It’s a terrifying thought, but this summer marks a decade since the release of Dizzee Rascal’s debut album, the notorious, bruised masterpiece, ‘Boy in da Corner’. Winner of the 2003 Mercury Prize, statement of intent from Britain’s first black pop superstar, calling card for an entire genre, and according to many ‘best of the 2000s’ lists, the album of the decade.
I spent 15,000 words in my new ebook, Stand Up Tall: Dizzee Rascal and the Birth of Grime, reflecting on where that remarkable sound came from and what it meant; for British pop music, for Dizzee, for London’s grime kids. Here’s the same story in five YouTube videos.
This home-made, long out-of-print DVD was filmed in a tiny, makeshift pirate radio box-room on a Stratford towerblock roof, in the fiendishly hot August of 2003. Its stellar line-up – comprised almost entirely of unsigned teenage MCs – would go on to change the face of British music, including Dizzee, Wiley, Tinchy Stryder, D Double E. Its notorious climax sees a 17-year-old Dizzee nearly comes to blows with a rival MC who was then as hotly tipped as he was, Crazy Titch. Their battle exemplifies the whole cast’s position – on a precipice, as much as a rooftop – it’s a litany of possibility, of foiled and realised ambition; the future of British pop music at the crossroads.
Fast forward a decade from this moment to today, and Dizzee Rascal is a global superstar with five UK number 1 singles, three gold albums and one platinum album to his name; Crazy Titch is serving a life sentence for murder. The towerblock, meanwhile, was destroyed to make way for the 2012 Olympics. It’s well worth watching the full hour of music prior to that climax: this is really grime’s strongest format, rather than the studio album – the spontaneity and energy of live MCing over live mixing, the 21 seconds to make your mark on the mic.
Brand New Day
“MCs better start chatting about what’s really happening”, Dizzee says censoriously at the start of this, one of Boy In Da Corner’s indisputable highlights – the album saw Dylan Mills as hardened war reporter from the front line of British urban life. At the root of it all is poverty, and its outward signs, its fellow riders, are petty crime, lost youth, violence, “bank scams, street robbery / shotters, blotters or H.M.P”, and, on the level of personal life, “pregnant girls who think they love, useless mans with no plans”. This track encapsulates Dizzee’s stunning juxtaposition of words and music: the bleakest of narratives delivered over an instrumental of breathtaking otherworldliness. It is effortlessly light, like someone running their finger around the rim of a glass, but also queasy, like you’re spinning down a plughole, out of control. In Dizzee’s teenage hands, the Japanese three-stringed shamisen becomes something between an earworm and an inner ear infection; the uncompromising lyrical vision of social malaise somehow transfigured into a sonic malaise.
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Not one of Dizzee’s most successful singles, Graftin’ is still one of the best, off his greatly underrated follow-up to Boy in da Corner, Showtime – his last grime album before taking off in the direction of pop stardom. To prove London wasn’t all “teacups, red telephone boxes and Buckingham Palace”, as he put it, the video for Graftin’ was shot around the 25-storey towerblocks of the Crossways Estate, his home. The estate had been nicknamed “the pride of Bow’ when it was built in the 1970s, but bad upkeep of the buildings, untreated poverty and corollary overcrowding meant that name did not stick around for long. Dizzee grew up only two miles away from Canary Wharf, during the economic boom New Labour promised would never end – in the Graftin’ video you can see One Canada Square’s white top-light blinking in the background, a reminder that Canary Wharf is always there, when you’re living in and talking about ‘the grime’.
When the BBC filmed a short profile of Dizzee to accompany his 2003 Mercury win, they caught him looking out of the window of Crossways towards the gleaming home of Lehman Brothers, HSBC et al: “That is Canary Wharf,” Dizzee explained to the camera. “It’s in your face. It takes the piss. There are rich people moving in now, people who work in the city. You can tell they’re not living the same way as us.”
R U Double F
My ebook is mostly about Dizzee, because his talent as a producer, lyricist and MC alike deserves special attention, but grime was really all about crews. This early track from Bow’s Ruff Sqwad (who feature in the Graftin’ video, and include one Tinchy Stryder, aged about 15), is the tune that swung me from being a bit of a grime fan to a total obsessive. In true punk style, the sound quality is completely terrible, while the track itself is completely brilliant – the synth-riff and vocals resounding with regal confidence, the unvarnished hubris of youth, all buried under a squall of sheer noise. Production values are for hi-fi bores and Alan Partridge.
Another semi-lost, semi-forgotten underground classic that sums up what grime was about before all the best MCs got signed to labels (2004), got dropped from their labels (2005), self-released their own DIY albums (2006), realised that wasn’t making any money either (2007), and either gave up music or became huge pop stars making Calvin Harris-endorsed electro-blah (2008-present). When I say south…