Talking the early days of grime, the emergence of drill, and breaking the States...

Dizzee Rascal and Big Tobz are both East London and proud.

Growing up in the area that birthed grime, and not even a full generation apart, Dizzee cut his teeth in the area’s youth clubs and pirate radio stations, while Tobz was clashing MCs like Chipmunk in the park after school, before he even knew who he was.

With Dizzee revealing he’s working on a new album this year, and Tobz having just dropped his ‘Issa Vibe’ mixtape at the end of March – featuring the likes of Dizzee, Sneakbo, Ms Banks, and Mr Eazi – the two have linked up on ‘Smoke’, seeing them both flex their flows over a playful, trappy beat.

Clash caught up with them to look back on their East London roots, while keeping their eyes firmly on the future...

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It’s been almost 20 years since ‘Boy In Da Corner’, Dizzee, but even longer since you started making music – what are your memories of those early days in East London?

I started making beats in school in Year 9, Year 8, even. I was on pirate radio at 14, doing different sets and all that, running around with Nasty Crew and a few other people. You could say school was an important place – it’s a good place to study beats anyway – and pirate radio stations, and youth clubs. Those three.

There was The Linc Centre in Bow, on my estate, Poplar Boys' Club in Poplar, you could go there, obviously socialise as kids: they had recreational stuff like table tennis and pool...but they also had decks! That was the other thing.

On Fridays they'd have the decks out, and sometimes they'd throw parties and have their own raves. We were too young to go to any actual raves, so sometimes youth clubs were the first places to perform. They were good places.

Tobz, you were coming up at a slightly different time, what was your experience?

(BT) So for me, youth clubs as well, in my area in Walthamstow there was a little youth club where everyone used to go, but we used to spit in a park, or at school, or at parties – you'd come outside and we'd be spitting and clashing with the mandem and that. It's not too different to Dizzee and that.

Can you remember your first bars from those early years?

(D) "Like Spiderman, I'm out to kill / Fuck with me, and blood will spill." They were some of the first bars. Some of the first bars, as well, was, "Lyrical tank / Box an MC like my name was Frank / Going on dirty / Going on stank"...and that's where the name Dirty Stank came from. Those were some of my first ones, yeah.

(BT) I remember mine was: "I'm the biggest in England / because I sing more than / Tim Henman" 

Do you think there's something to be said about learning your craft in front of your peers, at youth clubs and school, or in parks?

(BT) You wanna get your friends' approval first. If you're good, your friends are gonna tell you you're good before you've even got into the real world. And they'll tell you if you're bad.

For me, for example, I started spitting in school, probably Year 10, just among my little friends in class, and they made me feel like, "You're good, you're kinda good", so then I started taking it more seriously. But just for fun, getting my friends' approval, they think I'm hard, alright, cool. And then later on, down the line, I started going to the studio and stuff. 

My first tag name was Sparks, and then it was Clash Kid. Like I remember in Year 11, I clashed Chipmunk on Tottenham High Road – I didn't even know who Chipmunk was! I wasn't taking music seriously, but he was big in North, like. It was a school clash because I went to John Loughborough, and Chip went to Gladesmore [both schools in Tottenham], and there was a big clash – that's how we done it. I kind of got my name, Clash Kid, and everyone would go, "Yeah, he's hard." J

ust individuals from school were like, "Yeah, this school, they've got these MCs, and my school's got these MCs", and everyone's talking, and word of mouth, everyone linked up. The High Road was locked off, that's how it was. When I see Chip, I'm always like, "Bro, do you remember when we clashed, bro?"

(D) But that's where with the age thing there's a difference, though. Because, by then, it was that established where schools would link up. When I was coming up, there weren't enough MCs like that from schools to clash. We clashed on radio, so we'd go to radio, or we'd go to other youth clubs and clash, innit.

Do you think clashes still happen organically? Is it still a part of learning how to MC?

(BT) I don't feel like people really go outside to clash on road anymore, like. Say, like, back in the day man would just clash anywhere on road, but I think now man's going to the booth and they just send a diss track, innit?

(D) It was like that in the beginning, as well, though.

(BT) Was it?

(D) Yeah, the early ones. I don't see much difference. Obviously, the platforms are a bit different.

(BT) Yeah, like YouTube and that. You couldn't just go on your phone and record a video and winding them up.

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If you were a young MC, starting out now, what do you think would be the advantages of new technology and new ways of working?

(D) Getting yourself out there to your peers, having that audience. Because back in the day, you had to be good to even get hold of the mic in the first place, otherwise people just wouldn't listen. You had to fight your way through to get the mic and be heard. You had to be the loudest, the most lyrical, or the one with the most vibe...they might not like you, but they’d respect that you were on the mic.

Whereas now, I think guys can just make YouTube videos, and that's why sometimes when they get on stage, they've got no stage presence, so they can't perform properly.

So there's something about having to battle your way to the mic?

(D) Organically.

(BT) As Dizzee said, anybody can just make something online and it go viral. But when they're on a stage, they don't know what to do because they've not had to build, like really work. In some ways, that's more democratic, because it means anyone can do it, but at the same time there's a lack of learning, or progression.

(D) It's not good for you. Especially in the time now where shows are more important than ever. Like the minute people know they're not that good live... it’s reputation, you know what I mean? Promoters want their money, so they wanna know if they're gonna promote you that you're gonna deliver.  I still get bookings now from my reputation. Not because I've busting up the charts right now, or YouTube, or whatever. Because they know that if they're gonna put me there...

(BT) You're gonna do your thing.

(D) Trusted source.

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What do you think is exciting now? What's new and happening now in East that you think is exciting, musically?

(D) Big Tobz.

(BT) I feel like East has got a lot of talent, like myself, J Hus, Yxng Bane, Kojo Funds...there's a lot of us. I feel like there's a lot of artists in the East coming up, right now, doing their thing.

What do you think has made East London such an exciting place for music over the years?

(D) I think Rinse FM and Deja Vu played a part in that, as far as getting underground music to a place where people would never have got their music out before. Guys wouldn't have got record deals in East London.

Obviously North London had Heat FM, and other stations - other areas had their own pirate stations, but I'm just focusing on East, here. That was a big part of it: having some of the best pirate radio stations. The rest of it... it's a diverse place, anyway.

(BT) Yeah, East is a diverse place.

(D) You could take it back to Shoreditch being like the West End – Shoreditch was like theatre-land, it was the spot back in Shakespeare's time. Then it turned into slums, but it was popping at one point. So East has always had this thing, a lot of people don't know that. Now it's come back to that again. Now East and Shoreditch, well, it's back to the way it was. I won't say a renaissance but... East has got a lot of rich history, man. A lot happened there, everything from the fucking Suffragettes to fucking all sorts.

(BT) And we raised the best MCs, when you're talking garage, grime and that, I personally feel. I feel like it's the reason I first took up the mic. I was watching Channel U or MTV. So on Channel U, I was listening to Dizzee, Crazy Titch, So Solid, all these guys kinda thing. And then obviously MTV was American, so 50 Cent, Jay-Z. But to get me into grime, I was obviously listening to these guys on Channel U. And when I went to school, my friends were playing it as well.

And what are you excited about musically now?

(BT) I think the scene's in a sick place right now. I rate a lot of people. Everyone who's doing their thing right now, I kinda rate what they're doing. Obviously, I have specific guys who I listen to more. I'm a big fan of J Hus. His latest album is sick. But his old album, 'Common Sense', was cold as well. I think he's intelligent in the way he puts his music together; he takes time with his music. And Jae5, his producer, is crazy as well. But like, there's a lot of the guys in the scene I'm feeling, like, at the moment. They're killing it.

What do you think? 

(D) I wish that SJ [an MC with drill crew OFB] kid hadn’t gone to jail. He was one of those kids... his delivery, and the shit he said, that youth there... But then there's a few kids that have gone to jail like, "Oh, why did you go to jail?" Like Digga D, from West.

(BT) Yeah, Digga D is cold as well.

(D) Even Loski - he's out now, but he went away.

(BT) Yeah, in the drill scene right now – obviously it's a drill ting right now, that's what it seems, everyone's really into drill. You would think drill now is like when grime was poppin', like.

Do you think it's the same?

(D) Nah, nah. I understand it's their generation's vehicle to get themselves out there, or whatever. But I think it's different, because most drill sounds the same, whereas grime, there was so many different sides.

(BT) Even the flows the artists are using.

(D) It's all the same. 

Maybe it’ll start to develop as a genre?

(D) Maybe. I think Pop Smoke [who was killed in February] was about to just take it – he was about to be bigger than any of the UK stuff anyway. Because he had the...he had that ‘thing’, see? in America, when they get something they just take it up. He was like Skrillex. Popsmoke was to UK drill what Skrillex was to dubstep. Like, Dubstep was this thing we had for a time which was crazy and innovative and all that, then Skrillex came and made fucking mad videos, and it became fucking... the new heavy metal. Worldwide. That's what Pop Smoke was about to do with UK drill. 

(BT) And obviously Pop Smoke in America is way bigger than here, so when them Americans are hearing Pop Smoke on this drill song, they're not thinking, "That's the UK", they're thinking, "That's Pop Smoke's sound". Because we're so small compared to Pop Smoke, we can't be like, "Nah, that's our ting", because they're kind of ignorant in a sense, anyway, to their thing, so like, it was gonna get like that.

Are there US producers making grime?

(D) I don't care if they make grime. Nah man, a tune's a tune, innit? Is a UK rapper gonna bus’ over there, and it's just down to do they understand the culture or not? If they found out 21 Savage is from Newham, and they made this big deal about it, like it's some big joke. He's 21Savage – he grew up there really, he's certified enough over there, innit? But it just shows... between black UK and black America, there's no link.

It's only in the last few years, maybe the last five years, that they even know we exist, to an extent. White America, the college lot, the more, what you'd say... not hipsters, but hipsters – they're open to more worldwide stuff, innit? Black Americans, they've got no reference, because in America, it's very insular.

You've got to look at how the country is. Most have never been exposed to UK TV, and if they have it’s Harry Potter. Fucking Mary Poppins, the Royal Family. Back in the day, when I used to go to America – man, I've been going there since 2003 – people would genuinely ask me if I've had tea with the Queen. What kind of dumb, stupid shit is that?

(BT) I was in New York, the other day. I was going through Times Square and some guys were selling their CDs, and I was talking. They heard my accent and they were like, "Are you from London? I didn't know they had people like you in London." And this was a couple months ago?  

(D) They don't necessarily know what's going on, like, on the West Coast. It's not their fault, when you understand how America is. That's a whole other thing. I don't even worry about if... you gotta understand the 'American Dream'. So I understand that you can do well, in England, and make enough money to go and buy a really nice property in America and live nice, and live the dream, and people will gravitate towards you. Because one thing I've clocked...

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(D) They understand money, innit! A lot of people there are really educated and cultured, but it usually involves them having a lot of money. If you're fucking stuck in Section 8 housing, no one even knows what's going on in the next hood. They’re just trying to survive. We haven't got third world poverty like that, that's another thing. Their stars usually have come from that, so they understand it.

Anyone who has kind of come up there from England has done it in an American way, like Slick Rick.

(D) Yeah, they put on American accents. And the only singers have really bus' over there are Ed Sheeran, Ella Mai...she had to tell them she was English. But it's always been like that, since the '50s! Cliff Richard was just the English answer to Elvis, at the time.

And them Americans, don't get it twisted, they always had to make stuff popular in England first, and sell it back to America. That's everything from Backstreet Boys to Destiny's Child. That's what actually happened. We certify stuff – if it's good in England, then it's certified.

I'd never thought about America in that way. It's quite interesting.

(D) I've been there a lot now. First from going to do shows, and so not really having time to absorb it, to then going there in the 2000s – now I’ve bought a place, hung about, got friends there, got friends from different demographics. And it's the same the other way round, because what do we even know about America, other than music videos and movies?

You hear all the rap music and then you go to parties and it's not even like that! I'm dancing, they're looking at me crazy 'cause I'm dancing! But I thought it was all cool on these rap videos? It's not!

Is it still important to you to connect with what’s coming up in the UK? You’ve worked with people like Yizzy and Ocean Wisdom – do you like working with people from different generations?

(D) Yeah, to an extent. Someone like Yizzy comes in the studio, and he just wants to get it done, and I love that. He comes, he's got all the fire, he's got something to prove, and that's that. But mainly, I like working with him because he's really good. He's lyrical: it's not just vibe, with him – it's lyrical. And it's the same with Ocean Wisdom: a phenomenal rapper, innit?

I want to work with more of the young drillers, or something, but they're not as easy to get hold of. Sometimes they're a bit flakey. Guys say they'll come to the studio, and they just don't turn up. They don't say nothing – they just don't turn up. You don't hear from them. That stuff, after a while, it's just like, "What are we doing?" I don't move like that, and I never have.

So you just start gravitating towards the people you just know are certified – like Tobz. He hit me up about this tune, but I didn't like it. I said, "Nah, I'm not sure about this one." The next day, he sent ‘Smoke’ – the next day! Then we went to record it, the next day after that. So that's how you've got to work, you know what I mean? So it's more based on that than it is, "Ah, I like to work with the up-and-comings". It’s more, who's got a good song?

And Big Tobz, ‘Smoke’ is taken from your new mixtape – are you excited to be sharing the project?

(BT) I've been itching to drop this for the longest time. It feels like a relief to finally give out this sick project. I feel like everyone's going to be very surprised and impressed, with the growth and the content, my sound. The versatility. Like, "Woah, I didn't expect this from Tobz!" kinda thing.

What do you think gave you that sort of growth?

(BT) I think I'm always, constantly trying to work on my sound and my music, and my delivery. What I'm living, as well, and what I'm experiencing. I'm always constantly trying to make better songs. When I'm in the studio, I wanna feel like this is one of the sickest songs I've made. And I've gotta big up my mate Jobey [producer] – he's always pushing me to make sure that when I come out the studio, I'm thinking, "Rah, this song is mad!" That's how I work when I come into the studio: always trying new things. I know for a fact this project is that. 

And you've gone some great features on there too.

(BT) I got some sick features on it! I'm proud of the features. I got Dizzee, I got Mr Eazy, Miss Banks, Gecko. It's very, very, very, very good.  Big up Miss Banks. That's my bredren. We come up in the same open mics together, so when I see her doing her thing now, it's like I'm mad proud of her. She got mad love and I got mad love.

That’s good to hear. Are you pleased with the result after all your hard work?

(BT) Yeah, one hundred percent. A hundred percent. Every feature, every song, I'm like, "Yeah, this is proper." Everyone done their thing. They really delivered. 

(D) And I’m working on a new album this year too...

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'Smoke' is out now.

Words: Emma Finamore

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