With dubstep already a major label force in the UK, it was only a matter of time and semantics before the genre found its female ambassador to expand its appeal even further. Along came Katy B, a 22 year-old South Londoner with a riveting vocal and a fondness for the grime, bass, and garage sounds she grew up listening to on pirate radio stations like Rinse FM. Soon, underground production idols like Geenus and Zinc became Katy’s collaborators and cultivated a refined, feminized amalgamut of those blistering sounds for their new muse. Four years in the making, the result is her Mercury Prize-nominated debut album, On A Mission. With global smashes like “Katy, On A Mission” and “Easy Please Me” assuring her “Best of 2011” placements on all the right lists, the singer, now hailed as “dubstep’s princess,” sets her gaze on the US, where her album was just released this week.
As a sign of further mainstream acceptance, she’s also gaining traction with the fashion community. Having just just performed Monday night at W Hotel’s Fashion Next party at Lincoln Center, an event fittingly focused on new and vital young design talent, it seemed a good time for Rolling Stone to chat with Katy about her own burgeoning success.
What are your thoughts on sometimes being seen as dubstep’s token female?
I never saw it as my mission to take the genre into the mainstream – if you look at the charts, you can see that was already happening. I just thought my work would be recognized with the urban and club realm. Though, it is kind of cool for the music you enjoy making to be speaking to people, and maybe helping bring a new audience to it.
Do you have a personal style ethos?
When I was younger, fashion used to mean: “what are the best trainers?”. Then it was about tracksuits. Now, I’ve grown up obviously, but it’s still about looking comfortable and cool. I love wearing heels, I love dressing up, but I don’t follow specific labels. I just want to look the best I can.
Who is an ultimate style and sound icon?
Gwen Stefani has a cool attitude about her; I really love her music. And she looks amazing. She also has the “girl in a boys club” factor in her favor, which I relate to!
What do your videos and art direction say about you?
My videos are just little slices of my life, which is how I like it. I’m trying to make videos for all my songs, not just singles. The “Witches’ Brew” video is rather dark and grimy; the “Movement” video was shot in Ibiza and follows me and my friends on a beach-side adventure. I really enjoy beach scenes, including playing them.
As you went to the Brit School, it seems your entry into music was quite strategic. When did you decide it was your calling?
I used to to sing in front of my friends all the time; I’d also enter talent contests locally. I remember one in my local park that I really was looking forward to playing was canceled. I was so upset! Then I attended Brit School, because I knew what I wanted: I wanted to be a singer. If you’re serious about it, you enter when you’re either 14 or 16 and study normal lessons like other students, but focus primarily on music. I loved it; it was inspiring to be around others striving for the same goal.
What are your memories of pirate radio?
When I was 11 or 12, when grime was really big, and everyone was listening to garage. I used to listen to the stations on my phone, and you could phone in. Sometimes that would lead to the DJ giving you “shout outs” during geography class, in which case I got in trouble! Dizzee Rascal had just released “I Luv U” and that was pivotal. At the same time, Wayne Marshall was throwing under-18 raves, and I was desperate to go, but my mother would never let me! But the excitement of that music, and the scene around it, stuck with me.
What was the recording process of On A Mission like for you?
Geenus, the founder of (pioneering pirate radio station) Rinse FM, had started his own label. I met him during the early days when I was just recording demos and finding a direction, then we ended up linking up with another producer, Zinc. We were going to just do a compilation of songs or just some singles of 12″s. Then it turned into a real album.
Even with dubstep transcending the underground, did your own success come as a shock?
Yeah, I mean, I didn’t have much expectation for On A Mission, but then it got to Number Five on the UK charts independently. And now it’s amazing to see my album is having this bigger scale impact. I was surprised to see New York crowds know my songs before I did any promotion here. I had kids coming up to me saying they were massive bass fans, which was a shock!
Good or bad, what’s something that happened to you in 2011 you’ll never forget?
Well, the Mercury Prize nomination was amazing! But on the flip side, I was opening for Tinie Tempeh in January, and I had played an amazing gig. I came out with a bottle of water to wave goodbye to the crowd; it exploded all over me. It was so mortifying!