Dizzee Rascal is many things, but easily categorised certainly is not one of them, writes David Hillier.
At various times throughout his career he has been feted as a Mercury Prize winner, sellout, pop star, joker, Biggest British Rapper Ever, National Treasure, next big thing, has-been, ladies man, possible-Prime Minister, East London urchin… the list goes on.
There is an article itself to be written about whether he’s an ‘admirable sellout’ and another on whether his abandoning of the harsh, sparse rap from 2003 debut ‘Boy In Da Corner’ for the out-and-out pop of 2009’s ‘Tongue N’ Cheek’ is okay because he never tried to pretend he was doing anything other than making music that people could sing-along to.
Whether or not this is important to you depends on which you prefer: dirty Dizzee or disco Dizzee. Either way, he’s crammed more into his 27 and bit years than most of his contemporaries, and in light of his confirmation as headliner for Wakestock 2012, the time is ripe to look over his career, and peek into what he’s aiming for next.
Boy Out Of Da Corner
It’s all too easy to proclaim an artist to have ‘exploded’ onto the scene, but in the case of Dizzee circa-2003 it is neither lazy nor hyperbolic. His debut came out in July of that year to universal praise and by September he had landed himself in the record collections of the chattering classes by winning the Mercury Music Prize, beating the likes of Radiohead, Coldplay and, erm, The Darkness in the process. It was an uncompromising collection that fused disparate beats and sirens with tales of life on Bow streets and the odd chorus that suggested, even at this early point, that Dizzee knew the importance of getting heels bouncing and arms in the air. Tunes like ‘Jus’ A Rascal’, ‘I Luv U’, and ‘Fix Up Look Sharp’ fused grime (a term that Dizzee himself has distanced himself from) sensibilities with memorable melodies and lyrics that remain a part of his live set today. Of the record, Dizzee Rascal said at the time:
“I don’t just want people from the estate or even the country I’m from to understand. I’m trying to give a perspective, from outside-in and inside-out. The best thing about the album is that there’s loads of questions to be asked that haven’t been asked before. I’m just saying, this is what I know. This is the hand life dealt me.”
Growing up on East London estates and writing about a culture of crime, drugs and violence that he had witnessed first hand, Dizzee himself felt the sting of the street’s blade when he was stabbed in Ayia Napa the week of his album’s release. Rumours still persist about who was behind the attack and it is impossible to attempt any reflection on his career without its mention, though Dizzee has perhaps unsurprisingly described it in a recent interview as “old news” and never been too keen on discussing it. He has said that instead of making him fearful, the stabbing made him “angrier, willing to be a lot more violent and more closed off.” Fortunately it never extended to him shutting off from his music.
Boy In Da Spotlight
Dizzee Rascal followed ‘Boy In Da Corner’ with ‘Showtime’, an album that garnered a similarly positive reaction and actually went higher than its predecessor in the charts. It put Dizzee somewhere between the Bow boy of his debut and where he is now. Musically it compared to his first offering with the rapper preferring to make the listener a little uncomfortable rather than feel like they are just about to go on ‘Holiday’. Even ‘Dream,’ with its sample of Captain Sensible’s ‘Happy Talk’, refused to just give in and be the next ‘Hard Knock Life’.
It was a little less jerky than the debut though, the shizo over/undertones were a little less pronounced, a theme that continued with 2007’s ‘Maths + English’, his second album to be nominated for a Mercury Award. Continuing to set the bar for British rap (this was pre-Tinie/N-Dubz/Labyrinth remember), he had, with Lily Allen duet ‘Wanna Be’, a song that was cutesier than ‘Dream.’ He also recorded backing vocals for the Arctic Monkeys b-side ‘Temptation Greets You Like Your Naughty Friend’ and was invited to perform it with the band in their headlining performance at Glastonbury 2007. Perhaps inevitably, this embrace of artists outside the rap and grime sphere led to accusations of selling out. Dizzee Rascal refuted the claims in an interview with The Fincancial Times:
“Because I don’t make the same song every time, I’ve sold out?” he says animatedly. “I don’t feel I’ve sold out in any way. I feel like I’ve made a natural progression. That’s just like saying David Beckham was wrong for leaving the Man United youth team.”
Boy Is a Superstar
The transformation into full-on chart success started in the summer 2008 with ‘Dance Wiv Me’, Dizzee’s crisp pop collaboration with Calvin Harris. Suddenly the game had changed for the rapper. He held onto the credibility of his back catalogue whilst shifting towards a sound that was more in-line with the 80s hooks of Lady Gaga or La Roux that made the Top 40 at the time.
The album that followed, ‘Tongue N’ Cheek’, allowed him to stay credible with the rap-heads and open up a whole new audience that included everyone from the middle-classes to the tinny mobile phone crowds on the backseats of the buses. For a year or two it seemed he was twisting the country further and around his finger and what made it all so palatable was that he always seemed to be enjoying himself. He might not have been rapping about teenage pregnancy and the claustrophobia of estate life as he did on ‘Boy In Da Corner’, but that hadn’t been his life for the last four years. At the time he said:
“When I was 16, 17, I saw it from the perspective of a young kid who felt trapped and suffocated on a council estate. Now I talk about it as a successful entertainer who’s living the life, I guess. That’s what the world’s about – different perspectives.”
‘Tongue N’ Cheek’ contained four Number Ones: ‘Dance Wiv Me’, ‘Bonkers’, ‘Holiday’ and ‘Dirtee Disco’. Suddenly Dizzee Rascal was on every festival bill going with that much sought after combination of commercial and critical appeal that proved attractive to organisers up-and-down the country. Fans that preferred the old Dizzee would go for ‘Jus’ A Rascal’ and smirk at everyone else with barely concealed envy as they lost their head to ‘Bonkers’, while those who went for ‘Bonkers’, well, they went just that and didn’t give a fuck what anyone else thought.
After that came a 2010 Brit Award for Best Male and a performance of charity single ‘You’ve Got The Dirtee Love’ with Florence + the Machine. Now it wasn’t just your Mum but your Gran that knew he was. Still he acted as if it was all part of the plan, as if his day in sun was never in doubt and that if people did question his right to be baking so greedily, it didn’t bother him because he was there and you weren’t. He even recorded a duet with Shakira (though, perhaps wisely, this was never released in the UK).
Boy In Da Future
And so we come to the next chapter in the Dizzee Rascal story. He has been coy about the direction he is going to go in, but a clue is perhaps available in the recent release of a mixtape from his Dirtee Stank label. The rapper features on 15 of the 25 tracks and there isn’t a Calvin Harris in sight. Tunes like ‘Guts N’ Glory’ and ‘I Want It All’ hark back to his earlier efforts, the twitchiness of his debut is back but with some of the ramped-up production from ‘Maths+English’. It has also kept the dance-elements of ‘Tongue N’ Cheek’, but rather than the bum-bounce of ‘Holiday’ it features the driving drum n bass synths of Chase and Status. All things considered, and bearing in mind that while Dizzee might be having fun he clearly takes his life as an artist very seriously, the rapper is not going to stay where he was. Keep listening.