British rhyme dropper Speech Debelle earned international attention in 2009 when her debut album, Speech Therapy, won the Mercury Prize, topping popular U.K. acts like Florence And the Machine, La Roux and the Horrors. In August 2011 the culturally conscious rapper turned heads again when an outbreak of destructive U.K. riots inspired her to prematurely release “Blaze Up A Fire,” a track from her anticipated second album, Freedom Of Speech, along with a long-form explanation that stirred some controversy.
“These young people are not aliens dropped down from outer space on Friday night,” Debelle wrote. “They are our children. We cannot say there is something wrong with them without acknowledging there must be something wrong with us as a society.”
Freedom Of Speech, which Debelle says is deeply inspired by the global riots and uprisings that characterized 2011 in her eyes, is due out on February 21 on Big Dada. Stoked by “Blaze Up A Fire” and the innocuously catchy single “Studio Backpack Rap,” CMJ called up Debelle for an interview from her U.K. home, accidentally interrupting her Friday afternoon toast. So we called again 10 minutes later.
CMJ: Did winning a Mercury Prize for your last album change the way you approached this second album?
Speech Debelle: Because of the Mercury I didn’t have to worry as much about getting recognition. I was a lot more particular with this album, I think because I had a better understanding of what it is I was trying to do. I wasn’t afraid to take a step back when need be.
How long did it take you to record Freedom Of Speech?
It took about six months. Each song went through a lot of different stages because this time I’m working with like nine instruments, and we’ve got a string quartet playing with us too. After the initial sort of grab of inspiration there’s a lot of going back and forth with different musicians and the producer. We’ll start with this sort of organic sound and just keep breaking that down through production and mixing. This album was actually mixed twice.
That’s surprising. You make it all seem so easy on “Studio Backpack Rap.” Do you have a ritual for writing songs?
When I go into the studio, I switch on. I’m not one of those people that sort of like writes just loads of lyrics at bars or whatever. Outside of making songs, I’m not really a big writer like that. I have to switch on. To rap or to write something, you need to gear up, like when you’re boxing you need to put your gloves on. Boxing and rapping are both skills, and you have to put yourself in the right place to be able to produce what you need to produce.
Do you usually have other people around you when you’re coming up with songs?
In the earlier days it was usually just me and one other tech. But this album is a lot more of a social album. I had friends over a lot, and towards the evening they’d come in with drinks, and I think you get that social feel when listening to the album. During the final days of mixing, people would be coming in every day to listen and hang out.
It sounds like you really enjoy sharing your music with people. Do you like to tour?
Yeah, I’m always happy to do tours but particularly Europe. I always get to eat great food—I think my No. 1 thing is probably crème brûlée—the vibe is always good, and the audience is always alive. When you do shows in a place where English is a second language, you’ve got people coming from all over who really like this song even if they don’t get all the lyrics. It’s a more musical interaction, and you can really feel it.
You wrote “Blaze Up A Fire” long before the London riots started in August. That’s kind of a crazy coincidence. What inspired you to write that song?
Oh, everything! Everything that was happening in the world in 2011 inspired that song and the whole album, actually.
Yeah, 2011 was a pretty big year for revolts.
Right. I think one thing that 2011 kind of showed me was that so many of us are the same, you know? If you take the London Uni student riots, which happened in 2011—there was one in 2010 as well—and you take the neo-African and Egyptian uprisings and riots, you see it’s a very similar situation. In each group, it’s the same type of young people fighting. The London financial powerhouse of the world is dealing with people with the same complaints and dislikes as people in third world countries in Africa. People all over the world are all in the same boat right now, you know?
For sure. Do you envision a world where change can come through speech instead of violence?
I don’t think violence can ever be ruled out, unfortunately. It’s a part of human nature. And it’s not just a part of human nature, it’s a part of every species’ nature. But even though violence can’t be totally removed, I think in our sort of society it’s imperative that we know other forms of communication. People turn to violence because they cannot express themselves in a way that’s capable of being understood or because people aren’t listening to them. Destruction is what so many of these young people have been fed, and now they’ve got an appetite for it.
Would you like to inspire change with your music?
No. I’m just trying to do what I enjoy doing. That’s it.