a few people, most of them your day-one fans, have said this statement over the past year or so. How does hearing that make you feel?
I won’t say it irritates me, but the album I created will cater to everyone. When I create these new Tion tunes, I reminisce on shows like Brixton, where most of my hardcore fans showed up for me in a big way. The way I process, I think about big moments in my career before the “new-school” Tion, and it inspires me to create the latest bangers we see today. I’m still the same Tion but if you wanna talk about the sound: I can do old-school Tion with ease. But there’s nothing wrong with switching up the sound and doing what is hot right now. It’s hard to master and adapt to different sounds, but I love to go in and out of different lanes because it builds your platform and gives you more lifespan in the game. The new-school Tion wouldn’t exist without the old-school Tion, but the new-school Tion is a beast because of the type of animal old-school Tion was [laughs]. When I give the people old-school Tion, it’ll be refreshing.
Which Tion Wayne songs would you recommend to a potential new fan?
There’s the drill lane, so I’d instantly tell them to listen to “I Dunno” because it’s one of my favourite drill songs, for many reasons. It’s not the typical drill sound; it’s a lot more melodic, with all the guitars and stuff, and the production differs from what others are doing in the genre. “Can’t Go Broke” is for my ride-or-die fans because it goes way back—it shows another side of me that the new fans won’t know about. That song had the streets in a headlock and was a very big moment in my early career. “Me Or The Lifestyle” is another one; it’s just smooth compared to the other songs. It has that R&B, hip-hop element and the song I released with Davido, “Who’s True”, gives the same feeling.
Your flow has a bit of a dancehall tinge to it, but you’re Nigerian, right? Did you grow up around a lot of Caribbean people?
I’ve had many influences. Edmonton has so many backgrounds and cultures that I’m not surprised my flow has a bit of a dancehall edge to it. I think it’s more of a London thing because we all grew up on dancehall, then you had Sneakbo and those guys doing their thing early on as well. So it’s definitely London as a whole.
“I consider myself one of the new leaders of Black British music, because—why not? Why shouldn’t I feel like that? If we’re talking about statistics and numbers, it speaks for itself.”
What’s the story behind the album’s title and the green theme throughout the marketing?
The title comes from the fact that there’s people out there who envy you, and most of them you’ll never meet in your life! The colour green I associate with a number of things: money, my area, fame and, of course, jealousy. It fits even more because I had the police blocking my path from dumb cases I had previously, trying to pin me down during my career. I class the police, judges, even some industry people as being green with envy. I associate all the people who were trying to block my progress with that. So I feel like Green With Envy represents me and my career perfectly.
What’s your favourite collab on the album, and why?
My favourite? That’s hard because I’ve got so much, but I’ll give you three. “4 Life”, the track with Afro B, it’s up there for me because it’s an upgraded version of our collaborations. The streets will definitely rate that one. RAYE features on “WYS” and she brings that old-school, feel-good vibe to the track, and it’s proper musical. She smoked it! The DBE joint, “West End”, and even the Davido one—they’re just spiritual. Just expect anything and everything from this album. I’ve got the old-school Tion, real rap, and drill for the new-school fans as well. I know my day-one fans will rate it, but my new fans will also get to see me in a different light because they’ve never experienced my old sound. It’s the best of both worlds.
All of your biggest hits have had features on them, and your album’s also got a lot of features. I’m not mad at it, but I’ve seen people say they’re not sure you could get a Top 10 hit without a feature. What do you say to those people?
I feel like they’ve underrated me. That No. 1 wasn’t a surprise to me because I’ve been working hard and stayed consistent. Plus I’ve had more than one Top 10 entry, so it’s not a fluke. My work rate isn’t in vain, and I hope my album shows that.
Throughout your career, you’ve co-signed a lot of rappers that we see making a stamp today. From bringing Dave and AJ Tracey out on stage to working with Not3s, Mist, Hardy Caprio and more, you seem to share your spotlight a lot. Why is that, and do you feel like the energy’s reciprocated?
I don’t think it’s always returned, but that’s okay. I always tell the people around me that I love see others win, and I always believe in my ability as an artist. So me giving the spotlight to an up-and-coming artist, who later has a successful career, that’s me putting out positive energy and contributing to a culture that I love and respect. I don’t have hidden competition.
There’s a new school of leaders in Black British music—would you say you’re one of them?
I consider myself one of the new leaders of Black British music, because—why not? I don’t wanna sound like I’m bigging it up, I want the people to decide because it’s the culture, but why shouldn’t I feel like that? If we’re talking about statistics and numbers, it speaks for itself, and I hope Green With Envy shows why I should be mentioned in these conversations.
You’ve had a lot of personal dramas play out in the public over the years. Do you feel like any of that overshadowed your music career?
Yeah, I’ve had my moments, but I feel like the songs I created overshadowed that. People can’t deny I create bangers that make everybody move, but once you live a public life, there’s some stuff you have to experience and I just have to focus on the music. My music will always be the talking point, though.
With Green With Envy out now and doing its thing, what do you see for yourself next?
I’m taking a break, a serious breather, to just enjoy the fruits of my labour. I appreciate the moment because when I’m back from my hiatus, people will be shocked again. I want to be inspired by life with my break so I can give you guys another album. I still see myself having a successful music career and having a solid music label. I just wanna take more risks, go into different industries and give back to the community.
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