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.
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.