Back in 2012, British rapper Speech Debelle was touring her second album, Freedom Of Speech, and in 2013, she took some time away from music to do MasterChef, reaching the semi-finals. She had a food truck, and curated an art exhibition by prisoners for the Koestler Trust at the Southbank. Then in 2014 she started work on her third album.
Now, she’s an independent artist without management. Her most recent release, the Breathe EP, was released on Friday, June 10, and her aforementioned third album, Tantil Before I Breathe, is due in September. I interviewed her over the phone to fill in all the gaps; past, present and future. First, we delved into some of the music from where it all started, 2009’s Speech Therapy.
This debut, of course, won her the Mercury Music Prize for British album of the year. I was curious about the “there no such things as half way crook” lyric in “Searching”, and asked if, and why, this was a reference to Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones Part II”. The following answer was quite illuminating:
“It is a Mobb Deep lyric. I mean the whole song is about the street life, so it was the perfect reference, really. It’s one of the songs I listen to a lot, driving up and down London, in those days, so it represents an era and it represents a way of life”.
“The Key”, meanwhile, was the opposite end of the scale from Mobb Deep, if you like. What did her rapping contemporaries think of it at the time? Explaining that the song was recorded in Melbourne, Australia, she said that native rapper, N’Fa from 1200 Techniques, complimented the track’s “cadence”, expanding with, “I think it’s a song in terms of if you’re a rapper you appreciate somebody with flow and cadence”.
Then there’s yet another track from the album, “Go Then, Bye”. Debating about it being a way of saying you know what’s best and most healthy for your other half to move on, or being more in anger and frustration, she plumped for the latter. We also discuss visuals for “Better Days”, featuring Micachu.
I was curious about the setting, with, initially, Speech standing in a desolate landscape, looking like a desert; and Micachu walking down populated streets. They then walk past each other with maybe a passing touch, but no nod of acknowledgment. Later, Speech, again, finds herself alone, but amidst much less desolate long grass.
Apparently it was influenced by a 1998 Denzel Washingston film, Fallen, whereby “there’s a spirit in this film that can enter different people just by touch, which really stood out, and I wanted to sort of have that influence in a video. So when Michachu’s chorus was added it was, to me, sounded like my subconscious, and, like, could be my spirit. So, it made me think of that film and how we have our consciousness and spirit and so I wanted her to represent my spirit in the video”.
Furthermore, “Spinnin’” from the aforementioned album, speaks of world affairs, and no matter “what’s happening, the world is going to continue to spin” and that “it’s actually an important message for looking forward, instead of backwards”.
Moving onto “Blaze Up A Fire”, from sophomore album Freedom Of Speech, I quizzed Speech about the line, “I am not a pop star I’m a motherf**king thug”. I mentioned 2Pac and his Thug Life acronym, “The Hate U Give Little Infants F**k Everybody”.
What was her definition of “thug”? She confirmed 2Pac was indeed the inspiration behind her use of the word, explaining that “at that time I was a bit unsure of where I stood, in terms of within the sort of industry and the public eye”. She concluded with “I represent a more, I feel, like more of a 2Pac than necessarily a popstar”.
Following that bold statement, we move onto the more, relatively, carefree notions within “I’m With It”, the second single from Freedom Of Speech. It’s “real fun live. It’s just got a lovely beat. Eg White is a great writer and it was fun writing it, and it plays out live really well”. Speaking in particular of Eg White:
“I always wanted to work with Eg White, and after winning the Mercury I kind of jumped at the opportunities that were available, and going into the studio. Working, we actually worked for two days and did about four tracks, but it was really a healthy working environment for him. I was the first ever rapper he worked with, so it was something very new for him. Which’s great, we’re both feeling like we are doing something new. Essentially we had no idea what we were doing and usually that’s when the good stuff comes out”.
Reviewing all asked so far, she had her reasons for liking both her albums equally. Regarding the first, she “was writing a lot of those songs and not really thinking about, necessarily, anybody hearing them. I think that’s what plays out in the writing of that album is what makes it so vulnerable and just so sort of naïve to a certain point, and I think that’s what makes it beautiful, and it’s extremely difficult to write like that, so for that it’s a really special album”.
However, for “Freedom Of Speech, it’s I find it just really, found that more enjoyable to be able to listen to myself, because we don’t necessarily want to hear our vulnerable parts, and I got opportunities in the second album to really think about the musical orientated production”.
From the past, and towards the present, came discussion of more current work; life after Freedom Of Speech. Work being the operative word. As she’s developed as an artist, surely singing is almost as important as her stock-in-trade, rapping, especially on current track “The Work”? “I’m not a confident singer. Maybe that’s something I will evolve in the future, but I’ve probably done more singing on this album than I have on any other album”.
I certainly interpreted its soaring production as a mark of intent, and asked her if that indeed was the case. She talked of “rises and swells”, citing that both “The Work” and “Terms & Conditions” featured these rises and swells. Furthermore, along that line of thought she, keen to stress, said “of course strings is in all my albums. I love strings”.
Talking “Terms & Conditions”, I asked what it was like working with actress Georgina Campbell, with whom she collaborated with for said track’s music video. She responded saying, “we had a lot of fun. We had a great chemistry, which was good”.
“We did a lot of joking and laughing, and the video itself we didn’t actually have a script, as myself and the director, Ed [Ed Sayers], didn’t want a script. We didn’t want to have a set idea of what happens at the end, and that leaves it open ended for us to act that out, so that when people watched it they also have the sense of not knowing what was going to be the outcome”.
Then, on the same song, I was quite keen to know how its signature hook came into fruition, and the response was frank, citing “I’m not sure how or where it came from, it’s difficult to know where do melodies come from”. The recent EP Breathe, on which the tracks “The Work” and “Terms & Conditions” appear on, was then brought into the discussion.
Comparing to 2009’s Speech Therapy and 2012’s Freedom Of Speech, she concluded: “I’m not sure how it differs. I think that’s up to the listeners to decide…it’s up to the listener. I’ve shared it, so now people can take from it what they want, and hopefully it’s a good thing”.
Something regarding the EP’s title intrigued me, having read it was based on the panic attacks she’s had over the years. She said panic attacks have “been a bigger part of my life than I realised. I wasn’t aware that I suffered anxiety attacks because I just didn’t have a name for it…and had certain social anxieties and had problems with drinking too much and things that, you know, I didn’t realise were the case”.
She’s now breathing easy, though, saying, “Now I have a sense of freedom and understanding of that part of myself”. Furthermore the future’s looking bright with the prospect of third album, Tantil Before I Breathe, set for September.
Having already established Speech to be an independent artist without management, it was little wonder how this upcoming album will differ from those releases in 2009, 2012 and the recent EP: “There’s absolutely no rules to the way I’m releasing this. It’s, there’s no rules to which videos I put out. Which singles…I’m able to just share this whenever the time feels right, and however it feels right”.
After some, perhaps, quite intense discussion about songs past, present and dabbling in the future, we moved onto more general discussion topics. In the following instance was the exploration of the way in which we use words, particularly if one form, poetry, takes precedence over another, rap:
“Poetry, rap, novel writing. It’s all different branches of the same tree. It’s just about…certain people that have an affinity words, which means they are able to excavate their emotions in a…really profound way. So, whichever form of art that is, to me it’s all the same”.
Having established that, we talked for a moment about Nas, and his conversational style of rap, a style he perhaps shares with Speech. Could she see any other similarities with the New York titan? She described both herself and Nas as having a “stream of consciousness” approach.
She drew a blank when asked about the EU Referendum vote, and how it might affect her and her fellow musicians. She justified this, saying, “I’m in somewhat of a bubble, at the moment, which has meant that I haven’t been that connected to what’s been going on outside of the art, to be fair. It takes up a lot of my time and I’m in the studio or I’m writing a book…I don’t know”.
The final question of the interview came, and looked upon more into the future. Retirement, rather. She could picture doing “art in some way. Maybe by that point I maybe just be farming. Growing courgettes. Maybe still making music. No idea. But I think whatever I’ll be doing, it will have something to do with creativity, because I think that’s what will keep me alive and kicking”.
Speech Debelle’s Breathe EP is out now and can be bought at iTunes here. Speech’s third album, Tantil Before I Breathe, and accompanying cookbook, Tantil Before I Breathe: The Cookbook, will be released sometime this coming September.
Words by Andrew Watson