Dy-Na-Mi-Too!

She's young, British and tells it like it is. The current UK pop scene owes so much to Ms Dynamite, says Chris Mugan. And now a new generation of artists is walking in her air-cushioned footsteps...
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The Independent Culture

It was the lyrics that won me over. Listening to "It Takes More" for the first time, I heard a reasonable slice of contemporary R&B - all hip-hop beats and lush production; the voice was half-rapping and half-singing in a defiantly English accent, and I strained to make out the words. Its vocalist began badgering someone about their flash lifestyle - either a rapper or a criminal. An easy enough target, I thought, until she posed the question: "How many Africans died for the baguettes in your Rolex?"

It was the lyrics that won me over. Listening to "It Takes More" for the first time, I heard a reasonable slice of contemporary R&B - all hip-hop beats and lush production; the voice was half-rapping and half-singing in a defiantly English accent, and I strained to make out the words. Its vocalist began badgering someone about their flash lifestyle - either a rapper or a criminal. An easy enough target, I thought, until she posed the question: "How many Africans died for the baguettes in your Rolex?"

Ouch, that was harsh. Not only had Ms Dynamite nailed the stars of hip-hop and R&B for losing their roots, she reminded the diamond-wearers out there that they were probably funding conflicts in the developing world. It was a scintillating song that combined a decent tune with worthy sentiments; all the more heartening for it to come from a British vocalist fit for the global stage.

Until that moment, Niomi Mclean-Daley was a useful MC - a rapper - on the UK garage circuit. With "It Takes More", Ms Dynamite cut her ties from the hyperactive beats of garage and aimed a parting shot directly at the kings of the scene, So Solid Crew, with whom she had begun her career. Moreover, it was a rare instance of a female black British artist speaking her mind - and with such disdain! Before Ms Dynamite, women in UK soul music - like Beverley Knight and Gabrielle - had been unfailingly polite. "Dy-Na-Mi-Tee", the next breakthrough single on her debut album A Little Deeper, told of the vocalist's London upbringing and how she kept her feet on the ground.

We are only now beginning to sense Dynamite's influence on pop music via a new generation of female voices demanding to be heard. Some of them are girls such as Lady Sovereign who has been inspired to seize airtime in the once-masculine culture of the MC. Beyond the underground scenes of hip-hop and garage, prospective R&B stars have been encouraged to write from their own perspectives. A few years ago, Keisha White might have been labouring with the same bland pap that the Pop Idols churn out. Now she can contribute her own lyrics, and her record company will listen.

Clearly, the mainstream music industry has seen Dynamite's success and wants to find its own opinionated women, so talent scouts now trawl open-mike sessions and the underground raves of the grime scene (which has usurped garage in the past year). Spearheaded by Mercury Music Prize winner Dizzee Rascal, this is the new sound of London's toughest estates, where tense vocalists battle with each other in scruffy venues over clattering drum'n'bass rhythms. With its punkish, do-it-yourself aesthetic, grime offers more egalitarian opportunities than its predecessor. This undoubtedly helps explain the number of female vocalists set to break through this year, though you still have to thank Ms Dynamite for causing those A&R boys and girls to dig, as she says herself, a little deeper.

Shystie

Anyone who has seen Chanelle Calica support Basement Jaxx or The Streets will be aware of her energetic performances. But the 21-year-old's confidence was a long time coming. Raised in Hackney, east London, Chanelle was nicknamed Shystie for her mischievous cheek at school. A self-confessed tomboy, she hung out with the lads at lunchtime, choosing to practise their rhymes rather than discuss beauty tips with the girls.

"I thought it was a boy thing, but then a friend helped me write my first lyric. When I spat it [garage term for performing], they all gave me encouragement."

At first MCing was a hobby, a way to get things off her chest, but at college she was drawn to the grime scene. Shystie struggled to be heard on pirate radio, fobbed off with excuses such as year-long waiting lists. In grime's closed world, though, all it took was one slot for her to be noticed.

She came to wider attention with a track that started as a joke. Shystie came up with a response to Dizzee Rascal's breakthrough single, "I Love U", his dissection of teenage relationships. A huge success, "I Luv You" even earnt approval from Dizzee himself.

Shystie is signed to the same label as Ms Dynamite, but is keen to stress that she is not simply following in the latter's footsteps. "Ms Dynamite was signed straight away after two singles, but for grime it's a bit different. We've had to wait a while to be noticed."

Shystie's debut album, 'Diamond in the Dirt', is out tomorrow. See review, page 22

Estelle

Although she came to fame through hip-hop, Estelle's first love was singing. The west London girl was a key member of her church choir from the age of seven.

"The first time I sang was at this conference in front of thousands of people and they were clapping so hard I wanted to cry. I was shaking, but I thought, 'Yeah, I want to sing'."

Estelle, 24, was brought up by a stepfather who DJed at reggae clubs, but it was a cassette of Ella Fitzgerald that inspired Estelle.

"A friend's mum had it on tape. Her songs were classical and so romantic, even the sad ones were graceful and warm. I took it and never gave it back."

She picked up some rap technique from Missy Elliot and UK contender Monie Love, which she put to good use while working at Deal Real record shop in Soho. Now a venue for all-female showcases, in those days women MCs were a rarity. Encouraged by her colleagues, she took part in open-mike slots, the skinny teenager standing out among the beefy male rappers.

"People gave me a go because I was a girl, but they said I'd better be good. It made me raise my game." She was soon recognised by the biggest names on the scene, working with respected artists like Skitz and Black Twang. Having waited patiently to get signed, she recognises that Ms Dynamite has opened doors for British vocalists.

"It's made people realise there's more than one viewpoint for a black lady in England. Before, it was Beverley Knight, and Jamelia from Birmingham, but London is more like New York."

Estelle's debut single, '1980', is out on 19 July

Keisha White

Keisha White has little interest in garage, but Ms Dynamite's success has shaped her burgeoning career for the good. Brought up in Tottenham, north London, some of her earliest memories are of seeing her mum, a soul singer, perform in local pubs. Keisha sang with her mother from the age of eight, but insists that "when I got discovered by my manager at a talent show, it was my choice to sign with him. Me and mum just sat down and talked about if it was what I wanted. She taught me that you can't rely on this business, but you have to know when it's the right time to take risks."

At 15, Keisha had sung the theme tune to the kids' TV show Tracy Beaker, before guesting on records by Paul Oakenfold and the more underground Desert Eagle Discs. Now 18, she is set to release her debut album. Ms Dynamite was clearly a galvanising force: "You listen to her lyrics, then you speak to her and you can tell that's her. She's speaking her mind. Young people are very educated, they look up to people like that. When I saw her I thought, 'I can do it as well'."

Keisha's album, 'Seventeen', is due out on Warners at the end of August

Lady Sovereign

A few months ago, Lady Sovereign complained about how major labels had picked up and dropped garage acts. Then, she was safely in the hands of indie label Casual Records, but now she has taken the shilling offered by Island Records. "I was suspicious of them until I got a lawyer and found out what goes on," says the 18-year-old. "The deal I have isn't like they're going to manufacture me."

Growing up in Wembley, west London, Louise Harman only came across garage five years ago. Hearing the MCs, Louise decided she could do better. She recorded her own tunes as Lady Sovereign (after the gold ring that constantly slips off her finger), sending them out via email to like-minded fans she met on forums.

One such fan was a south London DJ looking for a female MC. At first she had to snatch the mike from male MCs who refused to hand it over to a girl, but Ms Dynamite had provided encouragement: "I thought, yeah, there's another girl out there."

More direct help came from Mike Skinner of The Streets, who used her for a remix of "Fit But You Know It". Mainstream success is sure to follow.

Lady Sovereign's single 'Ch Ching (Cheque 1-2)' is out now on Casual Records

Verbalicious

Here is a rare case of a successful actor not using connections to develop her pop career. Verbalicious, just 17, refuses to divulge her real name (Natalia Keery-Fisher), but admits she played teen rebel Sima opposite Jasper Carrott in the BBC 1 sitcom All About Me.

"I'm cool, sharp and quick-witted, but I'm not sassy and girly like [Sima] is." Her accent is halfway between Yorkshire and the States: Natalia was educated in Bradford, but school holidays were spent elsewhere. Her mother is half-Latin American, so she went to Barcelona to learn Spanish. But she also spent time with her Jamaican father who had family in Jacksonville, Florida.

There, her cousins introduced her to hip-hop, from the gritty Nas and 50 Cent to the more polished Kanye West and Kelis. One cousin was a keen breakdancer and taught Natalia a few moves, encouraging her to take up the hip-hop form when she returned to Yorkshire. She had no idea there was a UK scene, but soon fell in with some dancers whom she followed to clubs.

"I thought it would be garage music, but people were rapping to hip-hop beats in an English accent and I was fascinated. I put pen to paper and couldn't stop writing. I haven't put the pen down yet."

Last summer, as Verbalicious, Natalia won a Radio 1 talent show in Leeds which gained her attention. Now she is signed to the same label as chart-topper Gary "Mad World" Lucas and aims for similar success.

Verbalicious's latest track, 'Don't Play Nice', can be downloaded at www.adventure-records.com

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