Speech Debelle, real name Corynne Elliot, is a British born rapper and Mercury prize winner.
Born: London, United Kingdom
Famous for: Rapper, Music Artist
real name known Corynne Elliot
Corynne Elliot, artist name Speech Debelle, was born in a middle-class Jamaican neighbourhood in London. She began writing poetry at an early age like 9 and attended Harris City Academy. At first she wanted to be a singer but then, when she didn’t like her voice, she tried rapping when she was 13.
In 2007 Dabelle’s career progressed under the Big Dada record label. In 2009 her album Speech Therapy was released. She performed at Glastonbury Festival as her first TV performance and her album Speech Therapy won the Mercury Prize. She was the first woman to win the prize after a seven year period.
After winning her Mercury Music Prize, Debelle “sacked” her record label as she felt they hadn’t fully capitalised on the hype the win generated. At the time, she told BBC 6 Music “The Mercury Prize was on a Tuesday, and the Friday there were no more physical albums in the shops. So on the Mercury weekend, which would have been my biggest-selling weekend, people couldn’t get it.”
Speech Dabelle has performed the stage for charities and several campaigns.
In 2012, she released her second album Freedom of Speech after resigned with Big Dada recordings.
In 2016 she launched the new single ‘The Work’ is launched ahead of Debelle’s third album entitled ‘Tantil Before I Breathe’, 4 years after her last album.
*Photo credits provided in references section below where possible. View a list of photographers here.
Working chronologically, let’s go back to that Mercury Prize win. At the time of it you seemed very confident, predicting that you’d win. Certainly in interviews you didn’t hold back, but underneath that was it a lot to take in?
Speech Debelle: It was partly taking it in and not taking it in, if you know what I mean? It was kind of like being in a trance state – you just keep going. I mean, it was a lot of fun. It was hard work though, I got to the point though where I was having about two or three hours sleep a night and it was starting to take its toll on me emotionally. At that time I certainly wasn’t prepared for that amount of success, it was just me and the label and it felt a bit like David & Goliath. I didn’t have a manager, certainly didn’t have an accountant. It was me and my mates, I had my best friends and tour manager and my PA just coming along to the ceremony – it was fun though.
You mentioned it started to take a toll though, were there parts of the whole experience where you felt that you weren’t comfortable with the sudden scrutiny?
SD: I think what I realised was that I wasn’t a pop star. I think that’s the basis of this album. To quote ‘Blaze Up A Fire’ “I’m not a pop star/ I’m a motherfucking thug” – which doesn’t mean I’m a thug, but I realised I’m from a different place. My culture, my background, my neighbourhood, my influences – I had no real business in pop, some of the events I went to at the time of the win I had no place in. Another thing I realised, when the album came out and people were comparing it to what Elbow sold, was that our careers are on completely different paths and we weren’t supposed to sell the same amount. I thought, “I’m going to take this album and be proud of what I do”. It wasn’t a pop album in any sense of the word! [Laughs]
Is that something you would be comfortable with doing?
SD: Well I’d certainly be comfortable with doing it if it sold proper numbers, but it’d be better not to have to make a pop album to do it. I think the closest we’ve had to that recently was Kanye West’s My Twisted Dark Beautiful Fantasy. It’s not a pop album but it’s still sold great numbers – it’s what we all want, I think.
You fell out with Big Dada around this point too. In hindsight, with the whirlwind that was going on, was it something that could’ve been avoided? Was it a knee-jerk reaction?
SD: Oh no, that needed to happen, we needed to fall out. It’s a relationship: you speak to each other every day, you email each other all the time. It’s really intense and I think, like with any intense relationship, you sometimes reach a point that you’ve not been able to communicate beforehand. So it blows up and you say, “Well this is what I don’t like, this is what I need, this is what I don’t need.” But then we sorted it out and they said the same to me, and I realised that everyone essentially wanted the same thing – they just hadn’t communicated it in the right way. I’m not special, a hell of a lot of artists fall out with their labels, it’s just I was asked the wrong question in an interview about them at the wrong time and I’m quite reactive and vocal. If I was asked that question another day I would’ve answered differently probably.
And the sudden jump in profile didn’t help that.
SD: Exactly, exactly.
A few months after that it seemed like you were well on the way with the follow-up album. However, this seems to have come out a lot different from how it was originally intended. Back then you seemed quite set on The Art Of Speech as a title and you’d finished a song about Jade Goody. What happened to this? Were there ideas shelved and re-started during the intervening period?
SD: Yeah, I started with the album title first, I’ve always had three titles and I expected The Art Of Speech to be the second one and Freedom Of Speech to be the third. I started making The Art Of Speech but it just didn’t feel right.
SD: The Art Of Speech didn’t reflect where I actually was as a person. I did the Jade Goody song – I think that’s still going to be around as a B-side – and at that point I’d written ‘Elephant’ which has made this album, but I just couldn’t make what I expected the overall album to sound like. I paused for a bit and then started to try making Freedom Of Speech and it just started flowing so much more easily.
How easy a process was it to leave that initial idea behind and move on? Did you find it difficult to get yourself up for it?
SD: Once I knew that’s what I wanted to do, then in terms of writing it was very quick. It was probably as fast as recording the first one, even though I already had most of the first one written at the time. Songs like ‘Studio Back Pack Rap’ were written in half an hour. We spent more time on the music on this album. I had more input into how this one sounded, at every stage up to the point where it was being mixed, and had every single element of each track of playing over and over again. I wanted to create a certain type of feel.
How did you come across Kwes?
SD: We’ve got similar circles, we both know Micachu, we share lawyers. But it was my A&R who suggested him.
He’s clearly a massive influence on this album as producer, something you’ve recognised in your ode ‘Studio Back Pack Rap’. How did it work between the two of you?
SD: Working with any good producer is about saying, “I’m going to give you what you want and I’m going to not give you what you don’t need,” and he’s done that. He knew when to say, “Nah, that’s not going to work.” One thing in particular was the use of strings. He really changed what I’d done with those and, yeah, that was difficult for me. But I respect his opinion, he has a superb ear – far superior to me – so if he says no then I’ll listen to him and give him the space he needs. Once we got to a certain point between the two of us he’d take the song away. Every time he came back it had been taken to another level.
It sounds like that was quite a big thing for you to do – to allow someone else to take your songs away and edit them. Particularly as, again, you’ve released a deeply personal album.
SD: But I know what my limitations are. I’m no producer, and I’ve known that for a long time! I’ve been making music for a long time and I know what I can and can’t do, so it was cool.
EMMA BROWN: Hi Speech, it’s Emma from Interview. How are you?
SPEECH DEBELLE: Yeah, I’m all right.
BROWN: I wanted to talk to you about your new album, Freedom of Speech. It seems like British hip-hop is getting a lot of attention right now, both domestically and internationally, why do you think that is?
DEBELLE: I have no idea.
BROWN: Your last album was very well received—you won the Mercury Prize—did that make it harder to write your second album?
DEBELLE: No, this one was easy to write; having experienced everything one time already made it easier the second time around.
BROWN: Do you feel like a lot happened to you between the two albums?
DEBELLE: I don’t know… it’s been three years, [so] something should have happened! I had mad fun [though].
BROWN: Were you nervous about the release of this album?
DEBELLE: No, I make music to live. This is my career. I’m excited and grateful.
BROWN: What are you most excited about on Freedom of Speech?
DEBELLE: I’m excited by the provocations on this album. I’ve always been a MC that wrote socially and politically aware songs, although I listen to all types of hip-hop. My first album was like a diary, so that album didn’t have space for those songs. This time around I got tracks that make me say “Tupac would be proud.”
BROWN: You talk about living for the message, what is “the message”?