The debut album by Shystie, Diamond in the Dirt, is the latest landmark in the onward march of black British music into the mainstream. Following the achievements of artists as diverse as Dizzee Rascal and Ms Dynamite, the 21-year-old Shystie (aka Chanelle Scott) is the first star of grime, the new underground dance genre descended from UK garage, to sign directly to a major label; she is also the first female British MC to have success (Ms Dynamite is really a singer). Her quicksilver, hectoring rapping has qualified her to compete in New York this summer for the title of fastest rapper in the world.
Shystie made her name with "I Love You", last year's cheeky white-label response to Dizzee's female put-down "I Luv You"; her new single, "One Wish", is a tribute to life on estates such as the one in Hackney, east London, where she grew up. But she is at her best when she lets her imagination roam free from that world, on tracks such as "Questions", which wittily shoots down assumptions about her in the style of a daytime talk show.
Shystie's music contains touches of gospel, soul, electro and even opera. "Because I'm being compared a lot to Ms Dynamite," she explains, "I didn't want my album to sound like hers, or Jamelia's, or Lisa Maffia's. I studied guys' albums as well. I didn't want it to sound like Dizzee's, or whoever's the hottest whatever. Where they took the right, I took the left. Where some people might have gone wrong, I'm using that to my advantage. Because some artists in the UK have left gaps, they've left doors open where they should have closed them. Ms Dynamite's a nice lady, but I'm not like her. I don't want to lose the respect of the grime scene where I came from, with fans saying, 'Oh, she's sold out. She did three singles, then she left the underground.' "
Such achievements were not even a daydream when Shystie was 18, living with her family in the sleepy north-London suburb of Edmonton, to where they had just moved. Drifting between dull jobs in Tesco and telesales, she felt trapped. "I was just bumming it. I just felt down, like, 'What am I doing? Nothing I'm doing's working.' I wasn't that good at school; I wasn't an A-grade student. My life seemed a failure. All my family were out working; I was the only one at home. I'd sleep until late afternoon, then watch crappy chat shows. One day I thought, 'This has gotta stop. Why am I the only one not doing something positive?' Music saved me. It's my backbone, man. It brought me to life."
Shystie was already MCing, having started at 17. But it was when she abandoned her old life to study sound-engineering at college, the only girl in her class, that she found her focus. She hustled her way into pirate stations and under-21 garage nights, building her reputation for two years before "I Love You" pushed her over the top. Diamond in the Dirt lacked only the real musicians that a major label can fund when Polydor called. "I wasn't sure, because Dynamite was on the label," she recalls. "I told them, 'You're signing me because you like this demo that I've come to you with - you like that rawness and griminess. So I'm not going to water it down. I'm not going to be doing no singing album.'"
As we talk, this funny, proud, unaffected young woman is clearly impatient to get back to the studio, where she is working on a second album, which she aims to finish by September. Lyrics constantly churn round her head. "It's taking over my life, man!" she says. "If somebody says a certain word, I'll put it into my phone. From that one word, I can make a whole track. It's easy, man! It is so easy. I don't understand why everyone's not jumping on the bandwagon." It's a lot harder for most people, I suggest. "Yeah, but I'm just normal," she says, suddenly embarrassed. "It's God. He's helping me out."
Shystie still lives with her large family in the unlikely 'hood of Edmonton. But the suburban peace of her leafy new neighbourhood is a bigger challenge. "It's boring down there, oh my God," she gasps. "Hackney is just live - the police cars, you hear them on the hour. In Edmonton, you hear a police car once every five years or something, man. It is dead down there." Could she ever rap about where she is now? Could there be a suburban grime album? "I couldn't rap about growing up where I live, because it's boring. If I had grown up where I live now, I wouldn't be able to come out with a song like 'I Wish'. No one would even care."
I bet there's a girl in the suburbs right now, I suggest, bored out of her mind, MCing to save her life. "Mm-mm, well, maybe," she says, hugely unconvinced. "She'd be talking about the cows and the sheep she sees across the road. Oh, that is dry, man."
Before she discovered rap and garage as a teenager, Shystie adored the lovers' rock and soul her mother played. That, it transpires, is where her heart really lies. "Marvin Gaye and Nina Simone, that's where it's at for me," she sighs. "No violent talk; it's all nice. That's really what I'm down on. But hip hop and grime, that's the new generation of music. It's good. It's what I'm doing, innit?"
'One Wish' is out on Monday on Polydor, 'Diamond in the Dirt' on 12 July
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