Ty, British rapper who bridged generations and genres, dies at 47

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Ty, British rapper who bridged generations and genres, dies at 47
In 2001 he released his casually jaunty debut album, “Awkward,” which featured strong storytelling and had echoes of acid jazz and 1990s New York rap.

by Jon Caramanica

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Ty, a British rapper known for a lyrically thoughtful, musically polyglot approach to hip-hop and for serving as a bridge between generations of British rap, died on May 7 in London. He was 47.

His death was announced on a GoFundMe page that had been established by a family friend, Diane Laidlaw, while he was hospitalized with complications of the coronavirus. He was placed in a medically induced coma, woke from it and later died of pneumonia.

In the late 1990s and 2000s, just before the early flickers of the rap-adjacent genre known as grime presaged a sound and scene with a firm British identity, Ty was among the most adventurous British MCs — a wordplay-focused scene-builder indebted to American movements like the Native Tongues and the New York underground. Though he received critical acclaim, including a nomination for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize in 2004, he often expressed his frustrations with how the more commercial strains of hip-hop tended to shut out unconventional voices.

Ty didn’t fit neatly into any hip-hop archetypes, in England or anywhere else. “I hate the word alternative,” he told The Independent in 2008. “I hate the word off-key, I hate the word jazzy and I hate the word laid-back. I’m not a laid-back person.”

But even though he was difficult to neatly categorize, Ty was widely respected for his relaxed but complex storytelling. Charlie Sloth, the British hip-hop DJ and radio host, called him “a true foundation of UK rap” in a Twitter tribute.

Ty was born Benedict Okwuchukwu Godwin Chijioke on Aug. 17, 1972, in London to parents who had emigrated from Nigeria. He was raised in the Brixton neighborhood, apart from a long spell during his younger years when his parents left him and his sister in private foster care with a white family in Jaywick, Essex, an experience that left lasting scars of identity confusion.

“I learned, long way, to love who I am. To love my identity, my nationality. I learned with bloodied lips,” he told England’s Channel 4 News last year.

In the 1990s, Ty worked as a sound engineer, and in 1995, he co-founded Ghetto Grammar, a London workshop series that functioned at the intersection of hip-hop and spoken word. He began recording music in the late 1990s alongside British hip-hop figures like Funky DL and Shortee Blitz. He also was a host of the Lyrical Lounge club night at the crucial venue Jazz Café.

In 2001 he released his casually jaunty debut album, “Awkward,” which featured strong storytelling and had echoes of acid jazz and 1990s New York rap. His 2003 follow-up, “Upward,” was more ambitious in its music and narrative on songs like “The Willing,” with its Afrobeat-influenced production, and “Rain,” a stark track about a nightclub shooting and the scourge of gun violence.

The album was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize, the annual British music award (now simply the Mercury Prize). His third album, “Closer,” was full of dreamy electro-adjacent production and featured his most overt engagement with American hip-hop, including collaborations with De La Soul, Speech of Arrested Development, Bahamadia and more.

But Ty always remained interested in strengthening the ties between generations of British rappers, which became even more fragmented after the ascendancies of grime — the breakthrough style that drew on jungle and garage to create a more rapid, pulsing, dystopian sound that set the table for an evolution in British rapping.

He appeared on a remix of Bashy’s “Black Boys,” an influential 2007 protest song, alongside the future grime star Skepta and others. The grime MC Ghetts posted a tribute to Ty on Instagram, calling him “one of the first from the older generation to embrace me and show me love.”

Ty continued releasing music into the late 2010s, including with Umar Bin Hassan of the Last Poets and the highly regarded jazz saxophonist Soweto Kinch. He was also part of Kingdem, a cross-generational supergroup of British rap elders, which also featured Rodney P (of London Posse) and Blak Twang.

Jazz Re:freshed, the label that released Ty’s final solo album, “A Work of Heart,” in 2018, said in a statement, “He had a unique vision as to where he wanted to take his music, lyrically, sonically and aesthetically, whilst trailblazing for a whole generation. He knew his mind, followed it and walked his own path.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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