Estelle: In The Beginning, There Was Rap


You, like many, were probably surprised to see singer Estelle pop up in the Cypher during the 2011 BET Hip Hop Awards. She anchored her set, with strong “rap arms” flailing in time to the beat, and a distinctively British accent that sounded good for MC’ing.

2008-2009 cemented Estelle on the U.S. map – her single, “American Boy” with Kanye West climbed the charts, giving lasting power to her name and face among the new R&B landscape. What will surprise many American fans even more is that, long before Estelle ever pursued singing, she was a rapper in her native London, UK. Her appearance in the Cypher looked right, because it was right. Estelle’s been rhyming since she was a youngster, and later divulged that her mic-ready voice could carry a “bloody good” tune, too.

Estelle is a woman on the move. She fields this exclusive interview from the back of a chaffeured car, in between lamenting over the London riots, the recent loss of Heavy D, and yelling at her driver, “ I need to find a bank! Can we find a bank?” Bank is right – Estelle is hoping to cash in on her forthcoming album, All Of Me, and she recently released a mixtape, AOM: The Prequel, to keep fans satisfied in the interim.

While her new uptempo ballad, “Thank You,” currently climbs the R&B charts, checked in to get the inside album scoop and learn more about the UK Hip-Hop scene from someone who has studied it well – Estelle: Hi Estelle. How are you?

Estelle: I’m good, Seandra. How are you? I’m great. Thanks for taking a few moments with You’re in New York now, so what are you up to?

Estelle: I’m doing a little of everything, some events and things. We’re in the midst of celebrating UK Week on the site, and I had to make sure that the “London Lady” herself was on the list of people that we profiled.

Estelle: Ohhh, thank you! Of course! What does celebrating the UK’s Hip-Hop and urban scenes mean to you?

Estelle: I mean, I think we have one of the most original scenes, one of the most eclectic scenes. You know, Hip-Hop isn’t strictly made up that “boom-bap.” It’s made up of many different genres, many different styles, different energies, you know? I think it’s one of the best. And, I think New York is one of the best. Okay, so the scene there has evolved, I would say, over the past two decades especially. What are some of the early Hip-Hop influences that helped to create your style, do you think?

Estelle: It goes back to like Monie Love and Roxanne Shante and them, to like Queen Latifah to Rodney P to Skitz, Jay-Z, early Jay, late Jay, now Jay. [laughter]. All of that…everything. I’m a big fan of music, so I listen to everything, as well as reggae, as well as different parts of Hip-Hop…Heavy D being one of the influences…Salt ‘N Pepa. And, some R&B stuff as well as the Hip-Hop stuff, you know? Were you familiar with Heavy D back in the day?

Estelle: I was, back in the day and presently. He’s heavy on my mind right now, definitely. It’s really sad. Really sad. Yes, it is a sad time. But, I want to talk to you about the pleasant surprise people received by you in the BET Cypher last month. That was shocking. We were in the audience and saw you, and we were like, “Whoa! Estelle’s about to spit? Okay!” [laughter] So, how did that come about?

Estelle: [laughter] I started as a rapper! Like, this isn’t anything brand new that I brought out. Anyone who knows me and is a real, real, for real fan, or if people Google me, they can see what I do. The first records I ever recorded were rap records, you know? All of the artists I’ve worked with know me as a rapper. So, the singing is kinda like, ‘oh, she sings, too.’ So they know me as a rapper from my first records.

[In 2002], I had a song called with Blak Twang called “Trixstar.” I was with a few other girls. I would do the singing on my own records because I couldn’t find no one who wanted to. So yeah, like, I’m a rapper! For me, I think it’s great that America’s finding out that I rap. You know, ‘cause I think people weren’t expecting it. They thought I was only a singer. They’re like, ‘is she gonna have bars, or any kind of soul or swag or anything with it?’

That’s like second nature to me. Before I go in the studio, my preparation is like a rapper. I don’t write like a singer; I write from a rapper’s perspective. Melody is just happens to be a detail that I have, you know? I think that’s the reason people like what I do…it’s very literal. I write from a rap perspective, very literally. I think people were surprised. I don’t think there are a ton of Americans who know you as a rapper. I watched the Cypher again, and in one of your lines, you said, “I came to America/ My shoes and my dream…” I love that line. You also said, we’re all dealing with the same problems, no matter where we’re from. So, tell me about your background.

Estelle: People who know me know that I had a career in London already. I just didn’t have a record deal. I had a career already…I was just in the UK. I have a healthy shoe habit! [laughter] I couldn’t move everything that I wanted with me, so I took all my clothes and I took all my shoes, and I moved, you know, to get it poppin’ over here.

So I know to some people I look crazy. I still have that underdog mentality, that hustle, even though I’ve “made it.” My faith and my energy wasn’t like, ‘I’ve done this already, I’m entitled to it.’ I was like, ‘I work; let’s go. This is what I do.’ You know what I’m saying? I think people didn’t quite know how to take me, so I said “I came with my shoes and my dream.” It’s like I came halfway established, but I still kept working ‘cause I had a dream. I knew I was going to have to work for it. That’s what that was. Well, I think you’re got a great rap voice and that really cool English accent lends to that really well. You even have the rap hands, you know, the awesome rap hands?

Estelle: [laughter] That’s what I’ve been doing…my whole life, that’s what I’ve been doing. People would be like, “Why are you doing that?” It just happens! I don’t know, it just happens. [laughter] Have you considered rapping more? Here, we primarily know you as a singer…

Estelle: Well, I do, at my shows, I rap a heck of a lot. I always bug out, like people don’t know. I halfway rap my songs. It’s like I sing on the records, and then I get on live, and because all I’ve done live are my shows, it shows me and that I’m really into rap music. I’m a rapper, and that’s all I’ve been, so everything I do, it has that energy. But I do, at my shows, on this new album…

This new album was like going back in time to when I first got in the game, and that was a far as like, being a rapper – writing bars and competing instead of saying stuff for the sake of saying it. I never got in the game to be famous, if that makes sense. I just enjoy that energy and the vibe that I would get when I went to do rap shows.

I used to work in a record shop, and it was just good vibes. It wasn’t about, ‘well, I want to be famous. It was a way to get my career poppin.’ It was about that, you know? For me, the whole energy comes from coming into the game like that. It hasn’t left me in my whole career; I don’t know how to do it any other way. Like I said, on the new album, I found the joy in it, why I started doing this in the first place. I enjoyed the energy, the battle, the competition of rap. It wasn’t about what prizes can I get today. I love this! This is what I do! That’s awesome. Well, I want to switch gears a little bit and ask you more about the UK. 2011 was sort of a monumental year of there with the London riots and revolution. So, in your opinion, what are some of the top issues facing young people in the UK today? What are they upset about?

Estelle: Well, it’s six in one hand and none in the other. They want to get on, they want to do things, they want to get it poppin’. On the other hand, [the government] wants to tell you you can’t get on, you can’t do this, you can’t do that. At the same time as they’re saying, “look, the opportunities are here,” they say, you can’t have access to them, you’re not qualified to go there.

There should be a level of respect, and it’s not given, especially to the young people, and I think that’s why they burned the place down. That’s why. They’re not given that respect, like, “look, we’re coming up next; we need to get on.” There’s a sense of hopelessness as well. Every single time I go home, every time, people are like, “Yo, I can’t get on!”

You can’t get on because everyone’s telling you you’re not the right shade. Everyone’s telling us that we ain’t from the right area, can’t get on because everyone’s telling us that there’s no money. What the hell?!? We’re young, and we’re just trying to get ours! They’re trying to tell us we’re nothing. I know, I feel the frustration. It happened 10 years ago; it happened 20 years ago. I feel it, I lived it, and I chose to move. [laughter]

But for the ones that don’t have the head space or the money to get up and do something like that, it’s hard. I get it. It’s really f*cking hard. Imagine being told, “You ain’t sh*t, you ain’t about to be sh*t. Your people may have made it, but f*ck you.” That’s the most frustrating thing to be told, and to be faced with everyday. I kinda don’t blame them. But I kinda am upset at the ones that want to mess with other people’s lives. They’re dumb. That wasn’t the way to do it. There has to be another way, because I don’t think that was the way to do it. But I can understand their frustration. Yeah, definite frustration. So do you consider yourself an ambassador? Do you think your music can help heal your nation?

Estelle: No, I don’t get myself in that, but I kinda let other people see what they see in my music. I feel like I’m a valid voice. I feel like people listen, I gues, when I talk, based on my celebrity. But no, I don’t want to put myself in that position of being the one to speak up. There are people out there that are doing a great job at it, and I support the hell out of those people.

There’s other rhymers that do a great job. You know, Kanye does an amazing job. Sometimes he’s too deep for the people [laughter], but he does an amazing job at telling the truth and things people need to hear. A UK MC named Kash, I think he does a great job as well. I give them guys that space and give them the props, because they are the ones doing it, you know? had some footage of you from back in the summer with 9th Wonder. What were you working on with him? And, tell me more about your album.

Estelle: The album is done. I got with 9th Wonder to do a couple of records for his rap CD… We’re real good friends, me and 9th. So it’s all love, always all love over there. So, tell me about the album, All Of Me.

Estelle: I got to work with a couple of UK producers. I worked with one guy called “Wood”; it’s the one I’m rapping on, because I just felt like I should do it. [laughter] It’s called “The Life,” and it’s like, “…what if I could go back again/ What if I could rap again?…” It’s about that energy and that period where I came from. Which is London, which is Hammersmith. It’s about why I got in the game, and he’s is one of my favorites. He’s a favorite.

The album is finally done – I’m like, ‘thank God,’ it comes out in February 28. I am excited! I’m thanking God, because I think you grow and you evolve, and that’s what every artist should put on their records – growth and evolving. I’ve done it. It won’t be another two years this time. [laughter] [laughter] OK, so late winter, February 28, people can’t expect the album. Well, I know you’re really busy and running around in this car right now. I want to ask you one last question. always asks people for their Top 5 Rappers Dead or Alive list. So, since this is wrapping up UK week, I want to ask you for your Top 5 UK artists who have influenced Estelle, the musician.

Estelle: Ooooohhhh! [laughter] Alright, ready? Yes.

Estelle: I better get this right, or they gonna get me! [laughter] I’ll start with Blak Twang. Rodney P. Roots Manuva. This is influential, right? Blak Twang, Rodney P, Roots Manuva, Kano, and Wiley. Yeah, that’s a good list!