The lights are turned down in the hotel room. A half-open suitcase is on the floor, a couple of colorful sweaters peeking out of it. Has Azealia Banks just arrived or is she about to take off? Between European tour dates, the brand-new London resident is, actually, both. “I try to sleep, but killing time isn’t a problem I have right now,” she says. “In fact, I have too much to do.”
Just a few months after she uploaded a simple but skillfully produced video to YouTube, it seems the music industry is ready to hand the one-to-watch-for-2012 title to the 20-year-old. A track of cheerful electro-house over which Banks spits a slick, mangy rap, “212” is the area code homage to her native New York and the wider world’s first glimpse of Banks’ energy, brimming with self-confidence and lacking censorship. She’s like Nicki Minaj, only cooler.
“It’s a party track,” says Banks. “I’m making fun of people who move to New York to become famous but don’t know anything about the city, of how people get sucked in and sidetracked.” Does that apply to her too? “Nah,” she says, breaking into a smile. “I know all about that. I was born there.”
Banks grew up in Harlem. Her mother sent her to a convent school and then to LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts, which counts Al Pacino and, yes, Minaj among its illustrious alumni.
Thanks to YouTube and the like, the cool kids now have access to all sorts of music without any of the subculture baggage of days gone by.
“I always wanted to be on stage,” recalls Banks. “It’s like if you’re a man, you have a penis. It’s the same thing for an artist. You either are one or you’re not.” She originally wanted to go into theater but at 16 discovered a love of rap. Inspired by Missy Elliott and Lil’ Kim, she began to write lyrics herself but never stuck to the formal hip-hop limits.
“I’ve always been open to any kind of music,” she says. “I sampled indie band Peter Bjorn and John in one of my early songs.”
Banks is a prime example of the musical approach of her generation. Thanks to YouTube and the like, the cool kids now have access to all sorts of music without any of the subculture baggage of days gone by. It was the rapper’s cover version of the song “Slow Hands” by indie-rock band Interpol that first brought her media attention: a rock number which Banks turned into a sensuous, modern R&B ballad.
Although Banks can already call fellow musicians like Kanye West and Mumford & Sons fans, she has so far passed up long-term offers from record labels. And rather than be produced by superstars, she’s preferred to work with underground electro artists like Machinedrum and Canadian Red Bull Music Academy graduate Lunice.
“I play by my own rules,” explains Banks. “I’m all about having people listen to my music. If I end up making money from that, too, so much the better!”
Check out the March 2012 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands February 14) for more. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app.