March 9, 2018 9:00am
Million Dollar Baby
According to her track record, Stefflon Don is going to be late. Almost every interview the rapper’s done since the release of her 2016 mixtape ‘Real Ting’ is prefaced with a tally of the hours journalists have spent expecting her arrival. But not today. Today, Steff is bang on time.
In fact, when I arrive at the north London studio hosting her NME cover shoot, it’s she who has already been here for hours. Staring down NME photographer Zoe McConnell from a throne, Steff’s sporting a Union Jack minidress, a flowing red gown and a choker reading ‘DON’. Looking utterly regal beneath her jewel-encrusted crown, the rapper vogues to Spice Girls’ ‘Wannabe’ and Popcaan’s ‘Family’ – her team singing and dancing along – then reaches for the VO5 NME Award she won last month, on the raised middle finger of which she’s popped a glittering diamanté ring. There’s no ambiguity here: 2018 is hers for the taking.
The east Londoner has leapt from unsigned artist to Drake collaborator in three years, initially making waves with gender-flipping remixes of songs by British grime crew Section Boyz and Mississippi rap bros Rae Srummerd, and latterly using a blend of hard-hitting bars (‘16 Shots’), melodic dancehall (‘Hurtin’ Me’) and disarming cheek (‘Tight Nooki’) to win fans with lyrics that swerve in and out of Patois.
In the past year alone, Steff has performed on US TV, done a Vogue shoot, won Best New Artist supported by Vans at the VO5 NME Awards and released a video [for ‘Ding-A-Ling’] starring an actual tiger. Following this interview, she’ll fly out to New York for a gig with Damian Marley, immediately return to London and kick off her own UK tour, with setlists featuring her collaborations with grime king Skepta, NYC rapper French Montana and LA pop star Demi Lovato. “It’s different,” she says of her schedule’s escalating demands. “I get homesick – I could be in the sunniest place but I need to see normality, and normal for me is London.” Right now, that’s true, but for Steff ‘normal’ has never meant one thing. In fact, her adaptability could well be her greatest strength.
Born Stephanie Allen in Birmingham, the middle child of seven, she left the UK for the Netherlands aged four with her family. As a kid, change came easily. “Before I knew it,” she says, “I knew Dutch.” In Rotterdam, the city she called home for 10 years, Steff quickly made friends, but in the absence of a Jamaican community her family felt “left out” among communities from Dutch-colonised countries such as Suriname and the Antilles. “I’d know my friend for years but she’d never call me her cousin because I’m Jamaican,” she says. “But she’d meet someone else and within a couple of months she’s introducing her as her cousin. I’d be like, ‘That’s not your cousin! I’ve been your friend for how long? I wanna be your cousin!’”
That feeling of displacement didn’t prevent Steff from finding her first musical roots in Rotterdam. Growing up with the music videos of Destiny’s Child and Lil’ Kim, she longed to be a singer and started writing songs aged eight. “I’d mimic songs I heard,” she recalls, “relationship stuff I knew nothing about.” At nine, she had her first taste of the studio, singing ‘Hard Knock Life’-style vocals for a rapper called Unique. It was a huge moment. “When he played me back, I cried,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s me.’ I felt like a superstar.”
Another big change was just around the corner. Steff and her family left Holland for London when she was 14, and though she felt homesick, she continued to feed her musical passion in London studios while adjusting to school life. “I didn’t fit in at first. I had a weird accent. Dutch people speak American English and my parents were Jamaican, with their own broken English. American English mixed with broken English – what the f**k’s that? People were like, ‘Where the f**k are you from?’” Schooling in the “strict, not very gang-cultured, not very crime-oriented” Netherlands hadn’t really prepared Steff for London life, but she soon rose to the challenge. “My outfits were atrocious,” she admits, “but after a couple of months I got the drift on the swag, on what your hair should be like, what your outfit should be like.”
“The better I got at rap, the more I grew into my name”
– Stefflon Don
The 26-year-old’s inimitable confidence makes it hard to believe, but she wasn’t always the most self-assured performer. “I didn’t think rap was me,” she says of her teenage self, who still harboured ambitions of being a straightforward singer. “But I was shy to sing in front of people. It’d be so off because I was shy.” Singing is still her thing – ‘Hurtin’ Me,’ a sung track from 2017, is her biggest hit – but she feels her rapping is where her strengths lie. “I’m not a proper singer,” she reckons, “even today. I’m just OK: I know what I want to do and I sound good at it.”
Her sister encouraged Steff to develop her rap skills at a studio. “She would always get gassed when I’d freestyle rap,” Steff laughs. “I’d be chatting the most s**t but the flows I came up with… She just saw potential.” This was a huge breakthrough. “I laid some rap and felt so much more confident. Like, ‘This is easy. I ain’t gotta worry about my voice crackling. I’m not shy.’ Afterwards, I remember people calling me, saying, ‘Yo Steff, what you laid was fire.’ I knew I was good.”
After school Steff went to college and spent time as a cake decorator and hairdresser to fund her studio time, steadily developing her skills. “I used to look at old-school rap, how they put rhymes together,” she says. “I studied my craft.” Then, applying to a university scheme to study business, she took out a student finance loan and used the money to fly herself to LA to work with a producer. She planned to be there for three weeks and ended up staying for two-and-a-half months; of the resulting 10 tracks, she shot a video for one – ‘Instagram It’ – a song that, amusingly, she now hates.
“That’s not me,” she reflects. “I’m 10 times better than that.” The experience gave her “an insight into how to be in the studio every day,” but it wasn’t until her 2015 remix of Section Boyz’s ‘Lock Arff’ that Steff began to really find her own voice – and with it, recognition. “I liked everything about [‘Lock Arff’],” she says of the track that helped bring about her £1 million record deal with Universal. “That was the first time I could say, ‘Shut up, I know this is sick.’”
Years previously, her now-manager had insisted she adopt the punny moniker Stefflon Don – “‘You’re from London, you’re like a don,’” he told her then. “I was just starting to build myself,” she says, “and that name was so gangsta. I told my girls; they were like, ‘What kind of f**king name is that?’ – but they started calling me it as a joke. And as I got better with rap, I grew into it. I had to live up to it. That’s what made me better. I didn’t want to go round telling people my name and then playing a f**king s**t rap.”
Her Dutch upbringing had left her open to myriad sounds, too. “Dutch schools were heavily influenced by people’s cultures,” she explains, “so if there was Eid we’d celebrate in school. We’d celebrate every culture. That’s opened my mind to be welcoming. I don’t feel, like, ‘Oh I’m black so I’ll stick to my black self’ – I’m cool with everyone.” The same approach carries over into her music. “When I’m in the studio with a writer,” she says, “I don’t mind for them to take the lead and show me something new.” It’s the way Steff experiments – blurring genre borders – that makes her destined for global stardom.
We come onto the topic of her in-your-face lyrics. ‘16 Shots’ is a quiver of threats; ‘Envy Us’ a swaggering braggadocio track; ‘Tight Nooki’ is… Well, you can probably guess. Steff says that once upon a time her sexually explicit lyrics were rubbish. “People would tell me, ‘Steff – you need to find metaphorical ways to say what you’re saying – you’re not covering it up with real talent, you’re just covering it up with rubbish, wide open, like ‘Suck my pussy.’” No longer.
Growing up, Steff had looked up to Lil’ Kim, Missy Elliott and others who spoke their mind. “I used to always be attracted to that. It seemed so sick and so powerful as a woman to be able to express yourself and not care about what anyone thinks. That drew me to become a rapper.” Now, her own no-holds-barred approach comes from a similar place. “You’ve got to say what a girl with not so much confidence would want to say,” she reckons. “Women – especially women that aren’t so naughty – they listen to that type of bad stuff to be in that little moment.”
“I wanted to sign for a million – and I actually did”
– Stefflon Don
She doesn’t run her mouth when asked about the paucity of women on festival line-ups – particularly Wireless, which Annie Mac and Lily Allen called out this year for recruiting just three female artists. Steff’s response is diplomatic: “Obviously it would be better if there was more women, but I don’t know,” she reasons. “They might have asked more women and they might not have wanted to do it.” Her million-pound contract with Universal – as part of which she created and signed herself to her own label – finds her chattier. “It wasn’t about the money,” she says. “Growing up, I always said I wanted to sign for a million. I just wanted to make it happen – and it actually did.” Then, after a perfect pause, “I knew I could have waited and got more.”
Because waiting is something many of Steff’s interviewers enjoy moaning about due to her now notorious lateness, I’ve got to know: does she like making people wait? “That was before! I’ve been good, innit! Before I didn’t know the importance of being on time. I thought people could wait a bit.” We will have to wait slightly longer for her second mixtape – featuring Drake’s pal Future, among others – but she’s confident it’ll be worth it. “It’s gonna be lit,” she says. “I don’t care if it sells nothing.” So – with so many of her ambitions already realised, what’s her next big goal? “Everyone to know me,” she replies. “World domination.” It’s only a matter of time.
Steff’s pop pals
Ahead of her debut album, Steff’s worked with tons of big names. Here’s our top four
Giggs, ‘Real Ting (Remix)’
Bolshy stormer on which Giggs calls himself a “Wookiee motherf**ker” without losing any gravitas.
Steff says: “Sick.”
Jeremih, ‘Tight Nooki’
Cheeky, steelpan-assisted dancehall about riding bananas.
Steff says: “Inspiring.”
Lil Yachty, ‘Better’
Upbeat tropical ballad from the ‘bubblegum trap’ man’s debut ‘Teenage Emotions’.
Steff says: “Dreamy.”
Popcaan, Sean Paul, Sizzla, ‘Hurtin’ Me (The Remix)’
A bubbly rework of Steff’s biggest hit, featuring three Jamaican music legends.
Steff says: “Lit.”