How has life been since you won the Mercury Prize? You’ve faced some criticism since then.
That wasn’t really an issue for me, that’s just how it is. With the Mercury, it’s 12 albums and 12 different styles and they’ve got to pick one, so it’s always going to be controversial.
Has it been a good year for British rap? Or are a lot of artists still not getting enough attention?
What Dizzee Rascal’s done, his success — that’s never happened before in this country. He has the right to do whatever he pleases; he put his work in. Artists like Tinchy Stryder are on daytime radio, but he’s been doing his thing for a long time and I’ve never heard any of his older stuff on there. It’s the difference between, say, 50-Cent and Q-Tip. It’s like saying 50-Cent got through, so don’t you think that’s good for everybody? Well, no. Q-Tip isn’t necessarily going to get the same airplay. But Fiddy and Q-Tip come from the same type of place. At the same time the door is opening, slowly but surely. Ms Dynamite was the first black female ever to win the Mercury. Dizzee Rascal was the first black male. That’s — bang — a door open right there. I’ve come this year, the first rapper to win it. Bang — that’s another door. We’ve got no Jay-Zs or ten-time Grammy Award-winning artists over here. Everything we do, we’re doing for the first time.
It’s been reported that you decided to leave your record label. Why?
That was taken out of context. I heard a lot of stuff about leaving — I heard I got dropped! Ha ha ha. That’s madness. Why would any label drop a Mercury prize-winning artist? I mean, as an artist, you get upset with your label, you get upset with your team. I’m entitled to do that. In the same way, they are entitled to get upset with me.
So, what is happening?
At the moment I’m talking to my label and seeing what’s available. If we’re all on the same page, it’s all good.
You’ve talked about wanting more control with your label. Is it about artistic freedom?
No! That’s not what I meant. I’ve always had that. What I was talking about was ownership, owning the rights to your own music, which absolutely every artist would want. Knowing the business, knowing about things that will benefit you — how long to have the publishing rights, what type to have. A lot of artists set up their own companies so they can keep their publishing. That’s the type of thing I’m talking about, making the right choices so that I don’t end up feeling like a slave to the music business.
Does the music industry exploit artists?
Definitely. There are people right now in slave deals. But the music business is struggling at the moment. You get deals where your record label own a piece of everything you do. But that’s because they’re trying to stay alive. And it’s the business that we choose. This is what we love. This is the career that all of us want, we all love it. You get to do what you’ve always wanted to do.
Do you think the industry is in crisis in some way?
No. I think people need music to live to their full.
How do you feel about the way the music industry treats women?
I spend a lot of time letting the bullshit go over my head. The amount of times I’ve heard about what I have to wear, what size I have to be. In the business, you don’t just have people that put out songs — you’ve got video directors, make-up artists, hair [stylists]. Making the music is such a small part of it. The further I get along, the less the music seems to matter. I don’t want to turn into Lily Allen. And it could happen. People want that — they’d prefer me to be a Lily Allen to a Lauryn Hill.
Why does that bother you?
It’s not about the music, is it? Who Lily Allen sleeps with is not important. When she started it was about the music. Now I don’t know what it is she’s about.
Estelle is one artist who felt she couldn’t make it here so went to the US. Do you sympathise?
Yeah. Estelle had to leave, so I don’t have people like that to look up to or people to make reference to. I have to use people like Lily Allen — ha! Ain’t that a shame? Unfortunately we haven’t got to the point where we can accept a black star in the same way as America. Not even just America — it’s every time I do a gig outside the UK.
In what way?
You go to Germany, France, Switzerland, all of these places, you’ve got the radio on, and you’re hearing great beats – this is in the daytime! Maybe you’re hearing some reggae-type stuff. But it’s also pop stuff like Flo Rida. Here, only one radio station can make your career. But I could never switch on Radio 1 in the daytime and hear that many kinds of music.
Why don’t we have the diversity?
If only one station makes a difference, it’s not going to happen. It’s not a democracy, is it?
Do you think the BBC has too much of a stranglehold on our culture?
In the same way that McDonald’s has a stranglehold on kids. It’s big business.
What about the whole Simon Cowell empire? What do you think of him?
If I were in his shoes I might think the same as him. If you have that much power and money, what else do you do except try and make more? That’s what people do when they have all that power.The X-Factor is TV and it’s meant to be entertaining, so in that respect . . . do your thing.
It’s become such a dominant presence in the music industry. Every week every number one is a product of his machine.
It’s changing people’s mindset — so many young people will listen to those songs and think that that’s what being an artist is. Those people go to The X Factor thinking that it’s going to give them a career. But they’re not looking for artists . . .
But there are exceptions, like Leona Lewis or Cheryl Cole. They’ve been around a little while now. Do you think someone like Cheryl Cole will be around to stay?
I wouldn’t know. Leona Lewis — that girl can sing. It’s very possible that Leona Lewis will be around for a long time and make good music for a long time. But how many Leona Lewises do you get through The X Factor? It’s not a singing contest, it’s a TV show. This year they had Jedward, those twins. It’s not a talent contest, it’s entertainment. They’ve probably already decided who’s going to win.
Do you think someone like Cheryl Cole has got what it takes?
I don’t care. I don’t care enough to make an opinion.
In the music industry, who inspires you?
Not necessarily his music, but I’m a big fan of what Dizzee Rascal’s done. He’s an example of what we can achieve — as far as I’m concerned, he’s the future. There’s going to be a whole generation of people following Dizzee’s lead. Everything has to start somewhere.
You’ve said before that Oprah Winfrey is a person you admire as she’s the richest black person in entertainment. Is that what you want, too?
I don’t know about the riches but, you know, it’d be beautiful to have an equivalent of Oprah in this country – it would be brilliant. Someone I really, really admire is Brenda Emmanus. Also Moira Stewart. Those are brilliant examples.
Do you wish there were more black women on our TVs and in our culture?
Ten years ago if a black person came on TV we’d all start going mad. We’ve made a lot of strides forward.
Do you vote?
I’m going to vote in May.
What do you think of the Prime Minister?
I went to 10 Downing Street about a week after the Mercury and he seemed like a nice guy. He’s got a difficult job to do. You can’t always knock him for getting things wrong.
And how do you feel about the Conservatives?
Change is good, as long as it’s a change for the better. If it doesn’t make a difference then it’s irrelevant. That whole BNP thing, it doesn’t need to be blown out of proportion. They’re not going to run the country any time soon. Having them on Question Time and that, I think it’s a good thing — a reminder of what a disaster looks like.
What about Boris Johnson? Are you a fan?
I don’t know if he’s got enough swagger for me to be a fan of his. What I like about Boris is that he seems an honest guy, which is rare. He seems to say what he feels, which sometimes can be inappropriate and offensive, and I like that.
Who is your biggest musical influence?
Michael Jackson. Especially “Human Nature”.
What does next year hold for you?
The most important thing for me now is to make a brilliant album.
Are you working on it already?
I’m gonna start at the beginning of next year.
Do you have a sense of what direction you’re going in musically?
It’s too early for me to change styles. It will be an evolution. Emotion’s always going to be where I start from when it comes to writing and that won’t change. But I want the music to be grander. I’ve been advised not to go too old-school, but the music that’s had the biggest impact in history has not been now, when people put out songs one week and they’re forgotten the next. Think of how many people still remember Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry”. People won’t forget it for a long time. I appreciate that in music. That’s why Michael Jackson was the greatest, because he did things you just can’t forget.
What do you worry about?
I’m always confident. I have to be. It’s all about this next year — making the album as good as I can and being proud of it at the end of it.
Is there anything that you’d like to forget?
No, I can’t say that. Everything is for a reason.