////SPEECH DEBELLE////JUNE 2009////
It’s been a while since we’ve been able to boast the release of both an original sounding, and brilliantly British, Hip Hop album. But thing’s changed in early June when female, South London born MC, Speech Debelle, released her debut ‘Speech Therapy’, an intimate & audacious offering, which is a real testament to self belief & drive. It had been worked on for years and deals with a contrasting plethora of subject matters…such as being raised by a single parent or surviving life in the capital’s hostels, to the more trivial problems of crappy jobs and how we can escape them. The innocence heard within her honeyed sweet tones mixed with her lyrical content makes for a mesmerizing and addictive blend…and although dark in places, her backing band ‘The Therapists’ have ensured it’s all delivered with a happy & hazy summery vibe…making this album a definite contender for ‘Underdog of the Year 2009’…the Mercury panel best be listening…
So ‘Speech Therapy’ came out about a week ago…what have you been doing since then?
Mainly press. I’ve just done a couple of days in Paris as well, doing interviews and a few gigs, and em’ I’m doing a video on Friday for ‘Better Day’s’. That’s going to be shot in East London.
With years of your life poured into this album, what were your feelings on the day it finally came out?
Before the CD came out, well before I had it in my hands, I felt like anything could just go wrong, I wasn’t going to believe it until I saw it – so that feeling changed on that day which was good. I got to believe it.
Other than the fact you are from South London and twenty five years old, there is currently little documentation to be found on the web about you, so I wondered if you could tell us a little bit about your background?
Well my family is Jamaican, but my mum was born in England and I was also born here, in South London. I grew up probably more middle class than working class, if I was to be put in one of those boxes. We got to have holidays and stuff, so it was nice when I was young. I always got in trouble at school though, probably from the first day of primary school. That caused problems between me and my mum. When I got to college I dropped out and we used to have a lot of arguments and stuff…I went into a hostel at nineteen and then ended up in different hostels around London until around twenty three, then I started working on the album…
And what about the name ‘Speech Debelle’?
Yeah, I had Speech for a while but Arrested Developments lead singer is also called Speech and I think two things not to do as an artist is have the same name as some else or change your name. Doing either of those could break your career, so I added Debelle to the end, and Debelle is the name of my Gran’s fashion clothing line. Her name is actually Debel, but she changed it to Debelle for her clothing line.
So you’ve recently signed to Big Dada. Can i enquire as to how did this happened and what made you decide to finally seal the deal with them?
Well (laughs) I sealed the deal with them ‘cause I didn’t have a better one, do you know what I mean? If someone offered me a million pounds to make an album of my choice then I’d take that. I spent about a week collecting telephone numbers of companies about the size of Big Dada, like independent ones. I called a lot up, had a few meetings, but when I called up Big Dada, Will (who is the guy that started the label up) answered the phone, when we got talking it turned out I was on the same road as the office, so I just walked up the road with a couple of tracks that I had. It took about a year, because at first I didn’t think I wanted to take the deal. I thought I needed to be with Sony, or someone like that, but now I realise that I just didn’t have the patience to do the kind of grafting that had to be done on an independent, which now I’m grateful for…
Surely in the position you are at now, you must feel more trusting that they will nurture your talent, than say how one of the majors might try to exploit it?
Yeah that’s very true. If I was on a bigger label a whole lot of demands that I made would not have been listened to. (Laughs) I’m sure they would have just cut me down. Will has been doing this for ten years so he’s got a great attitude towards things, he’s like ‘ok, whatever you want’…(laughs)
Regarding the album, there’s a lot of very personal stuff conveyed through your lyrics, so I wondered how far back was some of this stuff was penned?
Eh, that’s a good question. Honestly, I don’t really remember. Like ‘Daddy’s Little Girl’ and ‘Finish this Album’ I don’t remember, they were the some of the first few. I’m guessing before I was nineteen, em’ maybe seventeen.
With the gift of hindsight, would you have changed any of them now?
No I don’t think so. But I think now I’m more prepared for the next one in terms of what it’s like working with musicians in the studio and getting the best out of them, and the equipment as well. Most of the songs on ‘Speech Therapy’ were already written so the music was just put around them. I’d like to write now with the lyrics and music more in sync.
So how do you write?
Usually in hindsight. But with ‘Go Then, Bye’ that was the only one that was written before the situation had ended. I think I’m unsure of what I’m actually saying in that song. It starts and it ends in exactly the same place, But say in ‘Better Day’s’ I’m talking within the third verse about my realisations…
The national press have really picked up on the personal nature, intimacy and honestly within your work, so now things have are getting big for you, is it strange for you knowing the public are aware of your personal issues and the ghosts from your past?
No not really. When I speak to people about a song like ‘Daddy’s Little Girl’, I think they see its coming from a sincere place and not from a judgemental place. With all the female journalists I’ve spoken to they all want to talk about that song, because they feel they’ve never really heard it spoken about from that perspective…or their perspective, so I don’t think that’s a bad thing, I think it’s a good thing.
You’re only human so I guessing you must have days where you don’t want to face the world and talk about this stuff?
I don’t really, I mean I get annoyed with people on an individual basis. Like I could do with not speaking to so-in-so today, but when it comes to doing this, so far its been like ‘yep, bring it on’. When I was staying in Australia, I was staying with a guy called NFA. He is a rapper who has won a load of awards and stuff over there, within their equivalent of the Brit Awards. This was for his first album and then it all disappeared for him. He was saying to me, make loads of memories…
So how have your friends and family re-acted to the response to the album, I suppose in particularly your Dad?
They seem proud, I mean it’s better than hearing I’m pregnant and I don’t have anywhere to live. It’s better news than that. Yeah, they seem proud. With my Dad, he hasn’t reacted to it. Which I’m not surprised by…
Do you see him much now?
Not really. The last time was at my Gran’s Birthday. So I guess I’ll probably see him again at another Birthday…
On the song ‘Wheels in Motion’, you’ve got Roots Manuva on the track, how was it working with him?
I’ve been asked this question so many times. I even spoke to Will about it, like what am I supposed to say, ‘cause I wasn’t even there. I wasn’t even in the studio when he recorded it. Erh, I’ve met him a couple of times, he seems pleasant, erm that’s it. I can’t really say that I’ve had a conversation with him. Or a good enough conversation to tell you anything.
That’s strange, ‘cause I’ve read stuff where he’s been saying he feels your Hip Hop Grand Dad or Mentor?
Well there you go then…I was just talking about that with my mate. I don’t know the guy. I saw the video of him saying those things, but…unless you are going to help me…then it’s whatever, innit’…
On a lighter note, one of the stand out tracks for me is ‘Working Weak’. I want to know what was your worst job and who do you remember being your biggest A-hole boss?
I remember the boss in question. It was for a market research company and he was from Portugal, which is nothing against people from Portugal. He would just come up behind me and say interviews, interviews, interviews…like just the word…he won’t say, I need more, or can you get one…it was just that word all day long. He was an asshole. I’ve had a few shitty jobs ones where I’d walk in and just not come back after lunch…
How close to completion were you upon writing ‘Finish this album’?
The album wasn’t even started at that point. That was in about 2003, I suppose we had about five songs then and that was the one that felt most finished. At the time it didn’t sound like that though. It took about three months of layering up the strings. That was the track that I took to Big Dada a couple of years later. It was a Friday and they didn’t say to much when they heard it, but I got a call back on the Monday and they said they wanted to offer me a deal.
You appear pretty humble, so I wondered how you’ve been getting to grips with the ridiculously positive press currently surrounding you?
Ha ha ha…I’ve had some bad ones as well though. ‘The Key’ was a single of the week, so it was on free download. There were about ten pages of reviews and I went to have a look at them, and some people are just slaughtering me saying like, ‘her voice just makes me want to jump out of a window’ and others saying ‘it’s just fake gangster’…so I wrote a few messages back to those being assholes. So it’s not all been good.
Moving on then, who would you note as musical influences on you when you were younger?
2Pac was a big influence. In particular the song ‘Brenda’s got a Baby’, because I thought it was a great social commentary and it wasn’t even about him, but he gave it the same conviction and sincerity as if it was. Also DMX and the track ‘Slippin’, I think from that song I got my Rap style, it is such an emotive song and the structure in-which it is written, that’s a real blue print as to how I write songs.
Have you any idea what you might be doing now, if this music thing hadn’t of worked out for you?
I think I would still be working. I mean I only quit my job last month. If I could I might just pack up and leave and travel the world for a while…
When you are not writing how do you like to waste away the hours relaxing?
Well I haven’t done that in a while. But watching films and eating out in restaurants are probably my two favourite things to do.
Beyond music do you have other ambitions and things you’d like to achieve?
Yeah definetley. I’ve talked to producers about doing documentaries and stuff like that, these are things which have always been in my plans as well. There are a couple of things I want to get down before the end of the year. Then after that there are also a couple of things…
So when that first big pay check comes in, what are you going to treat yourself too?
Do you know what? This is going to sound really boring, but firstly I want to buy a property, ‘cause when you’ve spent time in Hostels I think its very important to have somewhere you can call home and then I’m going to get on a plane to somewhere hotter than this. A nice car is going to pick me up and take me to the airport and then another nice car is going to pick me up and take me to the hotel…even if its just around the corner.
A lot of the album is based around your experience of living in the capital, in conclusion of this, can you tell us what you both love and hate about London?
Well I hate London transport but I love London in the summer. I love these little mini culture places, like say Shoreditch at the moment. I hate queuing, I don’t see the sense in doing it, I mean I know some of it is necessary, but for most parts its not. I also don’t like the way no-one really talks to people they don’t know…
I hate having to, but feel obliged to ask your opinion as to why there aren’t more ladies doing and suceeding within Hip Hop?
I don’t think there’s a lot of anything in Hip Hop in this country at the moment. So if there’s not a lot in Hip Hop there’s certainly not going to be a lot of females in Hip Hop. It’s the same as why women aren’t on an equal pay scale in this country, so I guess until there are more men in Hip Hop there won’t be any more females, that’s what history tells me anyway…
Do you think it was harder for you to break into the genre than it would be for a male rapper coming from a similar perspective to yourself?
Eh yes and no, with me I’m not caught up in the same politics as a male. Although, already I’ve had the word ‘Diva’ thrown around. I had to do a BBC Radio Live interview on Saturday. The Queen was doing something on the same day, so there were loads of diversions on the way there, so I was late. The presenter ended up calling me up live…saying ‘in true Diva style’. So already I’m being labelled with names…I don’t people realise how easy it is for stuff like that to catch on. All of a sudden I’m a diva now, because I arrived late.
Finally is there a follow up album all ready started in your head?
Eh no…(laughs), I certainly haven’t started writing but I have been thinking about concepts. I think it’ll be a continuation of this one…it’ll just carry on my story hopefully!