A Brief Introduction to Tunde Adebimpe, Actor

With no new music from TV on the Radio since 2014, it’s time to get familiar with the vocalist’s film and TV work.
Film + TV
A Brief Introduction to Tunde Adebimpe, Actor

With no new music from TV on the Radio since 2014, it’s time to get familiar with the vocalist’s film and TV work.

Words: Mike LeSuer

photo by Jay Kietel

August 11, 2020

Since quarantine started, TV on the Radio vocalist Tunde Adebimpe has launched a Bandcamp page under his own name where he released a colorful EP at the beginning of May, which he’s since followed up with a pair of singles. The EP is comprised of previously unreleased music Adebimpe wrote with a backing band (including actor and original Sonic Youth member Richard Edson on drums) for a 2017 multimedia project he put together for the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis, whereas the two singles sound more like the work of someone stuck in quarantine, the first venting some frustrations with Nazis and the second a much-needed dip into synth-heavy optimism.

But none of these releases really point toward Tunde returning to a high-profile career in music—even his recent Colbert appearance (where he was still billed as “TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe,” performing TVotR’s song “Love Dog”) felt more like an excuse to show off his loop pedals than an attempt to get people excited about his band again. It seems everything else he’s done since Seeds has been more playful than passion-driven—teaming with the unquestionably fun Run the Jewels for a track on RTJ3, forming a surrealist jam band with Mike Patton and Anticon emcee Doseone in 2016, and crashing Anticon’s twentieth anniversary party a few years after that for an improvised set with Dose’s Themselves co-conspirator Jel, even hinting at possible future collaborations with the producer.

Meanwhile, his name also keeps popping up in the periphery of posters for the years’ most hyped movies—last year with Marriage Story, and now (for a less Oscar-concerned crowd) with She Dies Tomorrow. Many of us remember his subtle performance in Rachel Getting Married a little over a decade ago, but when did Tunde Adebimpe become a capital-A Actor?

The simple answer here is that Tunde was acting well before returning to Cookie Mountain. I imagine anyone who’s seen the 2001 IFC rom-com Jump Tomorrow  for the first time since, like, 2004 did so out of curiosity upon seeing Tunde’s name on the poster in the lead role. Prior to that, even, he was working a career in TV as an animator for MTV’s Celebrity Deathmatch before intercepting a mixtape from the same group of weirdos who’d go on to launch Anticon, inspiring a pivot to music—a choice that would pay off by 2006 when “Wolf Like Me” became ubiquitous. 

Rachel Getting Married was probably the moment most of us took notice, though. At this point, TVotR had released the fairly accessible Dear Science, scooping up an additional fanbase that may have been turned off by the cavernous post-punk of Cookie Mountain with the newer record’s forays into funk and R&B. Among their fanbase was Jonathan Demme, a director whose concept of cameos was less an in-joke and more of an earnest offer to include his favorite musicians in his movies, notably giving Chris Isaak a billing at the opening of Silence of the Lambs for what’s essentially a background role. Similarly, Tunde plays the betrothed to the titular Rachel in Demme’s film, and the amount of screen time he gets contrasted with how few lines he’s given kind of suggests that this was a cameo, that he was just a musician who  Demme respected enough to reach out to, rather than an experienced actor fit for the part (Adebimpe does sing and dance at the very-musical wedding, making it a little less weird to see him cast in this role).

The first half of the 2010s saw Adebimpe dive back into music, dropping TVotR’s last two records before an extended hiatus, and collaborating with the likes of Massive Attack, Tinariwen, and bandmate Dave Sitek’s Maximum Balloons project, which launched alongside Tunde’s own new gig, the short-lived Higgins Waterproof Black Magic Band. But a 2014 spot on Portlandia brought his acting career back into focus, and paved the way for prominent roles in the mumblecore derivative 2015 films Nasty Baby and 7 Chinese Brothers. By no means as widely seen as Demme’s movie, but this pair of credits marked the first time we saw Tunde on the big screen in supporting roles rather than in the periphery, in the former starring alongside Kristen Wiig and Sebastián Silva, in the later a comic foil to Jason Schwartzman.

And he’s kind of just been around since then, sort of in the same way he was around the music sphere five years ago. He showed up in the first season of Search Party and starred in the second season of The Girlfriend Experience, which likely led to him reteaming with Amy Seimetz for She Dies Tomorrow. He was a little less explicably involved in Spider-Man: Homecoming in 2017, and lent his voice to avant garde animated projects, like Adult Swim’s Lazor Wulf and some weird kids show called Adventure Time. Perry Mason reboot? Yep, there he is, on a street corner singing gospel tunes.

At the beginning of the year, TV on the Radio had a show scheduled, which was obviously postponed due to, you know, everything getting postponed. I don’t know if it signaled a resuscitation of the band that’s been unheard from for five years, but it feels like Adebimpe’s found a groove spreading himself to so many disparate corners of pop culture, most of them being unequivocally cool. His unsung directorial work for Yeah Yeah Yeahs rivaled that of Spike Jonze’s in the same early period of their careers, while today, whatever sporadic multimedia projects he throws together more than make up for the disappointment of his band fizzling out just as they were getting into trip hop. FL