Lady Sovereign: Breaking out of the hoodie

From underground London grime star to the toast of American hip-hop, Chris Mugan charts Lady Sovereign's amazing feat
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On the sixth floor of Universal Island's west London HQ, a 21-year-old MC plots world domination. "Def Jam are going to shit themselves when they hear what I come up with next. They're a hip-hop label, but I'm not necessarily going to make that kind of music. I wanna go in a whole different direction."

These words could flow from a boastful US rapper set to follow in the footsteps of Jay-Z or Missy Elliott. Instead, they come from a girl raised in Wembley, not known for artists that have conquered the globe. Yet this is the intention of Louise "Lady Sovereign" Harman.

A mere half-hour ago, the self-proclaimed "titchy ting" was fast asleep on a sofa, hardly a surprise given her hectic schedule. In the past 12 months, Harman has won over the American rap fraternity and a sizeable portion of its fan base. She spent most of last year in the States and is only here for a week to promote her new album Public Warning.

"Everything's just like boom, boom, boom from one place to another," she marvels, growing more alert as a pack of crisps perks her up. "It's not worth catching up with the time zones, so I'm just catnapping. I went to bed at five this morning and got up at nine, so I'm all over the shop, but it's all good."

So much for the media representation of Harman as a role model for the feckless youths derided as chavs. In tracksuit bottoms, with hair pulled back into a tight pony-tail that hangs to one side, Harman appears to have changed little from the teenager that rapped into her home computer and posted tracks online. Except that when we first met three years ago, she sunk defensively into a settee with her feet hanging off the edge. Now Harman has taken the office chair and gets down to business.

Lady Sovereign has already made light of her tag as a "chav princess" with the single "Hoodie" and a visit to Gordon Brown, but her album shows she has moved beyond that to challenge the pop world. It is miles away from the youth project where Harman was discovered by producer Medasyn, instrumental in shaping her early sound. In 2004, she was picked up by Island. Her album could have been released in autumn 2005, except that she tweaked the interest of another Universal subsidiary, Def Jam.

Harman was called to New York for an audition in front of rap mogul Jay-Z himself, not to mention R&B star Usher, a challenge that fazed the previously imperturbable rapper, who had already stood up against the finest grime MCs. "It was horrible, man. I've never been so closed up in my life. My heart was just... it was like throwing a goldfish in with the sharks. I felt so on my own. It took me a good five minutes to pluck up the courage, then I said 'I need a beat'. So he put on a Kanye West track and I said that was the wrong one. Then I realised what I'd done."

Having spurned a backing provided by a labelmate and Jay-Z protégé, Harman stumbled her way through one by another Def Jam rapper Ludacris. "I just got at it and choked halfway through. He was grinning the whole time, but I thought I'd messed it up. Then they phoned later and said 'welcome'."

With Jay-Z on board, it was back to square one for Harman, so some album tracks are a good three years old, vintage material for debut albums these days.

From her previous dancehall-influenced delivery, Harman's vocals have grown more melodic to fit the tunes around them. This has allowed her to find her own voice, rather than sound like she was copying the rappers she heard on pirate radio. "It's just been a natural thing, because when I started maybe I was trying too hard. Then I started writing songs, rather than just lyrics."

The infectious current single "Love Me Or Hate Me" was added last year, though "My England" is not as new as it sounds. The number introduces us to the place Harman calls home - specifically Wembley's Chalkhill estate: "We not all Bridget Jones clones... More like gwanin mate. You get me?" she sings. "America was tickling me back then, but it wasn't like I was trying to [reach them]. It's for people in general, even people from Scotland," Harman laughs.

She does admit, though, there were some preconceptions when she first arrived in the US. "They expected me to be more proper, but they like the fact I'm a bit rough round the edges," Harman giggles.

While recorded in the UK, Public Warning was mixed stateside, though the likes of "A Little Bit Of Shhh" and "Blah Blah" have maintained their distinctive, pop-meets-grime backing. Harman stood up to the American producers. "I just told them to make it like the speakers were going to explode - boom. I'm not letting anyone tell me what to do with my music, especially when I've got a hell of a lot to do with it. I know what I want and won't settle for anything that's just been given to me."

Problems arose when she was encouraged to work with Pharrell Williams and Beastie Boy Ad Rock. "I must have been depressed, and my head wasn't screwed on. I just sat there and nothing would come out. People would cut their hands off for that opportunity and I was there for four days in Miami. It was like draining a sponge that was already dry."

She continues to live out of hotel rooms across the US, and London is still home, even if she has lost touch with the grime scene. "I miss English TV and English food. I'm in touch with some people from when I was younger, but anyone you don't stay in contact with, it's for a reason."

She has still to get over that suspicion of UK artists that made it big in the States before attempting to replicate success here (see Bush, Floetry and Dirty Vegas). Her job to persuade the British public she is more than a spokesperson for hoodie wearers starts here.

'Public Warning' is out now on Island Records