Dizzee Rascal Interview

Clash Magazine's November Cover Star

After a white-hot summer, Dizzee Rascal’s new pop-dance direction is about to be unveiled in full on fourth album ‘Tongue N’ Cheek’, the latest chapter in his unstoppable ascent…

Though the promised barbecue summer never shone through, it could scarcely have been more scorching for Dizzee Rascal, real name Dylan Mills. The grime-raised star smashed more festivals than space constraints permit us to list here and crashed the charts with number one singles ‘Bonkers’ and ‘Holiday’, following similar success last year with ‘Dance Wiv Me’. The ‘Boy In Da Corner’ has firmly become a man in the limelight. Still, it’s going to take a tricky balancing act to please rafts of new fans while appeasing long-term devotees. Can he pull it off? Dizzee, frankly, is enjoying the ride too much to worry. Just don’t mention his old mucker, the godfather of grime and fellow Top 10-troubler, Wiley…

If the sign of a real man is to stand on his own two feet, then few could argue that with ‘Tongue N’ Cheek’ Mills is striding into adulthood. He’s come a long, long way since formative days ripping up the pirate radio airwaves out of Bow, East London, to stand atop the UK charts seemingly whenever he fancies releasing a single. Days of teenaged petty crime and school expulsions sure seem a long way in the past. But not only is the new LP a turning point in terms of moving his musical goalposts toward bold, balls-out, pop-laced pastures new, unlike its three predecessors – incendiary debut ‘Boy In Da Corner’, darkly paranoid follow-up ‘Showtime’ and 2007’s transitional ‘Maths + English’ – long-time label home XL are no longer involved.

Released three days after his 24th birthday, ‘Tongue N’ Cheek’ is the sound of Mills going it alone, via his own Dirtee Stank imprint, and flicking all-comers the bird in the process. It’s the distillation of perhaps the craziest phase in his life so far, a period that has married greatest commercial success with surreal anomalies like royal wildchild Prince Harry claiming allegiance (and nearly getting punched on the nose by his hero after acting a touch over familiar at the Wireless Festival). Bursting with three Number One singles, only the stinking rich would bet against ‘Dirtee Cash’, the successor to ‘Holiday’, making it four in a row. To misappropriate the words of blog-pleasing US rappers Clipse, this shit sells itself. And as Mills himself puts it on album cut ‘Money Money Money’, “Can’t stop grinning / Because I can’t stop winning”.

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Dizzee Rascal – Dirtee Cash

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And winning here means a schedule busier than the average head of state: a brief initial meet at Dirtee Stank headquarters in South London also sees Mills dispense promotional t-shirts to Baltimore club producer Aaron LaCrate (who guest produces hard-edged album cut ‘Road Rage’) as ‘Tongue N’ Cheek’ thumps forth from serious studio speakers; we next speak en route to the airport heading to European tour dates. It’s safe to say his diary is – cue groans – pretty damn bonkers at the moment.

“I was having a little party at my house,” Mills begins nonchalantly, as if setting the scene of a sneaky council estate knees-up while his mum’s out, as opposed to a bash at his current abode, a Home Counties mansion. “Snoop Dogg’s ‘Doggystyle’ album had been on about five times, over and over. I was like, ‘Fucking hell, I need to make an album like this. An album you can put on and actually have a party.’ I wanted to make music that would make people get up, move and jump about, instead of stand around and want to fucking kill each other. And that’s what I’ve done. ‘Tongue N’ Cheek’ is basically a cheeky album, naughty but nice. It’s still dealing with some naughty issues but it’s on a party vibe fully, all up-tempo, upbeat and quite happy.”

True to his word, if nothing else ‘Tongue N’ Cheek’ is an unashamed soundtrack to forget-tomorrow revelling, from the ubiquitous ‘Bonkers’ through to electro-house rave-leveller-in-waiting ‘Bad Behaviour’. As sonic bookends, both lay their cards confidently on the table, featuring respective production from Armand Van Helden and Tiësto, monstrous dance music names that need scant introduction to even those outside clubland. Men, it’s fair to say, who know a few things about detonating a dancefloor and selling a shedload of records into the bargain. Factor in a brace of contributions from eyebrow-arching Scottish nu-disco king Calvin Harris, one apiece for drum and bass don Shy FX (a second link after ‘Maths + English’ tune ‘Da Feelin’’) and the aforementioned LaCrate, plus liberal sampling of early ’90s hit-maker The Adventures Of Stevie V on ‘Dirtee Cash’, and it represents a cast covering bases from trance to crunk-ish filth. The crucial crux? Mills maintains that is his finely honed ear for a pop tune.

“I get pop music now. I get what a pop format is, to be up with there with the greats and the best. I don’t think I really knew how to do it when I started out because the environment that I was competing for was the underground pirate radio scene. It was more MC-based. And there ain’t been too many things UK-wise and MC-based that have been in the charts. So that was my only reference. But being in the music industry over a seven-year period, going to all the festivals, all these different events, I actually learnt how to do it along the way.”

“I wanted to make music that would make people get up, move and jump about, instead of stand around and want to fucking kill each other.”

Quite aside from various past Top 20 hits, it would be easy to forget Mills’ myriad brushes with mainstream music. After all, ‘Maths + English’ is almost certainly the only record in the history of sound waves to feature Alex Turner, Lily Allen and superlative, sadly since-defunct southern gangsta rappers UGK, even if the album as a whole didn’t quite coherently gel. Or indeed fail to acknowledge his willingness to mix genres, a propensity that stretches back as far as a young follower of various scenes and artists that at the time rarely crossed paths, from Nirvana to drum and bass and hip-hop. And those listening carefully would have noted that he has never been afraid to counter street-level spitting with moments of almost light-hearted fun ever since the musical-tastic ‘Dream’, a ray of cheer in the claustrophobic confines of ‘Showtime’.

“People think the whole pop thing is new to me,” Mills laments, frustration evident. “But I toured with Justin Timberlake when I was nineteen. I did a track with Basement Jaxx around the same time, as well as supporting Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jay-Z, Nas, Sean Paul. I’ve been exposed to a lot of the biggest things going. As well as [his producer and manager] Cage pushing me to try not to be afraid to go pop, in my own way. I feel like while I’m putting out music I might as well be at the top. I want to get the album out there to show how diverse I really am. There are big pop hits but there’s a full-bodied record to show people who are new to me that I’ve got a lot to offer.”

As already touched upon, however, XL, the label with whom he shared his rise to initial fame, weren’t so convinced. And Mills is in bullish mood pondering how hitting the singles chart summit on Dirtee Stank justifies his decision to take the totally independent route.

“XL didn’t decide not to take me up for this album,” he reveals. “I had an offer but it weren’t the offer I wanted. I did pretty much what I wanted on XL anyway, but it’s mad that when it came to me making a progression towards pop music, they didn’t get it. They were offered ‘Dance Wiv Me’, but they didn’t get it. I put it out myself and it went to Number One. It’s turned out that I’ve done my biggest records on my own label. Of course it proves a point. It proves a big point. And it was the first independent number one in fourteen years, so it was an even bigger point.” He pauses. “And then I did it again.”

Those hits have undeniably ramped what went before up several notches in the celebrity stakes, ‘Bonkers’ truly confirming him as a real major league player this summer. Indeed, as the tune of the festival season, one unnamed shindig even asked DJs to stop dropping it with such overkill frequency.

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Dizzee Rascal – Holiday

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In Mills’ mind, though, there isn’t a great margin between the varying divisions of fame. Despite a slightly fractious relationship with the press circa his Mercury Prize victory, he claims he would have dealt just as well had current meteoric success arrived earlier in his career, as a cocksure teenager.

“I’d have coped the same way. The Mercury award was worldwide fame. I still had paparazzi outside my house. How I dealt with it was by getting on with my work. I’m older [now]. I’m more tolerant to some things,” he chuckles. “Intolerant to some things as well. But I just appreciate life and what’s going on more. The things that mattered to me when I was eighteen don’t matter to me now. I get into a lot less trouble than when I was eighteen. I keep out of as much trouble as I can. I’m an adult now, man. It’s more and more about the music for me. Like, I didn’t really hang around festivals too tough but now I hang around and enjoy it. I’ll stand there, watch David Guetta or Fatboy Slim or something like that, and just enjoy it as much as I can.”

A-list pop star status doesn’t come without some cost, of course, and Mills admits since he literally can’t leave the house nowadays without reams of averages Joes and, err, Joannes clocking him.

“It’s been mad,” he marvels. “Being recognised by people in the street that you wouldn’t think would recognise you. A lot more people; like your everyday person. And to be fair, it’s mostly loads of love, man. All love. It’s nice that people are enjoying it. When I’m on Glastonbury main stage in front of ninety thousand people that’s when I stand there and thinkm ‘This is what it’s about, man’. Of course there are days when I just want to be left alone, when I want to have a day off. It’s tough, innit. But I accept it now. I walk down the street and think, ‘Fuck it, man, whatever’. It’s lovely. It’s nice to know that I can make music for all sorts of people. That was kind of my goal.”

The flipside, naturally, is the turncoats and haters, plenty of which are almost guaranteed to rear their collective heads in the coming months. Few artists have divided opinion – particularly in grime and hip-hop circles – as much as Mills since he broke out of the pirate radio movement. And going pop seems set to exasperate the situation.

“People say about my first album being raw and gritty but not everyone got it, so I was always trying to be open-minded and branch out,” he considers. “If we’re going to talk about hardcore grime and that, they’re all basing their whole careers on shit I started eight, nine years ago anyway, let’s be real. I ain’t taking orders. I don’t answer to none of them. It’s about making music, innit. That’s all it is.”

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Dizzee Rascal – Dance Wiv Me

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On the wrong day, there are few more humbling experiences than interviewing a top-level rapper. Cases in point for your present company: left dangling on the phone for a Snoop Dogg conversation that never materialised, nigh on blanked by Nas during a spectacularly stunted five-minute chat that rarely stretched beyond monosyllabic on the part of Kelis’ ex, and enduring more rescheduled times and cancellations than any given British railway station. But nobody in our experience, from G-Unit to Xzibit, has harboured bubbling-under levels of could-switch-at-any-moment menace equal to those displayed by Dizzee Rascal.

And controlled anger for haters pales into insignificance when talk turns to other original stars of the grime world enjoying latter-day chart success, specifically his former mentor/sometime Roll Deep crewmate Wiley. The original cause of their well-publicised beef may be lost somewhat in the mists of time – ‘Showtime’ track ‘Hype Talk’ hinted at the spat, reportedly instigated when his older friend bailed from Ayia Napa after Mills was stabbed there in 2003 – but six years on, the scars still run deep.

Have tensions eased in recent times, we enquire? Is there still beef?
The mood changes in an eye blink.

“What difference would it make to your life if there was or there wasn’t?” he shoots back, instant ire all too tangible.

Change tack. Does he ever see Wiley around?

Several seconds of blank, rather alarming silence is the only repost, permeated by telltale intakes of breath of a man about to lose their composure. It’s not something you like to talk about, then?

“What are you, fucking genius?” he explodes. At our end of the phone line the faint strains of a journalist quietly soiling himself are quite probably audible. “Of course I don’t fucking want to talk about it.”

And so we don’t. Although he theorises that the graduation of grime’s turn-of-the-millennium class into mainstream contenders – Tinchy Stryder emulating Mills’ multiple Number Ones and Wiley also scoring high with ‘Wearing My Rolex’ – are down to individual skills rather than any wider movement.

“I don’t think it’s about the grime scene,” he muses. “I think with certain artists, like the artists you’ve named, it’s about individuals who do the right thing, doing what they’re supposed to and making it.”

“Would I ever put on one of my own tunes to romance a lady? Nah, that’s going a bit far for me!”

For Mills, making it to that hallowed ‘next level’ has largely been engineered by for-the-jugular simplicity driving his bona fide huge hits. Despite such direct beauty primarily powering ‘Tongue N’ Cheek’, Mills does still manage to chuck a handful of curveballs into the mix among ambitious club slayers.

A soulful pre-R&B vibe permeates ‘Chillin’ Wiv Da Man Dem’, his laidback ode to maxing and relaxing with his friends, some herbal smokes and a videogame or two, arguing about the football as they go (soccer aside: “I’m from east, so I guess West Ham’s my team, but I don’t really follow it,” he concedes – although his childhood friends include Bolton Wanderers’ Nigerian international defender Danny Shittu).

“I’m a massive R&B fan. Massive. Jodeci, Keith Sweat; all that shit,” he enthuses. It’s also, he assures us, the patented Dizzee Rascal soundtrack to romancing lucky ladies. “When I was a kid I had my slow jams tapes, of course. Have it ready, man. Ha ha. Would I ever put on one of my own tunes? Nah, that’s going a bit far for me!”

At the opposite end of the subject matter scale, arguably the best-realised departure on ‘Tongue N’ Cheek’ is reggae-flavoured Shy FX collab ‘Can’t Tek No More’, which strips its central sample from ’80s black youth culture movie Babylon.

“I was at my cousin’s and we put that film on,” Mills remembers warmly. “I fell asleep, but something was rolling in my head and when I woke up they were chanting that actual part that’s in the chorus [sings the titular protest song-esque refrain]. A few weeks later Shy FX sent me that with a beat. It was a bit of an omen. It’s not just about my pressure. It tackles recession, the war that’s going on and everyday hardships. That’s my first attempt at a reggae track. This whole album’s got shit that people wouldn’t expect me to do and I’m loving it.”

While demonstrating the full range of his palette, moments on ‘Tongue N’ Cheek’ where Mills covers his most superficial inspiration source – cold hard cash – also ironically coincide with some of the record’s most socially aware lyrics. “I know that money ain’t everything,” he states with measured maturity. “I’m all right with it, you know. I could have been out on my ear a long time ago. This is probably the album where I’ve celebrated it most – the high life, living large and just party life in general – but there’s a lot more to me than that.”

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Dizzee Rascal & Armand Van Helden – Bonkers

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Proving his vision beyond the green stuff, amid the dosh chat of ‘Money Money Money’, Mills name-checks “Jeremy Paxman on the news”, a cheeky nod to his infamous Newsnight interview, circa Barack Obama’s election.

“It was lovely,” he chuckles at the memory of a tête-à-tête that featured surreal moments including Paxman addressing Mills as “Mr. Rascal”. “I went on there and got exactly what I wanted out of it. I think it went really well. I said everything that needed to be said. I said on there, ‘Yeah, Britain could have a black prime minister’,” he continues. “But is the question, ‘Is a black man capable of running the country?’ because sometimes it gets twisted what people really mean. There’s two ways of looking at it.”

Politicians don’t escape Mills’ lyrical viewfinder, either: the press gladly jumped upon mentions of MPs in ‘Dirtee Cash’ in the wake of the expenses scandal. “They hyped it up, but it weren’t about MPs at all,” he says. “They hadn’t even heard it so I don’t know what it’s about. I talk about the recession and the economic crisis.”

Bearing in mind his oft-quoted line in ‘Boy In Da Corner’ standout ‘Hold Ya Mouf’ about representing “a problem for Anthony Blair”, does he see himself as a problem for Gordon Brown too?

“What do you think?” he half laughs back. His question is an open one; the conclusion less so: Mills might be making music for house parties rather than political parties, but it’s clear he still considers himself a voice of the street.

His slight incredulity at tabloid headline makers’ Dizzee updates continues when we list a few choice news tidbits from recent months. Did a busload of German swingers really turn up to the ‘Holiday’ video shoot in Ibiza under the impression they were visiting a porn shoot (For the record: “Fuck knows! I don’t know, I saw it in the paper like you did!”)? And while he doesn’t deny declaring interest in an EastEnders cameo – the best Albert Square gangster since Goldie? – acting is lower down his To Do list than that might intimate.

“Right now I’m happy to just channel it into my music videos,” he admits.

Mills’ latest grinning performance in the ‘Holiday’ promo video won’t win him any Oscars. It did, mercifully, allow him a whistle-stop break in Ibiza (we neglect to ask if he had time to road-test the track’s semi-genius why-didn’t-I-think-of-that pick-up line, “Are you really too busy for a suntan?”). Tragically, for a man providing a backing track to so many summer breaks, that has proved the closest thing to a getaway he has managed this year.

“It’d be nice to have a little holiday,” he sighs, a touch wearily. “But I’ve been to festivals, made people jump up and down, doing what I want to do, so it’s all good.”

“I feel like while I’m putting out music I might as well be at the top.”

If it seems like the hard work is done, though, in Mills’ eyes it has only just begun. Releases from Dirtee Stank artists Smurfie Syco and Newham Generals are set to follow ‘Tongue N’ Cheek’ out the blocks. His notional To Do list features working with OutKast’s eccentric hip-hop maestro Andre 3000 (“Because he’s broken so many boundaries, innit”) and a long-suggested recording summit with The Prodigy (“We bump into each other a lot, but it’s hectic right now for us”). Until then, is there anything really left to achieve?

“I still haven’t had a Number One album,” he shoots back immediately, steely determination lacing every word. “Platinum, maybe double platinum, Number One around the world consecutively. That’d be good.”

You suspect it’s a case of ‘when’ not ‘if’ that the ‘Boy In Da Corner’ will complete his mission to infiltrate every corner of the globe.

Words by Adam Anonymous
Photos by Chad Pickard & Paul Mclean

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