Dizraeli is a name that, at least on the American side of the pond, may have many scratching their heads. The British spoken-word artist/hip-hopper has been working a steady, mindful pace, setting his own course whilst picking up a growing number of admirers along the way. In 2009, Dizraeli unleashed his debut album, Engurland (City Shanties). The album finds the rapper delivering his sputter-quick rhymes deftly, whilst musing over love, both found and lost, in a time of social unrest. Spinning lyrical conundrums over hip-hop-jalopy beat-science, Dizraeli embodies the spirit of contradiction; he finds a fresh and unique counterpoint between the chest-thumping swagger of hip-hop braggadocio and the densely knotty theories found in your political science textbook. It’s a musical vision worlds away from the obscene displays of bling radiating from the glossies we’ve become accustomed to. Tongue planted firmly in cheek, the artist infuses his words with razor-sharp acumen, traversing the line between aggression and hope, never once skimping on the grooves. Here, he talks about his introduction into UK’s beat-poetry scene, recording his debut, and the literary inspirations that feed his musical diet.
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Tell me about your introduction into the beat poetry/spoken word scene that has emerged in the UK over the years. Can you give some of the details of your first forays into interacting with audiences in front of an open mic?
My introduction to spoken word was at university, at the African Caribbean and Asian Society’s poetry evenings. People came to perform words of all sorts, and I brought my rap lyrics to the mix. I’ve always thought of my work as songs, whether with musical accompaniment or nor—it’s still a surprise to me when I’m called a Poet. I write for music, in the same verse/chorus/verse form that songwriters have used forever. But nonetheless, what I do seems to work at poetry events. From university days I started going to the slams which had started up in Brighton—where I lived then—and found myself winning them. Slams were a completely new thing for me and for most English people, and they were an exciting place to meet writers and performers of all kinds; both a harsh competitive environment and the most fertile ground imaginable for creativity. My first slams were a slap in the face for me—I brought my very earnest utopian lyrics to this fairly tough, cynical arena and people didn’t get into them at all. I learned that people relate to what you have to say if you say it with humor and a sideways twist, not if you beat them over the head with a daisy chain.
What are some of the literary forces that were part of your musical diet coming up in the spoken word scene? Which literary voices did you (and still do) gravitate to?
The literary voices I come back to more than any others are the voices of rappers, whether from the UK or the States. I find rap to be the rawest, funkiest, and most direct form of literary expression available: listen to Chester P, Roots Manuva, Jehst, Verb T, Jay-Z, Mos Def, Pharaoh Monch… all of them are serious writers, all of them bring a level of craftsmanship and poetry to the art of lyric-writing that most people don’t recognize as existing in hip hop. And what excites me is that this is a genre listened to by millions of people around the world—these artists are bringing poetry, literature, complex wordplay, intelligent expression to the masses, while most poets stay shut in anthologies, read by very few people. Not, of course, to dismiss “page poets” as irrelevant: of course they’re not. I love Ted Hughes, Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath. And Shakespeare’s pretty shit-hot too.
Beat poets/spoken word artists have been around for decades in the US, initiated by the beat generation. UK never gave birth to such a phenomena in the same capacity. From your standpoint, what is the UK offering in the way of poetry, spoken word and its cross-pollination with hip-hop that is uniquely different from what is happening in the US currently?
The UK has had a very healthy spoken word scene for decades, always linked very closely with music. In the ‘60s it was connected to the jazz/rock n’ roll scene (look at the Mersey Beat poets, Adrian Henri, Brian Patten… ); in the ‘70s and ‘80s it was often tied up with dub and punk music (look at Linton Kwesi Johnson, John Cooper Clarke, Jean Binta Breeze, Attila the Stockbroker, Benjamin Zepaniah, Patrik Clarke); and now it often runs alongside hip hop.
What is happening in the UK is different from spoken word in the US in that our history, our heritage, our turn of phrase is different from the States’, but of course the huge, prolific American spoken word and hip hop scenes have been a massive influence on us too. I think we sometimes lack the fierce pride in performance of American performers, but we bring a dry subtlety to the mix, a humility, that is often missing in Americans.
Can you talk about everything that culminated in the Engurland (City Shanties) album? The album was not a big studio production. Describe the process of gathering various resources to put the album together. There is a rough edge to the album’s sound—it almost seems to have been born out of an equal mix of creative spark and exhaustion. There is elation and then there is weariness happening here…
I was in a band called Bad Science for nine years, touring venues and festivals around the UK. We became known as a good band for a party (the mix was hip hop and dub and a lot of reggae) and as a result we ended up writing mostly songs that were good to dance to. I was writing other songs the whole time, bringing them to practice and finding they didn’t fit in to our “sound”. They were songs that weren’t for dancing: thoughtful songs, sad songs, often with a folky edge. They sat waiting at the sidelines, accumulating feeling. When I split up from Bad Science at the start of last year, these songs from over the years came rushing forward. I had to make an album for them. Engurland (City Shanties) is that album.
In terms of resources—I had almost no money to make the album with, only about a grand in savings. My good friend Mr. Simmonds, who produced and engineered the Rebel Cell (the hip hop theater album I co-wrote with Baba Brinkman) very kindly agreed to produce Engurland for very little money, and we spent weeks of evenings together, me coming up with bonkers ideas and playing them in, him making them sound like actual music. I didn’t have a home at the time, having given up my place in Brighton and gone traveling for a couple of months with my missus. So I slept on Mr. Simmonds’ floor, or round at my mate Darren’s house. At the heart of the project we spent a week in a squat/art space near Brighton which I paid £250 to live in and fill with noise. There was a crooked piano there, a load of broken drums, some bells, bowls, a big skip full of glass in the carpark, a huge wooden suspended floor, the river outside… All of them went into the album, whether shaken or stamped on. I also played a lot of guitar, and invited a few different friends to contribute instrumental and singing parts. The Brighton music community is a strong network of friends; we’re all very used to having no money but lots of good ideas, and we’ve all done each other favors over time. People were only too happy to come and jam with us.
If there’s weariness in the album’s sound, it might be partly a sense of exhaustion at the way of the world—some of my most cynical thoughts, my most minor-key musical ideas are distilled in Engurland. It’s the product of a decade of discovering the darkness in the world. The next album will be much more optimistic!
But in a sense, Engurland is a very optimistic album. It was made on a wing and a prayer, relying on people’s goodwill and generosity, out of a pure desire to record these songs that were crying out for life. It’s an album that sucked in every molecule of the world around it, and made it make rhythmic sense.
Interestingly enough, in your music you flirt with concepts of terrorism, often throwing a big question mark on certain concerns raised in light of the issue. Rebel Cell dealt with these issues and to some degree, so did Engurland (City Shanties). Explain your views on this. Why take to these issues in ways that may otherwise be thought of as daunting, exhausting and frustrating to many? Most people sing about love, you know…
I don’t know, I think one of the many roles of art is to fuck with the normal. The idea of terrorism has become such common currency to us—anyone that is Against Stuff is a terrorist. I suppose I want to shake that idea by the shoulders. There are wonderful, creative ways to oppose the status quo. The economic status quo in the UK is dominated by greedy fuckers, basically, people who just want to get Bigger. Tesco is a prime example of this mindset: aggressively buying up land (sometimes under false pretenses, under different names) and battling local opposition to open stores wherever they possibly can. Their motive? Definitely not bringing prosperity and choice to as many Britons as possible. They just Grow for the stupid sake of it, like all companies solely concerned with profit. In the process, they render our social and cultural landscape more banal, less diverse, more exploitative (most Tesco employees have very few contractual rights), less personal than I feel it should be. “Bomb Tesco” (a track off Engurland) is just a response to that. To say, “Here I am! I still dream in color! Hear me!”. It’s important. It’s a lot of fun, at least.
Could you ever do an album of just love songs?
Nah. That would be boring.
Talk about the ideas of language and musical space when you perform your spoken word pieces live. You perform the pieces sometimes with the accompaniment of music and other times without it. What happens to the text once it is stripped bare of the weight of the music? Once the way in which the delivery has been altered, does what is being communicated alter as well? How aware are you of the space that the language that you use creates during a performance onstage?
What I do is always music—whether the words have instrumentation behind them or not, they’re still rap. I like what happens when I can be free to pause, to stop, to speed up: being stripped bare forces you to notice what it is you’re saying, how well you’re saying it.
But it’s definitely in the context of instrumentation that I feel most at home. I hope that I create an atmosphere of honesty, of energy when I’m performing. A space where there’s no room for posturing or bullshit. I truly do hope that.
Any plans on branching out of the UK? Are there offers from overseas to pick up on your albums? As an independent artist, how do you feel about taking steps that would lead to wider public recognition?
No offers from abroad yet. I’m doing all my own management, all my own admin at the moment and the mission is to spread my UK wings first. I’d love to get out and play some of the street festivals across Europe, but I’m most definitely content to put deep roots down here first. I like belonging, I like my music having a sense of place and origin; I’m not trying to make chameleon songs here, songs that sound funky anywhere they’re played. Music should carry its own story.