Stefflon Don gets real
“Four sugars and no milk please,” booms Stefflon Don when asked if she’d like a cup of tea as she arrives at our photoshoot. The peculiarly non-British tea preference is a reminder that the ascendant artist, real name Stephanie Allen, spent much of her youth living outside of the UK.
Born in Birmingham, Allen’s family moved to Rotterdam when she was four years old. It wasn’t until she was a teenager that she moved back to London, where she’s lived ever since. Was it a culture shock? “School was really different. I looked different to the rest of the kids, my accent was funny, my swag, everything, you could just tell I was a foreigner,” she says, laughing. “I was 14 but I was a baby [at] 14, the other kids were like 14 going on 27. People grow up faster here, everyone was way more advanced than me.”
Nonetheless, it didn’t take Allen long to adjust. “I had really thick skin so even when I knew I didn’t fit in I just got on with it,” she tells me. “As the months went on I started adjusting, started picking up the swag and the lingo. [The other kids] realised I wasn’t having any of it. Any of what they were trying to chuck at me, I wasn’t having it. I think they liked that about me, that I wasn’t really scared of anything. Before the year was done I was one of the most popular kids in school! The turnaround was crazy – I thought I was gonna hate that school for the rest of my life.”
This confidence and comfort in being unequivocally herself shines through in Allen’s personality. In terms of flow, she switches between grime and UK rap as effortlessly as she does from a London accent to patois, and she attributes her musical versatility to her diverse upbringing: “I don’t have a sense of division in my music. I’m always open to try new stuff and different styles. Growing up in two different places opens your mind to two different cultures and two different ways of living. It helps make my music more broad rather than being just one sound.”
Allen put herself on the UK music map with a series of remixes and cameos, rising to fame in 2015 with her take on Lady Leshurr’s #LUKATAR and a gender-flipped version of Section Boyz’s Lock Arff. Arguably, both go even harder than the originals. Going on to collaborate with everyone from Lethal Bizzle, Giggs and most famously Chicago RnB star Jeremih on the London track for his Late Nights: Europe mixtape, she dropped her first solo track accompanied by its video – full of bad bitches having a good time together – last November. Titled Real Ting, it shares a name with her debut mixtape, which dropped a month later after a year of steadily increasing hype around the then blue-haired artist. Real Ting went to number four on the iTunes hip-hop chart after being streamed over three million times in the first month of its release. True to her word, the mixtape sees Allen switching between sensual bashment (Tight Nooki), fierce rap (16 Shots) and smooth RnB (Gangsta), including Jeremih, Donae’o and Abra Cadabra as featured guests.
Despite dabbling in hairdressing and cake-making before she began to take rapping seriously at 19, Allen is adamant that she always knew she wanted to be a musician. Growing up, she looked up to Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, Missy Elliott and Destiny’s Child. “Missy, the way she used to do her videos, the stuff she used to come out with, everything was so unique,” Allen tells me. “I feel like the most unique people always stood out to me, the people who just said whatever was on their mind.”
The influence of such charismatic artists is arguably central to the widespread appeal of Stefflon Don. Allen’s rise to fame has been fast, with a set at Glastonbury under her belt before she had signed a record deal or even released an official single. “I think people nowadays love realness,” she muses, “they can see through fake, they can tell when someone styles you and you didn’t like it but you still went ahead and did it. Everyone wants to be themselves and everyone wants to feel comfortable, and if you can project that and make them feel like they can be themselves, I feel like that’s a good thing. I think that’s what I probably give off. Do you, always do you. When it all comes crashing down, you don’t want it to all crash down and it was never you. Then you’re just fucked.”
As is (depressingly) the norm with a female artist who is unapologetically confident and growls lines like “pussy too good to fuck for free” whilst surrounded by beautiful women having fun, the comments under her work are often like a lesson in boring misogyny 101. Has she reached the point where she’s stopped paying attention? “No, I love reading my comments!” she laughs, “If I love something I put up, there’s nothing you can say to make me feel any way different. If I didn’t like it and someone commented on it then it might affect me, but if I love everything that I put out it doesn’t affect me, no one can affect me. If you don’t like it I don’t really care, that’s up to you. It’s not about you. I’m not here to please anyone. You probably don’t have any money, or a job. You don’t have a good life otherwise you wouldn’t be on YouTube commenting negatively on people’s videos.”
“If you don't like what I put out, I don't really care. I’m not here to please anyone”
With co-signs from Drake, a place on the BBC’s Sound of 2017 list and a track on XL Recording’s New Gen compilation – curated by tastemaker and former GRM Daily editor Caroline Simionescu-Mari – under her belt already, what’s next for Stefflon Don? “I’ve gotta live up to the expectations and bring some real shit, some more real shit – I know I’m gonna release an album at some point, when I’m not sure. Maybe the end of this year. But I’ve got music ready for whatever – whatever the world wants from me I got it!” Does she still bake cakes? “Not really, I don’t have much time” she laughs, “I don’t think I got the sauce anymore”. And finally: who she would like to collaborate with in the future? Drake? Nicki Minaj? “Ed Sheeran,” she tells me with a giggle, “I wanna wine on him on stage or something”. Grime’s favourite white boy with a guitar could definitely do worse.
Stefflon Don appears at MADE Festival, Birmingham, 29 July