Last updated: 04/25/2008
To most Hip Hop fans Estelle however needs no introduction. In 2002 Tim Westwood declared her as “a UK talent to look out for” and last year Music Week cited her as the one UK rapper “most likely to challenge the mainstream”. Having built up a formidable reputation on the street over the past two years, Music Week’s prediction came true when Estelle broke into the charts with “1980” and “Free” and won a Mobo Award for Best Newcomer in 2004. Her album “The 18th Day” is due for release on the 18th of October - the number 18 being particularly significant for Estelle as it was the day she was born. However, it almost never happened. On the 18th of January 1980 Estelle’s mother had a near death experience while giving birth, but fortunately came back to life. Since then Estelle has never taken her life for granted. It was on her 18th birthday that she decided to take to the mic and embark on a rapping career that has made her one of the hottest new urban artists in the UK.
Although firmly rooted in the underground, Estelle has always had commercial success in her sight and has come through with an album which not only shows off the lyrical dexterity for which she is loved, but one which also unleashes her powerful vocal range. It might surprise some that this girl can belt out pop-tinged R&B tracks that are headed straight for the charts, and slow jams that will make your knees tremble, while giving us the kind of laid back Hip Hop that feels like food for the soul. In fact there is soul here in spadefuls, real soul, gathered from every corner from gospel to Motown, with rimshot-peppered jazz skits, dramatic, string-laden orchestral productions, and sultry ballads thrown in for good measure.
“I can’t see myself straight rapping on a track with no melody. To me that’s boring. But I’m not one to pussyfoot around. If I gotta say something, I say it. I can also be raw and aggressive, you need to be sometimes.”
The album’s breadth demonstrates just how far the hopeful MC from West London has developed over the past couple of years. But it hasn’t been easy. With the high rate of young urban acts hyped up before disappearing without trace, anyone who hopes to sustain their career has to make sure they’ve got their plan locked down from the get-go. “People need to understand this is a business and get educated about it. I learnt a lot. You need to get involved in everything unless you want to be taken for a ride. The label business is a whole different ball game. Don’t get involved unless you are ready and you know what you are getting into. You don’t just sign a deal and that’s it. All that’s nothing if you haven’t got your business sense sorted. It’s really no different from hustling on the streets. It’s about knowing the game, demanding what you are worth and selling yourself.”
From the minute she decided to take her career seriously, Estelle had carved out a master plan. Everything she did from that day forward was geared towards learning about the music industry and getting her name out there. At 17 she had landed at job at Hip Hop record store Deal Real in Soho, followed by stints as a video producer and music journalist for urban website darkerthanblue.
It was Deal Real that encouraged her to get on the mic, and she was soon a fixture at London institutions the Lyrical Lounge, The Hop and Scratch. Her big break came when she stepped up to the stage at Subterania alongside Roots Manuva and Rodney P. Estelle’s performance astounded everyone, and as the crowd included some of the biggest names on the scene, her reputation as the queen of the M.I.C. was sealed. Among the admirers was 1Xtra DJ Skitz, who immediately asked her to appear on his groundbreaking album “Countryman”. Skitz remains a firm fan:
“She is the Queen of British Hip Hop and one of the most prolific lyricists I know. She’s killed every live show I've done with her and people fall at her knees. Beautiful, funny and humble she is loved by everyone on the UK scene and if she doesn't make it I feel worried for the rest of us.”
Further appearances on albums by 57th Dynasty, Social Misfits, Source’s Wordplay compilation and all-star rap collective Against The Grain got the word around, but it was the success of her collaboration with Blak Twang (“Trixsta”) which brought Estelle to the attention of a far wider audience and primed her for success. “It was an honour for me to be on that record. It helped me a lot. He reached out to me and I really appreciate it”. In fact the track saw her nominated for a Mobo for Best Hip Hop Artist alongside Blak Twang and she has now been voted Best Female Artist at the UK Hip Hop Awards for three years running.
She finally set the wheels in motion for her solo career with debut track “Excuse Me”, which surprised everyone with a blissed-out summer groove that hinted strongly at potential stardom. Since then she set up her own label, Stellarents, through which she has released white labels “Do You Like?” featuring Kele Le Roc, and “Take it Off” featuring Jamaican dancehall vocalist Cecile, and a series of mixtapes entitled “Da Heat”. “I set up Stellarents as a business so that whatever happens I will always have that to fall back on. The artists I sign have to be real, passionate and dedicated, whatever the music.”
When the record companies inevitably came calling Estelle sensibly held out for the right deal.
“I waited on the right deal because labels are concerned with what’s best for them, not you. You can’t just take any deal a label might offer you. If you’re going to put your heart and soul into it you better make sure you get yours. Go in there and demand what you’re worth, and let them know what you’re capable of. V2 and J-Did know what they’re dealing with and will push me like a popular artist because that’s what I am.”
Estelle’s own tastes range from Kanye West, Nas, Jay Z, Redman and Rah Digga to Mos Def, Jill Scott, Common and Teddy Riley. But her main influences lie firmly with two of the most important female figures in Hip Hop soul – Missy Elliot and Mary J. Blige “I like female artists who show that women don’t have to strip off or compromise themselves to be recognised as musicians. I can match men head to toe.”
Born of a Senegalese mother and father from Grenada, Estelle grew up in West London in a large family of eight brothers and sisters and an extended family of cousins. Her mother was a massive reggae fan and her dad built home made speaker cabinets that shook the whole house. She spent her childhood listening to her parent’s reggae records and her aunt’s soul collection. Then she discovered Hip Hop. “I got into Hip Hop from my uncle, he was always playing us Kool G Rap and Big Daddy Kane; he was a bad boy and my mum wasn’t really happy that I was hanging out with him”.
Little did she know that in a few years she would not only be hanging out but performing with the likes of Chuck D and Flava Flav, Talib Kweli and The Roots, Floetry and Terri Walker, and touring with Justin Timberlake. As her own stage beckons, Estelle is set to take up the challenge with the same kind of positivity and determination that has got her this far.