You probably don't know her name or her face, but there's a good chance you've already heard C-Mone's voice. Her sharp, Nottingham-accented tones grace the CD shelves of more than 1.5 million homes in Britain. To those unsuspecting music-lovers, she's better known as Mike Skinner's (fictitious) girlfriend, spitting venom on the track "Get Out of My House", from his multi-platinum-selling 2004 album A Grand Don't Come for Free.
"As soon as I'd done that Streets track, people were looking at me differently," says C-Mone as we cut through the Nottingham backstreets on the way to her studio. "They all had this glazed look on their faces - I had no idea why until a friend told me; he said, 'Everyone thinks you're rich!'" She laughs, clearly still tickled by the suggestion. She continues her day job as a youth worker ("I need to eat!" she says) and had to arrange our meeting from a phone box because she'd run out of credit on her phone.
C-Mone - known to her mum as Simone Buchanan - shyly deflects the local celebrity status attributed to her at the community centre where she works. Situated in one the tastier areas of a city which topped the UK's crime league recently, this same centre is home to the small but mighty community-run recording studio at the heart of Nottingham's burgeoning urban music scene. The boxy room is hardly big enough for the state-of-the-art equipment it houses. Despite its inherent lack of glamour, the studio is responsible for nurturing an array of local talent.
It's not just aspiring rappers who flock here. From the teenage Green Day fans who fill the room for its rock guitar workshops, to the North African father who came in to record traditional songs as a gift for his son, or the middle-aged women fulfilling their lifelong ambition of making a CD, everyone is welcome. The recording sessions are free and, not surprisingly, they're booked months in advance. That the studio has never been broken into says a lot about the respect it's afforded in the local community.
The small studio thrives outside of the media spotlight because, says C-Mone, of its unique ethos. "Here at the studio there are loads of talented people," she says, "but they're not here because they want anything; they don't come just because they want to get signed. They're doing what they're doing because they genuinely enjoy it. We go to work and then we come here, to do what we love."
C-Mone devotes much of her time to the community centre and its studio. When she's not teaching the youth music workshops, she runs some of the centre's other recreational projects. Her appearance on The Streets album was a boon for the 25-year-old, but it only dipped into her talent. C-Mone's debut album, The Butterfly Effect, is an even more impressive showcase for her skills. Recorded in the community studio and produced by C-Mone's friends and colleagues, the album draws its influence from US old-skool hip-hop (rather than the London-centric "grime" sound). But lyrically, inspiration was found closer to home.
"I wanted to make music about where I'm from; about my family, my background, where I live," says C-Mone taking a seat in the office next door to where she laid down her tracks. "I love hip-hop, but I've never felt it represented me - I couldn't relate to it. I wanted to talk about things from the perspective of a young black woman from Nottingham. I wanted to reflect what's happening around me; tell it how it is, here and now." And that's exactly what she's done. Like a female, rapping Arctic Monkeys, C-Mone proffers wry, literate and streetwise rhymes about going into town on a Saturday night ("Stan Bac") and then struggling to get home afterwards ("Ride"). But she can just as easily deal with weightier subjects too: "Second After Second" is a powerful rant about feeling politically impotent, while the enraged "Article Five" deals with inequality. "I step out of my house and I get inspiration," says C-Mone. "I think the music I do reflects the situations I go through and the things I see. I tell it like it is and I do it the way I think it needs to be done."
Enlivened by her sharp lyrical delivery, The Butterfly Effect is a strikingly impressive album. But C-Mone's skills had to be coaxed from her. Her first visit to the community studio, 10 years ago, was a reluctant one. "My mate dragged me down there," she laughs. Intrigued with the knob-twiddling taking place on the other side of the glass, she decided to learn how to work the equipment. Soon she was producing and writing songs for those aspiring singers.
"All they ever wanted was love songs," she says exasperated. "I tried to get them to try some new ideas but...", she shakes her head still disappointed. "I was writing loads of songs, but I just wasn't feeling it. I wanted to write something more interesting." It wasn't until she heard some lads freestyle rapping that she realised what that something was. "I decided I was going to write raps and I knew that if I was going to write them, I would have to rap them too. But even though I was shy, I didn't mind that all eyes would be on me. When I started rapping I felt really confident - I don't know what happened. It was like something took over me. It all started from there."
Impressed by her rhythm and rhymes, the teen was invited to join Out Da Ville, a 10-strong hip-hop crew set up by Trevor Rose, who runs the community studio. C-Mone worked with the crew for five years. But, in 2002, after the band had released a string of successful underground 12-inches, gathering a sizeable following on the UK hip-hop underground, she became sick of scrabbling for her time on the mic. "The majority of Out Da Ville were like: 'C-Mone? Solo? No way!'" She unleashes that full-bodied laugh again. "But I was pretty determined."
Single-minded, C-Mone smoulders with defiance. "I was born like this," she says. "If people told me I couldn't play football, I wanted to play football. Why can't I do what makes me happy?" Her drive, she says, comes from her mum, who raised her and her four younger brothers alone. "She's a very strong woman," says C-Mone. "It was a real struggle for her, but she was amazing. She just got on with it. There's no telling her!"
IC-Mone says she's resisted compromise; spurning major label deals in favour of doing things on her own terms. She released her album on the small hip-hop independent Son Records, in conjunction with her own label, Dark Whisper. "What I was offered just didn't feel right," she says. "It would be great to have the machinery behind me to really get the music out there, but I have to be happy. And if I'm not happy, it's not happening. I knew what I wanted when I left Out Da Ville. I knew what I had to do and I'm doing it. I don't see why I should sit down and wait for anyone to tell me that I'm allowed to do what I know I can do for myself."
This fiery determination smoulders from C-Mone when she plays live. Her reluctance to take the limelight dissipates the moment she steps onstage. Accompanied by a band who help recreate her driving, propulsive beats, she commands the stage with the presence of a fired-up boxer. Stalking the stage, she has the charisma and, crucially, the skill to rouse the most reluctant of crowds. On her debut London performance, she even had the capital's notoriously self-conscience audience waving their arms and chanting her name, winning them over with her staccato, machine-gunned rhymes and infectious delivery.
"Someone I work with at the community centre is convinced I'm going to be a star," says C-Mone with the same incredulous, but just a little hopeful, tone employed by England fans. "I think if I was a big star I'd just like to keep my feet on the ground. I'd be that person you see going up the street, doing my thing, shopping at Co-op, whatever. Just being me really." She pauses a moment, and thinks hard before her face creases up, ticked by the prospect of fame. "I might change," she says letting loose a C-Mone laugh, "I might turn into this mega-bitch and start showing my arse off everywhere! But I hope not."
Last month, invited to play on BBC 1Xtras's one-day hip-hop event showcasing the cream of UK hip-hop and grime talent, the rapper held her own on a white-hot bill which included the Mobo-winners Sway and Kano. It's notoriously difficult for any UK urban act from outside London to make waves on the capital-obsessed scene, but C-Mone has already bucked that trend. Not that her ambitions are sated just yet. "I've got a whole new set of goals to achieve," she says. These goals include completing her college course, starting up new youth projects and, of course, continuing her rise as the hottest female MC in UK hip-hop. Her glowing face is fixed with determination: "I've still got lots of work to do."
'The Butterfly Effect' is out now on Son Records. The single 'Catch Me If You Can' is out on 10 July