“What’s the name of that record store again?” Stephanie Victoria Allen – known as Stefflon Don – tries to name the Dutch store where her mother used to pick up a stack of new CDs every few months when she was little. We listed names from well-respected import stores in the scene. “No no. You still miss him. Somewhere in Central Station.” Um, the Free Record Shop? “Exactly!”
Stefflon Don (30) is a British pop star. The Guardian named her “one of Britain’s biggest exports” in December 2020. Two years earlier she was on the cover of the latest print edition from the British music magazine NMEand was the first British MC on the cover of American hip-hop magazine’s annual talent issue XXL† She has scored worldwide hits with her own music and with acts such as J Balvin, Future, Luis Fonsi, French Montana and Wiley. At the beginning of this month, Stefflon Don performed at the celebration of the platinum anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II – with Buckingham Palace as the setting for her performance.
Stefflon Don sings, raps, toast and chant, and is in alternating rough and hard, and smooth and melodic
But her musical journey began in Rotterdam, where Birmingham-born Stefflon Don lived from the age of five to fourteen. The city in which she “persuaded her girlfriends to participate in talent shows as Destiny’s Child”, she tells via Zoom. And sang a chorus for the first time when she was nine – for ‘Hard Knock Life’ by the Dutch rapper U-niq; an acquaintance of her father. When she first heard her voice on the tape, she cried, says Stefflon Don. “Is that how I sound? I’m a little star! I knew then that I wanted to make this my career.”
This weekend Stefflon Don returns to the city where she had her musical coming of age. She headlines the OH MY! Festival at De Kuip in Rotterdam; a two-day festival with a solid line-up consisting of national hip-hop artists, prominent Nigerian pop stars such as WizKid, CKay and Rema, and American rappers such as Rick Ross, Tyga, Lil Baby, Da Baby and Lil Durk.
Stefflon Don knows all these music scenes up close. She has an infectious and downright international sound in which she draws from American rap and R&B, British rap and grime, Nigerian pop, bubbling and, emphatically, Jamaican reggae and dancehall. In English, interspersed here and there with a few words in Dutch – “I remember listening to a lot of Surinamese music” – she tells from her home how growing up in Rotterdam has shaped her musically as an artist.
As a woman you always have to prove yourself extra’
“I knew many Surinamese, Antilleans, Cape Verdeans and listened to their music. There was a lot of bubbling music around me,” says Stefflon Don. In the typically Dutch bubbling scene, DJs in the club accelerated dancehall as well as rap and R&B to such an extent that vocalists sometimes sounded like Mickey Mouse, and new pulsating rhythms emerged. Her parents’ roots are in Jamaica. At home there was a lot of Jamaican music on, and rap and R&B from the United States.
“I think my background has helped me attack a beat in a different way than a regular British person would,” says Stefflon Don. “I have that Jamaican culture, and that Dutch culture that automatically includes other cultures. As a result, I have different accents, ideas and melodies. That has shaped my music and sound to a large extent.”
Stefflon Don doesn’t use the term ‘attack’ for nothing when talking about how she uses her voice to a beat. She is a versatile vocalist: she sings, raps, toasts and chants, and her music is alternately rough and hard, and more smooth and melodic. She’s a performer who can truly sound like she’s on the warpath as she fires her word sequences sovereignly, menacingly and autonomously.
When she lived in Rotterdam and listened a lot to rapper Lil’ Kim as a girl, Stefflon Don wondered why he appealed to her so much. “I noticed that whenever she was on a number with four men, I always waited for her contribution. She often had an opening line that was very raw and direct. The energy she radiated was: I’m a boss bitch and you are nothing. I took that from her.”
Stefflon Don grew up in a musical family, with siblings who rapped, sang and made music. At first she mainly sang; like on the chorus of U-Niq. “I only rapped at home. But my sister noticed that the singing was not going well at that time. I didn’t really sound like I wanted to sound and I was shy when I sang. As a rapper, I was much more confident. You could put me in any room and I had my lyrics ready.” She smiles. “I went to concerts and said to the artist: I rap, do you want to hear it? In the club I was literally standing in a corner showing a boy my raps. Now I think: how stupid can you be, haha.”
As a woman who raps, the pressure to perform is high, says Stefflon Don. “As a woman you always have to prove yourself extra and make sure that you stand out among the men. Men can do some mediocre sentences. No problem. A woman must ensure that her fresh it’s game over right away – otherwise she won’t be called again.”
That urge to always want to come harder to a beat than others, is one of her biggest strengths, she thinks. “Every rapper should have that. I come from an era where you couldn’t rap if you didn’t want to work hard for it. The microphone went around the group, and it really mattered who came out best. That’s what made rap so great. I miss that element now. I often hear artists who make me think: you can do so much better. I’m always open to criticism in the studio. I love it! My ultimate goal is to write something that you simply can’t say can be done better.”