Speech Debelle Turns Up The Heat After Mercury Prize Win

(Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images)
Speech Debelle, wins the Barclaycard Mercury Prize 2009 at The Grosvenor House Hotel on September 8, 2009 in London, England.

The heat is rising on U.K. rapper Speech Debelle's career after her debut album, "Speech Therapy" (Big Dada), beat La Roux, Florence & the Machine and Kasabian to win the Barclaycard Mercury Prize.

"I think [the Mercury judges] saw that it's a representation of London now. And because it's so sincere, it connects with people," says the 26-year-old South Londoner, whose period of homelessness underscores one of the album's noteworthy tracks, "Better Days."

Her victory, broadcast live Sept. 8 on TV channel BBC 2, resulted in the biggest victory-week sales increase for a Mercury winner in percentage terms, with sales up 2,575%. That helped "Speech Therapy" chart for the first time at No. 65 on the Official Charts Co. albums tally. But it was operating from a low base-total U.K. sales for the album, released in June, are just 5,600, according to the OCC, with half posted during the rapper's victory week.

However, Debelle's team is now predicting greater things for the album, which showcases the artist's reflective lyrics and versatile musical approach. Her music is inspired by everything from Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" to Debelle's desire to "do a hip-hop version of Tracy Chapman."

The album hit U.S. stores Sept. 1, following a new agreement between Big Dada parent label Ninja Tune and Redeye Distribution. The single "Spinnin' " is already picking up some stateside airplay. Debelle is scheduled to perform in Los Angeles and New York, including the CMJ Music Marathon, beginning Oct. 21. She's also picking up early print support from Spin, Rolling Stone and Urb.

Winning the Mercury will "start a new chapter for the release," says Josh Wittman, director of marketing at Redeye. He adds that the company has shipped 1,200 copies of the release, mainly to "independent retailers who can build this release organically."

Ninja Tune managing director Peter Quicke is targeting 50,000-plus U.K. sales by Christmas. He recently signed off on a £30,000 ($50,000) marketing campaign that includes TV advertising, billboards and online/print ads.

Alternative rock band Elbow, the 2008 Mercury winner, watched sales of its album "The Seldom Seen Kid" (Fiction/Polydor) increase 635% during the group's victory week, which added up to a hefty 20,000 copies. After the win, the set sold 500,000 copies for a total of 650,000, according to the OCC.

"We're starting from a very different point: The sales base on this winner is probably 10 times lower than anything prior to that," says Peter Thompson, managing director at the distributor PIAS U.K. "There's a lot more work to do."

Debelle is doing her share of that work through dozens of post-Mercury media interviews. And while other debut artists have struggled to live up to the expectation a win can bring, Debelle says she doesn't fear the so-called "Mercury curse."

"I've been confident up until this point," she says with a smile. "So I doubt anything is going to change."