Speech Debelle: Paving The Way

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South London’s Speech Debelle snuck in the back door this year with alternative Hip Hop album Speech Therapy. This time last year, many of us had never heard of her. Then in September, having developing a media buzz surrounding the album’s June 1st release on Big Dada (British home to Hip Hop from the likes of Roots Manuva and Ty), the 26-year old proudly won the Mercury Prize 2009 awarded to the year’s ‘best British album’ for her unique blend of jazzy, soulful Hip Hop.

Admittedly, I’m not too satisfied with that genre description either – but this difficulty in placing Debelle is probably what attracted the Mercury Prize judges in the first place. Her voice, somewhere between Hip Hop and Spoken Word, is softer and raspier than the rap you may be used to hearing; and certainly unlike previous Hip Hop influenced winners Ms. Dynamite (2002) and Dizzee Rascal (2003).

speechWhilst her vocals aren’t everyone’s personal preference the album, largely recorded in Australia, features a rousing and melodic variety of production by Wayne Lotek and showcases Debelle’s much-documented original and deeply personal storytelling of her life-shaping experiences, endearing the listener to each song inspired by her plight. (Primarily: an absent father and hopping between hostels and friend’s couches for four years aged 19, having left home due to an argument with her mother.)

Earlier this month I headed to King’s Cross, London to speak with Speech Debelle before her show at KOKO. Debelle is a succinct interviewee. Perhaps she has digested a point made by NME writer Luke Lewis last month, using Debelle as an example, that magazine and newspaper features alone are not going to sell out shows or propel an album into the UK charts. [Very interesting piece by the way – click to read.] Several media outlets highlighted the fact that prior to Speech Therapy winning the Mercury Prize last month, the album had sold less than 3000 copies since its release three months prior. Even media hype over the Mercury win didn’t push Speech Therapy into the Top 60.

Yet newspapers and magazines galore covered Speech Debelle extensively – from her successfully ram-packed album launch party months before the Mercury nominations ever occurred, to the album’s subsequent prize-winning journey. So we find ourselves back at the question writers ask themselves every other day; does the written word no longer matter? Financial slumps aside, we seem to be in the depths of a reading recession [that is, if presented in significantly more than 140 characters] – and without the support of TV and radio, Debelle’s album sales were a pebble in the ocean.

Nonetheless Debelle is one of the few Hip Hop artists to win the Mercury Prize – and in a country where it can hardly be said that Hip Hop presides, her campaign must be applauded. Ending up in a clanging corridor as the quietest option for a quick pre-concert chat, I put a few questions to the young lady our UK readers should have all heard of by now…

speech-debelle-cp-7281497With your Mercury Prize now in pocket, what does the album mean to you?

The album means to me not having to fight no more, it means being able to do something like pay mortgage, it means freedom. What I aimed for with the album was to try and prove to myself I wasn’t insane and I had musical ideas that I wanted to do that were kind of against the grain… to just get these things in my head out. With a song like “Speech Therapy,” the title track, I want to do a song where I’m not really rapping and it’s got these violins in it. That’s kinda what the album was and the consequence of the album is being able to do another one.

In the recent media coverage of your Mercury Prize nomination and win, several articles described you as not just ‘really wanting’ to win, but ‘knowing’ you’d win. What made you so sure?

I wasn’t that sure I was gonna win but I was saying that. I think it’s important to – it’s a competition, it’s important to let people know you worked hard to win the competition. If I was a 100m runner, when I step out onto the track you’d look at the physic and know I worked hard to win this award, and not only that – I’m looking at the end of the finish line like ‘I’m the winner’. It’s a competition in the same way and I wanted the judges to know I wanted it and I felt like I deserved it.

What did you decide to do with your £20,000 prize money?

Pay bills. I have a lawyer, I have a manager, I have an accountant, I have lots of expenditures. It’s not that glamorous I’m afraid, I’ve got bills to pay. But I bought a new laptop. Probably more than what it should have cost; it’s pretty but it’s expensive.

In your personal opinion, who would you have nominated for [this year’s] Mercury Prize?

That’s a tough question. I think if I didn’t win, of the people that were nominated I would say The Invisible – that’s a brilliant album. Outside of that I’m not sure because I don’t get a chance to listen to a lot of music. The Invisible happened to be at a festival and I’d seen them perform and that’s how it was kind of like ‘wow, they’re amazing’. But yeah, if I didn’t win I think The Invisible should have got it.

How about artists that weren’t originally nominated – who deserved to be?

I think Donaeo should have got some sort of award this year, for something.

With Jay Sean hitting the No. 1 spot in America and Chipmunk’s UK No. 1, our urban music artists are certainly crossing over into the mainstream. What are your thoughts on the kind of artists who are crossing over?

Black music in this country at the moment that’s doing well is pop music. It’s not different to any other kind of pop music… a Tinchy Stryder song now would sound the same as a Sugababes song – which just means pop. It’s the first time that I and remember in my lifetime seeing that, so I guess it’s a good thing.

Do you think their crossing over is opening the doors for music like yours – with a more soulful or jazz influence – to get more recognition in the mainstream too?

Yeah, it’s definitely paving the way. Everything helps, I don’t think it’s necessarily up to them to pave the way for other people – I think there’s other ways it should be done by default – people like Jools Holland and primetime television shows and stuff like that should have artists like that on all the time; it should be normality. I think it’s up to those people. Unfortunately they don’t do it so in a good way you get young people that kick down doors instead of being let in willingly.

How did your collaboration with Roots Manuva come about?

He’s on the label and he’s also the most successful rapper in the country, so it makes sense… When I met him I actually liked him too.

What’s it like working with him?

He’s a funny guy, he’s the type of guy you wanna invite to a party, in case it got too boring.

What other UK artists would you like to work with – perhaps on your next project?

I got to work with Wiley, which I wanted. Shystie’s been one of my favourite UK artists. I’ve just worked with Donaeo… but the one I was probably most happiest about is I was in the studio with Eg White who wrote Will Young’s “Leave Right Now” [and has also written for the likes of Joss Stone, Duffy, Adele, Daniel Merriweather and James Blunt] – I think he’s probably one of the best songwriters ever so I’m happy about that.

I just want to touch on your personal back-story, which has already been told in various outlets. When you were living in and out of hostels for four years, were you looking for housing?

I saw that by being in a hostel I’d get my own accommodation, because back in the day it was like that. But they stopped doing that where you get council houses [that you can buy] so I wasn’t able to buy – the reason I left is I didn’t want to be in a place I wouldn’t actually be able to buy at some point, I didn’t wanna be just stuck in one place.

What was your general experience of hostels and the people you met there?

I met some interesting people. I think one of the things that stands out most about what I remember is how many alcoholics… I didn’t know alcohol affects so many people. It was the first time I realised that, I didn’t know. And to this day I still haven’t seen anything that seems to affect so many people so badly that’s actually widely available.

I’ve read previous interviews in which you’ve talked about experiencing depression when you were younger – and you put it down to cannabis use. Would you still say that was the main cause of your depression?

Cannabis is a drug that exaggerates feelings. For some people it’s not as detrimental as others but for some it can set off psychosis… There’s a large number of black men in mental institutes; there’s blatantly a connection there.

More broadly, is there a relationship between depression and being an artist?

Yeah – in the same way that there’s a connection between ego and insecurity.

Was Speech Therapy an outlet for your depression?

Yeah, definitely… It was a way of making sense of things in my mind.

Before you got signed to Big Dada what was your experience of pitching yourself to labels… what kind of responses were you getting?

Before Big Dada it was labels either came to me or I went to them wanting to start a record label. At the time, back in the day I wanted to have a record label and be a recording artist and so I had meetings in regards to that and they were like, ‘No I’m not gonna give you a record label but I kind of like your voice’.

Is setting up a label something you still aim to do?

Yeah, definitely – I think it’s important to have [ventures similar to] Bad Boy Records and Roc-A-Fella Records and G-Units in this country. We might not have the same type of music, but its structure.

Do you think it’s harder to launch a label to that level as an independent artist in the UK?

It’s difficult but I don’t think you expect it to be anything else but difficult.

Speech Therapy is out now on Big Dada Records.

RELATED: Mercury Prize ‘09 winner SPEECH DEBELLE on black British music (VIDEO)

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