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N-Dubz - Pop stars who play with fire

Home-grown hip-hop hitmakers N-Dubz have a history of trouble, most lately with 'death-texts' to a radio listener. The north-London trio explain themselves to Charlotte Cripps

It has taken ten years of hard slog for cousins Dappy and Tulisa, and their childhood friend Fazer, of N-Dubz to go from council estates in Camden to the top of the UK charts. On Monday their first No1 hit single , "Number 1" (with Tinchy Stryder), was nominated for a Brit Award, as Best British Single. Now the north London band, who released their new single, "Playing with Fire" this week, featuring Mr Hudson, are poised to sign a deal with US label Def Jam, in an attempt to break the US market.

I meet the trio at the Islington Arts Factory, amid plenty of gossip in the tabloids since Christmas – including rumours that X Factor boss Simon Cowell is tempting them away from their management. Then last week the Anglo-Greek rapper Dappy, 22, whose real name is Costas Dinos Contostavlos, sent "death texts", to a woman who had phoned into the Chris Moyles Show on BBC Radio 1 calling him "vile" and "a little boy with a silly hat". Dappy, who had scribbled down the listener Chloe Moody's mobile number while on the show, has since apologised, after his texts were published in The Sun. He was also ditched by a Government anti-bullying campaign. One message went as follows: "Your gonna die. U sent a very bad msg towards Ndubz on The Chris Moyels show yesterday Morning and for that reason u will never be left alone!!! u say sorry I will leave u alone u ****".

Dappy greets me in an endearing way by kissing me on the cheek and outstretches his arms dramatically. "I apologised to Chloe. I sent the messages to her in the heat of the moment when I was angry. I hope people believe I'm genuinely sorry," he says. Fazer, 22, then appears, wearing a baseball cap, while Tulisa, 21, whose style is urban-pretty, is just finishing a photoshoot upstairs.

I ask Dappy about the rumours that N-Dubz are splitting up. "Where did you read that?" he says. "We are not splitting up." I hand him a press cutting with the headline, "N-Dubz star Tulisa says band will split" and in which she says, "I've pretty much had enough of collaborations to last me a lifetime". He jumps up and runs upstairs snatching the article to show his blonde cousin Tulisa, while Fazer rolls his eyes.

"They are cousins," says Fazer, who met Dappy at the age of seven, at karate classes in Camden. "They have a brother-and-sister relationship. They have silly arguments and then make up and it's all forgotten. What she said has been taken out of context. Right now we are very dedicated to N-Dubz."

After a No1 hit last year, their second album Against All Odds flew into the Top Ten in November, and went platinum within a few months. NME has hailed them as "the voice of youth". "They are easily as culturally significant now as any guitar band you care to name," it said. They've had two sold-out UK tours in 2009, three Mobo Awards, while their second album has sold 400,000 copies. Now the wheels are in motion to conquer the US, with Def Jam record label bigwigs Max Gousse and LA Reid impressed by the band, who formed as the Lickle Rinsers, when the three were 12 years old.

So why is it that until now N-Dubz – whose hits include "I Need You", "Ouch" and "Papa Can You Hear Me" – have never been taken seriously and are dismissed as the Fisher-Price version of Dizzee Rascal? "It's been a lot of let downs, a lot of broken promises. People weren't interested in urban music. They didn't think it would sell records," says Dappy.

It hasn't been an easy ride for the trio, who are often ridiculed for their tweeny pop songs about boys' views versus girls' views, relationship problems, cheating, love, and life on the streets. Yet it all looked rosy in 2007 when Polydor Records signed the trio, and re-released their track "Better Not Waste My Time", which reached No26 in the charts. Dappy even made an appearance on Never Mind The Buzzcocks wearing his Dappy hat. But N-Dubz got dropped from Polydor, because nobody knew how to market them. Yet everything is now changing for N-Dubz.

Dappy has returned after his outburst to eat his lunch alone in a corner. "Sorry I'm pissed off with that Tulisa thing. It gets to me," Dappy says, looking genuinely upset. "Can you really set the record straight?" He starts hugging and kissing me and calling other journalists "plonkers".

Ever since the trio were inspired by the UK garage scene, recording singles in Dappy's dad's home studio, it has always been a family affair. Dappy's dad Bryon had been a member of 1970s folk band Mungo Jerry (of 1970 hit, "In the Summertime"), was their greatest inspiration and managed them until he died of a heart attack in 2007. His memory lives on: Dappy has "DAD" tattooed on his neck, their debut album is titled Uncle B (he was, of course, Tulisa's uncle) and the second album's title, Against All Odds celebrates the fact they never gave up.

They pride themselves on the fact that they write, produce, mix and master all their own material. "We are real musicians – not just rappers with a singer in the middle," says Dappy. There is nothing manufactured about them. Rather there is an overriding feeling that they have been nurtured to fulfil their talent, on the long-haul journey to success.

Their manager Jonathan Shalit, of Shalit Global and the former manager of Charlotte Church, snapped up N-Dubz in 2008. But managing N-Dubz is challenging even if the band sell records. In November it was reported that Junior Edwards, aka DJ Maze, a freelance musician who worked with N-Dubz, was arrested on suspicion of raping a fan after a show. He was released on bail without charge and the band dropped him. It is Tulisa, 21, whose real name is Tula Contostavlos, who really has her head screwed on. She is super-efficient, possibly due to the fact she cared for her mother, who had been diagnosed with mental illness. Her parents divorced when she was young (her dad Steve was also in Mungo Jerry). She tells me she stands for "female empowerment" in the band. "I want to be a good role model to girls. I want to show them that anything is possible and bring back morals that seem to have been forgotten." Tulisa thinks the showbiz world is "shallow".

"Dappy and I love each other to pieces. I tell him off because I love him. I'm the only girl in the band. I'm more mature I suppose." These latest rumours of her ditching N-Dubz erupted when, for the second album, she did a solo song called "Comfortable", which prompted gossip that she was to quit the group and go solo. Then, in an interview in the girls' magazine Sugar, she said: "One day we'll all definitely go solo. I'd like to bring out an album and so would the lads. But we'd always be involved in other people's stuff. I'd want Fazer to produce it and Dappy to co-write with me."

She tells me: "It does get frustrating expressing yourself in a band. It gets complicated because we co-write all the songs." Tulisa also wants to make it in films and is already auditioning for major roles. She has just played Laurissa, a cocaine addict who is in a pop group and gets abused by her manager and boyfriend, played by Ricci Harnett, in the third and final Channel Four TV series of Dubplate Drama, a show that Dappy also featured in.

Her biggest luxury is her Audi A5 convertible sports car. For Dappy it is renting a plush apartment in Canary Wharf – "instead of a dirty sh*thole that we were raised and born in". Dappy also shows me white gold and diamond jewellery, including crucifixes hanging round his neck, worth £13,000, and tells me he owns more than 80 hats.

But it's hard not to see that behind the N-Dubz persona is a band who get hurt and upset and have made it through nothing else but sheer talent and determination.

"I'm used to council estates and doing naughty stuff," says Dappy. "Now I'm hanging out with all the rich people, I'm feeling rather important. I'm up with the big boys. I'm swimming with the sharks."

'Playing with Fire' is out now