Exclusive: Q&A With Mercury Award-Nominated Rapper Speech Debelle

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Interviewers want to know about Speech Debelle‘s past. After all, it’s not every day that a kid from London goes from scrounging food and bouncing around youth hostels to being a Mercury Award-nominated rapper. But, after listening to her debut album Speech Therapy

, her rise to stardom isn’t all that surprising. Peppered with organic, jazzy beats (instead of samples) and powerfully direct lyrics (instead of this), her music is a breath of fresh air in a genre dominated by auto-tuned dudes. Recently, Flavorpill got a chance to talk with Speech Debelle about the pressures of fame, what she has in common with Tupac, and, of course, her past.

Flavorpill: How do your past and family history play out in your music?

Speech Debelle: Growing up I saw two very different worlds. I grew up in a middle class home, so I was used to having the things I not only required but also the things I just wanted. When I got kicked out, I had nothing. In a way it has made me a more rounded person. In a song like “Searching,” although I feel trapped, I know things can get better because I’ve seen better.

FP: In an article from the Times you’re quoted as saying you identify with Tupac Shakur— that he had “strength in his vulnerability.” How is this reflected in your music?

SD: I guess its like being quietly confident. I know everyone will hear my weakness which makes me stronger. I’m embracing my fears.

FP: How does it feel to be in the spotlight for such an intimate album? Is it ever uncomfortable?

SD: Yes it is. But that’s okay — I have a strong foundation.

FP: Both hip hop and the music world at large are male-dominated. What has been your experience as a female MC? Do you feel industry pressure to conform to a particular model?

SD: No, because of the type of music I make. If I wanted to compete with Rihanna in the pop charts, then I’d have to conform. My music doesn’t speak the same language, so we don’t have the same uniform.

FP: In Speech Therapy, you bypassed sampled beats to work with live production. In a world of increasingly complicated, computerized music, can you tell us how you decided to put together such simple, organic tracks?

SD: The music is meant to be a soundtrack to the words. Most of the songs were already written. Going into the recording process, my knowledge of working with musicians was limited. Maybe that has helped.

FP: Who are the biggest influences on your music?

SD: Michael Jackson. My culture — being Jamaican and British. A few of my English teachers in school.

FP: Your music seems deeply connected to London, why did you decide to record in Australia?

SD: That’s where Wayne Lotek now lives. He came over to London for a couple weeks and we hooked up. After we did some searching, I knew I wanted to do the next album with him, so when he went back to Melbourne I went with him for six weeks to record. Finding someone who brings out the best in you is really difficult, but ultimately a blessing.

FP: You struggled in your early twenties with poverty and homelessness. What words of advice do you have for young people who find themselves in similar situations?

SD: To remember that the world doesn’t get smaller just because your situation is difficult. It’s always big, and without sounding cheesy, it is your oyster.

FP: Hip hop has gone through many major transitions since the late seventies. How do you envision its future?

SD: The world keeps spinning; things change with the tides. In the future it will probably go back to how it was in the early nineties. Nothing stays the same.

FP: Rumor has it that winning the Mercury Award is bad luck. Any concerns?

SD: Ha ha, I don’t believe in luck or coincidence.