Adam Tensta, one of Sweden’s hottest hip-hop artists, has just returned from an intense 12 days in Los Angeles, California, where he performed at legendary clubs like The Viper Room and The Roxy Theatre.
“We killed the shows,” says Tensta. He means it went great.
Things are definitely on the up and up for the 25-year-old, whose music is a pretty fast and danceable blend of socially conscious hip-hop lyrics and an electro/house sound.
Since his first single “They Wanna Know” caught national attention in 2007, he won a Grammis (Swedish Grammy) for best Dance/Hip Hop/Soul album, he has done more than 300 shows and performed in three continents. Last summer he opened for Jay-Z and performed at Allsång På Skansen, a hugely popular Swedish sing-along fest.
In September he took the stage in San Diego. In December went to Africa, including Ethiopia, Senegal and Gambia. In January, a major label, the name of which he wants to keep on the low, flew him over to LA to talk business. There he also got the chance to lay a verse on a Keri Hilson track in the very studio where Michael Jackson recorded Thriller.
That was a near-magical experience for Tensta, a child of the eighties who grew up listening to the mega-artist he calls MJ. The otherwise cool, calm and collected artist says the experience gave him goose bumps.
“I never get nervous, seldom stressed out, but that was pretty emotional,” he admits.
It wasn’t that long ago he recorded his debut album, “It’s A Tensta Thing”, in his sister’s closet. And it wasn’t very long since he and his friends stood on Drottninggatan in Stockholm hustling mix-tapes to strangers, all the while blasting their music on a boom-box that cost more in batteries than what they made on their CDs.
Growing up the son of a Swedish-Finnish single-mom and a heroin addicted and absent father from Gambia, Tensta decided to not let his life become any more stereotyped. At an early age he decided that drinking, smoking cigarettes and doing drugs were not for him. Though he doesn’t want impose his beliefs on other people, he says he’s happy if he is a role model and an inspiration to young people.
Growing up in one of Sweden’s projects might not be as tough as those in America, Tensta says, but it’s still no cake walk. His peers didn’t get brand new cars for graduation present like some teens did in the more affluent areas of Stockholm, a 17-minute metro-ride from Tensta, he says.
“I haven’t been shot nine times like 50 Cent,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean that I don’t see what’s going on.”
A few days before he travels to LA, I head out to Tensta to check out his “hood”. He took the name to honour his roots and show that good things can come out of Tensta.
We meet in the city and take the blue line out together. On the train, several people notice him. A girl sharing our four-seater booth listens in to our conversation and says,
“It’s hard to be famous in Tensta,” and laughs.
Tensta smiles and says he doesn’t think he’s that famous.
But coming up from the metro and out to Tensta square, everyone knows who he is.
“I thought you were in the USA,” says one teenage kid, obviously proud of the fact that he is in-the-know.
“Leaving on Friday,” Tensta responds and shakes the guy’s hand.
Tensta, whose full name is really Adam Momodou Eriksson Taal, shows me where he, as a teen, stood on stage for the first time, where he used to play, and where he kissed his first girl, behind the soccer field. He was eight.
“Adam Tensta? Wow!” Some little boys on bikes make big eyes.
Tensta flashes one of his great smiles. He seems to like kids.
Stepping into the apartment (the one where his mother raised him) there are traces of a remodeling-in-progress, but otherwise things are in meticulous order. In the hallway are long lines of colorful sneakers in perfect rows. In the living room, clothes are piled atop a white, Styrofoam bookshelf.
Video games are stacked in precise order in the entertainment stand. In one of the bedrooms, a brand new studio is ready to be fired up as soon as his roommate and executive producer, Nils “Ears” Svennem Lundberg, gets his new recording equipment. For some reason, the Grammis statuette is stashed in a cabinet in the sparsely equipped kitchen.
“I am on the road a lot,” he says and smiles.
We sit down on charcoal grey Styrofoam benches on the balcony, drinking in the April sun and talking about his upcoming trip to LA. Tensta, who is cool, calm and collected says this trip has a tad of anxiety to it.
“This time it feels like it’s for real, some people know who we are now,” he says, referring to the two earlier trips to the City of Angels over the course of the last eight months. “We definitely still have things to prove.”
This time around, meetings with the major label were scheduled again. Tensta, who is signed to Respect My Hustle Entertainment and Universal Publishing, is naturally tight-lipped when it comes to sharing details about contract negotiations with a giant record label.
“But if it turns out that [they] are ready to accept our demands, we’ll probably sign,” says Tensta, adding that he is not planning on jumping ship and leaving for the US forever should the deal materialize.
“They are in the clear that my music will be made here in Sweden,” Tensta says.
“It has to, otherwise it looses its edge [on the international market.]”
So what’s next?
Aside from putting the final touches on the international version of “It’s A Tensta Thing,” which will include eight to 10 new tracks along with the four hits — My Cool, Dopeboy, They Wanna Know, Before U Know It — Tensta’s schedule is pretty wide open.
“We have purposely kept the schedule open this summer to be able to book shows abroad, trips like this one,” he says.
But Tensta isn’t the only one, who has made dance floors from Sweden to Senegal to the US sizzle. His hype man, Eboi, who is featured in the single Dopeboy, and DJ Rooftop have become a well-synched trio. They are all part of Respect My Hustle, a fluid clique that also includes three talented producers, managers and other artists.
Though he has his focus on an international career, Tensta says he might end up doing three albums tops. Then he’s got another project, which he refuses to reveal, planned.
“I hope people will say something like, ‘He’s so multi-faceted this Adam Tensta guy, it’s hard to get sick of him,’” Tensta says of himself in third person. “He’s evolving, he is so much more than just a musician.”
Adam Tensta – My Cool