British female rappers have always been a breed apart.
While their male counterparts have tended to wear their
debt to US hip-hop greats with pride, the likes of Ms
Dynamite and Stush have shied away from the sexually
explicit shock tactics employed by Americans such as Lil'
Kim and Trina. Stush, the chipmunk-voiced chatterbox who
first came to prominence in 2002 with the grime classic
Dollar Sign, laughs at the thought of copying the
Americans. "Over here, if you came out with that talk,
you'd just get people going, 'Oh, that girl's a slag, man!'
All the guys would switch on you, you'd get no respect."
Not that this means that our female rappers hold their
tongue. Lady Chann, for example, made her name last year
with the funky house/dancehall hybrid Your Eye Too Fast.
Over garage producer Sticky's Fugitive Riddim, a bucking
bronco of a beat, she delivers a rambunctious verbal
whipping so ferocious that you fear for the poor, cowering
man's life. "Me ah the Chris Brown! You ah the Rihanna!"
she hollers. Chann is just as boisterous in person, her
19-to-the-dozen chatter punctuated only by the occasional
uproarious laugh. "Hahahaaaa! Obviously, it wasn't funny as
such, but I have to use metaphors!" she guffaws. "I just
thought, I'm switching it! And yeah, if I was in that
situation and Chris Brown tried to do that to me" – she
smacks her fist into her palm – "Nah. I'd go Chris Brown on
Chann's forthrightness has been shaped by her background.
She lived her early years on a Chelsea estate named the
World's End – "You had guns, needles, all that rubbish. But
on the other side was Kings Road, so a minute later you'd
see Bentleys driving down the road" – but when she moved to
Stonebridge, in north-west London, her musical ambitions
thrived. "They call it the mini West Indies – it has a
really good vibe and a lot of musical influences. It really
helps you to keep your culture. I really appreciate growing
up in that nice area as well as the, quote-unquote,
ghetto." Seven years ago, she became the only woman in the
area's Suncycle dancehall collective, with whom she
continues to make music alongside her solo projects, and
she has been working with producers such as Toddla T, MJ
Cole and GreenMoney on tracks for an EP due in March, Dun
It is no real surprise that female MCs returned to
prominence on the British urban scene last year, just as
harsher, male-coded grime beats were supplanted by UK funky
rhythms in the clubs. Funky – already widely credited for
returning girls to urban raves en masse – has been
particularly conducive to the return of Jamaican toasting,
given its own close rhythmic ties to soca and dancehall. As
Lady Chann puts it: "It's quite a natural movement because
obviously we have West Indian or Jamaican roots, but we're
English, we were born here. So funky and dancehall
complement each other."
Funky also bears similarities to turn-of-the-century UK
garage – which may be why some familiar names have
resurfaced, such as Stush and Ms Dynamite. Like Lady Chann,
they have both released essential club tracks over the past
year that balance a matriarchal, no-nonsense stance with
lubriciousness and levity. They have been absent for
different reasons, though.
Ms Dynamite seemed to disappear in the wake of Judgement
Days, her 2005 follow-up to her Mercury prize-winning debut
A Little Deeper. "I was quite a new mum at that point," she
explains. "I reckon I did the second album half-heartedly.
I might have been in the studio feeling like I was focused,
but my head was actually thinking: I wonder how my son is?
So I decided I wasn't ready to come back to music."
Now, Ms Dynamite feels ready. She was responsible for two
crucial UK funky cuts in 2009 – the propulsive, rattling
Get Low (Crackish), produced by Rinse FM boss Geeneus, and
the frenetic, tough-as-nails Bad Gyal, produced by Sticky.
"It's cocky, confident and self-assured," she says of the
latter. "There's a kind of arrogance, but this is a cool,
fun arrogance. Not putting anyone down. Just being that
confident in yourself." A new single with Zinc, Wile Out,
is a metallic, harder-edged take on funky house; Ms
Dynamite is once again on fine form on it, switching
adeptly between singing and classic dancefloor MCing,
exhorting a crowd to "gwaan, get deep, make a scene, wile
out!" in rapid-fire patois.
Ms Dynamite's transition out of and back into the music
industry was a smooth one. "My record company were pretty
supportive. I think some of them were genuine, they had
kids of their own and they understood. Others were just
like, well, we're not going to get anything out of her in
this state anyway, it'd be a waste of money." She pauses.
"Creativity's one of those things you can't fake."
Stush has had it harder. She's been largely absent for
seven years since Dollar Sign, stuck in contractual limbo.
In 2002, she signed a six-album deal with Go! Beat, but
the label folded and internal politics took over. "I
wasn't even allowed to go into the studio some days," she
says. "The contract is still a mess right now. [Island
Universal] won't let me go, because I'm sitting on all of
these tracks I've been writing for seven years, and they
say they want to release the album."
Trips to the US and a tour with Groove Armada have kept
Stush busy, but in 2007 she was dealt another blow. "I
started to get unexplained seizures, collapsing backstage.
It's still undiagnosed – I've had brain scans, the lot,
it's not epilepsy. I lost my confidence – I didn't know
when it was coming. I'd collapse in the street, I'd
collapse in my room and have to nudge my phone with my head
to call my sister."
Stush takes a deep breath. "Even with all of that, I know
there are people worse off than me. I'm not going to let it
stop me. I don't want pity. It's just the next hurdle I
have to get over."
A former high jumper for Herne Hill Harriers, Stush is used
to clearing obstacles, and it comes through in her music.
Last year, We Nuh Run was one of the singles of last year.
Her unmistakeable voice – angry squeals and a nimble,
rat-a-tat flow riding the twists and turns of the beat –
remains as thrilling as it was in 2002. Moreover, the
enthusiasm for her craft of the girl who started out
attempting to mimic Buju Banton's low tones remains
undimmed. "I keep my dictaphone next to my bed at night,
cuz bars will just come into my head. And my head just
opens up when I'm travelling – that happened recently. I
had to vocal a track that I'd only been given a few days
previously. I couldn't get into it, and I literally had to
write the last verse in the cab on the way to the studio.
And then I got there" – she smiles at the memory – "and I
laced the track, mate."
We Nuh Run was lent some added edge thanks to the lyrics.
"They don't wanna have a pretty dark-skinned gyal pon di
TV," ran the song's opening line, a reference to the time
she was cut from a Groove Armada video without explanation.
"I've had makeup artists try to make my eyes smaller and
lighten my skin," she explains. "There was a time when I
was meant to be in a magazine spread and they said, 'You're
too dark for the page – we can't put the right font on
She shrugs. "That's the reality, you know? But I want to
change all that. Black girls don't really have many
positive role models out there – if we wear our hair
natural, we're told it's 'nappy', our lips are big – girls
are made to hate themselves. That's not how I was brought
up, so if I can do anything to help, I will help." So will
Lady Chann, who recently tweeted: "It would be lovely, and
somewhat different, to see a jet-black pretty girl playing
the love interest in the male artist's videos."
Elaborating, Chann asserts that "it's a question of
representation – I'm not saying that your leading lady in a
video has to be the same race as you. I'm not going to say
who this artist is, but if you've done four or five videos,
all love songs, and all your leading ladies are white –
what message are you sending to your black fans? That your
own race isn't good enough to be seen on the TV with you?"
Stush, Ms Dynamite and Lady Chann are all industry veterans
by now. Lady Leshurr, by contrast, is at the very start of
her career, but the 22-year-old from Birmingham is
already gaining plaudits as one of the most distinctive
up-and-coming talents in the UK. She possesses both a
cheeky glint in her voice and a willingness to lay her
emotions bare – and a phenomenal flow, clipped and
controlled even as she accelerates to an astonishing speed
over an impressive range of beats, from dubstep to Flat
Eric. "Everyone asks about that," she laughs. "I got the
fast flow from starting on drum'n'bass – I didn't even
think I was going fast, I just needed to match the beat."
Leshurr, who took advantage of a local youth club's free
studios to make her first mixtape at the age of 14 – "I
used to write lyrics in my maths and French books at the
back of the bus" – is a firm believer in the internet. Like
Lady Chann, she is a Twitter disciple, but she also raves
about Ustream, a site that allows her to beam her
freestyles live to "people in Canada or Italy who've never
even heard of me before". Thus the release of her excellent
Last Second Mixtape last year, and the UnLeshurr Mixtape
this year, has seen her draw attention from around the
world – despite her admitting that "I still ain't getting
paid, really". The Americans in particular have been
swayed: "They say they love my style and my accent, and
they keep saying I'm like Nicki Minaj," she says, clearly
nonplussed. "I'm more influenced by Eminem. Being a female
rapper, you do get compared to other females a lot. But I
guess it's a good thing, cuz she's the big new thing over
Leshurr considers MCing to be not just a form of
self-expression, but of expression on behalf of those
around her. "I've been through and seen a lot in my life,
and I still haven't had the chance to talk about it," she
says quietly. "I know a lot of people who've had
experiences that they're not too proud of, or they've
witnessed things that they don't think should have
happened. And the majority of those people are quite
silent. So I do want to stand up for the people who don't
have a voice to say what's happened to them."