Above: Photo by Simon Emmet.
Katy B is the pop star we deserve. Louise Brailey catches up with UK bass music’s biggest success story Katy B, who in turn ventures her own picks of the genre that helped break her.
There’s a distinguished history of British popular music that, on the one hand is larger than life; the other, kitchen sink. For music that lurches from the plebeian gutters of the discotheque or the rave, its saucer-eyes fixed on an unmoving point in some far off nebula: Now That’s What I Call Transcendence. The last couple of years have seen a resurgence of rowdy, homegrown dance music unmoored from the underground it’s heart set on hands aloft mass communion which, it follows, also wants to shift shedloads. Disclosure, Rudimental, hell, even Duke Dumont could be used as examples of rave that’s been washed clean by the waters of the mainstream and chucked back at us in predictable, if export-quality, forms. But even if the sound of Saturday nights on the town becomes the soundtrack to Tuesdays on the high street is a natural life cycle, sometimes the signal flows both ways; dance music that isn’t shit can also make the charts, the high street and daytime radio not shit.
Enter Katy B. The Peckham-raised, Brit School and Goldsmiths-educated singer was a regular on the nascent UK funky circuit when she wasn’t yet old enough to be in the clubs she was playing. Her startling voice, rich and distinctive, caught the attention of acclaimed pirate-turned-community radio station Rinse FM’s Geeneus (accalaimed producer, DJ and Rinse founder) who signed her to Rinse’s label to release huge, commercial-friendly tracks which also satisfied 2010’s voracious hunger for dubstep and its byproducts. She was, not insignificantly, one of the first and only female voicea to truly bust the “featured artist” glass ceiling of the dance music charts and become a star. On second album Little Red her pop star credentials are now even more obvious: “Crying For No Reason” is a brilliant addition to the tears-on-the-dancefloor genre but also one of the best pop records to have been released in years (many who saw her performance on British primetime chat show Graham Norton agreed; the single shot up the charts). Yet she’s still as wildly enthusiastic as she ever was, always armed with a hilarious anecdote about her, her mates and, inevitably, raving. It’s for this reason that we decided to not only tap her for an interview but to provide her five favorite UK funky tracks—the genre which employed African style percussion, tough low-end and UK garage diva vox in a typically British hybridized version of 4/4. It was also the genre that broke her and which she still so clearly adores. And you get the impression that, number one albums be damned, Katy’s not going to forget that anytime soon.
I’d been doing some tunes which were getting played on pirate radio. He ran Rinse so he was in that scene and he was looking for a singer to work with on his and Zinc’s songs—Zinc was still making drum’n’bass at the time. You know, DJs are desperate for singers, they’re always on the look out as an A&R thing. What Gee wanted to do was make an album where he got all the producers from Rinse to submit a track to show off the production talent—he wanted someone to sing across all the songs to make it run smoothly from grime to drum’n’bass and so on. We started off doing that and I sang on a Skepta beat, a Wiley beat, a Zinc beat… Then we kind of realized that I worked really well with Gee and Ben [Zinc], and it slowly turned into my album. After a while they asked if I wanted to sign to them. I must have been seventeen when they asked me to do it, then when I just turned eighteen they said, “Come to this night, there’s guest list.” My popularity went up so much when I could get guest list for FWD! [laughs]
And of course it’s one thing for people to look for singers to feature on their tracks and another thing for you to be become the actual star, to front your own album.
It was funny. I guess a lot of the time someone will know a singer, you know, the girl from the block, that, “my friend’s brother knows my friend’s girlfriend, oh I’ll come and do a tune with you,”—that’s how I got started. You’re kind of doing it as a favor most of the time. But the thing with club music, the culture is a way of life really, just the same as hip-hop or punk. It’s everything.
Talking about rave being a way of life, when I’m listening to one of your tunes, even if it’s ostensibly about a boy or whatever, I get the impression that these are love songs directed to the club. The rave is your muse…
I’ve never heard it put that way before, but I suppose it is. You know when the stresses of life get to you and you can just see your friends and go out somewhere and have a sick time, forget about everything? You’re on the dancefloor in your element and then you have those conversations on the way home. That’s when I’m at my happiest: with my friends, dancing. Dancing is a big thing for me, even when I was little and I’d go on holiday with my mum and dad, I’d be five years old and on the dancefloor on my own because no-one would dance with me. There’s videos of me! I’m there on my own, shocking out every time.
I swear to God it’s really weird when you ask people and they say yes. I asked Sampha to feature on another song, a duet which was already written. I thought he’s be really busy so maybe he’d just want to write the second verse or something but he said, “No, I’ll come in, let’s produce a song.” Then I asked if he’d sing on it and he said, “Yeah, of course!” I said, “Are you sure?” He’s off working with Drake and Beyonce, all these people… “Are you sure?”
There’s another collaborator too from a somewhat different field. Who’s idea was it to get [Robbie Williams collaborator and star songwriter for hire] Guy Chambers in?
It was my publisher’s, because at the beginning, when I asked myself what my aims were, I felt I’d really like to write some songs at a piano and build the production around that. I usually get instrumentals from producers and then I write the song like a rapper would. I love that, the music gives me so much inspiration and I’ve written some songs, like “Sapphire Blue”, which have transported me into a particular memory or world—and you need the music to help with that. But at the same time I thought it would be really nice to just write a song from scratch and I needed people to write great structures. They suggested Guy Chambers; I went to his studio and I wrote “Crying For No Reason”. I was really nervous because it was such a personal song, but on the first day he gave me space to bare my soul and do my thing.
Do you still get a chance to go out raving?
I do, but it’s not as much as it was when I was writing On a Mission. If I haven’t been out for a while I get really agitated. If I’m listening to Rinse FM or something in the car, I’m like, “Oh my God, I need to hear this song in a club,” and it’ll really get to me that I’m hearing it in the car. Or I feel like there’s going to be someone out there, dancing to this song in a club at the weekend and I’ve got to do something else or I’m going somewhere… So I make sure I do have time.
Go on then, when was the last time you pulled an all-nighter?
Probably last Friday. I started out in a cocktail bar called the Society Club in Shoreditch, so it started really classy, a bookshop cocktail bar. From there we went to the Ace Hotel as Josey Rebelle was playing and I love her, then we went to Fabric. We had a big one, but thankfully I had the weekend off and my friend cooked me breakfast. I think I love that as well, I still think I’m fifteen and I stay at my friend’s houses all the time and we always make each other breakfast in the morning. It’s good to have friends to laugh with, I get the giggles with a hangover.
Am I right in thinking you studied UK funky at Goldsmiths?
Someone wrote that it was my dissertation but it wasn’t my dissertation. We had to write about the rise of a genre; a lot of people chose punk and hip-hop or folk but I decided to choose UK funky. Actually, at that time it didn’t even really have a name yet, it was very fresh. The people I had to get my research from was like NME and a couple of random articles and talking to people really. It was really fun.
What did the other people on your course think?
Actually, some of them found it quite interesting—someone was doing dubstep.
Was James Blake at Goldsmiths at the same time?
Yeah he was in my class. I went to the Mercury’s this year and to see him win was the best feeling ever really. He’s super talented.
Right, so what follows is your pick of UK funky.
I’m really happy that I’m doing this, I love funky so much, I could talk about UK funky all day. You know what, for my birthday party I think I’m going to have a garage theme and everyone comes dressed in Moschino, get Kele le Roc to do a PA. I’m definitely going to get someone to do an old school UK funky set… It’s so weird, calling it old-school funky.
Katy B’s Guide to UK funky, in her own words:
Crazy Cousinz feat. Kyla – “Do You Mind”
I love girl vocalists and I think funky was for the girls. I did a bit of research to remind myself of all the tunes and I saw some random blog out there that was just like, oh, “the best five funky house tunes” and it was just some random tunes! This was not funky; funky was for the ladies. If you were there you’d know that you’d had to play something for the girls to sing along to. This is the thing, you’d go to a dubstep night and it’d be a complete sausage dance. Drum’n’bass: boys everywhere. Grime, “too many man, too many many man.” You go to a funky house rave and it would just be pure girls, so many girls. Maybe because they could get in for free! So that’s why I picked the girly tunes and “Do You Mind” is definitely one of them. It’s just a nice song and there’s a reggae mix of it that I play a lot when I’m getting ready or chilling like as it’s really cute. I did meet Kyla. We did a lot of raves together, lots of PAs, there was even this funky concert at Wembly—it was only half of Wembly—but there were people like Donaeo and dancers too. That was a fun memory. I haven’t seen her in ages though, if I did see her I’d definitely stop and say hello and have a catch-up.
Hard House Banton – “Sirens”
I went to Ayia Napa in 2008 with my friends, I must have been nineteen. That was my favorite holiday I ever had because the music was so sick—just pirate radio but in another country. I was with a friend from my uni, taking me to all the bassline house raves but I was like, “No, I don’t want to go to the bassline house raves I want to go to the funky raves.” We ended up having to go to a few mixed nights where they’d just play the bangers from everything. I had the funniest time there because—I don’t know if I can tell you this story… Anyway, the person who booked the holiday, naming no names—’cause I went out there to do PAs—ended up getting this really good deal which sounded a bit too good to be true. We went anyway, we got to the hotel, through British Airways and everything, and the first day we got chucked out because it was booked on card fraud. I was so livid. Anyway, all my friends were there and we ended up having a great time. I knew “Sirens” already, but you know when it just suddenly becomes an anthem? It’s just so bass heavy as well, I just have a vision in my head of all these girls in their high heels and summer dresses and their tans just skanking out hard. This track proper took over the island, then I remember coming back and Pete Tong playing it. It was one of those tunes that transcended genre, it got played in all these different sets, like people who played proper house, it just crossed over. Hard House Banton is still playing, he was from Peckham, I think. I still see him around, I’m his Facebook friend.
Perempay N’Dee Ft Cleo Sol – “Time To Let Go”
This song! When it came out in 2008 I was like, “Oh my God!” It was really annoying because everyone would be like, “Katy, I love your new song!” and I was like, “I wish this was my song” I wished it so hard!. The vocalist is Cleo Sol and her voice is incredible; it glides, it’s so jazzy, like silk. Even just the metaphors that she uses, the poetry in it, it’s so beautiful. It’s one of those songs that is really calm but it still smashes the rave. You get that tingly feeling even though there’s no big drop, there’s no crazy bassline but still everyone is in their element when it comes on—that’s why I love this one. Yes, I’m a big fan of Cleo’s.
Geeneus feat. Katy B – “As I”
Am I allowed to have my own song? I remember writing this and it just meant a lot to me because the lyrics were true. I think a lot of people could relate to it maybe. You know what? Even though this did do good in the clubs I think it was more something people might have listened to on their own as well. I felt I could relate to it not just in a club way, just in a day to day life way, of just fancying someone. It was a little snippet of my life. This was a collaboration with Geeneus. Me and Gee had done some tunes before that and we’d done this song and we worked really well together, I really respected him. I remember meeting him in this club in Barking, he had his little cap on, doing this garage night and after that he messaged me on MySpace asking if I’d come and do some grime and house tunes.
Princess Nyah – “Frontline”
This track is so sick. I’m just a south London girl at heart, know what I mean? At the time I remember one of my friends was hiding money under her bed for her boyfriend and this song just reminded me of that. It’s such a ghetto song, the beat is really aggy, it has so much attitude. It reminds me of Bonnie and Clyde, like, I’m on the frontline for my man! Do you think the metaphor is really druggy? I never heard that before. The metaphor I heard was where love was used as a battle (sings: “He’s got me on the frontline”). It’s produced by Ill Blu, I love them. Princess Nyah is so lovely, she’s such an inspiring woman, I just think she’s wicked and I’ve got so much respect for her, she’s just out the box really. She was one of those girls that I would always see and had other funky tunes after that which did really, really well too—she was really talented. ~
Katy B’s Little Red is out now on Rinse.