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Tommy Tee: The Godfather of Norwegian Hip Hop

Words: Morten Jernberg

The story of Tommy Tee starts early in the ’80s where a young Norwegian discovered the hip-hop culture in his hometown of Oslo. Movies like StyleWars, WildStyle and Beat Street sparked an immediate interest and had a profound impact on him in his early teens. These days Tee is having a hard time pinpointing exactly why, but explains that rap music, graffiti and breaking made him somehow feel like coming home, more than his own — a troubled one at the time. Steinberg was curious to find out more.

Tell us how you got into hip hop and later on became a DJ as well as making music yourself?
Well, I guess I got into it like "everybody" else at my age when hip hop blew up around 1984. I was already very interested in music; disco, reggae and pop mostly, but when the whole hip-hop movement surfaced I felt I had found my own thing. Shortly after I started working at various local radio stations — first as an engineer, but it didn’t take too long until I had my own radio show. I was always looking to New York where we had guys going over to record the latest Red Alert and Mr. Magic shows. That was a big inspiration to me in the early days. My interest in mixing records together, initially with cassette tapes (pause button mixtapes) eventually led me to making my own beats.

In the early ’90s you worked at the Scandinavian independent label, Mega Records, while being in charge of promoting acts in Norway the likes of De La Soul, House of Pain, and Coolio. What made you start your own label, Tee Productions, Norway's first record label dedicated to rap music?
Starting my own label was a dream since my teenage days and after a couple of year’s stint at Mega Records I felt I had the knowledge as well as contacts to branch out and start my own.

Tee Productions really kicked off in 1997 with the release of the legendary albums by Warlocks and N-Light-N (now known as Son of Light), not to mention the massive 1998 posse cut hit Takin' Ova, which was a breakthrough for local rap in Norway with months on the official album charts. What happened?
I really started the label around ’94/’95, so by that time we had been working seriously on music for a few years, defining our sound as well as getting our artists ready for the big break. We had a very clear focus on what we were here to do: make the best rap music possible as well as selling tons of records. And when we released Takin’ Ova we knew right away we had something that communicated to the heads over here in Scandinavia.

When did you get into using music production software and why did you choose Cubase as your DAW?
Well, in the very beginning I used an Ensoniq sampler that only had space for two samples at a time, and back then (1986/7) I hadn’t even heard of sequencers, so we used to record bits into a two-track tape machine and edit stuff together to make songs. 

In the very early ’90s though I had a few sessions with the legendary techno pioneer Mental Overdrive (Per Martinsen). I messed around with Cubase, ending up learning the program through those sessions. And although I also work on Logic as well as Pro Tools from time to time, Cubase has definitely been my best friend since.

You have also worked in the US, featuring artists like Pete Rock, MOP, Nice N Smooth and others through Fat Beats, and all of them sold more than 20,000 vinyl copies. Do you miss the “good old days” when vinyl actually could sell in the thousands?
I guess a small part of me misses the old days when you could sell tons of vinyl singles of hardcore hip hop, but then again, nothing stays the same, and I’ve learned to see the beauty in change. Plus, I love progressive music, so I find a lot of joy in changing with the times.

You still have the “National Rapshow” on NRK (Norwegian Broadcast) which has been running for 20 years (!) since 1993 and also released close to 20 mix tapes (best known is the “H.E.A.T.” series). How important have the radio show and your DJing skills been for creating your own music and producing numerous other rap and hip-hop acts over the years?
My DJing skills are definitely the backbone of my career. Different DJ technics and straight skills of course gave me an advantage when I started making music as I often found myself applying some of the DJ techniques to my music making. Also, DJing over the years helped to fine-tune my ear. Then again, after many years it has also damaged my ears ever so slightly.

You have admitted to not being a typical “Cubase power user”. Has your approach to creating music changed much in the past 10-20 years?
The approach itself doesn’t really change for me. I always wanted to make music for me first, then for the public. Non-compromising stuff. But this has naturally changed a bit. Where as 15 years ago I needed a full studio to make a beat, let alone record a song, today all I need is my laptop and a few minutes to make something happen.

Do you have any favorite studio gear or software you just can’t live without, or is every production different depending on whom you work with and/or produce?
I try not to get stuck in one certain way of making music, and often I discover new ways of doing things through working on new equipment. That being said I’m the worst at reading manuals and stuff, so I’m very happy I have people around me that help out here. Shouts to my man Akki!

You just formed a new band alongside MC Son of Light named The Edvards, and the first EP is due out soon. What else is on the horizon for 2013 and beyond?
2013 is gearing up to be a very active year for me. I just started working on my own album, although I'd promised that my Studio-Time album from 2009 would be my last ever. But yeah, I started rapping a lot more lately and felt I just had to do one more. Also I’m working on a collabo album with Swedish legend Ken Ring that will be out sometime in the fall. I’ve also just finished local rapper Don Martin’s (from Gatas Parlament) debut album as well as working on the debut from another Oslo MC named Pumba. And I’m working on songs with Billy Danze (M.O.P), Loudmouf Choir, Sandra Kolstad, Timbuktu and many more. Busy year, I love it!

Shouts to the whole Tee Productions family, let’s get it!!

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