Dizzee Rascal

Megan Milks

Indie kids are not enough. UK grime will get lost as a minute blip unless it manages to infiltrate the hip-hop scene that helped spawn it.

Dizzee Rascal

Dizzee Rascal

City: Washington, DC
Venue: 9:30 Club
Date: 2005-04-25

Dizzee Rascal
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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Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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