The north London girl known to her Scottish mother, Anglo-Jamaican father and 10 siblings as Niomi McLean-Daley throws some shapes. Arms stretched out in front of her, long fingers splayed, perfect nails glowing. One leg up on a packing case, hand on hip. Head lowered, gaze up. Leaning forward, hands on thighs, big brown eyes on full beam through eyelashes that could trap flies. A sleek hair extension lolls on her shoulder. When she flashes her brilliant white smile, birds suddenly appear. When she absent-mindedly la-la-las the melody from a Christmas carol, festive cheer floods this freezing room on this first bitter morning of winter.
Then, some more Dallas. She explodes into laughter when a member of her management team correctly identifies the tune. She doesn’t know why she has it in her head. "The only person I can remember from Dallas is JR," she announces. Which is perhaps understandable, given her youth. She was born on April 27, 1981, five months after the big-hatted oil baddie was shot.
"I would love to ride a bike up there," she says, gazing at the curved wall behind her, "but I’d probably come crashing to the ground, ha ha ha!"
We are in a south-west London photography studio. Ms Dynamite has been doing this - looking like a champ, sounding like an angel, turning it on non-stop for months now, ever since deciding to put her academic aspirations on hold (she has nine GCSEs and three A-levels). The social anthropology course at Sussex University’s loss is pop’s gain. All this in a year that has been grim for bigger, establishment bands - bye bye Suede, Supergrass, Richard Ashcroft - but great for groundbreaking new British acts, from The Streets to The Coral via The Libertines and the hottest of them all, Ms Dynamite.
Hers is a conscious, credible, rhythmic pop from the streets of London with a universal touch. The lyrics on her first single, ‘It Takes More’, deftly rounded on kids obsessed with ‘bling bling’ - glittery watches, expensive champagne, fancy-pants clobber. The follow-up, ‘Dy-Na-Mi-Tee’, served as a bewitching, nursery-rhyme calling card, even though it caused the heavily self-critical Dynamite’s skin to crawl. "I sound like a whiny little child - minny-minny-minny," she has said. "There are songs on the album where I just press fast forward because I can’t bear to hear how I sound." Meanwhile, her current single, ‘Put Him Out’, is a sassy, strident call to ditch bad-boy, loser boyfriends, and the greatest fem-power belter since Destiny’s Child’s ‘Independent Woman’.
Fittingly, six months after the release of her Mercury Prize-winning debut album, A Little Deeper, she tops her glorious year off with the biggest concert of her short but intense career, in front of the estimated 100,000 revellers who will fill Edinburgh’s streets on Hogmanay.
The year’s high points include winning the Mercury Prize, and winning three MOBO (Music Of Black Origin) awards. But the best moment was her first London gig, in a tiny club in the city centre last month. No matter that it was a corporate do, held at the behest of a mobile-phone company. She was just proud to be playing her home town after warm-ups in Paris, Brighton and Sheffield. Even spying her dad in the crowd ("I’ll always spot him, this big Rasta jumping up and down, excited.") and hearing her mum ("She’ll always make herself known because she’s so loud.") couldn’t put her off.
"At the Paris gig, I was completely scared." She shakes her head, grinning. Contrary to the impression given by her street-smart ways, she’s always been plagued by nerves. "I thought, ‘Different audience, different culture... Oh God they’re not gonna know any of my songs, this is gonna be a disaster!’ And it wasn’t, it was amazing! I was really blown away. There were loads of French kids singing my songs, going mad. I wanted to stop and go, ‘How do you know these songs?’ It was mad, and I really enjoyed myself. But in London, it was like I was coming home. The whole year I’ve been like everywhere, all over Europe and England, and I really didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t think anyone was gonna turn up. My mum came, my dad came, my brothers, my sisters, loads of my family. I was like, ‘Oh my goodness!’"
Today’s photo session for an American magazine marks the beginning of her 2003 campaign: to take her unique ‘UK street’ spin on R&B and hip hop back to the folks who invented it. Will America get her? "Um, I do hope the fact that I’m British is something that strikes them," she says.
Photo shoot over, Ms Dynamite is dressed in her civvies - black, red and white sportswear, floor-length coat - and supping on hot chocolate in an empty room in the studio. She speaks deliberately and methodically, but enthusiastically, with an italic emphasis on seemingly random words. She may be only 21, but in pop years, she’s a veteran. Her accent is north London, with an uplift less to do with time spent recording her album in America than it is with the Caribbean hip hop patois common among kids of all races in the city. The two words she says most often and with most feeling, "nice" and "like", are pronounced "nahs" and "lahk".
"I do feel that especially in R&B and hip hop, America has never really - not never, I shouldn’t say never - has very rarely had any British acts that show that we are just as talented as them. We just don’t have the money. I think we’re quite a number of years behind in terms of..." she pauses to think. "In terms of everything, to be honest. I hope that I can help to open the doors for other British artists, but also to help to move us forward, if you get what I’m saying."
She goes quiet. Not for Ms Dynamite the braggadocio of her former collaborators and colleagues from the garage underground, So Solid Crew (who haven’t even got a record deal in the US). Nor the ‘all good’ blandishments of R&B schmoozer Craig David (whose parent-friendly, no-sharp-edges pop has gone down astonishingly well there). Not even the dreams of the American pop success of Robbie Williams, who, incidentally, in an act of monumental folly, excised Ms Dynamite’s guest vocals from his Escapology album.
For Ms Dynamite, success in the US wouldn’t be a Robbie-like vindication: just rewards for a talent too big for these small isles. More than a personal triumph, Ms Dynamite’s cracking America would be a cultural breakthrough. And if it doesn’t work? "I just hope they appreciate what I’m about. I can only be myself and do my best, and that’s it. They’ll either like it or they won’t," she says brightly.
Twelve months ago, Ms Dynamite was a name on the underground club scene, winning the Best Newcomer at the Morgan’s Spiced Rum UK Garage Awards, and a face on past-your-bedtime telly, as co-presenter on Channel 4’s ‘urban’ show Flava TV. She had enjoyed brief chart success in spring 2001 as the voice of ‘Booo!’, a single by garage producer Sticky. She had played Ayia Napa, the Cypriot summer party destination of choice for the UK garage community. Her voice-for-hire career was going well: she had performed on a UK remix of ‘Southern Hospitality’ by American rapper Ludacris, and appeared on the remix of So Solid Crew’s ‘They Don’t Know’. If she’d wanted to, Ms Dynamite could have remained immersed in the clubs, at the raves and on the pirate radio stations where she had been MCing since she was 15.
But she was also spending time jetting between Stockholm, Jamaica and New York, working on her own album. A Little Deeper was precision-tooled to yank her out of the garage ghetto and propel her into the pop mainstream, while grabbing a little of the hip hop demographic along the way. In New York, Dynamite worked with associates of Puff Daddy known to be master craftsmen of beats and rhythms. In Stockholm, she tapped into Sweden’s unlikely but well-deserved reputation as the home of some of the best pop factories in the world. In Jamaica, her MC’s verbal dexterity - her ability to ‘chat’ as well as sing - was matched by whipsmart ragga rhythms.
She first picked up a microphone to improvise rhymes when she was 15, at a rave in London’s West End. She remembers the club promoter looking at her, clearly thinking, "But you’re a girl."
"If I’m honest, I was a little drunk," she smiles sheepishly. "But I just thought, ‘Why not?’ Something opened up inside me."
When she was 17, she began MCing on pirate radio station Raw FM, then on Freak FM. She landed a regular weekend slot at a club called Trends in Hackney. "That was good. Wicked music, wicked DJs, wicked MCs. Now [I realise] it wasn’t the greatest environment to be in - not just as a young girl but as a young person full stop. I think there were a lot of drugs in the club, a lot of people that you’d never want to be associated with."
On her last week, her dad, brother and one of her cousins came to see her. "My set finished at something ridiculous like about six in the morning. By the time we got home, on the seven o’clock news [we saw that] someone had been shot at the club. Just as we left, basically."
Didn’t your dad say, "Right, you’re 17, enough’s enough"? "Mmmm, no. My dad’s not really like that. He never tells me what to do. He would give me his advice. My dad lives in Sussex but he was born and bred in London till he was a teenager. So he’s aware that we live in two totally different worlds. Not that that’s the environment that I’ve grown up in, where people just get shot, ’cause I’ve not. But that is something that it’s possible for us to be around. I think he was very worried. But he knows that I’m very sensible. But that night, it got to someone being shot, that was it. That’s where I draw the line. I don’t want to be the one lying on the floor next week!"
Ms Dynamite is all about positivity. She has used her experiences of black-on-black violence in clubs as the basis for ‘Booo!’. She has supported an anti-gang campaign in Nottingham and shared a stage with Noel Gallagher and Coldplay’s Chris Martin at a Fair Trade benefit gig in London. She gave her Mercury winnings to charity, splitting the 20,000 between an exchange programme for students of Afro-Caribbean history, a sickle cell group and the NSPCC.
She knows better than most the problems kids can face. Her mum Heather, a teacher, and her dad Eyon, a plumber, split when she was two. When she was 13, her mum contracted cancer. Niomi had to care for her younger siblings. Aged 15, tired of having the responsibilities of an adult, she left home to live in a hostel. But perhaps as a consequence of these privations, she’s very close to her family - even the ones who still live in distant Benbecula.
Ms Dynamite’s family links to the Western Isles are strong. Heather McLean was born in Germany - her father was in the forces - but grew up on Benbecula after her dad sought a posting to his own mother’s home island. "My mum’s moved around a lot, so she hasn’t got any accent left. But my aunt, she really sounds like she’s singing. I get her to speak all the time, just so I can listen to it. The first time I went there, I was about 13 or 14, and me, my brothers and sisters went to visit my aunts and uncles. And it was really strange," she whispers. "I mean, it really is the middle of nowhere - especially coming from London. I enjoyed it, apart from the fact that it was freezing. It was so cold. The wind was cutting."
Most of the Benbeculan clan, she says proudly, is coming to Edinburgh for her Hogmanay gig. Does she realise how big an event it is on the Scottish social calendar? "I’ve never been but I know it’s quite a big thing. All my family are like, ‘Wow’, really, really excited. For me, it is really nice because I feel, even though I’ve grown up in London, and even though I don’t know a lot about Scottish history, if I’m really honest, I do feel that it’s part of my heritage."
She clasps a slender, perfectly manicured hand to her chest. "I feel that it’s got some sort of historical meaning for me. My mum’s definitely coming up as well, the whole [London] family are coming up. I can’t get away from them that easily," Ms Dynamite laughs.
"But I’m not looking forward to the cold, she adds. "I’ve been warned to get all my thermals in!" Picture it. Ms Dynamite, the ninja hip hop diva, in long-johns.
Edinburgh’s Hogmanay celebrations take place between Friday, December 27, and Thursday, January 2.
Ms Dynamite will be joining Culture Club at the Concert in the Gardens on December 31.
For full details, go to www.edinburghshogmany.org or phone 0131-473 2056