Stefflon Don talks collaborations, storming awards season and plotting world domination

David Smyth
Stefflon Don: the British rapper talks to the Evening Standard: Louis Browne

Stefflon Don has brought her mum to the interview. Ordinarily that would be a little unusual but at least it should be an excuse for a bit of cosy background chat about what the 26-year-old rapper was like as a little girl. However, in this case I’m a bit unnerved.

“Diss my mother then your skin start bleed/ So don’t bother mess with my mommy,” she raps in strong Jamaican patois on her gunfire-scattered single 16 Shots. On another song, Family Ties, she appears to suggest something more serious: “Mommy moving bricks, yeah she in and out of state/ Somebody did her dirty, she was held by the gate/ She was looking at 10 but the lawyer beat the case.” Best be polite.

These are good genes, all the same. Steff’s Jamaican parents lived in Birmingham, where she was born Stephanie Allen (her stage name is a play on mafia boss John Gotti’s Teflon Don nickname, plus “Steff London”). They moved to Rotterdam for most of her childhood then settled in Clapton, east London, and have watched her become one of the biggest new personalities in rap. “I’m an international baby,” she says. “I’m happy my parents decided I should be worldwide.”

Her effervescent single Hurtin’ Me, a collaboration with US rapper French Montana on which she sings, hit the Top 10 last October. She went on to be named Best Female Act at November’s Mobos, appeared on more songs with Future, Skepta, Lil Yachty and Demi Lovato, and the night before we meet was named Best New Artist at the NME Awards.

The only misstep lately has been losing out to Jorja Smith for the Brits Critics’ Choice Award, which would have all but guaranteed colossal success this year. Still, past runners-up have included Dua Lipa, Anne-Marie and Years & Years, so she’s not in bad company.

Did she throw a tantrum when she found out she’d lost? “Oh my gosh, no! I love Jorja! Any of us would have deserved it. We all work hard and produce good music, so I was happy that she won.”

She went to the Brits this week anyway. “I do like a red carpet,” she says. “Unfortunately I’m always under-prepared when it comes to outfits. I’m so busy running around I don’t get time to do fittings.”

When we meet she’s dressed down in cream trousers, a big coat and a Balenciaga cap over a long blonde wig. We’re at the studio near Tottenham Court Road where she and her producer Rymez have worked together for the past couple of years.

Lobster and chips arrive from Burger & Lobster down the road — her favourite. They’re plotting an imminent mixtape to follow last year’s 11-track collection Real Ting, but before then she’s off on her first UK headline tour and pushing a couple of existing songs further.

There’s a remixed version of Hurtin’ Me with new verses from Jamaican stars Sean Paul, Sizzla and Popcaan, which should aid her international appeal. It was all done by email. “I asked Popcaan and Sean Paul because I know them,” she says. “Then when Popcaan sent back his verse he sent me a Sizzla verse too as a surprise. To have him on there, and not even have to ask, was amazing.”

This week she also released a video for her recent single with Skepta, Ding-A-Ling. It stars the two rappers, a tiger, a monkey and a tarantula, and makes a song that was already hard to forget even more memorable. It’s a bold, polarising move to base your chorus on a sample of a schoolboy in The Simpsons singing Chuck Berry’s innuendo-packed novelty hit My Ding-a-Ling. Many, including me I’m afraid, will find it immensely irritating, but it achieves its goal of making her stand out. “I performed it for the first time at Spotify’s Who We Be show at Ally Pally. The crowd just loved it,” she says.

She certainly stood out as soon as she arrived in London as a Dutch-speaking 14-year-old, already sporting a nose-piercing and a tattoo on her lower back thanks to liberal Rotterdam attitudes to school-age body modification. The tattoo is of her name on a scroll. She wanted to get it inside a heart but couldn’t afford it. “Dutch people speak English with an American accent, and I was living in a Jamaican household, so I had this American-Jamaican accent. No one knew where I was from. It only took me about two months to lose it.”

The Dutch connection has helped her to a third gold disc to go alongside sales awards for Hurtin’ Me and Jax Jones’s carnival dance song, Instruction. She got it for appearing on a single called Popalik by Amsterdam rapper Cho. She’s also plotting a new song in the “bubbling” style — a hyperactive Dutch sub-genre of reggae. Bubbling was born in the Eighties when a DJ accidentally played a dancehall record at the wrong speed. When she gives interviews over there, however, she sticks to English. She worries she’ll sound silly using the Dutch teen slang of 12 years ago.

As a young girl in Rotterdam she took to singing first. “I started writing songs at eight. Heartbreak songs — don’t ask me why. It was the stuff I used to hear, so I imitated it. I used to write songs about guys cheating. Could you imagine!”

When she was about nine she met the cousins of a friend, who started singing a song she’d written. The friend had taught it to them. “I thought I must have stolen the song because how the hell did they know it? My friend told them the lyrics. I remember that feeling, like I was on top of the world.”

As a game, the family used to put on instrumental music and perform over the top. One of seven siblings, Steff also had a sister who sang and a brother who rapped. “That’s how they first heard me rap, in those fun times. My sister would say, ‘I think you should take this seriously. You’re really good’. When I was 18 or 19 I started writing raps properly.”

Before she took off she did a bit of hair-styling and a bit of cake- decorating. “I was quite good — though not good enough for Celebrity Bake Off! I did a pink three-tier cake for a friend’s baby shower once, which was nice.”

Now she’s a unique fiery voice who’ll rap about anything in song, whether political (she samples Margaret Thatcher on Lik Down) or more often sexual (her bouncy song Tight Nooki is absolutely filthy).

She’s comfortable talking about her colourful family history on Family Ties too. She tells me that her auntie, her mum’s sister, is the author of an autobiography entitled From Lesbianism to Grace, published in Jamaica about her journey from gay to God — so there’s plenty that’s already been said in public.

After her headline tour she’s on the road again supporting another big US rapper — G-Eazy. She’s thinking about a debut album proper but it won’t be quite yet. “A mixtape is a bit more fun, you ain’t got to take it that seriously,” she says of the music she’ll release next.