Scandanavian Swag on an Electronic High
Ok, Sweden. You’ve already proved that you’re the best at music. You secretly run the pop music industry. You have all the dreamiest indie rock girls. You have the Swedish House Mafia, whose annual take in DJ fees rivals the GDP of certain small countries. Your musician folk literally poop out platinum-selling hits (yes, literally).
But did you have to take hip-hop too? Did you?
The man set to steal hip-hop for Sweden is Adam Momodou Eriksson Taal, alias Adam Tensta. Yes, him with the super cool flat-top, with the flawless Brooklyn English, with the prescient mix of electronic music with rap—years before EDM madness romanced Planet Hip-Hop the world over.
Tensta first hit the scene as one of Sweden’s finest rappers in 2007 with his debut album It’s A Tensta Thing, slinging tales of life in Stockholm’s immigrant-filled housing projects over Daft Punk-flavored beats. He followed it up with Scared Of The Dark in 2011, in which he delved into some more adventurous musical territory, made some slick videos, and collaborated with the likes of Spoek Mathambo and Billy Kraven. Now, he’s working on his third album and very much still doing his thing.
We caught up with Tensta over the phone at home in Stockholm, and heard all about life in the Swedish ‘hood, why American hip-hop is boring and how come Swedes just do everything better.
To start off, can you tell me a little bit about Tensta – the place you grew up and named yourself after? I think most of us outside of Sweden think of the country as some kind of socialist paradise, and don’t really hear about the other side of things.
It’s a spot on the outskirts of Stockholm – about 17,000 people live there. It’s a public housing project, similar to others in the biggest cities in Sweden. But it’s one of the bigger projects in the capital, so we get a lot of refugees from war – there’s people from Somalia, Sierra Leone, Turks, people from the former Yugoslavia. It’s very multicultural, and that brings problems of its own. I’m dead center in it. I’ve lived here for 29 years and am one of the handful of people that have had a shot to tell the story.
One time I googled “Tensta” and the top results were all negative words – social welfare, crime statistics. I wanted to balance the equilibrium in some way. So, long story short, that’s why I took the name Adam Tensta, because I wanted there to be a positive association. If you mentioned Tensta five years ago, people said “Yeah I know that place and I don’t want anything to do with it.” Now people have a different view of it, so something about it worked. I’ve become kind of a representative of ambitious people from the projects.
You mentioned problems – what kind of problems?
We don’t have real integration in Swedish society. A lot of my thoughts and actions goes towards the idea of integration – how do we really make it happen? We have problems of people not giving it a shot. I know people who never had a job, people who have never spoken to somebody from outside of the projects. And it goes both ways; People from the rich center of Stockholm don’t have any reason to come out here either.
By the way, what’s your own family background?
My mom is half-Swedish and half-Finnish, and my dad is Gambian.
And like all Swedes, you speak English like an American.
[Laughs] I guess so.
One thing that’s interesting to me is that you make political music that is party music also. Traditionally, in the US at least, there’s often been a divide between “conscious rap” and “party rap.”
That’s never been a compromise for me. I’ve always wanted to tell a story whether it’s to an up-tempo beat or not. People think that it’s party hip-hop, but it’s just music that happens to work on the dancefloor. When I make a song, I don’t have the ambition to make people dance to it. I want to make people really listen.
For a long time, your thing has been to make music that combines hip-hop with dance music. Now everybody from Nicki Minaj to Kanye are doing that. How does it feel to see that and know that you were ahead of the curve?
It’s a cool development to see, because I felt that hip-hop was really stagnating around 2001-2004. It was the same artists that stood out – Outkast, some Kanye— but other than that, it was kind of boring to me. People weren’t stepping out of their vibe.
When I was making my first album I stumbled across these guys, Addeboy vs. Cliff. They were making hip-hop with electronic music and I thought, “This is what I want to do, this is the fucking style. This is what I want to be.” Because before that I was just duplicating East Coast rap, the stuff I grew up on. That’s when it hit me, and not a lot of people get to experience that.
In general, Sweden is a beautiful place to be in, to live fucking life. I wouldn’t change it for the world. But yeah, we’ve benefited from the music tradition and the craftsmanship tradition, the design tradition and being innovative in all sorts of ways. But at the same time, that music tradition hasn’t really slipped over to urban music or hip-hop yet. We’ve had producers for Backstreet Boys, Lady Gaga, etc, but we haven’t had success with urban acts yet. Producers yes, but we haven’t really had a worldwide artist on the urban side, except for Dr. Alban.
That’s what you are gunning for a little, right?
[Laughs]I just want to make music man. I recorded the first album in my closet with egg cartons on the walls, so I come from a really DIY attitude. I know there’s 500 kids that can do the same shit [at] any given time, so I try not to have an ego about it. I’m just happy to be part of a scene that’s growing in Sweden.
You rap mostly in English… Is there no need to rap in Swedish because everybody speaks English in Sweden?
Well, Swedish is more direct. If you are making rap for the kids in the projects, they aren’t really that eloquent in English yet, so it’s more direct if you communicate in the home language. But it’s not only the language; If you are really out there with music, it takes time to build in the Swedish hip-hop community. They know how hip-hop is supposed to sound in their head, so if you do sampled, boom-bap stuff, it’s more direct, but it’s fucing boring. I’d rather be pushing the envelope.
Your whole philosophy on hip-hop reminds me of Spoek Mathambo, who lives between South Africa and Sweden. He told me once that he was interested in making post-rap music. I see you’ve worked together on the track “The Monkey.” Do you feel like you guys are on the same page?
Spoek is a super cool cat, an awesome guy all around. He came to one of my shows back in ’08, but we hadn’t met. Years later I hit him up like, “Yo, I’m reaching out,” and he was like “I’ve been on your shit since I saw you live.” Since then we’ve done a couple of shows in Copenhagen, did a track together. It’s a privilege to come across people that think in the same way you think. At the same time, it’s not surprising because inspirational people tend to pull towards inspirational people. So it’s not surprising the paths crossed, but I’m happy they did. That track is a banger right there.
Speaking of bangers, what the hell is up with the video for “Scared of the Dark”? There’s some kind of a crazy, lo-fi African science fiction thing going on…
Well, with my sophomore effort, I wanted to come back with something that people wouldn’t expect. I went with the director Ruben Sznajderman to Nigeria to shoot it, you know, really do it Nollywood style. The whole Nollywood experience portrayed in the video isn’t connected to the song, but I wanted to give people dope visuals and introduce people to Nollywood because it’s blowing up right now.
Also on that song, it was a privilege to work with Billy Kraven – that’s Kanye’s right-hand man right there. He’s a real idol for me, so that was crazy.
So you are working on a third album now, right? What’s new about it?
The album I’m working on now – for one thing, it’s produced by me. I want to do the butterfly thing and re-invent myself. If I can predict, I’m solidifying my listeners with this one. The first album had this huge commercial success. “My Cool” was huge, I got A-list rotation on the radio, I won a Grammy. I played 260 shows that year. My second album, which I released in 2011 – it didn’t have the same commercial breakthrough, but it did solidify my listeners. So, on this one I want to solidify even more. And since I’m doing the production, I can make it exactly how I want it to be. Concept-wise, I’m not really there yet. I’m still sorting out what I want to talk about. You can’t plan that out ahead, you just have to feel it when it’s time.
Last question: what are jamming on right now? What’s on your playlist?
I listen to all types of shit, man. I’m on blogs listening to 10-15 new songs a day. And some of them happen to stick around. I just rediscovered this song that blows me away – Jai Paul’s “Jasmine.” Every now and then you get that feeling of music that really takes you places, places you haven’t been before. That’s what music is supposed to do, and that track does that for me. Other than that, everything from pop music to punk.
Want more of Adam Tensta? Listen and watch “Dragons” from Bloody Mess—Tensta’s newest collaborative project with INGRD’s Kriget! and Swedish rapper Michel Dida, here.