Page last updated at 01:39 GMT, Wednesday, 9 September 2009 02:39 UK

Speech Debelle: I knew I would win Mercury

Speech Debelle
Speech Debelle won the Mercury Music Prize for her album Speech Therapy

By Ian Youngs
Music reporter, BBC News, Mercury Prize

With the coveted Mercury Music Prize in her pocket, London rapper Speech Debelle has become the hottest new star in British music.

Her win will be a surprise to many music fans, who may not have heard the name Speech Debelle before - but it was no surprise to the 26-year-old south Londoner herself.

Speaking the day before the ceremony, she had little doubt about her fate. "I'm confident I'm going to win," she said, before setting her sights on five Grammy Awards in the US.

When her name came out of the envelope on Tuesday night, all those sitting with her on her table erupted with ecstatic hugs, making her corner of the room look more like a rugby scrum than award ceremony.

But Speech was playing it cool.

In the press conference afterwards, she was asked whether she had expected to win. "Yeah," was the blunt reply.

Speech Debelle
Speech Debelle performed in jewel-encrusted tracksuit trousers

She has announced herself not only as a significant musical talent but also as a cocky, ambitious, endearing character. A star may well have been born.

On being informed that hers was the lowest-selling album of any Mercury winners, she retorted: "I don't even know what you're talking about.

"I haven't even asked the label how much it's sold because I don't want to know until it's a lot."

Before her nomination in July, the album Speech Therapy had sold around 1,500 copies in the UK. That had doubled by the time the ceremony came around, but was still not enough to reach the charts.

Those numbers can now be expected to multiply manifold, although her sound is an acquired taste rather than a runaway hit in waiting.

She describes her album as a hip-hop version of Tracy Chapman, referring to the soul singer who had hits with Fast Car and Talkin' 'Bout a Revolution in the late 1980s.

Debelle, born Corynne Elliot in Crystal Palace, regularly got into trouble at school and left with no qualifications.

The year of the woman? As opposed to the goat?
Speech Debelle

She started taking drugs and was thrown out of home by her mother at the age of 19. The next few years were spent sleeping in hostels and friends' houses.

Many songs on Speech Therapy come from that period, dealing with homelessness, an absent father, a dying friend, encounters with crime and tedious jobs.

The first words of the first song on the album are: "Two am in my hostel bed, my eyes them red, my belly ain't fed.

"I got butter but I ain't got bread and I'm smoking on my last cigarette."

The album ticks lots of boxes for the Mercury. The judges like to reward works that are distinctive, push the boundaries and represent an artistic achievement in some way.

If some struggle has been overcome, all the better. Plus, no woman has won since one of Speech's role models, Ms Dynamite, in 2002.

This year has belonged to female stars, who were well represented on the Mercury shortlist, from eccentric songstress Florence and the Machine to gaudy pop singer La Roux.

Speech Debelle
Speech Debelle's winning album has not yet appeared in the chart

And after recent winners Elbow, Klaxons, Arctic Monkeys, Antony and the Johnsons and Franz Ferdinand, it was widely seen as being a girl's turn.

"I don't know. The year of the woman? As opposed to the goat?" was Speech's response to that theory. "It's certainly the year of me."

Perhaps the main factor in her win was that she sounds pretty different to anything else around at the moment.

Speech raps for the most part, although her semi-spoken vocals have a sweet, melodic, expressive style, far from the harsh, monotonic machine gun employed by some MCs.

The music does not use samples, scratches and synthetic beats, putting more distance between her and mainstream hip-hop.

For her performance at the Mercury ceremony, she was accompanied by clarinet, saxophone, double bass, acoustic guitar, keyboards and drums.

There's a free-flowing, jazzy feel to the instrumentation. Soul and blues also seep through, as does a distant echo of drum 'n' bass.

And she is also a rock fan, naming Coldplay as one of her biggest inspirations and Kings of Leon as one of the artists she would most like to work with.

She is now going to start her own record label with the £20,000 prize money, but says: "It's not enough to go wild on. I've got bills to pay."

The Mercury win will boost her profile around the world and she will also start work on winning over the American market and chasing those Grammys.

"Onwards and upwards," she says - a phrase that is likely to become her motto.

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