D Double E is about to offer his perspective on the work-life balance, but the indie-rock band in the next room evidently has other plans. Unbeknownst to the east London MC – clad in black from his Newham Generals woolly hat to a pair of scuffed Nikes – and his publicist sat opposite, half six has been earmarked for sound check. As a result, his near nasal drawl has been smothered by the pulsation of kicking drum rolls and a bass guitar that shudder the foundations of a bar-cum-gig venue on Islington’s Pentonville Road.
“In the olden days, we used to MC just for the sake of MCing,” he says, pitching his voice higher to be heard over the rock. “We didn’t think we were going to make it, we just used to love it.”
“When you do it because you’re thinking of the money, then you won’t be doing it forever,” he continues. “This, it’s not an investment you can just jump into and get your money from – you’ve got to live in this thing here.”
Music is something that D Double E – real name Darren Dixon – has been living since he was 16. Similar to many grime veterans, his love for the genre emerged out of jungle fever in the late mid- to late-’90s, and he flirted heavily with drum ‘n’ bass after stumbling across General Levy’s ‘Incredible’.
The broad use of samplers, drum machines and MCs ultimately set jungle apart from the other prevailing forms of electro music, while the obscure breaks and the wide inclusion of reggae samples cast it apart from hip-hop. Jungle inadvertently inspired a new generation who directly witnessed the rise of British electronic music, but couldn’t quite escape the glamor of 1990s rap.
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Back then it was very raw, and a lot of people in the early days took a lot of risks…
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“Those older jungle MCs were the first ones that gave us the tempo; it gave us the inspiration to rhyme fast. You know what I mean? The jungle scene was strong back then – I just think that they weren’t ready for no youngers to be coming in the game, so we started building up a little generation of younger jungle MCs on our little radio stations.”
Opposite a friend’s flat stood a crumbling tower block earmarked for demolition – and that was where Darren first experienced the subterranean world of pirate radio. Established in one of the hundreds of empty flats was an improvised radio station, housing no more than a mixer and an accompanying DJ.
“We went up the stairs and I’m just hearing jungle beating,” Darren says, though he did not pluck up the courage to hop on an instrumental on his first visit. “Then we turned up again two days later, went in there, they let me spit and that was that.”
The station was one of countless illicit broadcasting studios that sprouted in response to jungle’s tumble from mainstream radio playlists – this was after the sound had peaked in the mid-1990s with the likes of Goldie and Rebel MC. Pirate radio’s DIY fundamentals and the palpable lack of a broadcasting licence led to stations maintaining a deliberately portable set up.
“Stations were moving mad quick, so that one was only there for a little while and then it just disappeared,” he remembers. “Back then it was very raw, and a lot of people in the early days took a lot of risks.”
The eventual evolution of Rinse and Deja Vu FM would prove key for a new breed of MCs itching to break away from the garage scene – “Even if we might have been using the same tempo, it was not the same structure,” Darren clarifies. But this new scene lacked the basic supporting infrastructure to mould a credible culture. This problem dissolved with the eventual arrival of DJs in step with the darker direction of the young MCs, who proceeded to establish connections with early grime producers.
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“The DJs were mad important because they were playing what we wanted,” Darren says. “Before we had problems with DJs not giving us the space to do our thing, it was always the case that they needed to have their vocal bits.
“Then they would need a gap for the woman’s singing, and after all of that there might be a bit for me to come in. You had tracks like ‘Buddha Finger’ and some other garage-y tunes that were hard, but it was still difficult for us to spit bars.
“But now these DJs, they were designed for us and we were designed for them; they were like us. When they’re searching for beats, they just wanted something that they could hear our voice on. Over the years we just got better and better at getting that track to hear our voice.”
Before connecting with Ghetts, Stormin and Kano in super crew N.A.S.T.Y., Darren was afforded his first extended stay on pirate radio with grime crew 187, alongside Jammer, Ebony J, Hyper MC and Leon B.
“I got introduced to Jammer by Jamakabi; after that we used to meet all the time and tape sets and that in his yard, because he was the one with decks.
“Ebony J kind of had the game on lock, he was on Y2K and at that time we weren’t on radio so he used to hook us up and we got a little run on a station called Flava FM.”
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We need to get all of these [foreign producers] over and show them love, because at the end of the day it’s the start of an expansion…
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Eventually the crew fell away with Hyper and Jammer joining D Double E in N.A.S.T.Y., and it was during this phase that Darren began cultivating his trademark flow: an discernible signature at a time when possessing a distinct style was levelled with the quality of the music itself. He describes it as “getting in the beat”, and was a technique he first framed when the echoes of a young Dizzee Rascal ruptured his speakers during a Slimzee set.
“The way he was riding the beat, it just fitted,” he recalls. “Before that I used to spray my bars a bit like an animal, it wasn’t synching. But after that I can get in the beat and do the bar. I don’t just go crazy and stuff like before.”
As for 2015, D Double E is thinking further afield than East London. “Now the scene has Japanese producers and guys in all of these far corners,” he says. “This is what we need, and they need us too. We need to get all of these people over and show them love, because at the end of the day it’s the start of an expansion.”
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Words: Aniefiok Ekpoudom