It's the worst habit I've ever picked up," says Speech Debelle, sparking up a Marlboro. "I've done drugs and left them alone. But cigarettes? Nah. It's got a hold on me." It's a sunny afternoon in south London's Brockwell Park, and the pretty, baby-faced MC sips her mixed fruit cider, her frank wit marked by a lisp that makes her seem younger than her 26 years. She's the kind of girl who tells it like it is. When the conversation turns to her stint in a hostel in Richmond, she says that the only good thing about it was the free dinners. "Marks & Spencer and Waitrose gave us all their food that was going off the next day," she smiles faintly. She also recalls the time she decided to get the "Pain is Love" tattoo on her left wrist. "I just felt like I really wanted it," she says. "Especially at that time, I felt very much in pain."
This particular revelation is less about the process of the ink needle and more about the three-year period she spent living in various hostels around London after being kicked out of home, which exposed her to narcotics and crime. It's all weaved into the lyrics on her debut album, Speech Therapy. "One day I know that/it will get better/music is healing/I know the feeling," she affirms on the whimsical single "Spinnin'".
The making of this album has been her redemption and the title is two-fold in its significance: it's based on a song dedicated to a confidante who died of lung cancer, but it also encompasses her purpose for the project, a sort of musical rehab that laughs at the notion of patient confidentiality. Her first single, "Searching", which was met with a flurry of approval when it was released last year, tells the story of that particular chapter in her life. "At the end of the day, I wouldn't have done so many of the things I'd done if I wasn't in a hostel," she says. "I got involved in crime, and all this other stuff, but I also learned so much."
Despite her aural ferocity, you almost wonder whether she might feel vulnerable for putting out so much information about her life. "Maybe a little bit," she says. "It's a lot easier for me to disconnect now because I've made the transition to an artist."
To her credit, she's unlikely to be compared to other British "fem-cees". Where the Ms Dynamites and Lady Sovereigns have found themselves morphing into commodities at the hands of the music industry, Speech Debelle is the rebellious exception. Hers is a raw insight into what happens to teens in society left to fend for themselves, but it's no meditated sob story. The narratives are thoughtful, helped by the warm, folky and delicate production of Wayne "Lotek" Bennett, who was able to recreate her vision of sounding like a "hip-hop Tracy Chapman". She says that, at a young age, she got into hip-hop by way of the libidinous Lil' Kim, but nowadays finds more in common with the socially conscious songs of Lauryn Hill. "Things like her MTV unplugged album gave me confidence," Speech says, "and allowed me to not feel restricted about things that I thought I shouldn't say in a song."
Speech grew up in a single-parent Jamaican household and didn't get along with her mum. However, it was her mum who encouraged her to give her absentee father a chance, and he's the subject of the evocative "Daddy's Little Girl". "I have eight half-brothers and sisters, but I grew up pretty much as an only child." At school she did well in English and Music ("that's so cliché, innit?" she scoffs), but wasn't much interested in the rest. When she told her careers adviser that she was considering a career as a probation officer, she was told to lower her expectations. "I was like, 'if I'm not gonna do the things I wanna do, I ain't doing nothing,'" she shrugs. "I was young and ignorant."
After dropping out of college and getting kicked out of home, she began to pursue a music career and started her own label at 17, working with a quartet of singers, a rapper and a producer. She started to tout a demo of her artists to the likes of Sony BMG and Ministry of Sound. They both declined. "It turned me off. I went back to doing nothing."
At the age of 21, after being advised to become a solo artist, she set up a meeting with Will Ashton, founder of the hip-hop imprint Big Dada, but was unprepared. She came back a few years later with music, but a close call with the law put matters on hold. "I was dabbling in crime, and jail would have affected everything. So I thought, 'oh my god, things have got to change,'" she says. She eventually got back in touch with Ashton, who signed her. She added the "Debelle" to her moniker to avoid confusion with the Arrested Development frontman, and liked the fact that her name could mean "voice of the beautiful one".
Speech is relishing the opportunity to turn her life around. Being signed to Big Dada is a major boost, considering it's turned Roots Manuva into an internationally acclaimed star: Speech's credibility could just see her follow suit. She hopes that she can get past the embryonic stage of being a newcomer, and while she's lined up a spot at Glastonbury this summer, she says she won't be satisfied until she has the album in her hands. As for the follow-up, she reckons it'll be a natural progression. "The next album is a bit scary because I feel like I've already said so much!" she admits. "But after 13 years of rapping, I'm more confident in what I do. I will document my life."
The single "Go Then Bye" is released on 25 May on Big Dada. The album 'Speech Therapy' is released on 1 June. She performs at the Turning Point Festival at the Roundhouse, London, on 10 MayReuse content