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Interview: Speech Debelle


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Speech Debelle is a contradictory force; her voice is fragile but direct, she is youthful but speaks with wisdom and her music is beautiful whilst reflecting the harshness of urban life – heads will spin trying to work the South London hip-hop poet out.

Speech DebelleIn the world of hip-hop Debelle is a true one-off and, after she drops her debut long-player Speech Therapy in June she should be clogging up iPods everywhere.

The album has been a long-time coming, she first played her tunes to hip hop heads at Big Dada five years ago, and now at the age of 25 it is the reflection of her youth, a therapeutic outlet as she takes stock of what has gone before.

From a middle-class Jamaican family, at 19 Debelle was asked by her mother to leave home. Written between the ages of 19 and 23, whilst living in a hostel, the words here reflect a coming of age in difficult circumstances.

“When I wrote most of this album I was in a hostel with very little help financially or emotionally so writing became my healing. I would sometimes write a song and then put it down and not pick it again or look at it for months because I didn’t need to. Once it was out it felt better”

“It [the album] means I might make some money by doing music, that wasn’t a reality to me before. It’s the end of a chapter in my youth.”

Heads turned at Big Dada, whose interest put Debelle in touch with the collaborators who have contributed to her albums rich, and diverse tapestry of sound. One day in the labels offices she hooked up with Wayne Lotek, who aside from his own Lotek Hi Fi project has produced for Root Manuva.

Debelle flew out to Australia to record with Lotek, a bunch of live musicians and additional producer Plutonic Lab and lay down most of what would become Speech Therapy – it might be the location which gives it a much more sunny-disposition than the usual urban-grit of UK hip-hop, The union with Lotek added to the musical template for Speech’s musings, as she explains, “I write music and songs that are hip hop based but are heavily influenced by jazz, soul, classical, folk.”

As Lotek worked on finishing and mixing the tracks in Oz, on her return to London Debelle’s genre-spanning approach saw her make connections that would elevate Speech Therapy to new heights. Big Dada label mate and UK hip-hop legend Roots Manuva agreed to write and sing on “Wheels in Motion”, whilst 2009 hot-tip Micachu added a different flavour to the awesomely optimistic “Better Days”.

Speech knows that the collaborations upped the profile of her debut, “Collabs are good because if someone has a bigger name and you work with them it helps raise your profile which is something I wanted to do. I’m not a singer so working with singers is something I love to do as well. I’m a fan of singers.”

Adding further to the musical melting-pot Mike Lyndsay from experimental folk maestros Tunng heard some demos and insisted he be involved.

Working with Speech over a number of sessions the duo came up with the introspective “Live & Learn” and the summery avant-pop of “Spinnin” which has the potential to be this year’s big summer pop hit, but a hit with a message.

Other people Speech would like to jam with further reflects her ambitions to be drawn out of her comfort zone to find new backdrops for her rhymes. Her wish-list includes Lily Allen, Bashy, Kings of Leon, Lauren Hill and Prince.

Despite the array of talent working on the record Speech was hands on with production process, “[I had] most of the input I guess. There are three songs on the album that I wasn’t in the studio for when they were being made. The other tracks I either co-wrote or co-produced.”

For all the great music on offer, it is the words that make the record stand out – poetic, realistic and believable, Speech narrates with a straight-forwardness that will connect with everyone on many levels.

There is an outpouring of emotion, dwelling on bad memories offset by humorous anecdotes and razor sharp observations. Speech explained the ease with which she is able to slip her real-life experiences into her rhymes, “That’s the easiest for me, I don’t have to think about what I’m writing. If i do a song that’s a story that I’ve made up it’s the biggest challenge. I can talk about my feelings and experiences a lot easier than someone else’s. So a song like ‘Bad Boy’ was more difficult because although I knew the person who that song is about I really don’t know how he feels because I can’t, I ain’t him.”

But how much of her inner-self did Speech pour onto the record?

“A lot although I stopped shy of making any courtroom confessions or mentioning names of people who I was talking about. Some things I haven’t mentioned because if I tell you everything what do I have left for myself!”

Her attempts at writing about other people and problems are no less insightful, take the aforementioned ‘Bad Boy’ which looks unflinchingly, but non-judgementally at the way the youths she grew up with are living their lives.

The album takes a look at love, life, and politics with stark honesty that gives Speech a trustworthy authority. Despite this she does not aim to preach, or even teach, “I’m not Jesus or Allah or Jah or Hotep or none of them folks so I couldn’t tell you what’s wrong with the world or how to fix it. I’m not gonna act like I have those type of answers. Humans have free will, we should use to figure things out for ourselves shouldn’t we?”

“I was watching an interview with Lil Wayne and the interviewer asked him if he thought he was a good role model for how people should live there life and said “if people need me to show them how to live their life then their life ain’t worth living.”

Regardless Speech Debelle has something to say, and it is worth a listen. If a thoughtful, fresh slice of UK hip hop is what you’re after, seek out Speech Therapy and introduce yourself to the most interesting new talent on the scene.

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