The rapper learned how to make music in a Solihull youth club – now, after a false start, she’s working with Timbaland and is the toast of US hip-hop. ‘Basically,’ she says, ‘I’m on the up’
UK rapper Lady Leshurr has just come back from the US. She has been spending a lot of time there this year, she says: “We’ve been to Atlanta, LA, New Orleans, Miami, New York.” She played a sold-out gig in the latter, the audience’s enthusiasm apparently undimmed by the fact that she raps with a distinct Brummie twang: “I didn’t think they’d be able to understand me, didn’t think my accent, of all accents, would have crossed over like that. But they were singing my lyrics back at me. It was hilarious, hearing people with American accents saying ‘bredrin’ and ‘wasteman’, all that British urban slang.”
But mostly, she’s been working on her debut album. “Working with a producer called Deputy, who made Rihanna’s Bitch Better Have My Money; Bangladesh, he made Lil’ Wayne’s A Milli, and Diva and Video Phone for Beyoncé. I’ve got a session with Scott Storch, he’s coming back now as well. And you know Timbaland?”
Timbaland, the celebrated, groundbreaking producer of Missy Elliott, Aaliyah, Justin Timberlake and Beyoncé? The visionary auteur behind more than 100 hit singles on both sides of the Atlantic? I’m aware of his work, yes.
“Well, I’ve been doing a few bits with Timbaland. Timbaland is amazing. He just rang me up on my mobile one day.” The girl born Melesha O’Garro giggles. “I’m just working with a few legendary producers.”
Here, should you want it, is empirical evidence of UK rap’s sudden ascent to prominence in the US, a country traditionally resistant to the charms of the British MC, and, moreover, of the fact that a lot of people think Lady Leshurr is about to become very famous indeed. In fact, she’s already famous – over the course of our interview outside of a north London wine bar, she’s interrupted not once, not twice, but three times by fans. Her fame is largely thanks to a series of five freestyles called The Queen’s Speech, which she released herself on iTunes and uploaded to YouTube, accompanied by low-budget videos, becoming a viral sensation. Last August’s Queen’s Speech 4 racked up a fairly staggering 31m views.
Their lyrics were both dextrous and extremely funny, a blur of highly original put-downs – “I’ll upload a picture of your dog and sell it on Gumtree” – and pop-culture references; they also frequently came equipped with the kind of hooklines you can imagine being chanted in playgrounds: “That’s nasty, change your panties”, “Brush your teeth”, “Your lips look like crispy bacon”. Moreover, they seem to have attracted a different audience compared with other UK rappers.
“I’ve seen videos of 60-year-old women and men in America saying ‘Brush your teeth’ and stuff, videos of a little baby watching it and laughing, do you know what I mean? I get parents saying to me: ‘Wow, you’re the only artist I let my kids listen to,’ because I don’t swear in my lyrics. I just don’t think it’s necessary. My mum brought me up really well, I don’t swear unless I’m really, really angry.
“Everyone’s too cool, everyone wants to be drinking alcohol in their videos and driving flash cars, wearing big chains. I don’t want to do that, because I don’t live that. All my music, you’ll never see me with my breasts hanging out or showing so much flesh that you can’t show it to your kids or things like that. Because, one, I respect myself as a person; two, I want to make people understand that you don’t have to go that route to be successful. If you’ve got the talent, let the talent talk. Look at what I’m wearing afterwards, if you have to, but listen to me first, do you know what I mean?”
In person, Lady Leshurr is charismatic and funny and smart. You can see why her new major record label – she’s signed to Sony’s RCA imprint – might think she’s a hot prospect; in the past 12 months, she has gone from a hugely productive one-woman cottage industry, of the kind that’s fuelled grime’s commercial resurgence in Britain, to an artist that Timbaland and co are queuing up to work with. “All these major established artists reaching out,” she frowns. “I had people like Akon calling my phone. Busta Rhymes. I’ve no idea how he even got my number. Young Money Records tried to reach out to sign me.” She laughs again. “I’m saying it all like it’s so casual, but it’s just because I don’t really let things excite me like that. I try to be calm with it. I’m not like: ‘Oh my God, oh my God.’”
Perhaps that’s something to do with the fact that she’s been here, or at least somewhere like it, before. When the Observer profiled her, in 2013, her career appeared to be about to blast off: a major label had offered her a deal, her single Blazin’ had just deposed Justin Timberlake from No 1 on the MTV Base chart, she was talking about launching a clothing line, Friggin’ L, winningly named after one of her mixtapes. But then everything went wrong, of which more later.
Or perhaps it’s something to do with her background, which is substantially grimmer than the bubbly image she projects suggests. Before she became a rapper, she says, she started out writing poetry “because I wanted to express myself. I grew up in a very strict family. My father was very strict, very violent: he had been brought up in a violent background and it’s probably just a cycle. But I think that was the push to try and express myself in another way. I couldn’t really express myself to him or anybody else. I was very shy, always looked down, I’d never have any eye contact with people, so I put all that into poetry, writing down my frustration, what I felt and what I’d seen, or stuff written from my mum’s view, as if I was my mother. I started thinking, ‘You know what? Why don’t I just rap?’ Because it’s just poetry with a beat behind it, really.”
She learnt to “rap, produce, mix, master, everything” at a youth club across the road from her home in Solihull. “We would all be in one room with the mic, someone would be DJing, the lights would be off, it’d just be sweaty, loads of men. No other girls at all. At first, they were like: ‘She’s good for a girl’, or ‘Ah, she’s sick because there’s no other girls about’ – there was always an excuse. So I thought: Fine, I’m going to show you that I’m better than the next man, not ‘good for a female’. So it pushed me to work hard, to write the best.”
She produced her first mixtape at 14: “I had no idea how to promote, or how to get my things in shops, so I just used to leave CDs on the bus when I was on my way to school. I’d hand them out to strangers, leave them on park benches, anywhere I thought people might see them and pick them up.”
Amazingly, it was a strategy that worked. Someone uploaded its contents to a website – “I can’t even remember what it was called, but it was big for UK artists at the time and it got loads of hits” – but her burgeoning career was still hampered by her home life. “I wasn’t allowed out of my area. I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere my friends were allowed to go to. I was always told by my father: ‘No, you’re not allowed to do this; no, you’re not going to make it.’ There was a time when he sat all the brothers and sisters down in a room and he wrote down job professions and he put them in a hat and whatever we picked out, we had to be. So all my sisters are like nurses, carers, my brothers are carpenters, mechanics, but I wouldn’t do it. I knew that if I picked what was in that hat, I’d have to start studying for it. Me and one brother who’s now a footballer were the only ones stood up to him. It caused a whole heap of madness, and I just ran away for a couple of hours. He wasn’t there when I got back, and from that point, I was just trying to dodge him.”
She left home after landing a role in a local film called One Day by rapping for the director. The film was withdrawn from cinemas – “It was about gangs in Birmingham and when they showed it in Birmingham both gangs turned up to the cinema and people got stabbed and stuff” – but it brought her to the attention of “Wiley and Kano and Ghetts, all these people I’d grown up listening to … I didn’t tell my parents I was moving to London. I just packed one suitcase, I left and I never went back. I think I told my mum I was going on a trip with the college or something.”
Her real break came when she uploaded a syllable-perfect parody video of Chris Brown and Busta Rhymes’s Look At Me Now to YouTube: it got 100,000 views in half a day, and Atlantic Records in the US offered her a deal. “They flew me out and we had a conversation, but their idea was that they were going to pit me against Nicki Minaj. It was like: ‘She’s the biggest female MC and you need to take her down,’ and I wasn’t feeling that at all. That whole stereotype of female rappers and their supporters having to compete with each other – it seems to be a crime to be a fan of two female rappers that are successful. So I turned it down. The amount of money they were offering me was amazing. I’ve always turned to music to get my mum out of the house, out of that situation, so to see that type of money thrown at me … I’m not going to lie, I cried on the plane home, because I thought I’d made a mistake and my mum needed the money. It might have been my only chance. But I know by now I would probably have been dropped and my career would have been ruined.”
Back in the UK, she elected to put her career on hold for a year. “I was going through a lot myself, personally. I was living on couches, living out of bags and boxes, sometimes I wouldn’t even know where I was sleeping the next day. And then I went through a situation where someone completely tried to destroy my career, someone I thought was a friend, who deleted all my social networks. So I had to start again, basically. So I was like: ‘You know what? I’m starting again as a brand new artist if you’re going to do that.’ I thought: I grew up on Missy, Eminem, Busta Rhymes, they had all those funny, rewatchable videos with crazy visuals and I think that’s what was and still is missing in the scene. Humour was definitely something I thought would work, I thought it would be different if I brought that to the scene, with the beats I’m using, which I co-produce. I wouldn’t quite call them grime, they’re a bit slower, people say they’re a bit trap. I just wanted to create something new and fresh.”
It was a plan that has clearly worked beyond her wildest dreams, although she says she’s keen not to be seen as just “a funny person … The album’s going to do the talking, because everyone’s thinking this is all I do, the funny stuff, and the album’s going to show that it’s not.”
The album isn’t the only thing on her mind at the moment. She’s still thinking about a clothing line, although, alas, the Friggin’ L name has been retired. She’s talking about going back into acting. She’s starting work on her own sketch show, starring a selection of alter-egos she created on Snapchat. Whatever happens, she says, she has already managed to achieve her dream: with the money she made from The Queen’s Speech’s iTunes sales and YouTube hits, she’s buying her mum a house. “I just kept setting money aside, and it’s all still in the process at the moment. You know how mortgages are. But I’m eventually going to take her there, and it’s going to have a massive bow on it, and I’m going to pretend it’s my house that I’ve bought in Birmingham and then tell her it’s hers. She has no idea.” Unless she reads this, of course.
She drains her glass of fizzy wine. “So much has happened just because of uploading a couple of videos, you know. I’ve had all these offers and artists reaching out, I’ve got to fly around the world and experiment with things I’ve never tried before. I’ve got half a million subscribers on my YouTube channel, I’ve got my own machine. So, that’s basically made me realise: I’m on the up.”