Lady Sovereign: The country's fourth biggest chav

In the US, Lady Sovereign is billed as the next Eminem, and has signed to Jay-Z's record label. Back home in the UK, she's been crowned the country's fourth biggest chav. Johnny Davis joins her on both sides of the Atlantic to hear about her past, present and wildly promising future
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The booing starts before Lady Sovereign reaches the stage. As the minutes drain past, the audience begin banging tables slowly with their fists. " This sucks!" shouts someone. Sovereign's soundman and DJ look helplessly at each other, and get back to fiddling with their wires.

At the South By Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, an artist's career can hinge on a single performance. The annual A&R bunfight sees some 1,300 acts flood the city, hoping to further their chances by impressing the maximum number of industry bigwigs. Lady Sovereign, the 20-year-old London MC of whom great things are expected, had been due to perform at the Victory Grill, a lively eastside bar, at 7pm. By 8.40pm, problems with the venue's DAT, then MiniDisc, then CD player mean she's still waiting stage right. Eventually, she bounds on. Two verses into the first song, "Random", the sound cuts out. Sovereign, who describes her act as "half MC-ing, half improvised stand-up", is left to wing it. A good time, she reasons, to make fun of the exasperated audience's accents and talk about her experiences in the toilet "after a good curry". Then she sits cross-legged and encourages everyone to boo the venue. Remarkably, this tactic works. Though Sovereign eventually quits while she's behind - the sound hiccuping through four more songs - her super-sized personality is pure endearment. She exits to cheers.

In the car park, Sovereign belches melodically, asks around for "a cancer stick" and declares victory. "Sometimes when I do that American accent," she says, "it can really lose the room."

A celebratory drink is called for and Team Sovereign - manager, DJ, others - head to The Driscoll, Austin's swankest hotel, in their hired Chevy Suburban. En route, Sovereign listens to old rave songs on her iPod ("Oh, big tune!") and smokes grass with her DJ. After some deft footwork past the bar staff - in America, Sovereign is not only underage, but at 5ft 1 she looks it - she deposits herself on a sofa beneath the mounted head of an enormous longhorn deer. "That's bigger than you," giggles her DJ. Horror-film-sized taxidermy, however, is the last thing she needs. "I'm intoxicated," she splutters. "I'm completely messed up."

Lady Sovereign is currently Britain's brightest musical export. Born of the MC scene of London's council estates, her bolshy, witty, self-deprecating songs fuse Eminem's pop-cultural eye with Missy Elliott's good-time street smarts. On "Ch-Ching", she boasts, "Got kicked out of school due to bunking/ Now look at me, the multitalented munchkin". On "Tango", she takes to task girls wearing fake tan: "Bring out the detergent/ Scrub that Oompa-Loompa/ It's urgent". And on "Hoodie", she champions the Bluewater-baiting attire (a defence that earnt her an unexpected audience with Gordon Brown at Number 10 last autumn).

Initially considered part of the grime scene, the UK's noisy take on US rap, her music equally embodies elements of ska, pop and punk. And unlike grime's crossover hopefuls Dizzee Rascal and Wiley, she also has an ear for a memorable tune. "Sovereign's got her own thing going on," says Felix Buxton of Basement Jaxx, producers of her new single, "Blah Blah Blah". "She's gritty but not scared to use humour. She stands out a mile." f

So far, so Ms Dynamite. But Sovereign is going full steam ahead, where other British artists have remained forlornly docked, to America. The only non-US act ever to sign to Def Jam, sometime home to the biggest names in rap and hip-hop such as Public Enemy, Run DMC and Kanye West, her debut album has been pushed back by almost a year (to late August) because Jay-Z, Pharrell Williams and the Beastie Boys' Adrock (Adam Horovitz) have each lined up to contribute. MTV has given her the same level of exposure they initially afforded Kanye West. The US press - from The New York Times to Playboy to the "urban" bible URB - is effusive. Talk of "Missy Elliott for the next generation" abounds.

"Sovereign is a pure entertainer," says Jay-Z, the rapper turned Def Jam CEO and President. "She makes me laugh."

"She's got style and she's got a punk rock attitude," says Adrock. "But above all that, she can rap."

"We've already had the mould of the mould of the mould of the original," says Def Jam's Rob Stevenson, who signed Lady Sovereign. "She's a white, English, female rapper. Name another one."

Lady Sovereign is, of course, too young to remember the Beastie Boys' most celebrated period. "Yeah, I am," she says in her clotted London accent. "But my mum loves 'em. When she found out, she was more speechless than me. 'Oh, my God, darlin.' D'youknoworimean?"

It's 48 hours after the Victory Grill show and Sovereign is sat by the pool of her downtown Austin hotel. As usual, she is wearing Adidas and Stüssy sportswear. Her hair is scraped over left-to-right in a sort of topknot, but on the side. Her front-door keys hang round her neck. Having spent the past few weeks recording in New York and Miami, she's hankering after English food. Specifically, shepherd's pie - "the 99p one" - and chip-shop chips. "When you ask for chips here, they bring you Doritos."

She's canny enough to realise it's part of her appeal: "My background, the whole Oliver Twist thing. It's an image. But it's real. It's all me." British interviewers have fairly squealed with delight to report her drinking Pernod and lemonade, while a website, chavscum.com, recently nominated her "the UK's 4th biggest chav" (above Jennifer Ellison but below Blazin' Squad). You might argue she only encouraged matters by appearing in the TV documentary Chavs, though she says she was set up: "They told me it was an interview about London MCs!" (Presented by Julie Burchill?)

Whatever, she caught Downing Street's eye after her website, savethehoodie.com, engaged the Asbo debate. "Hoodies have been about for dogs' years," she says. "Now they're seen as a bad thing. What about high-heeled shoes? That's a weapon right there. Take it off ... bang. I seen it happen."

Gordon Brown met with her approval.

"He was, like, 'I really like your name. It's really ... posh'. And I was, like, 'Yeah, that's right'. He was a cool guy though, seriously."

Can he count on her vote?

"I reckon so. He's a bit more real than the other one. Bit more down to earth. D'youknoworimean?"

Louise Harman, Lady Sovereign's alter ego, was a born backchatter - "typical Sagittarius" - raised on the decrepit, now demolished Chalkhill estate in Wembley, somewhere she loved. "I didn't grow up in an extremely nice part of London, but no regrets. I mean, I live in Earls Court now and I hate it. It's too, what's the word? Polished?" Photos of her courting parents reveal "proper scary" punks, all spikes and mohawks. They separated when she was 11, and Harman moved to Neasden with her father, older sister Chloe and younger brother Richie. She's always been a tomboy, she says. Climbing trees, jumping off car-park roofs, football. She doesn't do "girlie clothes" - it's "like putting a dress on a pitbull". (Chloe recently got married. Pictures on Sovereign's web page at myspace.com show her attending the service in a pristine white tracksuit.)

School was not a success. At 13 she was bunking off regularly, starting fires in bins and hiding on the roof. Despite being the class joker, she was terribly lonely. "I don't know why people didn't like me. It was horrible. I mean, I used to do stupid things. People would run away from me at breaktime."

Preston Manor High eventually kicked her out just before her GCSEs, on account of a 42 per cent attendance record. Various stints selling double glazing, cleaning a bakery and shouting "Get your doughnuts here!" at Wembley Stadium didn't agree with her and, depressed in front of Trisha, she decided to make something of herself. Having persuaded her dad to buy a computer, she forked out for a £10 microphone and started making music. Her nickname came after she pinched a ring from a friend's boyfriend. Next, she took one of her prized hoodies to a football shirt shop and had Lady Sovereign emblazoned across the back. "Then people would stop me. They'd be, like, 'Spit a lyric, then.'"

Did she want to be famous, or successful?

"Famous. I always knew I'd be famous. But I didn't know I'd be this successful."

Today, Lady Sovereign's football shirt reads: SOV. A week after Austin, she surveys the scene at The David Beckham Academy in London's Greenwich and declares it "a good laugh". Here, Adidas is launching its World Cup assault on the nation's pocket money, with a sort of celebrity soccer version of It's A Knockout. Fifteen teams, each comprising a Premiership captain and celebrities from TV, sports and music, plus kids from Beckham's school for would-be footballing greats, slug it out over various novelty tasks. One involves putting a blindfolded teammate inside a giant ball and guiding them round an assault course by means of shouting. The whole thing is being filmed for Channel 4.

Ralf Little wanders past looking a bit lost. Jonny Wilkinson dispenses tactics from the touchline. Beckham himself jogs about, grinning and signing the backs of shirts. Is he a Lady Sovereign fan? "Yes, of course," he beams, giving the thumbs up. "Isn't everyone?"

Adidas and Sovereign have a mutually beneficial relationship (the chorus of "Hoodie" inviting everyone to "Fling on an Adidas hoodie/ And just boogie woogie with me"; she never has to buy a pair of sneakers again) yet Adidas' "strictly for sports" manifesto means they stop short of actually sponsoring her (or any non-athlete). Yet, it might have been: at 13, Sovereign had trials for "loads" of women's football teams, though it may not surprise you to learn she bunked off her invitation to try out for Arsenal's ladies' side.

Vernon Kay, the TV celeb in Sovereign's team, gathers his players for a to-camera link.

"I see from the leaderboard that Shaun Wright-Phillips' team is leading with 19 points. If my GCSE maths is correct we need just seven to be top," he mugs. "And, as you know in football, anything is possible."

"Yeah, right," snorts Sovereign.

"Lady Sovereign," joke-chides Kay, "where's your positive mental attitude?"

For his next team link, Kay searches the pitch for Lady Sovereign in vain.

She's gone for a fag. f

Armed with her "chunky old PC", a dial-up connection and her dad's orders to limit chatroom time to an hour a night, Sovereign started scouring the net for likeminded people. "Just saying 'I'm an MC'," she says. "'Who wants to hear my lyrics?'" She met Frampster, her DJ, on a So Solid Crew site and together they started posting up 20- minute sets. Next, she enrolled in a four-week drama course, where she was invited to summon all her acting prowess to play a tearaway school truant in an educational film, for which she also provided a song. From here she hooked up with the east-London producer Medasyn - whose grandfather was the composer Sergei Prokofiev - and was off making records. Genre-straddling support slots with The Streets, Basement Jaxx and The Ordinary Boys followed.

Her reputation as catty cultural barometer was secured when she fell out with Jentina, the pop-rapper whose 2004 single "Bad Ass Strippa" was widely expected to make her the next big thing. On "Sad Arse Stripper" Sovereign accused Jentina of being born in a caravan, driving a Nissan Sunny and wearing the same Gucci thong for weeks. Jentina was quietly dropped by her label.

Spotted by Rob Stevenson on Def Jam's in-house video channel last September Sovereign was flown to New York and invited to freestyle - spontaneously rap - for Jay-Z. Faced with auditioning in front of arguably the most respected rapper alive, Sovereign was terrified. Then Usher walked into his office.

"And here are two of the biggest stars in the world," says Stevenson. "I'll be honest. It wasn't a great meeting." But Stevenson persevered and Jay-Z was won over by Sovereign's "talent and work ethic". They're now "fast friends".

America, like the UK, thinks Sovereign has big crossover potential. Not for nothing is The Ordinary Boys' upcoming, first post-Preston-in-Big-Brother single a version of Lady Sovereign's song "9 to 5".

"She's pure punk rock," says Preston. "Musically, she does exactly what she wants to, works with who she wants to and talks about what matters to her."

Recently, Sovereign's school has been back in touch. Mrs Rudman, her old English teacher, e-mailed explaining how many of her class look up to Sovereign. Perhaps she'd come back? Be a guest on the school's radio? "I'd definitely do it," she says. "I'm the most successful out of my year. I don't see anyone else I recognise out there. D'youknoworimean?"

Another week and Sovereign is back in New York, working on the never-ending album, making the daily trip from her SoHo hotel to the lavish recording studios on West 38th Street. She's exhausted. Last night, she got to bed at 5.30am. On Monday, she'll be back working with Adrock. Over the weekend, there's time scheduled with songwriter Lukasz "Dr Luke" Gottwald on a track she describes as "very hip-hop". Gottwald, however, is best known for writing enormo-smashes for Kelly Clarkson and the Backstreet Boys. "Shush!" she says. "Some of my tracks are apparently a bit 'too left' for radio. This could be the one to breakout over here." She thinks about this. "It's hard to please everyone, d'youknoworimean?"

Can she do it?

"I think this record will be massive," she says. "I mean, if I wasn't me, and Lady Sovereign came along, I'd be intrigued." She grins. "Wouldn't you?"

Lady Sovereign's EP 'Blah Blah Blah' is out on Monday on Island Records

Comments