Stefflon Don is the Bougie Star that British Rap Needs
Following in the steps of classic rap greats like Lil Kim, Trina and Foxy Brown, the UK MC is the antithesis of what we're used to right now.
Stefflon Don (say it like "Steff London") is going to be a very big star, and probably soon. I know this because when I am introduced to her, I am unsure that I have ever met another person who seems more as though they are about to be an extremely famous rapper. She is four hours late to our interview, and when she rolls up to our office, en route to a different photoshoot for which she's now also running late, I suddenly understand why she took so long to get here.
Draped in an enormous, bright purple faux fur jacket that would look ridiculous on almost anyone else, Steff looks as though she's stepped right off the set of a music video – and an expensive one at that. Her eyelids are lined with pristinely applied glitter and her usual wash of blue hair has been replaced by a sleek dark brown. As we both bundle into the back of an Uber, I clock a set of custom acrylic nails, each talon decorated separately in loudly coloured patterns, making my own – painted plain old beige – suddenly feel basic as hell. She compliments my fishnet tights and I return the sentiment regarding her leggings (of the side-laced variety that have recently become a fave of the Instagram baddie community), and as the car begins a stop-start journey through the narrow streets of east London, we chat. Her tone is warm but professional, and almost immediately I'm aware that I am in the presence of a woman who's determined to Be Someone.
At 25 years old, Stefflon Don embodies the sexy, ostentatious glamour associated with some of the best – and certainly my favourite – female rappers, a category she's quickly joining. She's something of a throwback to the spirit of iconic American hip-hop artists of the 1990s and 2000s (think Lil Kim or Foxy Brown or Trina back when they ran things). Though UK rap and R&B is currently heaving with female talent – Lady Leshurr, Raye, Nadia Rose and Little Simz to name just a few – there's nobody quite like Steff. Almost at odds with the cold, back-to-basics hardness that has come to characterise "urban" music in the UK right now, she is ultra-feminine, performatively bougie and highly specific about her aesthetic.
"I care about how I look – I just love it! If you feel like you look good, you're also gonna do a better job of whatever you're doing," she says once we arrive at our destination, with me trailing behind her as she strides into the studio and makes a beeline for a clothes rail crammed with Versace and Fendi. Perhaps it's a lazy comparison, but it's easy to see her as the bossed up, appearance-aware Nicki Minaj figure our rainy little island – with its Ed Sheerans and its Rag'n'Bone men – truly needs.
With her formative years spent in Clapton, east London (via Birmingham, where she was born, and Rotterdam, where she moved aged five, before arriving in London at 14), Steff tells me that she was influenced equally by the reggae music she still loves and by the aforementioned Lil Kim and Foxy Brown ("I loved Foxy, she was so sick"), as well as other hip-hop artists like Missy Elliott. Despite all the moving around – Holland was initially meant to be a family holiday to visit her dad, then became a nine-year stay – and the chaos involved in being one of seven children, music was a constant. She's been obsessed with it for as long as she can remember. "I've been doing music since I was little, like all the time. I used to walk around with a cassette recorder, so if I heard stuff on the radio, I could record it and go home and listen. In my room, I would keep replaying this one song, and I brought it everywhere with me," she recalls.
Steff's early attachment to music became a career prospect when she remixed a bunch of hip-hop and grime tracks in 2014, including Rae Sremmurd's "No Type" and later, Section Boyz' "Lock Arff", bolstered by support from the likes of Link Up TV and SB:TV. She did this for a while before releasing any music of her own, and when warned that it might not be the best strategy, she went with her gut. "I had a friend that was not really managing me, but he was assisting me along the way," she tells me. "He was like, 'Steff, you're doing too many remixes.' And I was like, 'No you don't get it – people like these songs, so if I jump on them and do a better job, it's gonna be cool.' I never really over-thought a strategy, I just did whatever. I wasn't around no producers that was making beats for me, so I just heard a beat and was like 'I love this beat, let me jump on it' – makes it easier. "Lock Arff" came after that and [my friend] was like, 'You were so right'." Barely a year had passed before she was jumping on tracks with Jeremih and Lethal Bizzle, before swiftly signing a publishing deal with Sony.
Her most recent release, last year's debut mixtape Real Ting, is a disarmingly assured body of work, and sees her code switching between different modes: dancehall-referencing patois becomes hard-as-nails, straight London bars, which then segue into honey-sweet, American-accented sung vocals, often on the same track. All of this is done with such ease and confidence that it's hard to believe you're listening to an artist who hasn't even released a studio album yet.
Whether it's Real Ting or those early grime re-imaginings or the collabs with Jeremih, who holds her in high esteem ("he's literally down for anything, like even if I was chatting shit on the track he'd be like, 'yeah alright I'll just do it because it's you'") that sense of variety is overarching. And though her voice is resolutely British, you get the sense her sound could dart in any direction if she wanted it to. I ask her whether she feels that too. "Definitely. I always wanna represent the UK no matter what, no matter where in the world I am. But also, of course [I want to] branch out and be worldwide. Who wouldn't? I don't ever want to be in a box." She pauses for a second, before adding, "I feel like my music is more than good enough to be accepted everywhere."
This quiet self-possession and straight-up acknowledgement of her own ability isn't only evident when you talk to Steff; it's clear in her performances too. The night before we hang out, I watch her perform to a sweaty, packed out crowd in Shoreditch as part of XL Recordings' New Gen project. Steff is the only woman on the bill, and as soon as she emerges in a cap pulled down low and a customised leather jacket, the mood in the room switches dramatically. As the intro to "Real Ting" – which has, at this point, become her de facto anthem, with a recent remix from Giggs – rings out, the men who were taking up so much space on stage slink away, like schoolboys trailing back to their desks when the hardest girl in their year asks if they're trying it. Her presence is electric, and as the crowd gets its collective life while she twerks with one heeled foot propped up on a speaker, it's obvious the other acts aren't quite sure what to make of her.
So, is reducing grown men to quivering children is just part of the job? "All my friends and other people will be like, 'Yeah the boys are intimidated. Like, I see them looking, but they're just scared to approach you.' And then sometimes they ask, 'Do you feel bad that you're a bit unapproachable?' And I'm like, 'I don't care.'" As she spits out those final three words like they taste bad, I'm reminded of how it's exactly this sort of attitude that makes Stefflon Don such an empowering artist for female hip-hop fans. She just does what she does, with seemingly zero fucks given about what a male-dominated industry will say.
She filmed her music videos for "Real Ting" and its subsequent remix with all-female extras, because boys just get in the way: "I thought if boys came to the video shoot it would just be hectic, like they would start trying to talk to girls, they wouldn't listen. So I thought, let me just cut out boys," she says. She's also been known to bring her "dons" (who have in the past included rapper Ms Banks, supermodel Jourdan Dunn, and Ray BLK, who she accompanied on the BBC Sound of 2017 longlist, as well as the entourage of Snapchat-ready girls that seems to follow her wherever she goes) up on stage during performances.
Though Steff is not actively trying to be an artist who is political in her representation of women, she manages it anyway, by virtue of being loud and taking what's rightfully hers. There is, for example, something powerful and inspiring in the way she talks freely and openly about sexuality in her music (go and listen to "Tight Nooki", a song lovingly dedicated to her vagina, and then come back to reading this). Asked whether this is a conscious choice, she shakes her head and waves her hand dismissively: "I feel like it's just me being me and saying whatever. I've obviously been influenced by the Lil Kims, the Foxys and that sort of thing growing up, and them just saying whatever they want to say, and people are like, 'did she really just say that?' I've always been attracted to that. And I've always liked it."
This "do what I want, when I want" outlook clearly sets the tone for the way Steff conducts business in general. For instance, she's not easily won over by big names if they're not doing exactly what she needs them to do. "I've got beats off Metro Boomin," she tells me. "And it's so, so American. It's so like, Young Thug-ish, and it's not really my style. I'm thinking, 'I'm not just gonna jump on this because it's Metro.' I wanna make sure we get in the studio and he makes something more around me." For someone only just breaking into the mainstream, this clarity of vision is actually kind of startling, but it's working. Her first headline show – due to take place in April at Tape London – sold out in under five minutes. And her self-directed music video for "16 Shots", which has more than a little of the "Bitch Better Have My Money" about it, racked up over one million views in the space of a couple of days. When I probe her about what's next, she remains vague, but promises "bigger and better things."
Though Steff is acutely aware of her own undeniable rap talent – and it is undeniable – it's actually her incredibly assured vision that seems to elevate her. As I leave her at the photoshoot, in her element flipping through designer clothes and chatting confidently to stylists, I recall our earlier journey. Carrying herself with an air of greatness, despite being squished beside me in the back of a Seat Altea, she told me, "This is the only thing that I would ever do. I don't think I was meant to be here for anything else". And when I think back to her nails, her glitter eyeliner, her self-aware sexuality and the smart, in-your-face femininity that they all symbolise, I realise that she is absolutely right.
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