The Shock of the New: Ten Minutes With Dizzee Rascal

Elisabeth Donnelly

Grime's Leading MC is genius enough to deserve respect, and he's got the energy and wit to get it.

Dizzee Rascal, nee Dylan Mills, is 20 years old and kind of a genius. He also has his own Nike sneaker. The press notes for Vice's excellent new grime compilation, Run the Road, which serves as an attempt to define the nascent genre, list Dizzee Rascal as "The boy the scene had to let go". Currently, grime -- a UK version of hip-hop with harder, faster beats, an offshoot of garage, two-step, and dancehall with witty fast-talking MCs -- is receiving a well-deserved critical flowering from music blogs, Vice Magazine, Vice Records, and the fantastic articles by New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere-Jones. Dizzee, however, is more skeptical: "The scene's still bubbling, you know? It's at a state where I think labels -- major record labels -- don't know what to do with it. I don't think they fully understand it. They just try and water it down, try and change it and it doesn't work. That's why I'm working on [his label] Dirtee Stank, I got my group Klass A and I think they're really strong. Their album's going to come out later this year."

Dizzee first made a splash in 2002 with his track "I Luv U", where he's a teenager who's grown up too fast, arguing with a blase female and spitting out alternately hilarious and harsh words on relationships while clanging noises and metallic tones clashed in the background. In 2003, he released his first full-length, Boy in Da Corner, and it went on to win the Mercury Music Prize. Much more interesting than past Mercury winners like Gomez, Dizzee's music has something unforgettable. Dizzee sums up the past couple of years by saying that he's most proud of "making two albums. That's crazy. Coming from the underground and getting a record deal. Selling a lot of albums -- I never would've gone gold worldwide. Both of them have gone gold at home. That was crazy for me."

Since Dizzee is the most visible MC to come out of the grime scene so far, you can argue that there's a real shock of the new the first time that you hear his music. For me, it was like discovering a secret -- a friend had salvaged a white label single of "Fix Up Look Sharp", one of his poppier songs that rides that crazy beat sampled from Massachusetts-born metalhead Billy Squier's "The Big Beat". I had no idea how you'd dance to it without looking goofy. The sample's a little off-tempo as to be unexpected and then Dizzee's voice squawks in going "Oi!" while ladies are popping off "Whoo!" and then Dizzee starts rapping; it's this torrent of words that's kind of indecipherable until that part where he goes, "Flushing MCs down the loo, if you don't believe me bring your posse, bring your crew". It's funny, weird, and it's atypical of the rest of his work, which is more anxious, nervy, and menacing and the music is more akin to "robots fighting", in the words of Frere-Jones.

Lyrically, Dizzee's writing his autobiography in a vibrant way. He's got rapper's braggadocio, he can be angry, and his sense of humor is acute and dryly British. (American rappers are simply not as self-deprecating.) Best of all, he has these moments of honesty and insight, like on "Do It!" where he confesses, "If I had the guts to end it all, believe I would" or the accurate observation of "Fickle" and "everybody wants to be ghetto but nobody wants to be poor." His intelligence places him beyond other performers in the UK, and you can draw a line between Dizzee, the realism of the British New Wave films of the 1960s, the oveure of Martin Amis, and Pulp's class warfare in the late '90s.

After the success of Boy in Da Corner, Dizzee went right back into the studio to make Showtime, which came out in the US last September. It's less of a shock than his debut, but subsequent listens reveal it to be just as thrilling and exhilarating: "I think when I made the first album, I understood that Boy in Da Corner was what it was. I knew that the right thing to do wasn't to try and mimic it. I thought about it differently so a lot of tracks on Showtime are bigger as well. The album might be a lot more melodic, it shows versatility and range."

Dizzee's right -- moving on from the character studies and mournful existensialism of Boy, Showtime is more aggressive, responding to the drama of instant celebrity but still managing a balance of anger, humor, and smarts. At the end of "Face", there's a female voice going on, making fun of Raskit: his clothes, his low-budget videos, and concluding "I'd rather see a better video on [MTV] Base or something like Jay-Z or something or Outkast". This goofiness is immediately followed by "Respect Me" where Dizzee's growling, "You people are gonna respect me if it kills you". Lines like "You can say I'm arrogant / You should probably say I'm vain" belly up against the Captain Sensible/Rogers and Hammerstein sampling whimsy of "Dream", but the album reaches its apex with the radical, touching "Imagine" and the anthemic "Fickle". In "Imagine", Dizzee ponders about where the ghetto would be, the fighting and violence, if its residents were rich and white on "country manors", and "Fickle" is a rousing tribute to Dizzee's tenacity.

Of course, with a hit album comes a stream of videos -- which nicely showcase Dizzee's grit and likable persona -- and promotion. Although Dizzee's videos aren't widely shown in the US, Dougal Wilson's puppet-laden video for "Dream" has achieved some notoriety on the web and beyond, at least for its cuteness. According to Dizzee, making the video for "Dream" was fun: "I dreaded it. It was weird a little bit with acting and all that. It was weird because there was nothing to act with, there were just the puppets and all that. It was good, though, it was a learning experience."

Some of Dizzee's myth is centered around the way that he found music (earlier rumors had "I Luv You" being solely the product of a laptop); he started in a music class in school with a caring teacher named Mr. Smith, and this led to pirate radio and producing his own stuff. In regards to his time in the studio, Dizzee says: "The program that I use is Logical, Midi Cables, whatever. As far as sounds, I try and look for something that might -- basically what everyone else wouldn't use. You know what I mean? I'm really gutsy with it ... the important thing is the imagination behind you."

Like any musical sponge, Dizzee can rattle off a whole range of influences: "My favorite rap artist is probably Jay-Z. He's got all that as a rapper. I don't think hip-hop or music has seen anything like him ever. The rapper that got me into hip-hop was Tupac and Bone, Thugs, and Harmony before that. I was into drum and base, hardcore, techno. I really got into crunk, Cash Money, rock. I really like Gun and Roses, Metallica ... Nirvana, and I like things like DJ Assault and the whole ghetto tech thing."

Lingering on Dizzee's favorite influence, we get to chatting about Jay-Z's documentary Fade To Black, and reacting to Jay-Z's legendary lyrical prowess (the man just goes in the studio and rips it), and whether Dizzee's lyrical style is as off the cuff, he says, "Yeeeeah. Wicked! Sometimes it can be like that ... I might've written a load of stuff and just recited it so it's in my head. Sometimes I might go to the studio and there's a beat and I could find something to just go with it quickly, rap and freestyle. Other times I just might have to live with the music, live with the beat for a bit. I might have to take it home and live with it or rap it down in the studio, whether I made it or whether someone else produced it."

He cites the Neptunes, OutKast -- "I really look up to OutKast" -- and Timbaland as other artists that he wants to work with in the future. Talking about the Neptunes track "Drop It Like It's Hot", Dizzee lets out a "Mmmm... That beat's very naughty. They take the piss, they're very important."

While Dizzee's love of music is clear and he'll chat about his influences easily, I wanted to know more about how he developed as an MC. He credits his MC skills to sheer practice, citing live performance and pirate radio: "Even before the record deal, I kind of came up doing a lot of live stuff as well as pirate radio... so I'd be on for two hours at a time and singing straight, doing clubs and raves. I supported Jay-Z when I was 17 at Wembley." On the subject of battle rhyming, Dizzee's reply is emblematic, confident but steely: "I never really liked it, I did it, yeah. I can't ever say I lost, but after awhile it all comes out a waste of time. It's all good, but I enjoy entertaining through a song, I get more kicks out of that."

He'll plenty of chances to entertain this spring, because he's headlining an April U.S. tour where "people will be surprised at the energy. It's just me, a DJ, and a hypeman. It's not a lot of set-up on stage but I'm good at it. Bring the shit to life a lot, I think people get it more at the show, even if they already have the album." He says one of the big differences between his American and English fanbases would be "The people! They're a lot more bubbly. England's quite cold. It's not a thing for people to walk right past you in the street. In America people are more social, I think, and as for the show, people are a lot more free on the show. They're not shy. I've seen them conservative people. People are not afraid to wild out and have a good time."

Of course, hearing that reply, I ask, "But Dizzee, what about Boston? We're Puritans! We were colonized by the British and we're still wicked uptight..." and he replied, "I love it there, that was one of the best shows (last year's tour with the Streets) in Boston. I've got memories from Boston, man. I love The Cheesecake Factory, man."

In regards to people dancing at shows, (his music has an off-kilter tempo and it's hard to dance to) Dizzee explains: "Me dancing? Or from the audience? [Starts singing Terror Squad's 'Lean Back'] 'We don't dance we just pull up our pants and do the rocaway, lean back, lean back' I've seen some mad stuff at festivals, people do some crazy things. It's funny, they ain't got a clue, yeah, and I stop and think they don't care that much. Whatever. And I love it -- it puts a smile on my face. It makes it more worthwhile, yeah."

I reply, "Only in America can we have a number one track about being too fat to dance."

"Aw shit!"

Although Dizzee's recent March brush with the law -- nebulous reports have him getting busted for pot, pepper spray, and a baton -- seemed to put his U.S. tour in question, apparently everything's going on as planned. Funny enough, the brush with the law probably took place after a long day of phone interviews.

Talking to Dizzee on the phone, there's a funny dichotomy between the smart young man and the layers in his music. While he's a pleasure to talk to, an interesting guy, and currently reading The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy, "a fucked up book", it's clear that he saves his real talking for his music. When I asked him what his favorite thing that he's ever written, I expected that he'd just cite a great couplet or something but he busts into the first verse of "Fickle":

"I find myself in a pickle, this music ain't fickle
Surrounded by big doggs that I consider ickle
As they crash the particle ... the other giants...
I might apply some knowledge and wait for a ripple...
On my shoulder is a chipple
Some love it some hate that I is hustle n publicly thugging,
Squeeze a dollar from a nickle,
My outlook feel free, I'll be dammed if you budge it.
Got my name on my cheque book,
Sole trading, I ain't even old aging,
But my question it my sole fading? I'm maintaining,
Coz I can't say I'm slaving guess I'm raving,
But whose to say I'll make it unless I fake it,
And if I bonafide myself will it bonafide my wealth will it?
This pains staking I got my head aching,
Stressed out coz I let my money rake in."
It makes sense that he cites Showtime's last track. The song ends with a plaintive "tryin' to live the high life but at what cost?" and it's battling with the rousing chorus of "I've got so much to say in so little time ... If I can't find a way around I'll find a way across and if I can't find a way across I'll BORE STRAIGHT THROUGH!" The balance of introspection and determination is an exhilarating tonic, and that's the reason -- beyond the fascinating music and whole "figurehead of a new musical movement thing" -- why people should be listening to Dizzee Rascal. He may never be anything other than a niche artist in the United States, but there's no doubt that his influence is going to have a broad effect on music.






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