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Drum'n'bass diva

The New Zealander MC Tali has put the spotlight back on dance

In the wake of the success of Ms Dynamite, record labels have been scouring underground dance-music scenes for female talent. From garage and drum'n'bass, the quick-fire rhymers Shystie and Est'elle have been tipped for diva status. Yet while A&R men were scouring London's badlands, Bristol's own Mercury prize-winner Roni Size hooked up with an MC from a sheep farm on New Zealand's North Island.

With a vocal arsenal that ranges from crisp rapping to a powerful singing voice, Natalia "Tali" Scott can outstrip any UK competition. On her debut album, Lyric on My Lip, she moves effortlessly from boastful MC-ing on the track "Blazin'" to the melancholy soul of "Grey Days".

She hails from the remote province of Taranaki, and her story is testimony to drum'n'bass's global reach. "My closest best friends lived quite far up the road, so I spent a lot of my childhood on my own," Tali says, in an odd accent that combines a typical antipodean clipped rhythm with the longer vowels of the West Country. "I used to sing to myself and talk out loud and tell stories. As I grew older, those stories progressed into raps."

Before succumbing to the charms of drum'n'bass, Tali wrote soul songs and performed them in TV talent competitions. "It was a way of proving myself against other people, but I did win a trip to the UK," she says. She discovered drum'n'bass at raves in Christchurch. "Rhythm had been really important to me," she explains. "I was heavily into hip hop, reggae and rock music such as Rage Against the Machine and Red Hot Chili Peppers. I guess you are always looking for music that has the same characteristics as yourself, and drum'n'bass was down-to-earth, sexy, funky, but still soulful."

That was in 1997, right in the middle of drum'n'bass's golden era, typified by the success of Goldie's album Timeless and of New Forms, the Mercury-winning album made by Roni Size and Reprazent. Tali was drawn to them and their Full Cycle label, so when she began promoting drum'n'bass events - before she had the confidence to MC - she invited the Reprazent members Krust and Die to DJ in her home country.

Tali found the courage to perform when she left for Australia's creative capital, Melbourne, where the Kiwi made a name for herself as the country's only female MC. "Everyone knew me back home, so they wouldn't take me seriously. I always said I wanted to work with Reprazent, but no one would listen."

Her ambition became reality thanks to a chance meeting backstage at a Reprazent gig in Melbourne. Tali was persuaded by friends to perform an impromptu audition for Size, singing and rapping into his ear. He was impressed enough that he promptly ordered his MC-in-chief, Dynamite (no relation to Ms), off the stage so that Tali could take on the crowd. "I bust up the place, went mental," she recalls, "then partied with them for 24 hours. We talked about music and what directions we wanted to take. I said I was going to look them up, which I did." Tali came to London in 2002, where she took up teaching for a few months, before she moved to Bristol and hooked up with her heroes.

The album Lyric on My Lips is a collaboration that is recognisably a Reprazent joint, with the trademark live drumming and fierce electronic sounds. But Lyric is much more than another drum'n'bass record. "Grey Days" is reminiscent of Portishead, whereas the slowed-down beats of "Don't Let Me Wake up" and "Take a Look" create a hybrid closer to the stripped-down production of contemporary R&B. "On those two tracks, I was consciously feeling an R&B flow, but all the rest are just whatever we came up with at the time," she says.

Anyone familiar with the bloated New Forms and Reprazent's similarly overlong 2000 follow-up, In the Mode, should be relieved to hear that Lyric weighs in at a digestible 12 tracks. Tali admits that she is probably unrecognisable to anyone familiar with her earlier incarnations, having developed in response partly to her producers' ideas and partly to the astonishing adventure she has been through. "The great thing about Lyric is it's a reflection of this journey that I took," she says. "Before this, I wouldn't have written anything like 'Grey Days'."

It helps that, despite coming from opposite sides of the globe, Tali and Reprazent share a musical philosophy. "I guess with me they see opportunities to try out things they haven't done before," she explains, "but when it comes to the music, we're feeling the same vibe. We go into the studio and never need to compromise."

'Lyric on My Lip' is out now on Full Cycle; Tali supports Roni Size at the Carling Academy Islington, London N1 on 13 March (www.mctali.com)