Wonderland wined and dined with miss Azealia – who releases her debut EP “1991” today – at the start of 2012; before the Iggy feuds, the record contract and “Jumanji”, one of the year’s most zestful, spunky pop moments. Here’s what happened…
‘Invented between 1922 and 1923 at the Carlton hotel in Cannes, France, the White Lady blends gin, contrieu and lemon juice.’ “Well that’s just a museum of a drink, isn’t it?” As I sit with Azealia Amanda Banks in Mayfair, London’s terribly rah Connaught Hotel and listen to her leaf through its exhaustive cocktail menu, it soon becomes clear just how God-damned adrenalised she is about life – or, that is, life on the cusp of pop superstardom. And why wouldn’t she be excited? Since her heavily rotated pop-bitch mantra “212” dropped late last year, record labels, producers and press-types have made every effort to rally her unapologetically scatty attention, and not all have been successful.
Contrary to her seemingly starry-eyed innocence, Banks knows better than to jump into bed with companies she only half believes in. Still minus a recording contract and with her as-yet untitled debut LP penciled to land later this year, Banks carries close to her chest words from friend and feted record producer James “Jimmy” Iovine: “Signing to a record company is like getting married, but you don’t know what the sex is like yet.”
The 20-year-old is happy to concede that her upbringing is largely the reason she matured into such a steely, focused young diva. Growing up in Harlem with two older sisters, her mother wasn’t shy in disciplining the three – even if it meant raising her hand to them. “She was really abusive actually – but it would always be in spurts, and she would turn around and be like, ‘Oh my god, I’m so sorry!’ afterwards. It definitely fucked me up a bit as a kid. She’d be beating my ass in the morning and would come home later with this big, shiny toy. I never really knew what to expect from her. I grew up just being really fucking scared of everything and everyone, but also very fearless, you know? Because I was the youngest of the three of us, I was always like: ‘Look at me!! I’m jumping on the bed or riding the dog like a horse, or whatever.’”
The abuse instilled in Banks a rebelliousness that carried her away from domestic life and onto the stage. “It definitely made me deny anything she wanted me to do, you know?” As a prepubescent, she starred in a number of Off Broadway musicals with the Tada! Youth Theatre and found solace – and her stride – under the spotlight. “Once I get large enough, they’ll come up with tapes of me performing from back then,” she blurts.
Studying at the prestigious LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts (which boasts alumni – including Robert DeNiro, Liza Minnelli and Adrien Brody – to rival all others), Banks met and fell in love with a sixteen-year-old MC, and discovered through him the as-yet uncharted ‘me, me, me’ world of rap. “He’d throw my little two bars into his beats occasionally and would be like, ‘that’s wack.’ It made me think, ‘No, I’m gonna have to go away and think about this again, because he’s not gonna tell me that I’m wack.’ I started working on it, on my rapping and my flow.”
News of Banks’ debut single Seventeen, produced by Diplo, travelled quickly and immediately pricked a number of label scouts’ ears. Coincidentally, Dip’ first made his name as ex lover and producer of MIA’s – Bank’s very own spiritual go-to-gal. “I love MIA, she’s the bitch. She’s like the original avant-garde, ‘fuck you’-bitch.”
For fans, or even casual listeners, it comes as no surprise to hear that she dotes on the kind of bubblegum controversy that makes stars of the MIA-ilk so difficult to ignore. “Of course it’s exciting, you know? She’s a troublemaker. I’m a troublemaker. I’d always be in the ‘d-hat’ at school – detention basically meant that I didn’t have to go to my fourth period class everyday. I would just sit there and write raps or read magazines. A lot of kids would be really horrible to me there and post racist pictures on my MySpace page. One day, I went up to a girl’s table, flipped her lunch over and was like “what the fuck, bitch? What the fucking, fucking, fuck?”
When I was younger, there was no way you could tell me that I wasn’t gonna be in Destiny’s Child, especially when they kicked those first two out,” she reminisces. “I loved The Spice Girls and would listen to a lot of HOT 97 – a big radio station in New York. I dug anything on Diddy’s label, Bad Boy Records, basically. I also listened to showtunes, soundtracks and watched a lot of Disney, too.”
From Seventeen and follow-up singles Barbie Shit and Gimme a Chance, Banks worked on her first project as a singer-proper – a snaking, sultry cover of Interpol’s Slow Hands – after meeting and briefly falling for the band’s singer, Paul Banks. “I’m not gonna lie, I thought he’d hear it and think I was cute for covering it and give me a call. But that never happened…womp-womp. It’s so funny, I’m so honest – I can’t believe I’m not embarrassed to say that.”
Now living in London (“upstairs, actually – I have a mic set up in my hotel room”) and working with prolific hit-maker Paul Epworth – a marriage she describes as “perfect. As soon as I met him, I knew he was the guy. We shared an instant rapport” – on one of the year’s most anticipated LPs, Banks is exactly the kind of unpredictable enfant terrible that is built to last in pop climes so frighteningly attention deficit it’s a surprise any act survives beyond their debut album. Sweet, sassy and effortlessly authentic, Banks has at her disposal qualities destined to keep the crowds of fans that have already accumulated at her doorstep camping there for ages to come. Indeed, just like white-hot radio heroine MIA, you just can’t let Azealia Banks out of your sight for a minute.
Words: Jack Mills
Photographer: Oliver Hadley-Perch
Fashion Editor: Julia Sarr-Jamois