Every couple of years there's a new buzzword for urban underground music from the United Kingdom. In the Nineties, it was drum 'n' bass, trip-hop, and basically everything originating in Bristol. When those two genres reached their peak, then came UK garage, based on hardcore breakbeats and featuring some MCing, but usually lightened up with syrupy-sweet R&B vocals. That seemed to have been the last great hope for a breakthrough of English urban music in the States, and the only person close to a star it can claim to have produced was Craig David. Even then, his minor success came after he mostly abandoned the rougher and more technological elements of his music in favor of a more traditionally American approach to balladry.
Around 2004 the watchword became grime, mainly thanks to the Run the Road compilation released by Vice Records, the label offshoot of the snarky magazine and purveyor of all that is painfully hip. The tracks on Run the Road weren't quite rap and weren't quite dance music. The beats were staccato, minimalist, and mostly home-produced. There was an overarching sense of doom, a threatening, thoroughly English vibe.
Most of the lyrics were boasts or call-outs on rival crews, spit in a thick patois decipherable by only the most hardcore Anglophiles. Of course then began the music press quibbling over what was grime and what wasn't. Though most of the artists were unknown, some of the tracks would soon become major UK hits. The Streets (a.k.a. Mike Skinner) appeared with "Fit but Don't You Know It," from his sophomore 2004 full-length, A Grand Don't Come for Free.
Lady Sovereign performs at 9:00 p.m. Tuesday, November 28, at Studio A, 60 NE 11th St, Miami. Advance tickets are $13 at studioamiami.com, $15 at the door, for ages eighteen and older. For more information, call 305-358-7625.
The only real female breakout was Lady Sovereign. She might have been small, she might have been white, she might have been pretty, but she packed a lyrical punch befitting her name. Her contribution to the compilation, "Cha-Ching," featured tongue-in-cheek flippancy like "I'm the biggest midget in the industry/Can't get rid of me." Her fierce delivery and don't-give-a-fuck attitude gained her a deal for a full-length record in 2005, Vertically Challenged, released on Chocolate Industries. Now she has returned with her sophomore effort, Public Warning, on a proper major label, Def Jam, and she seems to be eager to shed the "grime" tag completely. She has been on tour throughout North America since late October, and, frankly, she's exhausted.
So don't ask about the grime thing. In fact don't ask her about a lot of the things she is always made to talk about. The problem with being a pretty white female who makes so-called urban music is that one is asked the same questions over and over. And it's clear that Lady Sovereign tires of it quickly.
Whereas many of her peers that started out in the grime scene still languish in obscurity, Lady Sov, as her familiars call her, decided instead to do a one-eighty in favor of a more varied, musical approach. There's still sassy, lyrical wordplay, but listeners are not going to find too many arcane references to far-London suburbs. So it should be pretty obvious how she got started: The girl liked rap music.
So what. Don't ask her, because she'll simply say, "I don't know." Don't ask her where she is at any given moment, because she might just reply, "I have no fucking idea." She answers most rote questions with a sigh or a mumbled "bloody Hell." So what about the G-word grime?
"I'm not a grime artist," she says. "I can make grime if I want to."
Ask her about the new album, though, and she noticeably brightens. "Well, I'm basically proud of all of it, or else it wouldn't be on there," she says, laughing. "There was a lot of extra stuff, but what I didn't like didn't make it on. The more I got into the studio, the more musical it got."
Sov is actually the executive producer of the album.
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"Well, I pressed some beats, but it was more of a spoken direction," she says. "I was really specific about how I wanted it to sound." She laughs again, a good sign.
So the girl is busy. This is her first headlining tour in North America, although she has been through here before, supporting the Streets earlier this year. She is no stranger to Miami, either, last appearing during Winter Music Conference earlier this year. All she'll say about that, though, is that it was "quite eventful."
"I mean, it ended up on 'Page Six,'" she says, "so perhaps it's better to leave it at that."
Tuesday's appearance at Studio A will mark her first proper headlining gig for a Miami crowd, perhaps when the flow of alcohol and chemicals is slightly more in check than it is during spring's ritual debauchery. Expect her usual live wallop that belies her stature. Her command of an audience is riveting and completely self-assured. Totally appropriate for someone whose stage name speaks of royalty.