Interview: With Stefflon Don
Stephanie Allen, the 26-year-old MC known as Stefflon Don, makes a hell of a first impression. She walks into London’s Soho Studios wearing an oversized, fur-trimmed black jacket over a Rolling Stones vest, a platinum-blonde wig and long, bejeweled acrylic nails. “My beautiful claws,” she says lovingly. Even back when she was a college student with no songs to her name, strangers used to stop her in the street and ask her what she did, assuming she was famous.
“People say that I’m very intimidating when they see me,” says Stefflon with a booming laugh. “I think confidence can be intimidating. I kind of think it’s good, because it keeps away a lot of boys.”
Her formidable self-assurance is being justified. In 2017, she made inroads by appearing with Demi Lovato on Jax Jones’ samba-house romp, “Instruction,” a No. 22 hit on Billboard’s Hot Dance/Electronic Songs chart. Now, her official debut single, the lithe, French Montana-featuring “Hurtin’ Me,” is climbing the Mainstream R&B/Hip-Hop chart, recently peaking at No. 23. She has notched over 20 million on-demand streams in the United States (according to Nielsen Music), where, in January, Apple named her its first British Up Next rising-star artist.
When we meet, Stefflon has just returned from a two-week multistate trip to promote “Hurtin’ Me,” culminating in her U.S. TV debut on The Late Late Show With James Corden. “A lot of Americans take to my sound,” she says. “They were like, ‘So what made you come to America?’ I was like, ‘You lot want me, bitch! You love this tune, innit!’ My music wanted me to be there, so I was there.”
Stefflon is succeeding where many talented British MCs have fallen short. The uncut London accents that made grime Britain’s first truly homegrown form of hip-hop are a tough sell for American audiences, thwarting scene leaders from Dizzee Rascal to Wiley. Stefflon’s performing voice, however, is a fluid, frictionless blend of London, America and Jamaica that gels seamlessly with hip-hop, grime, dancehall, R&B and house. The range of her guest spots (Lil Yachty,Tinie Tempah, Charli XCX) and collaborations (Sean Paul, Jeremih, Skepta) during the past 18 months speaks volumes.
That global perspective, says Stefflon, comes from her upbringing. She was born in Birmingham, England, to Jamaican parents, the middle child of seven, but spent a decade in the Netherlands, where she acquired an American accent and influences from Rotterdam’s immigrant communities: Moroccan, Turkish, Antillean, Surinamese. “Seeing all that has given me a love for all types of people and an insight into how things can be done differently,” she says. Moving to East London at 14, she made a rough landing but quickly turned her outsider status into an asset: “I didn’t have a choice. I was automatically really different.”
Since elementary school, Stefflon has been singing and writing songs. She first entered a recording studio as a painfully shy 9-year-old to sing a “Hard Knock Life” style hook for a rapper called Unique. The track went nowhere, but when she heard the playback, she thought, “Oh, my God, I shouldn’t be shy because I sound so good!” Later, the fearless charisma of 1990s female MCs, especially Lil’ Kim, inspired her. “I used to think, ‘I want to be that girl on the track that says whatever she wants and just kills everybody else.’”
Never entirely comfortable solely as a singer, Stefflon started hybridizing song and rap — Jamaicans call it “singjay” — when she was 18. She spent years honing her craft and identity in free community studios before going public with remixes of tracks like Rae Sremmurd’s “No Type.” By the time she released her brash, commanding remix of “Lock Arff” by London rappers Section Boyz in 2015, she had no doubt it would blow up. “I didn’t care what no one said — this was lit. That’s the difference.” She laughs. “I discovered the litness.” Section Boyz were so impressed that they shot a new video starring Stefflon, establishing her ability to dominate any track on which she appears.
That forceful debut led to Stefflon’s first transatlantic hookup the following year. A mutual friend woke her at 2 a.m. to tell her that R&B star Jeremih was in town and wanted to do a session. She got dressed, went to the singer’s hotel and improvised the seductive hook to “London,” a highlight of his Late Nights: Europe mixtape. That December, Stefflon dropped her own mixtape, Real Ting, a timely showcase for her versatility and hurricane-force charisma. “I feel like whoever didn’t believe [before] then believes now,” she says. “I tried to make people see that I’m not someone to be put in a box. I can do it all.”
On the back of Real Ting, plus co-signs from Drake and DJ Khaled, she signed to Quality Control in the United States and Universal subsidiary Polydor in the United Kingdom, through the label Stefflon herself founded, 54 London. “I always used to say ‘Five minus four,’ which equals the number one, and No. 1 to me means ‘Don,’” she says, breaking down the math behind her stage and label names. She co-directs her videos, too, and aspires to the wild spectacle of Hype Williams’ work with Missy Elliott. “Why don’t we just bring it back?” she asks. “A lot of people are like, ‘That’s a lot of money, Steff, you can’t do that.’ But I will, eventually.”
Stefflon asks her producer to play me some tracks from her next mixtape, coming this summer: a collaboration with Future, whom she met when she was opening for his U.K. tour last fall, and a song on which — alert to potential new territories to conquer — she sings in Spanish. As she checks her phone, Stefflon sings along, delighted by what she has made. She has anticipated this moment for years.
“I just knew that I wanted world domination,” she says matter-of-factly. “I knew that with anything I do, I want to be the greatest. That entails being great everywhere.” She splays her beautiful claws to illustrate the point. “Not just in America — everywhere.”
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