Dizzee Rascal: The End of Garage’s Beginning

Dizzee Rascal

Dizzee Rascal invites comparison after comparison. Like The Streets’ Mike Skinner, Dizzee approaches UK Garage with a seriousness that elevates it from dancefloor juice to art. On Boy in Da Corner, he uses garage as the jumping off point for an ear-bending journey through the music of fin-de-siecle African diaspora, in much the same way Tricky used UK dance music 10 years ago on Maxinquaye. As a vocal performer, Dizzee wears many masks, from ultraviolent revanchist to insightful social critic to wounded dreamer, walking the line between his contemplative nature and his bleak, beset circumstances with a tragic aplomb as complex and conflicted as Tupac Shakur’s. He toasts with the dreadful intensity of Capleton, produces with the menacing heft of El-P, and crafts lyrics with all the irony and sly double-meaning of Donald Fagan’s. Comparisons, though, are just feints and speculation, and none of these, individually or together, capture the magnitude of Dizzee Rascal’s accomplishment.

Boy in Da Corner is dark, aggressive, bracing — but also beautiful and optimistic. It draws on a vast array of influences and combines them in a way none has before, suggesting and recalling and evoking with a fertility that borders on the obscene — but it never loses its own very clear and entirely unique identity. It is an album that can be loved as both an achievement and an experience, a document and a revelation; it is simultaneously a problem to be solved and a spectacle to simply witness. If The Streets’ Original Pirate Material gave Garage an energizing kick in the pants, Boy in Da Corner bursts bloody from the innards of the genre, a long-gestating but inevitable offspring, destined both to carry remnants of its parentage forward and to relegate all that preceded it to an era whose close it heralds. To American ears (such as my own), its combination of rhythm and voice instantly suggest hip-hop, but it quickly asserts itself as something wholly different, influenced by our beats ‘n’ rhymes tradition, but not drawing directly from it. In fact, it can sound as if it came from nothing, as if the tracks emerged full-formed from some essential material, like mice from a sack of grain.

Boy in Da Corner
(XL[UK] / Matador [US])
US release date: 20 January 2004
UK release date: 1 July 2003

Of course, despite this initial rush of newness, there are a multitude of influences — most not particularly hard to spot. Dub and reggae may be the most noticeable strain running through Boy in Da Corner. “Cut ‘Em Off” is drenched in reverb, slow moving, a million miles away through the caves, and its wavering wisps of melody seem like the 10th-generation remains of a long-gone performance. The flipside of that is “Jus a Rascal”, where the iconic sound of a flatpicked reggae bassline is sped up and fed through muddy distortion to render it terse, aggressive, all too immediate. The chest-punching, semidistorted kick drum sound that surfaces on tracks like “Wot U On” suggests the Detroit Techno of Juan Atkins. “Fix Up, Look Sharp” is the album’s most hip-hop-influenced track, sampling a dusty, chunky boom-chik break, but interpolating a jaggedly mismatched snare snap that recalls State Property’s “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop.” Frequently a pointillist fill or a terse, thin melody will recall jungle, and the resurfacing obsessiveness of a super-thin hi hat sound suggests frenetic hardcore. “Jus a Rascal” opens with an appearance by the world’s most gully Catholic choir. But all of these sounds are ripped from their context and melded seamlessly to construct Dizzee’s vision of unforgiving multicultural dystopia. The associative flow from one genre to the next is never interrupted by the sensation that there is, or ever was, any more “proper” way to hear these sounds; it’s tempting to think that Lee Perry recorded all of his woodshed revelations specifically to open the door for the screwfaced bassline of “Hold Ya Mouf”.

At least as impressive is the depth and breadth of influence that manifests in Dizzee’s lyrics and vocal delivery. The songs on Boy in Da Corner are astonishingly diverse, ranging from pure braggadocio to closely observed storytelling, from grim prophecy to inspiring positivism, and as Dizzee adopts these stances in turn, he again and again produces songs that stand with the best of their kind for cleverness, insight, and emotional impact. “Hold Ya Mouf” has Dizzee at the height of his mordantly funny, self-conscious aggression, baiting prospective opponents with his sly reticence. Over a fingertippling melody and lurching drums, Dizzee opens with a silky-smooth doubletime verse that declares “Bullets’ll make you sit/ Make you relax, lay down, unwind,” and that “It’s possible you will get hit wiv a chair.” Then he has a change of heart, sneering that he “don’t want beef today, it’s not on today/ Let’s keep it calm today — let’s be friends!” This kind of reverse threat pops up a few times, and it’s both hilarious and a hundred times more spine-tinglingly vicious than DMX’s most brutal growl. Even when he’s letting loose more directly, there’s a certain surrealism, even silliness, to Dizzee’s vision of dominance. On “Fix Up, Look Sharp,” he raps that “When the hammer hits, your head splits like banana,” while on “Jus a Rascal” he declares that he’s “hot like a kettle — you might get scalded or burnt up.” Yeah, it’s teatime in the Merry Olde.

Dizzee’s deployment of East End slang and thick patois may be a momentary barrier for those of us in the colonies, but it’s just as likely that it will be embraced and even perpetuated in U.S. hip-hop circles: Rascal comes with a valise full of new verbal permutations, which are precious as gold. One of Boy in Da Corner‘s multitude of charms is the fun of deciphering his slang — I had to listen to “I Luv U” a dozen times before I figured out that “juiced up” probably meant pregnant (I could still be wrong, of course). I’m also hoping that Dizzee can help those of us living outside of the northeast make some headway in getting “chief” recognized as the greatest insult on the planet (there again the reversal, the compliment-as-insult, definitive tactic of the disenfranchised). Some of his word-obsession will translate equally well on both sides of the pond, as when he performs this nice etymology on “I Love U”: “That girl from school, that girl from college/ That girl gives brain, that girl gives knowledge/ that girl gives head, that girl gives shines/ That girl gives BJs at all times.”

There’s far more to Dizzee than his battle tracks and wordplay, as energizing and original as those are. A critic can be expected to drool over tracks like “I Luv U”, with its conceptual and pointed exchange between Dizzee and an (inexcusably uncredited) female MC, who needle one another with the grim reality of their respective lovelives — a girl pregnant, a boy locked up — and in turn respond with deadpan unconcern. But the track isn’t just crit-bait, as Dizzee’s performance slides from one kind of role-playing to another, from a critical dissection of loveless relationships to the borderline sincere boast that he’ll “make your girl my girl/ Switch your girl with Michelle/ Switch Michelle with Shantelle/ Replace Shantelle with Chanel.” On “Brand New Day”, whose wavering, crystalline melody and loping beat make it the album’s most beautifully vulnerable track, Dizzee laments his grim situation and vows escape, but also defensively demands that the world “Pay money, pay respect/ Don’t insult my intellect.” Dizzee’s intellect is truly staggering, but it’s also of a piece with its environment. The psychosocial depths to which he delves don’t feel like the result of any sense on his part that they’re “necessary” to make a great album. They don’t seem self-conscious, they seem only natural, the true concerns of someone who is a gifted observer of the scene, but also inextricably part of it.

Similarly, the distance between Dizzee Rascal, the on-record persona, and Dylan Mills, the young man who voices him, ranges from broad and complex to slight to nonexistent. I can’t claim any familiarity with Dizzee’s East London home, but I can guess from Boy in Da Corner that kids out there grow up fast, probably whether they like it or not. The inevitable contradictions of such a life come across here unadulterated, and the blustery cleverness of “Hold Ya Mouf” doesn’t for a moment seem incongruous with the social critique of “Round We Go” or the raw vulnerability of “Brand New Day” or “Do It”. “Day” contains a nearly heart-stopping moment of breakdown in the distance between artist and art. Dizzee’s firm voice states, “Every day I wake up, I can’t help but feel uncertain of life,” then, mid verse, the voice rises, cracks, becomes Dylan’s, asking “I mean, is this real?” “Do It” sits at the end of the record, an unflinching confession that reveals all the boasting that preceded it to be, at least in part, a tragically necessary verbal shield. When Dizzee says he “don’t receive a lot of love, so I don’t show much,” your heart goes out to him, but this dose of tragic truth in no way undercuts your further enjoyment of the hedonism of “Fix Up, Look Sharp.” That Boy in Da Corner can span such a spectrum without once feeling overextended is as good a demonstration as any of how well Dizzee has captured the complexity of growing up in the ghetto — well enough to reveal both how much it has in common with other comings of age, and how much it differs from them.

I hate to fall in the trap of overstatement, one all too easy for us reviewers, as we tend to assume that our response to a record will inevitably be shared by millions. But I truly believe that, given a prompt stateside release and a half-decent push, Boy in Da Corner could be the most celebrated and successful independent record in the U.S. since White Blood Cells. The groundswell has already started, as the cachet of its import-only status has resulted in what you might call a Fischerspooner effect, with mere knowledge of the record carrying a little cachet. Of course, this is the worst reason to be interested in a record this great, but that anyone is willing to pay 30 bucks for it says something. While it’s not as overtly accessible as other recent releases in its weight class, I wouldn’t even count out its potential to ultimately influence the sound of mainstream U.S. hip-hop. The timing is certainly right, as American black music and its consumers are at a peak of open-mindedness towards, even outright hunger for, new sounds and styles. But Boy in Da Corner is more than just innovative, new and exciting; it is also perceptive, heartfelt, and unwaveringly brilliant.