Dizzee Rascal

There wouldn’t be no grime without me.

Dizzee Rascal, I am told, is not happy. His much-delayed third album ‘Maths & English’ is soon to be released and I am here, at his record label’s west London headquarters, to interview him. This morning one of the album’s standout tracks leaked on to the internet. “He’s fuming,” his publicist tells me. “I wouldn’t like to be around if he finds out who did it.”

The track in question, ‘Pussy’ole’, is a Lynn Collins-sampling dancefloor monster on which Dizzee, sounding confident and commanding, calls out a number of his enemies, but one ex-friend in particular, threatening, “blud, don’t make me get old school.” When he arrives he is faultlessly polite, a little shy even. I ask him who the song is about, but he is guarded. “Whoever you think it is that’s who it is. I’m putting a stamp on it. That part of my life is done.” But not so done he won’t return to the subject later.

I was really poor. I remember how I was treated before all this. I was lost. There was a point in my life where I couldn’t see no future so you lash out at the world.

In 2002 the tectonic plates of British music were ripped apart when grime erupted in east London. Born of UK garage pirate radio, but snatching elements from jungle, hip-hop and ragga, it was rude, crude and brimming with violent sonic innovation. At just 17 years old it was Dizzee Rascal, born Dylan Mills, who led grime’s march on the mainstream with his startling debut album, ‘Boy In Da Corner’. “It’s this generation’s punk music,” declared Mills and six months later, when he beat marquee acts like Coldplay and The Darkness to the Mercury Music Prize, it genuinely seemed he might be at the vanguard of a musical revolution.

Five years on and the feverish hype that surrounded grime has largely dissipated. Many of the acts signed in the record label trolley dash that greeted the nascent scene have since been dropped, returning to an underground that still thrives, but is now markedly less ambitious.

Yet Mills still stands tall. His hastily released second album, the glitzier, but still challenging ‘Showtime’ saw him crack the Top Ten and establish himself as a bone fide pop star. He cemented his new status in 2004 when he made a strangely incongruous appearance alongside the likes of Bob Geldof, Bono and Busted on the Christmas charity single Band Aid 20. Mills has come a long way, but a little too far for some. “Sometimes you get people talking about ‘he ain’t grime no more’, but they don’t understand,” says Mills. “Grime was just me making the most of the little that I had. What do you want me to do? Give up my record deal? It’s not 2001 anymore. I’ve grown up. Physically. Mentally. So there’s no point in me trying to sound like I did five years ago.”

Two and a half years in the making, ‘Maths & English’ has proven to be the biggest challenge of Mills’ career. “Both of them other albums, I knocked them out. With ‘Boy In Da Corner’, songs took a couple of hours, but on this one there’s songs that I worked on for weeks.” He is pragmatic about the reasons behind this. “First album – you’ve got a lifetime to work on it. Second album – you try to make a different album to the first one, but you want to keep moving quickly. This one I just wanted to slow things down and really think about it, come with it properly and make it perfect.”

There was concern that success and a long break between albums meant Mills had lost his way, but the opposite is true. With its big budget production and restless genre-hopping, ‘Maths & English’ should be the album that sets Mills free from the constraints of a scene he helped shape. “There wouldn’t be no grime without me. I’m humble, but I don’t feel that I have to make a grime song every time. Grime is recognised around the world now, it’s a beautiful thing, but so is drum and bass and so is rock. Can’t I make some of them songs as well?” If you have ever witnessed a Dizzee Rascal live performance, you will know the answer to that last question is an emphatic yes. “My shows are pandemonium!” he beams proudly. “People go crazy at my shows like it’s a rock concert. They mosh and do mad shit. I’m a boy from Bow in east London and people mosh like it’s Megadeth.”

Mills, who last year supported the Red Hot Chili Peppers on their European tour, is known to pepper his sets with gargantuan rock riffs from the likes of Nirvana and Led Zeppelin, but it was one band in particular who inspired ‘Sirens’, his new album’s thunderous lead single. “At my shows we used to drop a big Korn tune called ‘Here To Stay’. That tune is so heavy. I play drums on ‘Sirens’ and that’s where we got our ideas from. I’m a proper fan. I even went to see them last time they were at the Forum.”

Unlike its predecessors, ‘Maths & English’ features a number of guests – the Newham Generals (signed to Mills’ Dirtee Stank imprint) and grime star Jammer pitch in on the smoker’s anthem ‘Lemon’, and pop princess Lily Allen also puts in an appearance. But it was one collaboration in particular that ignited a frenzy of speculation. “I did this thing for the Arctic Monkeys, appeared on a song of theirs. I’ve only met Alex [Turner] but he’s really cool. You consider how big they are now, but he’s still real. It ain’t got to them, man.” The song, ‘Temptation Greets You Like A Naughty Friend’, became a b-side on the Monkeys’ comeback single, but Mills’ work did not end there. “For the album I made a remix out of that track and put in a couple of extra verses. I didn’t really think that much of it, then everyone I played it to started going crazy. I played it to Alex and them and they loved it. People are saying it’s the first real grindie track.” In the current musical climate, Mills can see how the song, now simply called ‘Temptation’, might appeal. “Yeah, all the indie kids are into grime now. Bands like Hadouken! You can see they feel it.” He chuckles to himself. “But they’re all taking the MDMA and all that, dancing all night. Grime ain’t quite like that.“

There wouldn’t be no grime without me. I’m humble, but I don’t feel that I have to make a grime song every time.

On ‘Where The Gs?’, Mills enlisted two of the biggest names in US southern hip-hop, Bun B and Pimp C collectively known as UGK. “We’re close, man. They’ve showed me a lot of love. I’m proud of that track. It’s real, uncompromising. Two of the fucking legendary gangsta rappers on a grime beat.” While Mills has a profile Stateside he recognises that finding real success there will be hard work. “I’ve come to accept that it’s a totally different place to where I’m from. Their mindset and the way their environment works. Some people in America don’t know there’s hip-hop or even black people in the UK. I’m serious. I’ve met ’em.”

Many regard Mills, still only 22 years old, as the best British rapper of his generation. He is at the top of his game and how he got there conforms so perfectly to the rags to riches template it’s a wonder that ‘Dizzee Rascal: The Motion Picture’ isn’t already in production. He grew up in a council estate, an only child in a single-parent family. He was constantly in trouble, expelled from four schools, and in his fifth excluded from every class but music. There an inspirational teacher called Mr Smith helped him learn to make music on the class computer, unlocked his talent and gave him a path out of the ghetto. Mills, who briefly took an acting class with Martin from Eastenders – “it’s my claim to fame,” he jokes – could even play himself.

Perhaps because he has struggled Mills is determined to give something back through his music. Cage, who Mills rather sweetly describes as, “my manager, best friend, confidante, all that,” suggested he make a song about the perils of the music business. “It’s not candy-coated, no text book, this is the real shit,” he says. The song in question, ‘Industry’, offers sage, if blunt, advice to aspiring artists. Advice like: “Find yourself a record label that ain’t full of pricks”. “You don’t get told about the Tax Man,” he explains. “You get all your money and you go out and spend it, then, bam, a year later they take everything. It’s a problem, especially for ghetto kids because a whole bunch of money just in your hand is a crazy thing to happen to you, believe me.”

However, like any good underdog Mills is unable to escape his past. “I was really poor. I remember how I was treated before all this. I was lost. There was a point in my life where I couldn’t see no future so you lash out at the world. I’ve got friends who are still running around in the estate doing whatever who I care about. To me it is still a real thing.”

Which brings us back to ‘Pussy’ole’. Though he mentions no names the latter half of the song (“I started rolling with him I was like a little brother/but my cousin always said he’s a pussy undercover”) is clearly a reference to his old friend and mentor Wiley, the MC and producer who, as fate would have it, releases an album on the same day as Mills. As well as friends, the two were label-mates, but trouble started when Wiley was dropped following poor album sales. “I hear about loads of stuff he’s said. All I’m trying to do is get on with my ting.” I mention to Mills that there is a song on the new Wiley album called ‘Letter 2 Dizzee’, on which he offers to bury hatchet. He smirks. “I heard about that, he’s obsessed. But it’s not the same kind of song as my song, is it? Besides, I only gave him 8 bars at the end of a 16 in the second verse. He didn’t even make it to the first verse.”

Despite all the posturing there is an inescapable sadness about Mills that still permeates his music. It is the reason he has outlived the boom and bust of grime. He has always been much more than just a rascal. While others channel the braggadocio and champagne lifestyle of the hip-hop cliché, Mills, with wit and honesty, has never flinched from showing the despair that looms behind the façade. Some may whine about the tropes of fame but Mills, you fear, will always find it hard to enjoy his success. “You can feel rock bottom even though it seems that you’re so at the top. There’s so much love for me out there but a lot of hate as well. But that’s standard. It’s the way of the world. When I can’t count on the love of everyone to keep me carrying on then I need everyone’s hate in order to say ‘fuck you’ back.”

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