Bow Selecta - Dizzee Rascal Interview
This article is from 2008.
He’s worked with Arctic Monkeys and Calvin Harris while giving British rap a good name. With his own record label on the rise, urban music star Dizzee Rascal tells Miles Johnson about a life of grime.
At its best, pop music can provide a barometer of those bigger things, the fuzzy concepts that are often invoked but rarely seen: society, the nation, the erratic temperament of that mythical beast, The Great British Public. And to glance across the music charts from the last five years arguably tells you more about modern Britain in a moment than the average newspaper columnist could tell you in a year. At a time when the economy lurches into a recession and estate agents across the land sit staring solemnly into their mochaccinos, few bands symbolise more accurately the once booming noughties than the fist-punching coffee shop platitudes of Coldplay.
Then there is the other side of the coin, a swirling tabloid montage of stabbings, hoodies and ASBOs: the nightmarish revenge, some have said, of a generation that has gained little under New Labour. In looking for a musical poster boy for the disaffected ring tone generation, Dizzee Rascal is often put forward as the man for the job. In fact, with the recent spate of knife crime in his hometown of London, his management have been bombarded with calls from journalists looking for a juicy quote on the subject (he was himself stabbed in Ayia Napa in 2003), something the 22-year-old MC is quickly tiring of. But two albums on from his Mercury Prize-winning debut Boy in Da Corner, the boy born Dylan Mills will not be so easily defined.
Dizzee Rascal has proved time and again through his constant musical innovation that he soars high above the nihilism and materialism that many presume to characterise British urban music. ‘You are who you are,’ he says, speaking from his recording studio in London. ‘Before I was famous I was always trying to give some insight and some inspiration through my music cos I wasn’t just talking about being in a club, I was saying something. It was social commentary. My purpose ain’t to show people how hard I am or how clever I am, it’s just to make people dance or help people feel good, or to help people sleep at night through listening to music.’
Born in East London’s Bow in 1985, Mills began making music at the age of 15, playing on local pirate radio stations and eventually began self-releasing white label records. One of these was ‘I Luv U’, a fizzling concoction of crunches, buzzes and bleeps over which his barking vocals provided dark reflections on relationships and teen pregnancy. In terms of British music, it was a truly unique turning point. This was urban music that was both authentically British, but at the same time was told from a standpoint that hadn’t been heard before outside the confines of London’s fledgling grime music scene, let alone featured in the music pages of national newspapers.
Aged just 18, Dizzee Rascal’s subsequent debut had not only won the Mercury Music Prize and scored a top 20 hit with ‘Fix up Look Sharp’, but had proved that the UK could produce a rapper as innovative, urgent and intelligent as anything found across the pond. One critic even wrote of Boy in Da Corner’s grim portrait of inner city British life: ‘every MP in Westminster should be forced to listen to it’.
Grime music however has attracted controversy from its infancy. MPs were quick to take aim, blaming British urban artists for glorifying gun violence, and in 2006 one of Dizzee’s old rivals from his pirate radio days was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of another artist over a petty lyrical dispute. Such mindless behaviour is understandably something Mills is quick to distance himself from. ‘Hip hop is, or was, a street-based type of music and people get carried away with how they think they have to behave and go on in day to day life. Whether the artist has really shot someone or killed someone or been shot is another matter. The whole idea is just to entertain people. You don’t need to be a mass murderer to be a rapper, you know what I mean? You don’t have to be a lunatic to be into hip hop, so just breathe easy and enjoy it.’
In an industry that has often treated British urban artists poorly, snapping promising MCs up only to spit them out at the first sign of difficulty, it is his longevity that is as impressive as his initial achievements. Having last year released his third album Maths and English to continued commercial success and critical acclaim, featuring collaborations with artists as diverse as Arctic Monkeys and US gangsta rappers UGK, he has also set about developing his own record label Dirtee Stank. June marked a turning point in his career with the release of the Calvin Harris-produced single ‘Dance Wiv Me’, the first on his own imprint.
‘I wanted to challenge myself to make something like “Dance Wiv Me” cos it’s so far from what people are usually used to hearing me do. If it wasn’t done well then it would have been a problem.’ Indeed, the fact he approached Harris is further testament to his remarkably varied musical tastes that range from Dr Dre to Nirvana. ‘I think “Acceptable in the 80s” was fucking amazing. So when I got the chance to meet him, in Preston at the Big Day Out, I just approached him. We swapped numbers and it just went from there. But I’ve always been around people, always been collaborating. That’s how I started off so that’s always been my vision. When I did pirate radio I ran around with this crew and that crew; I wanted to be heard with that MC or that one. Not even so much out of love for them but more out of appreciation for what we’re doing and out of respect for the art form.’
Dizzee has just returned from another US tour, where he feels there is a growing understanding between himself and the American artists he’s shared tracks with. ‘That is one thing I’ve done well with. Over in America the artists get me, they understand me and they know what I’m about.’ He does admit his accent sometimes gets in the way of successful transatlantic communication. ‘A lot of the time they think I’m Jamaican,’ he says bemusedly. ‘Yeah, I’ve had that a lot. Unless they’ve been over to England and have been around English people and can get the accent they don’t really get what I’m saying cos mine is a thick East End accent for a start. I speak a lot of slang, I talk how I spoke when I was 13 and lived in Bow so they ain’t heard too much of that.’
On whether a wider US audience can relate to his lyrical references to ‘Corrie’ and ‘Anthony Blair’, he is optimistic. ‘Out there they feel the music. I’m still trying to work out the reasons why. Obviously in some places they might relate to it, but in others it could be for different reasons. Maybe it’s just the realness, the vibe and the intensity that my music’s got. But that’s also the reason why British kids are into American music; it’s not always about being able to relate. Because, to be honest, I don’t think most of them can, but it’s about the vibe that the music puts across and how it makes you feel. It’s the whole package, the journey that the thing takes you on, that can get people listening.’
Back home again, it seems he is content just to sit back and take some time to survey his achievements. ‘I’ve started a new album but I feel like I need to kick back and think about it more so it might not be out for another year or even the year after that.’ He also has the artists he’s signed to Dirtee Stank to concern himself with, such as grime duo Newham Generals. ‘“Head Get Mangled”, their new track, is going to turn the music world upside down. They’re coming like the black Prodigy but they’re on some hardcore ghetto dance music shit.’
For the future, Dizzee simply wants to keep making and producing music. ‘I don’t see a retirement. If people still give a shit when I’m 50 I’ll be doing this. Cos if people don’t give a shit then there’s no point me giving a shit, is there?’ On that front he has little to worry about. Impossible to pigeonhole, Dizzee Rascal is as important an artist for British music as he was five years ago, and long may his trailblazing talent continue.
Dizzee Rascal, Liquid Room, Victoria Street, 0844 499 9990, 23 Aug, 7pm, £15.