Extra Cockney & Yardie: Talking Dancehall with Stush

December 12, 2011

Words by Zoe Dennington

As a bonus to our latest edition of Cockney & Yardie, columnist Gabriel Heatwave set us up with U.K. dancehall writer Zoe Dennington and her recent interview with one of England’s most exciting female MCs, Stush. Here is her report.

One of the UK underground’s most distinctive voices, Stush first came to public attention back in 2002 when she unleashed a torrent of dancehall chatter over Sticky’s rattling garage classic “Dollar Sign.” Her trademark squeak has since graced tracks as diverse as Groove Armada’s “Get Down” and Sway’s “F Ur X.” Record label politics subsequently obliged her to take a break from recording but she has recently returned to the fore with “Call Mi Phone,” the product of time in the studio with UK reggae don Curtis Lynch. Recently, she sat down for a chat about the evolution of her MC style, her musical upbringing and the intersection of garage with her one true love: dancehall.

Stush was brought up in west London’s Shepherd’s Bush area by Jamaican and Dominican parents. “The main influence in the household was reggae. My parents had a whole wall of pictures of Bob Marley. It was like a shrine! People who came round used to think he was a relative,” she recalls, breaking into a throaty giggle. “They were into a lot of other reggae singers too: Sanchez, Burning Spear, Frankie Paul, U-Roy, I-Roy…it was all about the Roys in my house!”

An early grounding in roots classics evolved into a fascination with dancehall, with a little help from London’s pirate radio stations. “I can tell you exactly when I got into dancehall,” Stush says. “Around 1990 we were living behind the Crystal Palace tower, which blocked out a lot of radio stations. Me and my brother would sit there for hours trying to tune in to Kiss and Choice.” London’s airwaves bubbled with the sounds of artists like Tony Rebel and Cutty Ranks, but it was Buju Banton who made the biggest impact. “I got a hold of a tape copy of Buju’s Mr Mention album and I studied it. That was where I got my first style from; I was just a little girl, but in my head I sounded just like Buju!”

Although the sounds of Jamaica resonated through urban Britain in the early ’90s, female voices remained rare. “Because my parents were quite strict, artists like Lady Saw were too slack for my house,” Stush says. “So when Tanya Stephens came out around 97, my head just exploded! I was like, ‘she’s better than all the men! You can’t tell me I can’t do this!’ That’s when I started my own style, everything just came naturally after that”.

Stush began MCing with her uncles’ soundsystem, and her career as a dancer led to further opportunities to get on the mic. “I had to sneak up to Ilford to go to the studio. My parents were so strict, I had to get back home before 8.30! Even then I’d make up excuses about why I was late. You wouldn’t think that was late for a teenager, but for my mum and dad, trust me!” A limited time frame proved to be good training in studio technique. “They used to call me the one-take wonder. I’d just go in there and get it done, cos I’d got to get back on that Central line [subway train]!”.

These early recordings caught the attention of U.K. garage producer Sticky, who has always had a sharp ear for a female vocalist (for example, the unstoppable “Booo!” with Ms Dynamite and his more recent collaborations with the fabulous Lady Chann). “At the time, I wasn”t really that into garage,” Stush admits. “I loved dancehall so much; my whole life was about Jamaica. In the end, Sticky tricked me into recording ‘Dollar Sign’ by telling me that it was like sped-up dancehall, so that’s how I approached it.”

“Dollar Sign”

Shortly after recording the track, an impromptu performance with Sticky and Dr Psycho made Stush’s name on the garage scene. “They really threw me in at the deep end!” she recalls. “When Sticky got me up on stage everyone thought I was this little church singer, because I looked proper young. Then the lyrics came out and everyone went mad! I got three reloads and that was it really. That year I did about 300 shows. Me and my manager were these two little kids driving up and down the country. We’d get to venues and the bouncers would ask for ID and I’d be like, ‘what do you mean, man?! I’m on the flyer!”

Even with the buzz from performing, Stush found dealing with record company drama increasingly difficult. “I was wrapped up in cotton wool at home, and then you come into the real world and people treat you like a product,” she says. When her label Go! Beat folded, she was trapped in a contractual limbo that has stopped her from releasing much of her material. But she has since toured worldwide with Groove Armada and recorded the formidable “We Nuh Run,” a ruthless appraisal of the UK record industry that opens with her fierce observation that, “they don”t wanna have a pretty dark skinned gyal pon de TV.”

“We Nuh Run”

Stush’s continued passion for her craft is more apparent when she talks about dancehall. “Reggae is always in me and I feel like I’ve gone full circle just to come back to it. That’s why recording ‘Call Mi Phone’ with Curtis [Lynch] was so much fun, because it’s got a proper old school dancehall style… I think it’s that time now. I’m older, I want to show my expansion as an artist. I’m ready to open up more, and reggae’s going to be coming through, a lot!”

“Call Mi Phone”

Follow Stush on Twitter @Stush_UK.