Stush is one of the most successful female artists to have emerged from Britain’s underground music scene over the past decade and one of the few dancehall acts to maintain a lengthy relationship with a major record company.
After breaking into the industry with the UK garage classic Dollar Sign in 2002, she found success with hits such as F Ur X, which was included on the soundtrack of hit British drama film Adulthood, and featured on Get Down, a collaboration with EDM duo Groove Armada that broke into the top 10 of the UK singles chart in 2007.
But while she has managed to steer her career from the underground into the mainstream charts, the industry Stush passionately loves has not always been kind.
We first met the west London-born rapper back in 2004, when she performed at our sister-brand’s event, Overground Live (above), and were impressed with her energetic stage performance and unique rap flow. However, it would take another nine years before we would get to interview her.
Below, Stush talks about her new music and explains why despite numerous hit singles and a lengthy contract with Island Records, in 2008, she came close to quitting music.
What’s your earliest memory of reggae?
Hearing Bob Marley on Sunday mornings. My dad had all his albums on vinyl and would play one after the other.
Which song stood out the most?
I try not to have a favourite with Bob because he has too many classics, but back then it would have been One Drop (above).
Name your top three favourite female rappers…
Tanya Stephens, Lauryn Hill and Foxy Brown.
In 1992, I had Buju Banton’s Mr Mention album on a Memorex 90 cassette tape, which I’d listen to all the way to school and back.
I remember singing some of the songs and my dad saying: ‘I’m Jamaican, but you know certain words that I don’t know. How are you picking them up and you’re so young?’ And I was like: ‘I don’t know; it’s just easy.’
Originally, I loved singing. My best friend at school was a wicked singer and at break-times we’d mess around and she would say: ‘You can’t sing,’ which inspired me to do something she couldn’t.
But what really sealed it was when I heard Tanya Stephens’ songs Goggle and Handle the Ride. That’s when I said to myself: ‘This is what I want to do’.
How did you make the transition from fan to professional dancehall artist?
I attended the Brit School where I majored in dance. No one knew I could rap, but one day a teacher called Mr Preston heard me chatting some Beenie Man lyrics and asked: ‘How long have you been doing that?’
I told him and he said: ‘You need to take that up seriously. We’ve got a radio suite upstairs and I’m in charge of media. I’ll show you how to mix tunes and work the radio board, as long as you promise to continue rapping.’
He told me how he really loved reggae, had played an instrument on [Buju’s] Til Shiloh album and interviewed Shabba Ranks for BBC radio.
From there, I learned how to work the fader and gain buttons on the mixing desk, became the producer of the Brit School’s reggae radio programme and started writing seriously.
You recorded your first hit single, Dollar Sign (above), while you were still at the Brit School. What’s the story behind that song?
Around 2000, I did a track called Clean, which was a reply to Lexxus’ song Cook . [UK garage producer] Sticky got hold of a copy and loved it.
He asked me to come to the studio and we recorded a version of Dollar Sign onto a minidisc, which I gave to a friend who had a link in a record company.
My friend left the minidisc with someone at the record company, but it got bootlegged, even though it wasn’t the finished version.
Obviously, Sticky and I were fuming, but it got my name out there. We fixed up the song, released a proper version and after about three months, Sticky was phoning me every day saying: ‘It got six wheel-ups in Bedford and three in Manchester [laughs].
How did you get signed to a label?
After the success of Dollar Sign, I found myself in the middle of a bidding war between all the major labels and decided to sign with Go Beat Records.
More than 10 years later, you are still signed to a label [Island Records], which is rare, especially for a dancehall act. What’s the secret to your success?
More than anything, it’s a case of industry politics. [Sticky’s label] Social Circles were paid a lot of money to produce my album, but the label folded before it was ever finished.
Go Beat said: ‘We know the collapse didn’t have anything to do with you, but we can’t give you another budget because we didn’t recoup on the last one. And if we let you go, somebody is going to scoop you up.’
Eventually, [Go Beat] were taken over by Island who signed me as a solo act; mainly because they knew I had another single sitting there.
Was that single Get Down (above), the song you recorded for Groove Armada?
Yes. I actually wrote that before Dollar Sign and Island sat on it for seven years. You can tell I wrote it years ago because I’m talking about old dance moves like screechy and Jerry Springer.
So even though you’ve been signed for over a decade, most of your success has come from the work you’ve done independently?
F Ur X (above) was released by Sway and ended up on the Adulthood soundtrack, and Sony released Get Down because that’s who Groove Armada were signed to.
You’d expect Island to bus’ me off the back of that, but they still didn’t do anything. So in a way; yeah, I’ve had success, but not through my record label.
You toured with Groove Armada for three years – what was that like?
Traveling with a predominately white band and two other black vocalists was a great learning experience for everyone. A lot of times, people think we play the race card, but when they started to see certain things in front of their faces; they were the ones calling ‘racism’.
Australia was hilarious because we had 11 flights in 13 days and I got stopped on three quarters of the flights. People just didn’t want to let me through; it became a running joke.
The rest of the band was like: ‘On a level, Stush, you don’t drink, smoke, do drugs or look suspicious, so why have you been stopped so frequently?’ That’s when they really started to see how I was being treated differently.
Yeah, that opened my eyes a lot because the UK underground scene is very small. There are a lot of people with big egos who think: ‘Yeah, I’m at the top of the game because I’m doing this and that,’ but really, they are just a big fish in a tiny pond.
As soon as you come outside of that pond, you’ll see that most of our music doesn’t even reach outside of the M25, let alone outside of the UK. The only artist foreigners really know about is Dizzy Rascal (above).
Is the UK music scene in a good state?
The scene’s been going down the pan since about 2008. The quality of music is poorer, but I think there are a few contributing factors to this: the internet, YouTube and certain music channels on [satellite TV platform] SKY don’t have any quality control so now everyone can get through.
But not everyone can be a rapper or singer. There are certain people trying to do this because they think it’s the new hustle or fashion, but music isn’t in their soul. You can hear the laziness and conceit in people’s writing, and half the tunes aren’t even mixed or mastered.
Around five years ago, I wanted to stop doing music. I went to Dominica, sat in my mother’s house in the mountains and re-energised because I’d been sucked dry by England and its madness; I couldn’t deal with it anymore. It was just a joke.
What was the last reggae or dancehall album you bought?
Stephen Marley’s Revelation Pt. 1 , which is really good.
Last year, you launched Stushlery, a line of custom handmade jewellery. What was the inspiration behind that?
That came about because I was a bit ill and suffered exhaustion from all the touring and needed to do something that was therapeutic and relaxing.
I’ve always been interested in jewellery so I was like: ‘Let me do a little course and learn how to make stuff myself. Within a few weeks, the teacher said: ‘You’re really good. You should try and sell something’.
I managed to sell £100 worth of jewellery on Mother’s Day and the more I got into it, the better I got. Then, someone else recommended that I try and get some funding and set up a proper business.
I went to the Prince’s Trust who were really impressed and backed my business. Since then, I’ve been doing a lot of inspirational talks for them and they made me meet Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, who fell in love with and bought my Jamaica bracelet.
In February, I’ll be showcasing the line at the Spring Fair International exhibition, which I’m really happy about because it’s one of the hardest trade fairs to get an invite for. The business is just going from strength to strength.
How hard is it being a female in an industry dominated by males?
I don’t know if it’s because of my mentality, but I’ve always tried to work twice as hard as the guys. When I first came into the scene, people were very protective and I never had any problems because stage performance has always been my thing.
I think the guys rated me because they never came to me with any of the sordid things that I’ve heard some of the other females had to go through. It was always either brotherly love or they’d stay far because they knew I’d bun dem on stage [laughs].
What does the future hold for Stush?
I’m working on an album and trying to raise my profile with the new generation of kids who don’t know Stush.
Everything is so different now compared with when I first came out. Everyone’s talking about doing mixtapes, but I’m not that kind of artist. I usually put out a couple of quality tracks, but it feels like it’s more about quantity now.
I have a tune, No Chorus, produced by Curtis Lynch Jr, that came out a couple of months ago and another called Cyan Tell Me Nuttin (above), which will probably be a main track with a video.
I also feature on a six-minute tune(Stepback Remix) (above), which has all new male MCs, but [the producer] Speakworld asked me to take the last verse as the only female.
If you had the power, what is the one thing you would most like to change about the music industry?
Improve the quality control and ensure that only real artists get through.
What advice would you give a young girl who’s trying to break into the music industry?
Be yourself and don’t ever feel pressured into being something you’re not. The reason people and record companies are interested in you is because of you. Go with your gut instinct. If something doesn’t feel right; don’t do it.
Don’t feel scared to not be liked because if everyone likes you, you can’t be real. You’re gonna upset someone along the line so you’re being fake if you’re trying to be liked too much.
Don’t think: ‘I have to get signed.’ Yeah cool, back in 2002 it was good to be signed, but now record companies are looking for people that are doing everything themselves and trying to pounce on their ideas and take their money [laughs].
If you’re doing it yourself; continue. Maybe get some hardworking and trustworthy people to help you, but you don’t always have to go to the record company to get signed; there are other ways to get your music out there.
Just put the work in. If you want anything in life; hard work is necessary. Put the work in and you’ll reap the benefits. If you don’t; you won’t get to the place you’re aspiring to.