Estelle: Stellar fun

With a Mobo and a hit single behind her, things are going well for Estelle. And, she tells Neesh Asghar, she's enjoying the ride
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The Independent Culture

Britain's brightest hip-hop hope is about to take to the stage for the first live gig since her single "1980" burst on to the airwaves four months ago. The song - an incisive and witty autobiographical slice of life about growing up in the Eighties - was a breakthrough summer anthem this year for the rising star tagged "the UK's answer to Mary J Blige". Rapped over a soaring string arrangement and gospel choir, "1980" name-checks Connect 4, LA Gear, Dynasty and Mel and Kim in a nostalgic trip through Estelle's formative years living with eight brothers and sisters, eccentric neighbours and petty crime. "It's my life story. I wrote that one in about half an hour after reminiscing with my sister."

Britain's brightest hip-hop hope is about to take to the stage for the first live gig since her single "1980" burst on to the airwaves four months ago. The song - an incisive and witty autobiographical slice of life about growing up in the Eighties - was a breakthrough summer anthem this year for the rising star tagged "the UK's answer to Mary J Blige". Rapped over a soaring string arrangement and gospel choir, "1980" name-checks Connect 4, LA Gear, Dynasty and Mel and Kim in a nostalgic trip through Estelle's formative years living with eight brothers and sisters, eccentric neighbours and petty crime. "It's my life story. I wrote that one in about half an hour after reminiscing with my sister."

Dressed down in jeans, a black polo neck sweater, baseball cap and cheerfully tacky silver hoop ear-rings, Estelle is bouncing about in her seat, in the offices of her PR company in central London, talking about the "millions of pills" she is taking to fight off a nasty bout of flu. "Nobody sees that bit: the hard work and the grind. I've been up every day for the last three months at 7am, doing loads and loads of interviews and meetings, rehearsals and all that." Free of make-up and fresh-faced, Estelle is husky-voiced and a little hoarse - her street-scruffed London accent is roughly peppered with West Indian patois - but she looks well for her claims of fever and headaches.

"I've done bigger shows than this!" she exclaims. Having opened for Chuck D, Beyoncé and Rodney P in the past two years alone, a wide-eyed and talkative Estelle can fairly claim not to be nervous about headlining. "For me, the biggest thing was the Mobos. It was tough, man - I was cryin'! I did not want to fall down or anything, and I was so nervous, wearing this tiny miniskirt and thinking: 'God, nobody wants to see my knickers tonight. Please don't let me fall.' It wasn't the winning [Estelle rightly - belatedly - claimed the award for best British newcomer on the night] that got me, but playing in front of so many people I respected as artists. This next show's gonna be more intimate, friends and family, and I can't wait."

Estelle has been plugging her hip-hop heavy musical wares on the London circuit for the last six years. Leaving her Richmond secondary school at 18 - "I did a GNVQ in Media and Communications and yep, I passed" - she went on to work as a production company runner on music videos, a record shop assistant and as a music journalist for black music website 'Darker and Blue' before slogging it out on the domestic urban scene with soul-stirring demos and impressive live performances. "Yeah, I been on the other side of this. I mostly reviewed gigs, partying in clubs. I met loads of people I really wanted to be and got a lot of information as to how they got to where they were. It was definitely good for me."

Shortly after, Estelle was made redundant and decided "I wanted to take a chance and do my own music thing fulltime and really work at it instead of waiting for someone to give it to me, waiting for permission. I got myself up to a standard, set up my own label ('Stellar Ents'), put my track out and kept it moving."

Estelle is confident about her abilities and potential to be a smash-hit success and often talks about herself in the third person. Comfortable enough to know her talent is a commodity but careful not to treat her identity as a brand, she goes to lengths to explain clichés about being true to yourself and what you believe in. I ask how viable this is for her in an industry where shifting units will invariably win over artistic expression. Fingering the rim of her baseball cap, she gets pensive: "Now I've signed to a major label, it means there are compromises to be made. But I'm not gonna run around doing things that aren't Estelle, I will only do things I feel comfortable sleeping with at night." As a defiant afterthought, she adds: "I'd tell 'em all to piss off otherwise."

She reserves a similar attitude towards bitchy entourages and hangers-on: "I got so much respect for Shystie, Ms Dynamite, Jamelia and all them chicks. People make up this bitter rivalry and there is none. No. All the girls I've met I'm supposed to be wary of 'cos they're my competition - they're like my sisters." Estelle is a little sore after seeing herself on a new magazine cover with the strap-line: "It's about ME, not Ms D..." She can't decide whether Ms Dynamite has helped or hindered her career, but she's adamant that "I never said that". She wants to set the record straight: "I like her, she's my mate and we're cool with each other but, musically, we're really different."

Despite both being young, black, female MC's with something to say about life and love, there's a clear difference in sound and structure of their respective debut long-players. Having left off her edgier underground triumphs "Domestic Science" and "Trickster", Estelle's The18th Day is grand in ambition and sound. Encompassing classic Motown and gospel harmonies, lounge-funk with hip-hop shuffle, her tough-talking rapper cum starry soul singer style is streamlined for mainstream success but impressive nonetheless. "I really want to open the market a bit, that's why there's so many styles on my album - I want to influence as many new artists as I can."

Estelle laughs when asked her opinion on why the British press can only ever handle one black female artist at a time. "Thank you! Really, truly - I've been asking myself the same thing.I wish it was accepted that me and Dynamite and Shystie and whoever can co-exist and be successful at the same time. If Coldplay and The Stereophonics have no problem doing it, why should we?"

Having worked hard and long - jumping turnstiles on the tube to make it to her own gigs; sleeping on friends' floors and at one point, contemplating suicide - it's obvious Estelle has resolved to make the most of being pop flavour of the month to establish herself as an artist sticking in it for the long haul. "I'm so sick of hearing that UK hip hop doesn't get credit and success when I'm working to get it, for me and for others too. The record labels need to push it like they're expecting to get more than just two grand from an album. If you put the expectations and faith in artists, I guarantee they'll raise their game and get those sales."

Brash, soulful and a talented rapper's delight, Estelle herself has sharply raised the standard for her contemporaries. Blessed with sharp wit, a no-nonsense attitude and infectious enthusiasm, she survives on a strong work ethic - gleaned from her heroes, successful black female icons Oprah Winfrey, Harriet Tubman, Mary J Blige - but remembers to have fun with it, believing that "if you cannot smile when you listen to music, then do not listen to it! It's going to depress the shit out of you otherwise".

By her own reckoning, Estelle thinks "music wasn't hard. It's always been easy for me and the only thing I can do really really well." This might well be interpreted as boastful arrogance, but in this bright star's case, is mere truth. Three days after our initial meeting, I manage to squeeze into a packed Islington Academy to see her live up to the hype live. Strutting out in sequinned heels, rolled up jeans and some obligatory bling, Estelle opens up her act with "A Change is Gonna Come", urging the mixed crowd to have the self-belief to make a change for themselves. She later devotes current single, "Free", to "the 18-month-old baby shot in Hackney and the 13-year-old girl killed in Nottingham. It ain't right".

Part stand-up comedy, part star, Estelle is funny, fiercely brilliant and utterly foxish onstage. Backed by a seven-strong band - including her sister slash writing partner on backing vocals - she sings and tuts, raps and wiggles under a giant glittering gold backdrop bearing her name to hundreds of people already chanting it. Earlier, Estelle had told me: "People like the shows I do. I want to be real, to have fun, even when I dance on stage...it's a buzz." It's difficult to disagree from either side of the stage. Estelle is a savvy, sassy success and yes, she makes sure you're left smiling.

'The 18th Day' is out now on V2

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