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

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.