STEFFLON DON

This year, we will all be bit-play­ers in Stefflon Don’s movie, as the new Queen Of Dance­hall takes over. Peter Robin­son meets her to find out why be­ing a pop star is noth­ing like bak­ing a cake.

Q (UK) - - Contents - pho­to­graphs: michael clement

The artist for­merly known as Stephanie Allen al­ways thought she’d be a star and it turns out she was ab­so­lutely on the money.

Stefflon Don pos­sesses the most im­pres­sively com­plex nom-de-pop since Tra­mar Dil­lard com­bined his home state, an abil­ity to ride the lyri­cal flow and the con­cept of ve­hic­u­lar chas­sis cus­tomi­sa­tion, and de­cided to call him­self Flo Rida. Which is to say Stephanie Allen is from Lon­don (via Birm­ing­ham and Rot­ter­dam), and her un­der­ground cre­den­tials have re­cently been matched by a flair for send­ing dance­hall, R&B and hip-hop-in­fused mu­sic to the charts’ up­per reaches, so it’s to­tally fair to say she’s the don. Plus, well, let’s throw in some recog­ni­tion for Te­flon’s im­pres­sive dura­bil­ity while we’re at it. This af­ter­noon St­eff ’s en­ter­tain­ing Q in the sub­ter­ranean record­ing stu­dio, just off Lon­don’s Tot­ten­ham Court Road, where she recorded 2016’ s in­cen­di­ary mix­tape Real Ting, as well as last year’s a-star-has-landed break­out hit Hurtin’ Me, which has since shifted about half a mil­lion copies. Right now she’s here work­ing on her forth­com­ing mix­tape Real Ting II, which she in­sists is just a few days off com­ple­tion. “This has ac­tu­ally gone plat­inum now,” she notes, re­fer­ring to a gold pre­sen­ta­tion disc propped on the mix­ing desk. “Did you know you ac­tu­ally have to pay for these? I didn’t know that. I was like, ‘Hang on, why are we pay­ing for our own plaques?’ They should just send them to you. It’s very rip-off.” St­eff ’s cur­rent tra­jec­tory sug­gests she’ll be ripped off in this man­ner rather a lot over the com­ing years. Af­ter she’s fin­ished pro­mot­ing her semi-pre­pos­ter­ous, Skepta-fea­tur­ing, Chuck Ber­ry­in­ter­po­lat­ing knob an­them Ding-A-Ling, her next full re­lease will be Real Ting II’s lead sin­gle, likely to fea­ture US rap be­he­moth Fu­ture. Mean­while, her ris­ing in­ter­na­tional pro­file is such that at tomorrow

night’s Brits – she’s been short­listed in the Crit­ics’ Choice cat­e­gory – she’ll only have time to walk the red car­pet be­fore im­me­di­ately leav­ing, so she can catch a flight to Amer­ica, where she’ll be per­form­ing for hip-hop sta­tion Hot 97 and meet­ing with Apple. Hurtin’ Me, which St­eff sings from the per­spec­tive of her (now ex-) boyfriend’s ex-girl­friend, has struck quite a nerve in Amer­ica, and a few weeks ago she per­formed on James Cor­den’s US chat show. “It was flat­ter­ing to be asked,” she be­gins. “I mean, I al­ways knew I was go­ing to be ev­ery­where… But it’s dif­fer­ent when it ac­tu­ally hap­pens.”

St­eff ’s con­fi­dence is such that even be­fore she was fa­mous peo­ple would stop her in the street to ask what she did. It’s pos­si­ble that as much as 25 per cent of this was at­trib­ut­able to her ar­ray of wigs (red today, she says, for strength, but more of­ten blue, or blonde, or pink), but she puts her self-be­lief down to as­trol­ogy – “a lot of Sagittarius peo­ple are quite con­fi­dent, it’s very rare you find one who ain’t.” Let’s just say for the sake of ar­gu­ment, Q sug­gests, that as­trol­ogy is to­tal non­sense. “Well,” St­eff re­luc­tantly con­cedes, “my con­fi­dence comes from my­self. I was born con­fi­dent. If peo­ple aren’t con­fi­dent it’s be­cause they feel there’s some­thing they’re lack­ing.” Suc­cess, she adds, is sim­ply the re­sult of hav­ing worked to­wards a goal: “Like, say you want to be a doc­tor. You study, you get a de­gree, then you ap­ply for a job and you get it. It’s like that!” Pop’s lit­tered with the re­mains of tal­ented hard work­ers but St­eff had put her trainee doc­tor the­ory to the test once al­ready, al­beit with fon­dant in­stead of for­ceps. Be­fore she was Stefflon Don, Stephanie Allen was ob­sessed with the Food Chan­nel, par­tic­u­larly its bak­ing shows. Even­tu­ally she de­cided to take this ob­ses­sion to the next level: one Google search later she was booked onto a cake-mak­ing course that just so hap­pened to be right across the road from her house. And three months af­ter that she was a fully-qual­i­fied cake­ol­o­gist. It was a short-lived ca­reer. “This guy came back to me af­ter he’d bought this £ 65 cake, which I’d prob­a­bly spent £ 90 mak­ing, and he went: ‘You know this cake just tasted of flour?’ I was ter­ri­ble when it came to quan­ti­ties – I went by eye.” St­eff pauses solemnly. “It turns out you can’t go by eye. I thought, ‘Maybe it’s time I started tak­ing my mu­sic a bit more se­ri­ously.’” In the al­go­rithm age some may ar­gue that mu­sic is, like bak­ing, more about science than art, but Stefflon Don’s built her ca­reer on fol­low­ing in­stinct. Ex­cept­ing a one-off ses­sion at the age of nine, on an un­re­leased song with a Dutch pro­ducer (“it was ac­tu­ally good but he says he’s lost the disc” is her al­most-con­vinc­ing ver­sion of events), it was in St­eff ’s early- 20s that she de­vel­oped her voice, which led her to jump on vig­i­lante re­works of other artists’ tracks: in 2015, her gen­der-flipped take on Sec­tion Boyz’ Lock Arff was so well-re­ceived that the band shot a new video with her in it. “I thought, ‘I’ll find my own pro­ducer, it might cost me £ 25 to make a song, and I’m go­ing to up­load that to YouTube, and I’m go­ing to keep shar­ing it to peo­ple, and they’re go­ing to like it,’” she re­flects. “In my head it was that sim­ple. It’s al­ways been that sim­ple.” She pauses, and fid­dles with her bracelet, which falls off. “I mean,” she even­tu­ally ad­mits, “it’s ob­vi­ously not that sim­ple…”

I’m still Stefflon Don, no mat­ter what kind of track I’m on. If I want to jump on a fuck­ing opera track, I will.

And it’s not, but Stefflon Don hasn’t ex­actly made things look com­pli­cated. One par­tic­u­larly deft de­ci­sion was to hold off on sign­ing a record deal even when, as she noted in the 2016 track Real Ting, there were “la­bels on my back cos they know I’m gonna win”. Even­tu­ally Poly­dor gave St­eff her own la­bel, V-IV Lon­don, to which she im­me­di­ately signed her­self, then her pro­ducer Rymez. St­eff also has plans for V-IV Lon­don to op­er­ate as a bou­tique mod­el­ling agency. So far the deal’s re­sulted in both the suc­cess of Hurtin’ Me and a guest spot on the Demi Lo­vato sin­gle In­struc­tion, ei­ther of which could have raised an eye­brow or two among St­eff ’s ear­li­est sup­port­ers. Tellingly there’s been no ma­jor im­pact on her per­ceived cred­i­bil­ity. St­eff ’s ro­tat­ing hair colours and ver­sa­tile vo­cals have drawn plenty of Nicki Mi­naj com­par­isons, but the most per­sua­sive sim­i­lar­ity lies in both artists’ pin­cer move­ment ca­reer strate­gies. St­eff ’s mix­tape tracks con­tain mo­ments of bril­liantly X-rated filth but more main­stream cuts mean she can also ap­pear on prime­time BBC, just as Mi­naj’s ca­reer is a com­bi­na­tion of lyrics such as, “I’m a bad bitch, I’m a c**t” and duets with Justin Bieber. The up­shot: Stefflon Don’s one of UK mu­sic’s most cel­e­brated un­der­ground tal­ents while also be­ing one of the coun­try’s best new pop stars, two an­gles she re­fuses to see as mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive. “I never ever want to be boxed in,” St­eff shrugs. “I’m still Stefflon Don, no mat­ter what kind of

St­eff at­tributes some of her early suc­cess to tak­ing full con­trol of the process. “You have to be your own man­ager, your own A&R,” is how she sees it. “I don’t know every­thing, but I had to act like I did.” Years be­fore all that, though, she’d been forced to step up her game in a dif­fer­ent way. She was born in Birm­ing­ham, but St­eff ’s fam­ily moved to Rot­ter­dam when she was four, then a decade later moved back to the UK. Their new home in Lon­don was good for St­eff ’s un­der­stand­ing of her Ja­maican her­itage, she says, but proved some­thing of a cul­ture shock when it came to school. “Kids were so in-your-face,” she re­calls. “I had to adapt.” She stops short of say­ing she de­vel­oped a char­ac­ter to cope with Lon­don life, sug­gest­ing in­stead that she forced her­self to grow up. “I think,” St­eff now con­sid­ers, “I be­came the me I was al­ways go­ing to be, just quicker.” St­eff ’s not es­pe­cially sad, she ad­mits, that her US flight means she’ll miss tomorrow night’s Brits cer­e­mony. No fan of in­dus­try small-talk, she ea­gerly an­tic­i­pates reach­ing the level of fame that re­moves these du­ties from the equa­tion all to­gether: “Once I’ve con­quered it all,” she’s de­cided, “the less events I’ll have to show up for! I want to be like Adele!”

If you’re ever look­ing for a metaphor for how dreams of suc­cess of­ten give way to the beige re­al­i­ties of fame, look no fur­ther than the atro­cious state of Stefflon Don’s bed­room fur­ni­ture. As a kid she dreamed of one day be­ing in the po­si­tion to buy mir­rored fur­ni­ture for her room. St­eff ’s now achieved that tar­get – mir­rored chest of draw­ers, the whole thing, mis­sion ac­com­plished. Ex­cept: “It’s very bad,” she splut­ters. “There’s fin­ger­prints ev­ery­where. If you see the mir­rors in my house now, it’s dis­gust­ing. It’s just non-stop clean­ing.”

There was a mo­ment last year when hav­ing pulled an all-nighter in this very stu­dio, Stefflon Don emerged at 6am and saw peo­ple ar­riv­ing for work in a lo­cal shop. She de­cided to share her thoughts on Snapchat but her in­tended mes­sage – if you have a dream, don’t ever lose sight of it – was par­tially lost thanks to so­cial me­dia’s love­able knack for wil­ful mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion. “There was this one girl say­ing, ‘It’s hard for us out here, you’re just say­ing this be­cause you’ve made it,’” St­eff re­mem­bers. “I was like, ‘It can’t be that hard for you dar­ling be­cause you’re on Snapchat talk­ing about it. You’ve got a smart­phone! Some peo­ple don’t have food!’ Know what I mean?” As St­eff ’s pop­u­lar­ity in­creased she was re­al­is­ing her fans and fol­low­ers wouldn’t nec­es­sar­ily all be on the same wave­length. “Peo­ple used to love it when I spoke on top­ics, then I had new peo­ple com­ing in and some just thrive off neg­a­tiv­ity. It’s be­cause they’re not happy in life, but that’s not my fault. You don’t see me post­ing on peo­ple’s In­sta­grams say­ing ‘What the fuck are you wear­ing?’” She pauses, briefly guf­faws, and adds: “I mean, I might think it…” More re­cently St­eff un­in­ten­tion­ally un­der­went some­thing of a dig­i­tal detox, when she re­alised she hadn’t posted on so­cial me­dia for a cou­ple of days and de­cided to stick with it. She read a book in­stead: fi­nan­cial lit­er­acy self-help tome Rich Dad Poor Dad. “Peo­ple al­ways used to say, ‘You can learn a lot from a book,’” St­eff ex­claims. “I was like, ‘What the fuck are you say­ing? I’m sure I can watch stuff on YouTube that could tell me the same thing.’ But text is a bit deeper, isn’t it? It’s very in­ter­est­ing. I need to read some more.” She’ll be lucky if she finds time, with Real Ting II around the cor­ner and her full de­but al­bum ex­pected later this year. One fu­ture aim is to record a song in the vein of TLC’s No Scrubs (“I want men to lis­ten to the lyrics and think, ‘Yes, I can do bet­ter’”), but her main aims, as she faces 2018 and be­yond, re­volve around qual­ity con­trol and liv­ing up to ex­pec­ta­tions. These are things she no­ticed while she was hang­ing out with Drake last year. “What in­ter­ests me about him is that he’s so mas­sive and he still cares about his craft,” St­eff notes. “He’s got all these Num­ber 1s, but if he dropped a song tomorrow and ev­ery­one hated it, he’d still care.” Right now, Stefflon Don reck­ons she’s about a quar­ter of her way to where she wants to be. Con­sid­er­ing her achieve­ments so far it seems she’ll be dis­ap­pointed with any­thing less than world-con­quer­ing huge­ness. Then again, con­sid­er­ing those achieve­ments so far, that doesn’t ex­actly feel out­side the realms of pos­si­bil­ity. “You’ve al­ways got to step up,” is how St­eff sees it. “With every­thing you do in life. Just step up.”

Peo­ple said, ‘You can learn a lot from a book.’ I was like, ‘What the fuck are you say­ing? I can watch stuff on YouTube that could tell me the same thing.’ But text is deeper.”

She’s the Don: (clock­wise from above left) at the Brit Awards 2018; with Skepta in the promo for Ding-A-Ling; in the video for Hurtin’ Me (sleeve, in­set be­low left) with rap­per French Mon­tana.

Loud and proud: “A lot of Sagittarius peo­ple are con­fi­dent – it’s very rare you find one who ain’t.”

Mak­ing moves: Stefflon Don sets out her plans for world dom­i­na­tion (p46); (in­set, be­low) a starstud­ded pat on the back for Damon Albarn as he hits the big 50 (p52).

Woman’s not hot: Stefflon Don at Who We Be Live, Lon­don, 30 Novem­ber, 2017.

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