Two stodgy matrons peek fearfully over their expensive sunglasses when they hear the brash Cockney accent cutting through the quiet hotel lobby. “Are you sure you want to do an interview here?” asks the pixie-ish Lady Sovereign, clad in ninja black and scowling at the prospect of being unduly scrutinized by a phalanx of straight-laced tourists. Purposefully, she raises her voice another notch. “These people just look a little dead, if you know what I mean!”
With that, Lady Sovereign (aka Louise Harman) and Remix are off to the nearest coffee shop for a caffeine boost — which means an ice-cold Coke for Sov, as she's known to her friends back home in northwest London. She christened herself with the name after she stole her first sovereign ring as a youngster growing up in the rough-and-tumble Chalkhill Estate (one of many London versions of “the projects”). “The ring was in the corner of some guy's room,” she explains, “and I just took it and put it on my finger and I was like, ‘I'm Lady Sovereign now.’ It was like a marriage. I didn't pick up a dictionary and go, ‘Yeah — sovereign!’ because it means ‘powerful’ and ‘golden’ and all that crap. I mean, it's a good look in the dictionary, but that's not the reason why I am who I am.”
If such arbiters of style as Jay-Z have anything to say about it, Sov might just be the antidote to the astonishing lack of truly gifted female MCs in hip-hop today. Sov's high-octane, rapid-fire delivery first caught American ears about two-and-a-half years ago, when she appeared on the remix of The Streets' “Fit But You Know It” with Kano, Donae'o and Tinchy Stryder — three of the up-and-coming lights on London's once-underground grime scene. She soon drew the attention of Chicago's Chocolate Industries label, which eventually released her Vertically Challenged EP in late 2005. But it was a personally arranged audition with Jay-Z at Def Jam's offices in New York last August that really opened the floodgates.
“Yeah, it was scary, actually,” Sov says, a little miffed that she's had to tell the story for the umpteenth time. “I was biting my nails, I was so scared. And when I got there, it didn't help the matter either that Usher was standing in a corner with his arms crossed, and I'm like, ‘Why the hell are you in here?’ Then Jay-Z walks in, all suited up — purposely being quiet, I think, to try and pressure me — and then L.A. Reid comes in, and then all these Def Jam people. I'm sitting there looking down, and out of nowhere, Jay was like, ‘So come on, girl — spit something.’ And I choked at first, yeah? But then I freestyled for a bit and did my thing.”
Stateside audiences can finally get the full-length album experience of Sov's thing on Public Warning (Def Jam, 2006) — a gritty, pugnacious blend of funky hip-hop, ragga-tinged workouts and frenetic garage-style bleepfests, all rendered by Sov with her distinctive sing-song cadence and wacky sense of humor. Along with her longtime collaborator Gabriel “Medasyn” Olegavich (who produced most of the album's 12 tracks), she's joined at the controls by UK dub-step duo Menta (Ms. Dynamite, Shystie), Dr. Luke (P!nk, Kelly Clarkson) and Basement Jaxx (with whom she toured last year). And if the midtempo jungle-hop single “Love Me or Hate Me” — already warming up the airwaves since August — is any indication, Sov is well on her way to transcending the grime label in favor of something completely different.
THE NU-SIC AND THE MESSAGE
“See, I'm not a grime artist,” Sov insists. “I'm not a hip-hop artist. I would say I make something called nu-sic, yeah? That's me. I'm not one thing or the other. I'm just in my own little league. Obviously hip-hop does play a big part in it because I'm lyricizing, but I don't like to be pigeonholed. If someone's got an assumption because of something the media has pushed — like I'm a female Eminem or whatever — they might be disappointed.”
Truth is, Sov has been pretty much sui generis since she was a kid. Inspired by the Ms. Dynamite track “Booo!” (released in 2001), she started out rhyming on a mini-cassette recorder, playing the results for anyone who would listen, until she discovered Fruity Loops and began uploading her songs onto facepix.com (an early precursor to MySpace). “I'd sit there and just make these beats and record myself over them with a PC microphone,” she recalls. “I'd love to hear that shit now — I don't have it anymore. All that golden stuff went missing when the computer got a virus. It might be on the Internet somewhere, maybe.”
These days, Sov is learning the ropes on her own Logic Pro 7 setup running on a Mac G4; she picked up on the program after she started working with Medasyn, whose studio space in London's East End — appropriately named The Sweatshop (see the sidebar “Working Up a Sweat”) — has been the scene of some key sessions in grime's brief history.
“I had worked with a lot of MCs before we first met,” Medasyn says, “and what I instantly liked about Sovereign was her amazing lyrical skills — just really clear and tight. And when we started working on some of the tracks that wound up on this album, I also realized she was into a lot of different music. Most MCs wanted to do the standard garage grime style that was on the radio, and Sovereign wanted to do that, too, but she had grown up listening to all kinds of stuff. She knew ska music and The Specials and all that, so we found some new areas to explore. She just has a real vibe of trying to do something original.”
Sov's quest for originality almost always starts with the music. “That's what inspires me with everything,” she says. “Music first, lyrics after. I think it makes sense to do it that way because it's like a marriage, innit? I mean, I know what I'm gonna do fully when I've got the music — just go off on a mad one.”
SPITTIN' WICKED RANDOMNESS
With no set formula in place before she began tracking, Sov approached most of Public Warning with an experimental ear. She takes “Random” — a sci-fi-sounding freestyle romp that has gone through several different versions over the past two years — as a case in point.
“Medasyn was just messing with that weird synth melody,” Sov says, “and I was like, ‘That's random!’ It was like — wot? So I just put down any little lyrics. The track did sound a lot different when it first started. It was so simple, and that little synth line was the one that got me going.”
The synth in question was a Roland Jupiter-4. “It had been sitting in the studio for a while,” Medasyn recalls, “and Sov was like, ‘Well, what's that one do?’ So I turned it on and showed her the pitch bend while I was doing this weird wobbly melody, and that was it. After playing it back a few times with just a simple beat, I found a little hook within that random sound that became the chorus melody.” The song was eventually handed off to Menta, who added a driving club rhythm to the song's stripped-down arrangement.
Like the genesis of “Random,” the album's closing track, “Fiddle With the Volume,” also came about almost purely by accident. After building up a melodic percussion line by de-tuning and sequencing a bongo drum from a Roland TR-808, Medasyn was burning a version of the song for Sov to take home. “By mistake, I unmuted the recording channel,” he says, “which made it feed back into itself with this short delay because of the latency of the program, so it created this weird ringing delay effect. Eventually I found a modulation delay in Logic and put a whole stereo channel of drums through that. I also distorted a lot of the individual drum sounds through [Logic's] BitCrusher, which makes those 808 bongos sound really nasty and crunchy.”
A Studio Electronics SE-1X synth module generated the song's growling bass line. “There might have been a Korg synth plug-in there as well,” Medasyn says. “Sometimes I'll use Logic's ES2 plug-in — in fact, that did one of Sov's favorite sounds, on the song called ‘Hoodie.’ There's a weird organ sound in the main riff from the SE-1X, and then answering that is this whistling organ from the ES2.”
DO WHAT YOU WANNA DO
For the UK grime purists who are familiar with Sov's early white-label singles — and for American fans of such grime statements as the Run the Road (Vice, 2005) compilation — some of the more straight-up hip-hop productions here will undoubtedly raise a few eyebrows. “In all honesty, that's me experimenting,” Sov explains, referring especially to the two tracks — the leadoff single “Love Me or Hate Me” and the damn-near soulful “Those Were the Days” — that she recorded with Dr. Luke. “They're a bit more hip-hop, but no one was saying, ‘You have to change up your sound.’ I only do what I wanna do. People can give me suggestions, but you know — it's all my thing.”
In fact, one listen to the Basement Jaxx production of “Blah Blah” should quell any concerns about where Sov is taking the music; the goal of Public Warning is clearly to push the envelope from multiple angles. “I just like unexpected collaborations,” she says, “and those guys are like the gurus of that. Maybe a lot of rappers are afraid to go in and work with them, but if they did, I'm sure they'd have a bang. And I think we're all trying to do something different. That's why I love anything that's unusual — no matter what.”
WORKING UP A SWEAT
Medasyn doesn't call his studio The Sweatshop just for kicks; not only does the space get pretty stifling in London's summer heat (there's no central AC as of yet), but the former clothing factory actually was a sweatshop. “It really is old-school,” he jokes. “It's on the top floor, and we've got big windows, so the sun is shining in, and with all the soundproofing, everyone is just sweating in there. You kind of do your take and then turn on the fan and open the window. [Laughs.]”
Of course, the ambient warmth of the studio equipment itself is always a contributing factor. For himself, Medasyn manages to generate his own thermal updraft not only as a producer, but as a multi-instrumentalist, too. On Public Warning, he plays all the horns and guitars on “My England,” “9 to 5” and “Blah Blah,” in addition to most of the synth lines throughout the album.
“I'd previously used an ADK clone of a Neumann to record things like vocals and horns,” he explains, “but just after we did the song ‘Random,’ I bought a Neumann M 147 — that's what I've been using for recording Sovereign all the time now. Normally I put her vocal through a Drawmer 1960 for compression. Some people say you might lose some of the higher frequencies, and it might roughen up the sound a bit, but really, that's what we're going for.”
Although some of the tracks on the album were mixed by studio wizard Serban Ghenea (who studied under Teddy Riley and has worked with everyone from Justin Timberlake to The Neptunes), Medasyn is obviously no slouch when it comes to asserting his own grit-saturated sound in a combined digital and analog environment. “I have a big analog Soundtracs desk,” he explains, “which I really like for getting that grimy sound. But I do like what Serban did with ‘A Little Bit of Shhh’ and ‘Fiddle With the Volume,’ which had a lot of doubling on Sov's vocals — maybe 36 tracks' worth. Both of those were mixed here originally, but I think Serban gave them a sonic weight that they might not have had before.”
Computer, DAW, recording hardware
Apple Mac G5 dual 2.3 GHz computer
MOTU Audio 24I/O interface
Apple Logic Pro 6 software
Soundtracs Inline 36
Universal Audio LA-2A, 1176LN compressors
Waves Renaissance bundle
Logic EXS24 soft sampler
Studio Electronics SE-1X
Drawmer 1960 compressor
Summit TLA-100 Tube Leveling Amplifier
Neumann M 147