If you’ve spent any time bumping Jeremih’s July 2016 mixtape Late Nights: Europe, there’s a playful, infectious hook that will likely be embedded deep in your brain: You haffi marry the na-na-na-na/ Before mi ride the banana. Cropping up on “London,” it’s the unmistakable Jamaica-via-London lilt of MC and singer Stefflon Don. Alongside relative veterans Krept & Konan and Jeremih himself, Stefflon steals the song, flipping with ease from the low-slung drawl of the chorus to her belting, full-chested verse, where she demands that she’ll only give you all of her if she gets all of you.
It’s characteristically ballsy stuff from Stefflon Don, whose own music is a defiant, unpredictable blend of influences — she can switch between a rap beat and a grime beat as easily as she moves between her London accent and patois. Whether she’s MCing about being all dressed in black with your man and your car key, or wearing a hat emblazoned with the slogan “DIRECTOR,” the electric blue-haired artist leaves you with little doubt as to who’s in charge.
Born Stephanie Allen in the industrial British city of Birmingham to Jamaican parents, she grew up surrounded by the reggae her dad would play in the house. When she was a small child, the family moved to the Netherlands, where she also began listening to a lot of “bubbling.” Bubbling is a Dutch sub-genre of dancehall, invented in 1988 when reggae and dub DJ Moortje played a dancehall record at a higher speed, that remains widely popular in the Netherlands. (“Even the song I did with Jeremih has a slight hint of it,” Allen reflects.) At 14, she moved again, this time to London, where grime was gripping the city. At first, she remembers her “messed up accent” and her fluency in Dutch setting her apart from the other kids. Eventually, she says, “I discovered my swagger.”
After leaving school at 16, Allen tried her hand at being a hairdresser and a cake decorator, but music was always the end goal. In her 20s, she began dropping hard-hitting remixes and freestyles online, like her powerful gender-flipping 2014 version of Rae Sremmurd’s “No Type.” But it was in 2015, with a cover of Section Boyz’s U.K. rap hit “Lock Arff,” that she gained a new level of recognition (including from the crew themselves — Inch appeared in Stefflon’s video for her version of the track).
This year, she’s kept the hype going. As well as appearing on the Jeremih tape, she’s featured on west London singer Angel’s R&B jam “Hop On,” on a Lethal Bizzle official remix, and on a steelpan-enhanced flip of Rihanna’s “Work” with south London rapper Sneakbo. She's even nodded to her Dutch roots by appearing on Amsterdam MC Cho's infectious tune "Popalik."
Now, Stefflon Don is poised to move past the remixes and carve out her own lane as a solo artist: in August, she announced that she’d signed a publishing deal with Sony. With her snarling current single “Hot Prop” being the first taste of what to expect from her debut EP The Plug, The FADER caught up with the MC to find out how “London” was made, and her gameplan for the rest of 2016. “I don't care about no guys, I don't care about no girls,” she laughed down the phone. “I just want to rule the world.”
Congratulations on the deal with Sony! How did you celebrate the news?
Thank you! We just went for a meal and then I went straight back to the studio to work on some more bangers. I didn't even drink any alcohol. I was excited but in a more modest way. Just plotting and scheming. I feel like Sony can deliver what I need, and I can do the same for them.
How did you come to feature on Late Nights: Europe?
There's this girl, Donnatella [Panayiotou], she used to be a presenter on Flava [TV, British music channel], and now lives in L.A. She knows one of my friends. Donnatella messaged me at like, 12 at night, when I was in bed. She’s like, “Listen, Jeremih wants to collaborate with you. I told him you’re sick." She tells me to come to the studio, so I get there at like, 2 [a.m.]. And the studio’s actually set up in a hotel room.
How did you write the hook?
It didn't really take long. I was freestyling, and we were recording it on a phone. I was just coming up with ideas, for like 20 minutes, and [Jeremih]'s like, "Oh yeah, you have something. That was really good. Something about na na na." So we went through the voice note, he found it, and I just went on the mic and did that. We literally banged it out within two hours. All the hours I was there, we weren’t just working on [“London”]. We went through a few beats.
The next day we went to Krept & Konan’s studio. [Jeremih] was like, “You lot need to put something on this.” They were like “Yeah, we love this song!” We were actually all together — it’s not like everyone sent their parts in and [Jeremih] was in America. Which was good, because we could get to know each other and feel everyone’s chemistry.
"Sometimes you’ve got to do what you want to do. I like to be in control."
What was Jeremih like to collaborate with?
It was really good. He's very creative and very lyrical. He's kind of in his world, he know's what he's doing when he's in the studio. He's a nice guy as well, very calm. We're probably going to work together some more.
Tell me about how you started MCing.
In school talent shows, me and my girls would always [imitate] Destiny's Child. [My friends] used to come round my house and rehearse. I was so serious and so passionate. At the performance, they would not remember their words, so I'd just take the mic and I'd literally be everyone. I was Beyoncé, then I was Kelly, then I was Michelle. We always used to win, every year.
When I was eight or nine my dad got me a tape recorder, and I used to rap [songs into it]. I think one of my friends found that tape recorder — I didn't know how she had it, but she was listening to it at home, and then one time I saw her and my cousins, and they started singing my song. They all said, "Steff, we love your song!" I think I was between 10 and 12, and when I realized they were singing my song, I was like, Oh my gosh, this is exactly what I want to do.
Who were your favorite rappers or MCs?
Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopes in TLC, she stood out a lot with her rap. It was so different, the way she would flow. Lil’ Kim, she's just so bold. She didn't care about no one. She was like, "I'm here and I'm demanding everyone's attention. I'm the shit. You better listen." That's what I loved about her. And Foxy Brown, she was sexual, but she was gully with it, and she always used to do her patois thing as well, which I used to love.
You don’t have that much original material out there yet, instead you’ve made a name through remixes and features. Why did you take that slow and steady approach?
At one point, I had people telling me, "You're doing too many remixes." But [I thought], these remixes are what's getting my name out there — people are already familiar with the song, so it's easier to listen to. Then I did “Lock Arff,” and I played it for people, and they were like, "Nah, this is sick. This is it." So sometimes you’ve got to do what you want to do. I like to be in control. If anything's a mistake, I like to put it on myself, rather someone else telling me what to do.
How have you developed as an artist in the last couple years?
I’ve had more time to be in the booth, and to figure out what I actually like, what I don't like. I’m more comfortable with myself and saying whatever I want, and not really caring about anyone else.