It took rapper Speech Debelle years to find a producer who could bring to life the sounds in her head. The answer, as Wayne Bennett discovered, was to record her music as if it were a folk album.
After tearing open the winner's envelope at September's Mercury Prize ceremony in London, compere Jools Holland paused and said "This is a surprise!” Doutless Holland wasn't the only person in the room to have been taken aback that a record shifting only 4000 copies to date had beaten bookies' favourites Florence And The Machine, La Roux and Kasabian. However, there was one young lady in the room who was not surprised in the least. During the days running up to the ceremony, 26‑year‑old South London hip‑hop artist Speech Debelle, aka Corynne Elliott, had been defiantly assuring journalists that British music's most prestigious music award was already in the bag. For those close to her, this strong self‑belief was certainly nothing new.
"Speech was like that when she was here two years ago!” laughs Wayne Bennett, who produced the majority of the album in and around his home in Melbourne, Australia. "She was like, 'Oh, I'm gonna win the Mercury Prize!' and I was like, 'Oh, all right, whatever'… bless her… but all credit to her, she did!”
"The only time I felt doubt was about 10 seconds before they said my name!” says Speech. "So many people I spoke to, like my friends and that, are saying, 'Yeah, we won!' These are people that I've been doing music with for years. And I think that's what the relief was as well that I didn't let all of those people down or their aspirations.”
Speech Debelle actually signed to Big Dada Records around five years ago after impressing head honcho Will Ashton with a demo, but it wasn't until she met producer Wayne Bennett — also known as Wayne Lotek — in 2006 that she came across the right formula for her tunes. By that time, Bennett had become a key figure at the burgeoning British hip‑hop label, making up one third of versatile act Lotek Hi‑Fi as well as producing Roots Manuva.
"Before I met her, she was already on the label for a couple of years and what she was looking for was the right music,” explains Wayne. "She had all these stories that she wanted to tell and she was looking for the music and loads of different people had offered different ways, but it was all kind of straightforward and kind of obvious, and that's not really what Big Dada are about. They didn't really know what they could do with it, so they asked me if I had any ideas. I was like, 'Well, let's try and do it all acoustic. Let's do it like a folk record. She says she just wants to tell these stories. Let's go back to the oldest simplest forms of music where people just told stories, which is like country and folk and that sort of stuff.'”
This approach fitted perfectly with Speech's early vision of making a "hip‑hop Tracy Chapman record”. By the time they met, Wayne Bennett had been living in Melbourne for a couple of years, but he was over in London visiting family for a few weeks. With the help of his Dad's laptop, a copy of Cubase, a shuffled drum sample and his brother Tim playing bass and guitar, they soon had a basic arrangement for album opener, 'Searching'. The backdrop of the track's soothing, laid‑back acoustic guitar melody twinned with Speech's intimate and almost fragile rapping would form the blueprint for the rest of the recordings.
"After doing that song, once we both realised what we were doing, it was just easy,” says Speech, "So I just thought 'I wanna go out there and try and make an album with him in Australia.'”
When Wayne Bennett returned Down Under, he had no idea that Big Dada were going to come up with the kind of budget required to send Speech Debelle halfway around the world to record with him. But when he did get the call, he had a little problem. Since relocating from England a short time before and selling off the gear from Plan B, his Birmingham studio, Bennett hadn't yet had a chance to re‑equip.
"I didn't really have any equipment because when I first came to Australia, I was kind of on a writing holiday,” says Bennett, "I had just enough stuff to sketch out some ideas but it wasn't designed to do someone's album properly, like a big project! I called in a lot of favours, borrowed a whole bunch of equipment, bought some stuff on eBay and managed to assemble a kind of a makeshift studio. I had about four weeks or something like that to prepare from when they told me they were coming and they booked the tickets to when she was actually arriving! I just turned up at people's studios and said 'Right, what aren't you using?'”
In the end, Wayne Bennett managed to assemble the following gear to lay down the majority of Speech Therapy across a six‑week period during November and December 2006: his PC laptop with Cubase and Native Instruments' Komplete 3, an M‑Audio Firewire interface, a Fostex 16‑track digital recorder, a Joemeek VC3Q preamp, AKG C414 and Jeanne Audio JA87F microphones, a Shure drum microphone set, and a pair of Genelec 8020A speakers. To mix the album, he later bought a Tascam 38 half‑inch eight‑track tape machine and a Tascam M50 mixing desk from eBay.
Once Speech Debelle arrived in Melbourne, Wayne Bennett decided to phone around a selection of Melbourne session guys with the initial proviso of simply getting them down to meet Speech and jam along with her rhymes while he kept his finger on the Record button. Speech would let Wayne know when the feel and the melody matched what had musically been growing inside her head for so long.
"There was sounds [in my head],” explains Speech Debelle. "I realised that when I was with Wayne actually. He taught me a lot of things about myself when it comes to music. That's one of the things he pointed out — the way I see music as a physical thing. I'd be saying things like 'Make it like as if it's pushing you, like if someone's pushing you in your back!' which would be like a 'Wheels In Motion' song. That's how I would see that song, like someone's pushing you in the back and you're trying to get somewhere and the drums may be rolling over each other or the piano. 'Wheels In Motion' was influenced by a Coldplay song, I think it's called 'Speed Of Sound' — which I love — and the piano mix especially. It's like a rolling piano — when you hit a note it hits the note again, and I've always loved the way it kind of just rolls over. When Dustin, the piano player came in, I said, 'Can you do that?' and he did. It just sounded exactly like the Coldplay song, but then he and Wayne took this out and changed this and made something new.”
"Instead of playing sounds to her, which I think was a bit of a static process and she couldn't really get her head around, I brought people in and they were the sounds,” Wayne continues. "It was almost like I was taking her through what instruments there were. It was like, 'Right, day one is guitar. This is Liam, he plays the acoustic guitar. This is Mikey, he plays the electric guitar. Which one do you like the sound of for this particular song?' It was that kind of process where she'd be like 'I want that sound they put in movies when someone dies — violins!' so we'd get on the phone to a violin player, have that person come down, and they'd have a play. Or she'd go 'Do you remember in that movie, yeah, where the guy says to the dude 'Fuck you!'? I want the music that was playing then!' And I'd say 'I know what movie you're talking about!' and then I'd have to communicate that to the other musicians in a very non‑musical way. I just let her do it pretty naturally, the way we laid it down.”
When it came to recording locations, improvisation was certainly key. Various rooms in Wayne's Melbourne house were hastily soundproofed to lay down the majority of the electric, acoustic and bass guitars, strings, keyboards and Speech's initial guide vocal tracks. Most instruments were recorded separately, although on a few tracks, cello and guitar were recorded together.
"She recorded the vocals in the spare room of my house. We had two two‑seater sofas, and I turned them on their ends and put them together to make a little cubicle and then covered that with duvets and pillows, had the microphone behind that and that was the vocal booth!” laughs Wayne. "It was pretty sketchy! The strings were recorded in the kitchen. We've moved from where we recorded it now, but the previous place we were in had this massive kitchen with polished wood floors, so I stuck the violin player in there. We didn't actually put any extra reverb on it. The reverb on the record is just the sound of my kitchen.
"The guitars were done in different rooms, depending on whether it was an acoustic or an electric. Some of the rooms had carpet in and some of the rooms had wooden floors. If I was doing an acoustic, I'd stick them in one of the rooms with the wooden floors, and I got loads of cardboard boxes, so I'd just open out a cardboard box and stick the guitarist on the cardboard box, so we wouldn't get any reflections off the floor. As with the violins, I'd stick a mic in the room as well just to get the sound of the room. With electrics, if we were doing a long session where we were recording tons of guitars, I couldn't be bothered to keep turning the amps up and down, so I put them underneath the table in the dining room. I put a cardboard box underneath the table, put the amp underneath the table, covered the table with a duvet and kind of made small amp spaces. It's quite fun! It kind of took it back to how I originally started doing music, where we couldn't really get our hands on tons of equipment so we had to find interesting ways of achieving something.”
In terms of mic placement, Bennett just went with what he felt sounded right and what would fit the atmospherics of the album.
"Someone's asked me a lot of questions on this before and it's quite embarrassing!”, laughs Wayne. "It's like 'What did you do to the guitar?' And it's like 'I just recorded the guitar.' This guy could play guitar, the guitar sounded good, he played it well, I sat him in the middle of the room, I told him to move away from the microphone and if it was a bit quiet, I'd say 'Move a bit closer!' That was kind of how I did it!”
The drums were recorded in situ by Wayne at the drummers' own studios or houses. The producer simply travelled across town with his Fostex recorder and the Shure drum mic set he'd borrowed from a friend and asked either Choi or Mike Ensor to play along to the backing tracks he had thus far assembled.
Speech Debelle headed back to London after six weeks. Bennett continued working on mixing the backing tracks, while Speech herself would go on to record three further tracks in the capital, two with Tuung's Mike Lindsay and one with multi‑instrumentalist band member Ciaran 'Dreadkey' Fahy. All the vocals — aside from the title track, a 'magic' emotional take which Speech refused to revisit — were re‑recorded at Alaska Studios by Bob Earland once Wayne Bennett had completed the final tracks. Roots Manuva wrote and sang the chorus to 'Wheels In Motion', which was also laid down at Alaska.
Given Speech Debelle's self‑confidence, it comes as no surprise that her Mercury win with Speech Therapy represents only the start of her career ambitions. "The next one is called The Art of Speech,” Speech says, "The first one was a hip‑hop Tracy Chapman and the next one is a hip‑hop Ray Charles... I said for the first one 'I want the Mercury — I think I'm gonna get it, I see myself winning it' and I've always felt I'd get an Ivor Novello for the second one. If I do, then you lot are in trouble because, boy, I can tell the future!”
As was widely reported after Speech Debelle's Mercury win, the roots of Speech Therapy can be traced back to the difficult few years Speech spent living in hostels after falling out with her mother and leaving home. And it wasn't just the lyrics that were coming together at this time: the emotional feel that Debelle wanted to infuse into the music was also taking shape.
"I think the album that did it for me, and which I give all the credit, is Me'Shell NdegéOcello's album Bitter,” explains Speech. "I remember when I first heard that, I was in a hostel in Victoria. I got her album and I remember bringing it back to a room in the hostel, which was a shared room. I came in that evening and the other girl wasn't there and I was so happy. I put it on and I remember just lying down on the bed and being just completely transfixed for the duration. I was actually lying in a bed but it was like I was lying in a coma and I think that was the point I realised what I was supposed to do in terms of making an album. It's supposed to be escapism, it's supposed to affect you: you shouldn't be able to just play it and have a conversation with somebody.”