It's a dreary day in Kings Cross, London, and I'm waiting in a cafe for N-Dubz, who are over an hour late. It's a turn of events which is neither surprising nor disappointing: The North West London trio aren't famous for their punctuality. Eventually, two out of three walk in: Tulisa, bright-eyed and apologetic in a full lilac God’s Plan tracksuit, dark hair slicked up into a high pony; and Dappy, decked out in a beanie, purple jacket and an air of annoyance. Everyone around me looks up when they arrive, visibly excited to see them together in the flesh.
We take a seat in a corner booth to wait for Fazer, who shows up five minutes later in a bright purple Trapstar puffer jacket left unzipped to reveal a diamond-encrusted N-Dubz chain in the group’s iconic font. He bounces over, gives me a kiss on both cheeks and says “Showbiz baby!” before sliding into the booth next to his childhood friends and bandmates. I can't believe they're all here. We order drinks: an orange juice for Dappy, a latte for Fazer and water for Tulisa, who’s sensitive to caffeine.
N-Dubz first exploded into underground consciousness in the mid-2000s, mainly thanks to word-of-mouth hype and the now-defunct cult platform Channel U. Their sound back then was hard to pinpoint but easy to recognise, with theatrical tracks landing somewhere between hip-hop, UK rap, pop and R&B. Most importantly though, the songs were fun: cheeky back-and-forths between boys and girls that were perfect for blasting out a Sony Ericsson Walkman phone at the back of a bus and shouting along with your mates.
Looking back, first single “Better Not Waste My Time” is a perfect time capsule: Tulisa tic-tocing in an all-white outfit with crunchy-moussed curls, Dappy and Fazer pouring champagne on girls in a makeshift hot tub, all three of them on road with their friends, throwing up gang signs. This was followed by “I Swear”, another self-released tongue-in-cheek anthem with flute and strings, filmed on the Brent Cross Flyover and featuring the immortal adlib “Two thousand and sexy”.
The group's rise was swift – first among London kids swapping Limewire MP3s via Bluetooth, and then to a wider mainstream audience. They won a MOBO Award for “Best Newcomer” in 2007 and would go on to win another for “Best UK Act” in 2009. Within three years they’d released 21 singles and three platinum-selling albums – Uncle B (2008), Against All Odds (2009) and Love. Live. Life (2010). Self-funded music videos were replaced by big budget, blinged-out visuals featuring sports cars and designer clothes. But then, in 2011, it was announced they'd be going on indefinite hiatus. That was over a decade ago.
Now, they're back. Last month, the group announced their return, alongside a teaser for new single “Charmer” and a 23-date arena tour. It sold out within minutes, including four dates at London’s 20,000 capacity O2 Arena, with support from Russ Millions and A1 x J1.
“Turned the O2 into the O4!” quips Fazer, when I bring up the overwhelming reaction to their upcoming “Back to the Future” tour. But why right now? “We always said from the jump N-Dubz is family, N-Dubz is home. And we always said we're going to bring it back at some point,” says Fazer. “It's all about timing. We was ready a couple years ago, but lockdown came in… But here we are today – ready to go, smashing it.”
So much has changed since N-Dubz were first on the scene. The band thrived in the golden age of illegal downloading, long before the rise of mammoth social media marketing campaigns and digital streaming platforms. “We kind of feel like we missed the bandwagon years ago – the internet was just coming up and now it's at its peak,” says Tulisa. “It feels great to come back and experience what life is like as an artist [with] the internet – it's a whole different world.”
I wonder how they're going to navigate this “whole different world”. Will they be joining TikTok, with tracks built for the three-minute window? At the mention of the app, they all glance at each other. “Don’t look at me, man!” laughs Fazer, addressing Tulisa. “We're gonna dip our toes in because we're characters anyway – we like to have a laugh, and we used to do stuff like Ustreme [a video and streaming service] back in the day,” she says. “We’re focusing on the music, but if we come up with something funny, why not?”
And then there’s the actual sound of British music today. UK rap is no longer niche. We’ve had a UK drill number one. Acts like ArrDee are getting tens of millions of YouTube views. In some ways, the return of N-Dubz is perfect. I ask them where they see themselves fitting into 2022. “I don’t think we ever really even saw ourselves in the first climate, so it's hard for us to fit in…” starts Tulisa, before being interrupted by Dappy, who has so far spent the interview sitting in sullen silence.
“I don't like that question – why are we being asked where we fit in? We're just making good music.” At this point they ask me to stop recording, and Dappy decides to step outside for a cigarette at Tulisa’s suggestion. She apologises profusely on his behalf, explaining that it’s not been a good morning for him due to personal issues. He heads out the door and doesn't come back.
“He doesn't like questions about things from back in the day and comparing him to new artists,” elaborates Fazer when we resume. “Do you know what it is… We strive to make current music, you know, and that's our thing. We always try to make music that is current and relevant to people, and so when people start saying, ‘How do you feel like you fit in this time?’ We fit in this time because we're meant to be here.”
I try again, wording the question differently. How has the musical climate changed since they’ve been on hiatus? “Obviously time’s flying, it's been ten years,” says Fazer, taking a sip of his latte. “People are growing up, people are moving out of positions, people are moving into new positions and the cool younger kids are in places of power [in the music industry]. So the music is getting heard the way it should be.”
“I loved watching the Brits this year,” adds Tulisa. “Just seeing all the current artists, and seeing them embracing the music finally. It's not even an 'urban' scene any more – it's pop. It's popular music now. We used to fight for that back in the day.”
“We did open a lot of doors for a lot of people in the industry, because at the time people wasn't taking urban music serious,” continues Fazer. “It took someone like N-Dubz to come and prove everybody wrong and say this is the cool music that everyone's listening to. After that you started seeing everyone come through – Chip, Tinie, the list goes on.”
Since the last time they were together, Fazer has had a quietly successful career as a producer, starting his own production company and making music for artists including Rihanna and Rita Ora. Dappy has always been the group’s wildcard, seemingly struggling to reconcile the “chat shit get banged” mentality of the streets he grew up on with fame. His past isn’t short on trouble, and there’s a sense that he’s not keen to revisit it in interviews, preferring to let his solo releases do the talking (in “Spotlight” he sings: “Lost in my thoughts, feeling useless / Trying to justify my actions with excuses”).
Over the years, Tulisa has arguably found the most mainstream success. But she was also, throughout the 2010s, infamously and cruelly treated by the UK press. After achieving a UK number one with her debut solo single “Young” in 2011, Tulisa landed a coveted gig as a judge on The X Factor – a job in which she immediately thrived. But something about a successful working class woman who proudly called herself “The Female Boss” really didn’t sit right with those who wrote the headlines, and it signalled the start of open season on Tulisa, then just 22 years old.
“It was mad,” she says, eyes widening in disbelief as she shakes her head. “I remember when I got [that] job, certain magazine outlets posting pictures of me with a kebab like, 'This drunk girl walks down the road with tattoos on her body… this chav is your new X Factor host'.”
And then came the year-long sting operation to take her down by The Sun's Mazher Mahmood. The ex-tabloid journalist posed as an agent promising Hollywood fame in exchange for a number for some coke. This was somehow enough to arrest her for “concern in the supply of class A drugs”. Fortunately the case was thrown out, with Mahmood eventually being charged with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, but the damage to Tulisa's reputation was immediate. Looking back, the whole thing was truly unhinged.
I ask her if she would have done anything differently, with the gift of age and hindsight. “Definitely not,” she says emphatically. “Everything that's happened was part of the journey; it was meant to happen. It's who we are. If it didn't happen we wouldn't be at this point. No regrets!” she laughs, referencing one of their hits. “I've gone through so much over the last ten years. It's acceptance. It is what it is, and you move forward. I'm happy. And look now! [My comeback] is with the band and I respect and appreciate that.”
New track “Charmer” is a summer banger made for blasting in the whip down Edgware Road, with the group’s trademark storytelling rap and Tulisa's vocals taking centre stage. Aside from that and some rough demos, the band's new album is still in the works, but the vision is clear. “We just do what we do best, and let the results speak for themselves,” says Fazer.
“All we've ever cared about is music,” he adds. “We don't really do the speculation tings. You won't really see us out in nightclubs, you don't really see us at events acting out. We just do what we do best and that's concentrate on making three and a half minutes of magic and then letting the world enjoy it.”
Later that evening, I get a text from N-Dubz’ PR asking if Dappy can call me to apologise for walking out of the interview. I accept, and the Dappy on the other end of the line sounds like a world apart from the person I met earlier. He says sorry about 15 times, blaming personal events that took place during the morning of the interview, and previous instances of being burned by the press.
I mention that he seems to have two sides to him. “That’s what everyone says to me – even my mum,” he laughs. “I don’t mean no harm, and my intentions are good, and again, I’m very sorry. I’d like to show you a different side to me.” Over the course of the conversation, we realise we spent some time growing up on the same road. He invites me to one of their live dates at the O2 in November to make it up to me.
My time with the other two members of the group ends in a similarly intimate fashion, just before they’re whisked off to their next media engagement straight afterwards. “Your hands are so small!” gasps Tulisa, holding hers up to mine to compare. “I’ve never met someone with tinier hands than me.”
“I have the hugest hands,” says Fazer, also holding his hand up to mine and also to Tulisa’s free hand, our palms creating a perfect circle.