City: Washington, DC Venue: 9:30 Club Date: 2005-04-25
As a recording artist, Dylan Mills, aka Dizzee Rascal, is as innovative as they come. And as a performer, he's just about tops. The stage is his home; he owns it and can command a crowd with just a mic and a shrug. With a ground-up background in MC battles and DJ sets, it's no wonder he has presence. But to know that this is a dude still in his early 20s, with much more ahead than behind, is disarming.
It's that, combined with the majority white, indie-ish demographic of the show at the 9:30 club, which makes me nervous. As skilled a rapper as Mills is, he should have pulled in a more diverse crowd, if only because Howard University, one of the oldest and most prestigious historically black universities in the U.S., is within two blocks. It is worrisome to see Dizzee Rascal, as Tricky was before him, embraced in the U.S. more by fickle trend-scavengers than by hip hop heads. Yes, I am making assumptions based on race and haircut. UK grime will almost certainly get skimmed into a minute blip on the U.S. music radar screen -- unless it manages to infiltrate the U.S. hip-hop scene that helped spawn it.
That said, it makes sense that indie kids, more than the underground hip hop crowd, have been eager to jump on the Dizzee Rascal hypewagon. He's been heralded by indie-leaning publications since before his debut, Boy in Da Corner, hit American shores. That debut was released by Matador Records, king of indie labels. To keep up with the competitive know-it-all nature of the indie musicista subculture, one must keep up with the hype or risk being publicly flayed. (Q: How many indie rockers does it take to screw in a lightbulb? A: What, you don't know?)
Mills has been quickly welcomed into the indie rock culture, but why not that of underground hip hop, the genre in which he aesthetically fits? He's an MC to be reckoned with. His sophomore release, Showtime, is more traditionally hip hop than Boy in Da Corner -- there are some near-hooks, a couple ghetto-centric inspirational tracks, even a rewrite ("Girls") of Jay-Z's "Girls, Girls, Girls", still every bit as misogynistic (grr). Plus, some of the very subgenres Dizzee pulls from -- raga and dancehall -- have been cannibalized by U.S. hip hop with substantial commercial success. So: Where were all the black kids?
At the show, I posed a variant of this query to the only two black kids within a seven-person radius, talking them up as to why U.S. hip-hop fans have seemed to turn a cold shoulder to UK grime -- was it lack of exposure or lack of interest? And hey, guess what. Both guys were British.
I realize that grime isn't hip hop per se. It shares blood lines with Prodigy as well as Biggie Smalls, and its fit in the hip-hop canon is awkward at best. But while Mills's sound is atypical of anything one hears in American hip-hop, it's not that different. When I hear Dizzee Rascal, I think "that's some punkass hip-hop." I don't think, "What?"
It's possible that the hipsterish crowd was an anomaly specific to the D.C. show, rendering my inquisition moot, but it sure seemed to throw Mills off. The show started awkwardly, so it's not surprising that things took a while to gel.
When Mills turned up on a dark stage with DJ Wonder and a hype man, it was minus the usual applause-cuing signals -- house lights dimming, stage lights rising, dramatic pause in, or loudening up of, the house music. There was no grand entrance, so no one clapped. Instead, we suffered an uncomfortable silence until Wonder dropped the opening to "Sittin' Here". Finally: applause, cheers. Mills and his wing man sat on stools in front of the turntables, bobbing, swaying, and rapping out on the still-dim stage.
The shadowy lights set a subdued tone for that sober intro song and the jawdropping a cappella "Showtime" that followed. The stage lights went up then as though, having proved himself, Mills could now afford to lighten up. Though the tones of the next few songs -- "Learn", "2 Far", "I Luv U" -- stayed sinister, both rappers ditched the stools in favor of skanking out and engaging the crowd.
As thick as his voice is, Mills is speedy as hell, his words thriving on zing-zang hustle. The other half of his singularity as a rapper rests on his penchant for unusual stress patterns. Halfway through his show, Mills previewed a new song after first teaching its three-line refrain to the crowd. Genius -- this made it impossible for us to lose interest in unfamiliar material, though it didn't prevent us from fucking it up. Like most Dizzee songs, this one shadowed the beat instead of aligning with it. Even after nodding our heads to a half hour of similar compositions, we just couldn't jive it, and both rappers shook their heads in amused disbelief.
That moment was indicative of a general disconnect between the stage and the crowd. Maybe it originated in the lack of applause that opened the set. Maybe it was a product of the general indie-ness of the scene. Rarely are rockers asked to "throw your fawkin' middle fingers in the air / and wave 'em like you just don't care". If you're like me, you shrink from such demands, fearing the label of the "rhythmically challenged." Mills and his sidekick seemed frustrated with us as a group. But like all good performers, they responded to the vibe, moving into "Live O" and evoking another, more passive audience chant, this time with better success.
The big hits were "Jus' a Rascal" and "Stand Up Tall", which ended the show, no encore. Naturally, first single "Fix Up, Look Sharp" got a huge response as well, especially when Wonder interrupted the Billy Squier sample with the hook to Fat Joe's "Lean Back". Mills rapped over it and, in doing so, placed his music within the context of commercial U.S. hip-hop while at the same time confirming his departure from it. In a sense, his spitfire flow completely one-upped Fat Joe's. But his push-pull cadence clashed with the beat's bounce, resulting in two incompatible lines battling it out mid-air.
DJ Wonder's opening set, sort of a primer on the scene, showed grime to be vital, in its prime, at its best. But how long is its life span? Before it dwindles off, will it exert any influence on U.S. hip-hop? I hope so, if only to prevent Dizzee Rascal from becoming a passing trend. I'm pulling for Mills's star to rise a bit more, to stick. Let's hope he's not reduced to short-lived niche status.
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