Cooly G is one of the UK's hottest artists at the moment, releasing singles on revered label Hyperdub (Burial, Kode 9, Ikonika) as well as setting up her own label, Dub Organizer. I caught up with her at a hectic time, with her four-year old son Nas clamouring for attention and a repair person in the house attempting—and by the end of the interview, failing—to fix a broken boiler. I found Cooly G to be by turns open and evasive, flinty and warm, funny, contradictory at times, but always compelling.
In my preparation for the interview, I found Cooly G had previously flatly refused to talk about what it's like to be a woman in the bloke-y London milieu, for good reason given the insularity of electronic dance music scenes. "The woman question" itself may well be the defining difference between male and female artists—it's hard to imagine her Hyperdub label head Kode 9 is asked what it's like to be a man in the industry very often. "With all that girl/boy thing, I try not to even think about that," she tells me. Yet when we got to talking, much of what she had to say about motherhood, surviving, jealousy from male peers, and creating is profoundly implicated in the way that we inhabit the world as women. Some of what she had to say is quite far from feminist orthodoxy, but it's hard to imagine a more hardheaded, down-to-earth woman than Cooly G.
Listen to her first hit, "Love Dub" (Hyperdub 2009). This is 21st century cutting-edge digital soul, rare groove modulated through the sound of the London streets. When asked about her favorite female artists, Cooly rattles off a list of soul singers (Missy Elliott, Mica Paris, Lalah Hathaway) and sounds touched when I mention that I'd initially thought "Love Dub" was a Jill Scott sample rather than her own voice. She says, "music to me, what I listen to honestly is proper singers. What gets me going is old school music." The old soul vocal sound of Love Dub comes from "melodic kinda of lovey songs, probably because that week I was listening to rare groove from the '80s. If I'm not listening to what's new today of house tunes, I'm listening to some old school soul music or reggae artists like Barrington Levy or Dennis Brown. I'm really stuck in my ways with what I grew up with."
Her album, which she's in the process of finishing up for Hyperdub, will see her moving on from the chopped up vocals of her early singles to full songs. Of the lyrics on the album, "they're all true stories. You can hear those stories and you'll be thinking, 'wow, if you went through that, oh shit. That's how she thinks or that's how she feels.' People don't really know that much about me, apart from "Love Dub" or "Narst" or seeing me on Twitter chatting shit all the time. It's probably good for people to see this different side, there's many more sides to me. I'm just thinking what I can do for the first album, just letting them see the emotional woman side of me, and the bad girl side. Cos of the beats!"
That bad girl side is never really that far away. Her tracks feature a signature sample of Cooly blowing kisses into the microphone—"mwah mwah mwah"—a gesture she repeats at gigs and on her popular Twitter. "I was a proper tomboy and when I started modeling and hanging around with fashion people, I started to change and get a bit sarcastic. It probably is sarcastic, I like blowing kisses to boys. When I'm onstage, I like blowing kisses, to girls even, I don't really care, whatever innit. I like the sound of it and I like laughing." But at the same time, there's a clear parodying of feminine stereotypes in the gesture. "I do like to take the piss a lot."
If her vocals are grounded firmly in the emotional, at the same time, Cooly G's production is built on angular, amazingly intricate rhythm tracks that recall a whole history of London beats (drum n bass, garage, grime, dubstep, funky) without ever really settling into any particular genre. She says, "I'm quite technical about making music. I don't know if women take things more seriously than men on the technical side, cos men might just bang out a beat. I don't know, I don't know how they do their thing—I don't really care, either. Anything I want to do, like fix a computer, if I want to do something I do it. It's not like I sit down and think 'aww cos I'm a girl oh my gosh.' I don't think about it."
Incredibly, that technical ability came to her at a young age; she taught herself to mix at seven and then moved onto production in her teens. Her parents were initially unsupportive of her precocious efforts: "Actually they didn't want me to do it. At first, my dad was like you're gonna get hurt, if you don't make it you're gonna be hurt and it's gonna break your heart, and I was like I don't care, I don't care about anything, that's all I wanna do. And now it's paid off and my dad's the happiest man in the whole world innit."
She mentions that her large family (she's the second eldest of seven) was the only one in her South London estate with parents together, and attributes her confidence in some part to that stability as well as martial arts classes, but it's hard not to think that pure strong will is what got her into the public eye. "Before this Hyperdub stuff, I was obviously making different types of music, singing, and I actually did think to myself that I'm good. And that one day someone would hear this and appreciate it," she says decisively. Sooner or later, one senses, Cooly G would have made a splash on the London underground.
As a single mum, Cooly fights the same battles other working mothers do in balancing work and parenthood, arranging babysitting with family members (her mum for long trips, her brother for local). When she plays in Europe, she takes late flights in order to be back before her son wakes up. "I'm not away for too long," she says. "It feels good to be a female, to be a mum, doing this. I'm happy that my son knows what I do; I make money for my son. I don't have his dad around, I do everything on my own. I feel happy that my talent can look after me and him; I'm well happy."
And she's looking to the future too, putting rightly how short the shelflife of many DJ/producers is: "I'm not going to be DJing when I'm 35 or something. At the moment, I'm just DJing and producing but I'm going to build it more to a higher level." To that end, she's bringing through a batch of eleven fresh artists in various genres on her Dub Organizer label, currently prepping a compilation CD introducing her artists. "It's just a family thing that I've always wanted to do from when I was a kid. I used to do these mix CDs called Are You Listening? and get everyone on London onto them and push it."
I ask her if she has any advice for female artists wanting to break into the industry and she suggests that, "For younger girls that are younger than me, I would probably tell them to listen to their parents. I've been writing a book yeah, and if I do release this book there's situations that people will know that I went through when I was 16, 17, 18. And it's like, a really really deep situation. Men trying to... whatever innit. I wouldn't listen to my mum and dad at one point and it got me in trouble. If young girls want to do music, I would say to let their parents be involved and guide them, if their parents are going to be like that. Basically get guidance from people in their family, because there's people out there that you can't trust."
On one level, she's absolutely correct, and it certainly jibes with my experiences in the industry. In retrospect though, I wish I'd asked her about the contradiction between that advice and her own refusal to be dissuaded from her path in music and her own confidence in her ability to make music, to suggest that young women might want to follow her in just doing their thing without apologies.
But the door bell was ringing, and her son was cranky and looking for attention, and the boiler repair person wanted to talk to her, and it was well past time to wind up the interview. No woman is an island, to misquote John Donne, and for all her bad-arse self-confidence, it is clear that it is equally a family thing for the fantastic Cooly G.
Cooly G's album will be out towards the end of the year on Hyperdub. You can find info on her and Dub Organizer on myspace and Twitter. @COOLYGuk