Lady in waiting

November 3, 2006


  • At 5-foot-1, Lady Sovereign is hardly a towering presence on stage. But what the 20-year-old English rapper lacks in height, she makes up for in frantic energy -- "I can't stand still on stage; I'm just always fidgeting!" she says -- as well as rapid-fire rhyming and an infectious and often self-deprecating sense of humor.

    "Yeah, it's officially the biggest midget in the game," she raps on "Love Me or Hate Me" from her recently released but long-awaited debut album, "Public Warning." "Make way for the S.O.V.!"

    Raised in London's rough and tumble Chalkhill Estate housing project, the former Louise Harman fell in love with hip-hop via her mother's Salt N Pepa albums, and she made her mark on the British music scene via independent recordings such as the hit single "Ch Ching" and appearances with the Streets. These won the attention of American icon Jay-Z, who signed her to Def Jam. Now, she's ready to launch a full-scale U.S. invasion. We spoke by phone from London shortly before the start of her tour.

    Q. Chicago fans had the opportunity to see you twice last summer, at the Intonation Music Festival and Lollapalooza. You've built quite a following here even before the release of your first album.

    A. Lollapalooza was thick; I enjoyed that! I had never played to that many people before, and they did seem to like it. But it feels great to finally have this record out. I actually got the finished thing in my hand today for the first time, and I was like, "Finally!" I was thinking the damn thing would never come out!

    Q. Considering how long the buzz has been building, were you feeling the pressure to deliver?

    A. I kind of finished my album before all of that kicked in; there's actually more pressure now, because it has taken so long for the thing to come out. But when I was making it, it was weird, because I didn't even know I was making an album until I realized that I'd done it. I was just ... you know, making songs! I was never really thinking, "Album, album, album." But yeah, I made it, and it's bloody good!

    Q. How do you work in the studio?

    A. I always need the music first, and then I kind of get an idea for the lyrics from there. The beat speaks to me; it tells me a concept. The beat just inspires me. I play a big role in crafting the backing tracks. Sometimes I'll bring in a sample, and sometimes I'll play a track and I'll be like, "I want something along those lines."

    Q. How do you know when you've recorded a keeper?

    A. When I listen to it over and over and over again, and I'm like, "Yeah, I like this! This is neat!" I know when something is good and I know when something is s---. I'm my own toughest critic; I really do over analyze things. I don't just like to record loads of tracks. I know what I'm doing, and I try to get it the first time.

    Q. How many of your lyrics come from your own life? How much is Lady Sov a character you've created, and how much of her is autobiographical?

    A. All of it! I'm honest, that's the thing about me, and that's what makes me different. All of it is true; all of it is me. Right now, I don't really have a personal life, to be honest. It is kind of hard to separate the personal from the public.

    Q. You've given props in interviews to artists like Salt N Pepa, and I think many rap fans today forget how influential they were. How did you discover them?

    A. Through my mom, actually. I remember having the cassette, and I nicked it for my mom when I was young. The first song that I heard was "Tramp," and I was like, "Yeah!" I wasn't allowed to listen to it for some reason, and I don't know why. I listen to it now, and it's all fun and games, but back then, that was some controversial s---.<

    I remember the first time I wrote lyrics. I used to actually write a little poetry when I was in middle school, but I couldn't read it out loud! I was shy, big-time. But I started rapping when I was 12 or something, and it came easily right from the beginning. It's just one of those things that I started doing instead of using my books at school; I was using them to write lyrics instead.

    Q. What did you think when you first heard that Jay-Z is a fan?

    A. I thought it was bull--- at first! I thought someone was pulling my leg. When I realized it was serious, I was like, "Oh my God!" I think I jumped in the air twice, and I've never done anything like that in my life. But I've met him since, and he's a cool guy. He's a Sagittarian like me, so we kind of bond. I still don't know what it is he liked in my music, and I could never answer on behalf of someone else. You'll have to ask him, and then I'll have the answer!