Dizzee Rascal is sitting behind the drum kit that XL Records bought him in 2005, around the time he released his second album, Showtime. He’s got his hoodie up, sticks raised: he rolls out a few beats, then gives a demonstration of how fast he can play. Pretty fast, but not a patch on Satan, the hardcore rock drummer who he plays with live. But still, he’s having a blast.
Not without reason. Twenty-one-year-old East Londoner Dylan Mills is about to release his third album, Maths & English. It’s five years since his debut, Boy In Da Corner, won the Mercury Prize, since when he’s stamped his distinctive brand of DIY fire all over British pop culture. Grime may have gone on the down low recently (although dismissive armchair critics might like to check JME, Skepta and Bristol’s 18-year-old Joker), but Dizzee has long distanced himself from his more insular peers. Instead he’s been conducting a mutual love affair with dirty south hip hop (Lil’ Jon has described him as “sick”); making tunes with Lily Allen and Arctic Monkeys; and re-writing the whole of his third album following a too-depressing first draft.
Maths & English still contains the fired up angst that made Boy In Da Corner such a visceral experience, but it’s a bigger, more listenable album. The jagged edges have been beefed up with melody and, well, fun. It sounds like Dizzee with the colour saturation turned up, a little like the forthcoming Channel 4 documentary, Dizzee Rascal: Bow Selector, which features Jonathan Ross rapping, Bez narrating a cartoon and Dizzee’s little cousin recreating key scenes from his life. Bigger and badder and rougher and tougher? You bet.
Hey Dizzee. You were on Jools Holland last week with a hardcore rock drummer and Massive Attack’s bass player. That’s quite a difference from you and your DJ Wonder stalking about on stage.
“Well, not really. I was in bands before, I played drums. At school, dinner time, all that, I’d be mucking about on drums or guitar. I’m not a musician, man, I just work it out.”
You played the drums on Sirens, the first single from new album Maths & English. Did you take lessons or did you just freestyle it?
“I’ve never been able to be taught music. I tried but I couldn’t do it the way they wanted me to. The same with composing music. Chords, D sharp and all that: it was all a bit much for me, man.”
Pussy’ole is a great track. It sounds like Marley Marl let loose on the Grange Hill theme tune. But don’t you think it’s a waste to do what’s essentially a diss track over something so wicked?
“Fair enough. But the diss part’s only in the second verse. It’s eight bars in the second verse. What else was there to say about it? Come on every body and move your hands? That’s what came out, that’s what went over it. It’s hard, but it’s still catchy, innit.”
You made a track with Newham Generals called Lemons that sampled Puff The Magic Dragon. Were you disappointed it was dropped from the album because the sample couldn’t be cleared?
“Yeah, especially for the reason. I always thought Puff The Magic Dragon was about drugs; that’s what I was always told. Fair enough though. It wasn’t the most positive tune, but it would have been bad for people to hear MCs getting along and doing something good.”
Surely you know people who could have ‘persuaded’ them to clear the sample?
“There’s always way! But I come from the world of pirating and pirate radio, so the tune will get out there anyway.”
What’s happening with Newham Generals?
“They’re working on their album and their touring with me. Right now, I’m just working on the Generals. We did have Klass A, but that’s a whole other issue. I’m just putting out records. My boys are real.”
Sirens seems like a rewind back to Boy In Da Corner times – getting in trouble with the law. When was the last time you got arrested?
“That was some stupidness. Didn’t even get to court. I got caught with some pepper spray [in March 2005, when Dizzee was stopped by the police in East London]. Stupidness. It could have been worse. I could have really been in trouble.”
You freestyled over dubstep track Midnight Request Line by Skream on Logan Sama’s radio show recently. Didn’t you want to include any dubstep on the record?
“I tried a couple of things with this album. I went with Plastician, Scandalous, all sorts. You can’t get everything on their can you? It’s only one album.”
But there’s a big overlap between dubstep and grime.
“I was listening to it when it was on Rinse. Tubby and Slimzee used to play all that shit in the beginning of sets before Pay As U Go. It’s just got better. The production’s better than most grime productions. People know what they’re doing with equipment. I like Skream. He’s heavy.”
A lot of your other tunes have been hard to play out in clubs outside of the grime scene. But new track Flex is an UK garage style track. Is this your dance record?
“Yeah. I want to try everything, you get me! That’s all grime ever was, working with what I had and trying stuff. Me, I’m from the rave, even before Ministry of Sound, before any of that I was on the scene. Ceasars, Stratford Rex, The Palace Pavilion: the gutter raves. I couldn’t even get into the garage raves. I didn’t have the clothes or the attitude. But I wanted to make different kind of tunes. I’ll always attempt to make a different tune. I’ve got a jungle tune. I’ll try a bit of different stuff.”
Now trendy East London clubs play new rave, baile funk and grime all in one night. What do you think about that?
“I went down Bethnal Green for the first time in about three years the other day. There were all these people wearing some next shit and I was like, boy, it wasn’t like this when I was around here.”
Can anywhere match the energy level that there used to be at hardcore grime rave Sidewinder?
“Yeah, when I go down south in America. That’s why I love it there. Atlanta, Texas: it’s the same thing. I see the same energy. It’s equivalent. Those places always influenced me. Even back with I Luv U I was listening to 36 Mafia for ages. Gutter level energy. I’m influenced by hip hop, ragga, all black culture, I draw from it all on ground level, before artists get big and it’s just in the club, it’s just local.”
Is that because things are more interesting at the beginning, before it’s become fully formed?
“That’s why people get upset when people move away. Grime ain’t what it was round Sidewinder days, but at the same time it’s opened doors for people to do other things, like me.”
What makes you bust a move?
“Jungle. Snap music. When that shit came out… boy. That’s heavy.”
There’s a drum’n’bass track, Da Feelin’ on the new album. Is it you reminiscing about when you were a drum’n’bass DJ called Dizzy D?
“Yeah! I didn’t have no plans for any of this. I wasn’t trying to be a massive big MC. I wanted to be a DJ. The whole thing just happened because I wasn’t any good at it. So I’d just grab the mic off people.”
Which do you prefer: jungle or drum’n’bass?
“I couldn’t get into the raves, so I know it from pirate radio, or from D Double E or Wiley. They were my favourites. This was about ’95. Then by about ’98 it got a bit harder, and harder to listen to. But I’ve never really known the difference between jungle and drum n’ bass.”
You were heavily involved in pirate radio. What kind of DJ were you? Were you the kid doing loads of shouts out to your mates, or were you just playing music?
“I was a joke! I was clowning. I had decks and that in my bedroom, so people’d come to my yard to make tapes or listen to tunes. I didn’t care that much about MCing. It actually started because I’d be DJing, grabbing the mic, mucking around then getting back on the decks. People started to take the piss out you more and more, and that made me do it more. That was me up to about the age of 12. Then I started writing lyrics.”
What were your first lyrics about?
“Spiderman. (Dizzee then spits the first two bars, which sadly are drowned out by the ringing of a mobile phone).”
Do you still listen to pirate radio?
“I was listening to Déjà Vu on the way here. I went on Rinse recently with Newham Generals. I went FWD a couple of months ago. That was live, man.”
On the new album, you make a point of telling kids to drop the cartoon gangster image. Is that important to you?
“Definitely. Whether they take it in or get offended by it is another thing. It’s life. There’s a big wide world out there. I’ve been around the world now, so I can speak about this, you get me. I’m one of the lucky ones. I always say you make your own luck, but I’ve been lucky because as much as I was fucking around, reckless, I knew what I wanted to do and I went and did it early. I got kicked out of every school, I dropped out of college, I’ve never had a nine-to-five job, but I’m in a position where I’ve done alright and I’ve got plans to keep going. If I can give something back, I will. But you can’t make people listen.”
There’s a lot of talk on the record about pulling your trousers up, not pretending to be a thug if you’re not. What else is there for kids coming from where you came from?
“I’m a producer, so I always had that. The point is, follow your heart, man, as gay as it sounds. Follow your dreams, like really. Being a gangster’s not an aspiration; it’s a last resort. People got the wrong message out of hip hop. They’re forgetting that these boys ain’t on the block 24/7. They aren’t on the block, I promise you that. You can’t sell crack on tour. You’re in the studio all the time, you’ve got promo. The guys I know that are really pushing that shit aren’t rapping. And the ones that are, want to. 50 Cent? He’s a product, man. You could argue that he should be more responsible, but he’s in the middle of a machine. His whole life has been about do what you can, do what you have to do. So that’s what he’s doing.”
On World Outside there’s a line: “I’m young, black, rich and ruthless.” How rich are you?
(Puts hands out and smiles) “I’m alright. The taxman comes and does his ‘ting. You’ve got to make it up in the end.”
There’s another line on the same track “Maybe room for a revolution.” What would a Dizzee Rascal revolution look like?
“Peace and love, man, peace and love.”
There are a couple of moments on Maths & English when it sounds like you’ve been listening to conscious ‘70s soul. Have you?
“Yeah, I got into [’70s blaxploitation films] Superfly and Dolemite and all that shit. All over last year. So that must have been getting into my subliminal. Superfly makes me want to do kung fu. Dolemite was funny. That made me realise, Shit! That’s why it was all over Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s video. A lot of hip hop culture is based on Superfly, Shaft and Isaac Hayes.”
Apart from film soundtracks, what else have you been getting into from that era?
“Curtis Mayfield, I bought his Greatest Hits.”
I’ve seen kids rocking Hi-Teks recently. Are you down with the trend for uncool trainers?
“I’ve got my Bubbles, man. I’m not down with this dirty, don’t wash your trainers, scuff up your trainers shit. Nah.”
Does it have to be boxfresh?
“Well, if people want to give them to me, I’m not going to stop them.”
Wannabe, your track with Lily Allen, might well mark the word ‘wasteman’ moving into the mainstream. What’s your insult of choice?
“Your mum. None of this long joke stuff. Just your mum.”
When you finished Showtime you said you’d already written half of your third album. How much of that ended up on Maths & English?
“Only World Outside. I was thinking the world’s rubbish, no one’s listening to me. Then I got happy again. Did loads of drugs, had loads of sex, started raving again. I didn’t want to make sad tunes, I wanted to make club bangers. I wanted to make happy tunes.”
What makes you happy now?
“Finishing my album was a pivotal moment in my life. That made me happy, really happy. But I’ve been told to rest it now. Everyone told me to rest it. I’ve got everything out, so now I’m just going to tour the album and wait for the inspiration to come. I’ll never stop writing. My next album’s gotta be different again.”
Dizzee Rascal’s new album, Maths & English, is out now on XL
Written for the summer 2007 edition of Dummy.