It was one of those eastern summer nights where the heat and humidity is so oppressive there’s nothing to do but hide inside until dark, then put on something sheer and drink your way into oblivion. The bridal party at the entrance to the AXE Lounge in Southhampton New York was with me on this. Tiara askew, the bride swayed in her strapless gown, flanked by older female relatives with orange skin and a gaggle of girlfriends, chatting loudly as they waited behind the velvet rope. You know that episode of Sex and the City where Carrie explains to Burger that a real New York woman would never wear a scrunchie and they get in a big fight about it and then they run into a scrunchie-clad girl in a bar and Burger feels all vindicated until she opens her mouth and exclaims in a super-Southern accent that she’s thrilled to have been mistaken for a genuine New Yorker? The tiara is the bridal attire equivalent of a scrunchie. These girls were not from the City but unbeknownst to them they were about to attend a guerrilla performance by one of New York’s hottest new exports, rapper/R&B singer/self-marketing visionary Theophilus London.
London writes great songs and he’s a dynamic, playful performer — the right mix of real rapper and showman — but what he’s really good at is being famous. And with the recent release of his new album, Timez Are Weird These Days, his actual fame may soon catch up with his affinity for it. “I’m going to L.A. to shoot the season premier of 90210. I’m going to play this girl’s house party for the season premier,” the rapper, wearing mod owl frame shades, told us at the club. “Back in the day I used to wish I was Dylan. Dylan was my dude.” London had no experience navigating the Hamptons scene. “It’s my first time here,” he said. “I Wikipedia’d it and it was like, ‘douchebags on the roof.’” But it didn’t take him long to get the hang of Hamptons scene-making. Inside, the club management installed London and his crew at a table near the DJ booth and they proceeded to order buckets of champagne.
That afternoon, I was tucked into the plush linens on the hotel bed, absorbing the air conditioning and power-napping when my best friend, who was scrolling through her Twitter feed, gasped. “Amy Winehouse is dead.” In the morning, when we were sipping iced coffees and cracking ourselves up via a rotation of vintage hip-hop in the car on the way out to the island, the famed English soul singer was found dead in her home in London. As we showered, dressed and headed out for a night of willful frivolity, that news, at once expected and shocking, lingered in the background. Hours later, as I sat propped on the back of the banquette, my twentieth free cocktail in my hand while next to me Theophilus bobbed his head to the deafening throb of the bassline and his buddy in an American flag tank top swigged wildly from a bottle of something, I felt the special freedom that comes from mixing alcohol with rock and roll but I also felt sad about Amy and alone in that sadness. Was the fragile British powerhouse on anyone else’s mind?
After a few drinks, the rapper detached himself from his date (a fresh-faced girl in a black tanktop and long silky leopard print skirt), he made his way through a crowd filled with sweaty dudes in Polo shirts and at least two girls in sequined hot pants, and appeared behind the mic. His hype-stoking greeting — something about swagging it out in the Hamptons — was drowned out by the inebriated squeals and manic applause of a crowd so psyched to party they didn’t even care that they have no idea who Theophilus London is. He got organized, preparing to DJ a few tracks before performing several of the songs off his new album. And as he hit play on his first selection, laid over the loud thump of a sick backbeat, came the distinctive ache of Amy Winehouse’s voice. He let it go for maybe thirty seconds, and said nothing about it, just kept his head down and bobbing, mic in one hand, glass of champagne in the other, then moved quickly on. But it was enough.