Let 'Em Know
Ella Mai's got love for hip-hop.
Words: John Kennedy
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of of XXL Magazine, on stands now.

Ella Mai is R&B’s new bae. The 23-year-old Mustard protégé has captured the ears and hearts of music fans by pairing her soulful lilts with the Los Angeles producer’s elastic basslines. Her song “Boo’d Up” is one of 2018’s biggest sleeper hits, creeping into the Billboard Hot 100 chart’s Top 10 more than a full year after its release. But deep down, the London native has love for hip-hop. Mai sits down with XXL to discuss working with Mustard, the power of Lauryn Hill and being remixed by Plies.


XXL: You first got noticed by singing R&B covers, reworking rap songs and posting them to Instagram. How did that idea come about?

Ella Mai: It was super random. I was thinking to myself, “What can I do to let the world know that I can sing?” This was when Instagram first released Instagram videos—you could only do 15 seconds. I had this idea to do my own renditions [of hit songs] and make sure there was something different about the way I was singing. It’s easier to make rap songs your own. Growing up, my brother used to always get annoyed and say, “You always want to sing it and the person’s rapping.” But that’s just what comes naturally to me. The Shade Room picked up my first video, which was Fetty Wap’s “679.”

You did a cover of Tupac Shakur’s “Keep Ya Head Up,” too. Were you a big fan?

That’s my favorite Tupac song—there’s such a powerful message. I just wanted to pay homage and put my own spin on it. I know the West Coast is affiliated with Tupac and the whole beef with [The Notorious B.I.G.] but growing up [in London] I wasn’t that familiar with it. When I got older, I learned more and it makes me sad that all of that stuff happened.

What other hip-hop music were you exposed to growing up?

I was a huge Lauryn Hill fan; that was all my mom would listen to in the car. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill happens to be my favorite album. I was too young to even understand what she was really saying—it took me when I got older to listen again. I just love how unapologetic she is. She’s not scared to be vulnerable and really tell you how she feels. She’s untouchable.

What is it like working with Mustard, given his background is hip-hop while yours is soul?

It’s been super cool. From the end of 2015 to the start of 2016, I was always at the studio with Mustard, just figuring out a sound. And that ended up being those three EPs that I put out. When I first met him, he hadn’t really ventured into making R&B music yet, so we were kinda figuring it out together. It was easy for us.

“Boo’d Up” came out of those sessions and has become your breakout hit. How did you feel when you heard Plies release his own version?

It was dope to know that people love that song enough to remix it on their own. Plies was playing the song for like, a week straight before he put out his remix. It’s obviously a typical Plies verse. Dave East put up [a remix] with Vado. It’s one of those beats that’s easy to ride to. So, it’s been really cool to see people from hip-hop appreciate that song and want to make it their own.

See Every Hip-Hop Song That Topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 2018

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