In 2009 Speech Debelle ruffled a lot of feathers when she won the Mercury Music Prize. Critics where quick to dismiss the win, both La Roux and Florence & The Machine were also nominated that year, and in a music world where all too often talent and artistic value is calculated through sales and popularity, a little-known rapper winning over artists like this was a travesty. Bloggers took to the web with vigour to cast more negativity over what was in fact an extremely deserving win.
I grew up loving hip-hop, loving rap, loving wordplay, loving rhymes. I also have a massive appreciation for music other than hip-hop, especially string and guitar arrangements. For years I dreamt of hearing an artist marry the two, and for a while I thought that Jamie T was the closest I’d ever get to this. Then, in Mid 2009 I bought a music magazine that came with a free CD including ‘The Key’ by Speech Debelle.
When I heard the track it felt as if the Gods had heard my cry, here I had rap, and proper rap with the heavy wordplay and flow I craved, set to a beautiful arrangements with instrumentation including double bass and clarinet but still with a drum beat that smacks you in the ear to let you know it’s pure hip-hop.
After hearing and loving this track, I got the album ‘Speech Therapy’ and it soon became one of my favourite records. The instrumentation and arrangements throughout the record are out of this world and the subject matter for each track is much deeper than your average rap record. The record highlights struggles that are relatable and this adds so much to the experience.
Speech followed this record with second album ‘Freedom of Speech’ in 2009. Slightly different in sound, but a classic record once again, packed full with heavy beats and exquisite string arrangements, some of which are so good they could be exerts from a Michael Kamen score.
I recently saw Speech perform at the Bookabeat launch event and was blown away by her performance, which included some brilliant new material. In my opinion she is the most important UK rapper of her generation and so it was a huge honour to catch up with Speech after the show…
Q. Your third album is coming soon, what can we expect?
I think, you know what, it’s interesting, I think every album I’ve done sonically has been different, because it’s been dependant on my mood, where I’m at. My first album was a very vulnerable album, because of the subject matter, I was young, I was 19. The second album I was…tense, you know what I mean? I was just coming out of…you know the whole world was kinda tense, there was like uprisings and everything going on in the world in 2012 and so it reflected that and this album…I’ve been doing a bit of partying, a lot of loving and a lot of getting more comfortable with myself as a woman and I think that shows in this album. It’s probably….I don’t wanna say happy cos happy doesn’t have many tiers to it as a word, but it’s definitely my most uplifting album.
Q. What guests have you go on the album?
Realism…Shortman’s on it…and there’s more. It’s one of those albums where I really wanna record about 40 songs, it’s a very important album for me, I think it’s the one that will cement me as an artist, you know what I mean? I think it’ll be the album that is like…as an artists you get to a point where someone hears the first couple of seconds of your song and they know it’s you, I think that’s what this album is, it’s important for me to know what I wanna hear, how I wanna sound cos straight away that’s gonna just cement me as like ‘this is what I do’ you know what I’m saying? So I don’t mind taking as long as it takes.
Q. What’s been the best moment of your career so far?
I think probably the most important moment for me was finishing my first album, y’know. As with most artists it’s probably like a fifteen-year process to do your first album, and just completing it was probably the most important thing for me because once I’d completed my firs album I knew I could do more.
Q. You make reference to a lot of political and social issues within you’re lyrics and have done so from the start of your career with the B‑side ‘Where Do We Go?’, for example. Do you ever have to consider whether the political and social issues are too controversial for you to put them out?
No, I think the reason for me putting a song out is because it works as a whole song, ‘Where Do We Go?’ wasn’t on the album because it just didn’t really fit, that was more to do with it and that’s why it was a b side. It’s nothing to do with what I’m saying, I feel like if I get to a point where I’m writing, or if I’m in a situation where I’m being questioned about what it is I say, then I’s one I have to get away from, because it’s like someone taking your oxygen away from you, you know what I’m saying? It’s like this means nothing then, so I never question what I say and I think I’m aware of the fact that as a rapper I should be provocative. People think on one side, as a hip-hop artist, on one element, you’re expected to speak up for a lot of people and on another element you’re expected to be ignorant. There’s people that think you’re ignorant, so therefore just say anything then! You can just get away with it from all corners I think.
Q. You’re very honest in a lot of you’re lyrics, discussing some deep emotions. Do u ever have trouble performing such emotional exposing songs?
No, the only song I’ve ever had trouble performing is ‘Daddy’s Little Girl’ from my first album. I performed it once in my whole career and never again, because it’s an emotion I haven’t accepted. I haven’t even excepted the words and what’s interesting actually when I had finished all the songs on the album I was talking to my A&R and he said ‘oh man, I wonder what your family would think’ and it was the first time I actually even thought about that, and I was like ‘fuck, I didn’t think about that’. So, that’s the only song I just stay away from.
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