On August 4, 2011, a man called Mark Duggan was shot in the chest and killed by police in Tottenham, London. Two days later there was a protest against thesuspected cover-up of an unprovoked attack. During the demo, a 16-year-old girl threw something at a police station, and the police roughed her up a bit. Instantly, shit kicked off. Two police cars were torched, buses were trashed and people started stealing from shops. The next day, it spread to Hackney, Brixton, Peckham, Croydon, Ealing, East Ham and Oxford Circus. The day after: Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool and Manchester. As anyone in these cities will tell you, it was bloody scary.
After the rioting, people said it was unpredictable and unexpected, the fault of an “underclass”. It was a shock to the Conservative government that some people fucking hated living in the UK. But then David Cameron probably doesn’t listen to much grime, a genre which since its emergence in the early 2000s has documented the boredom, fear and potential for violence among British working-class urban kids via the mouths of furious MCs. Listen to Lethal Bizzle’s ‘Pow’, More Fire Crew’s ‘Oi’ or Wiley’s ‘Oxford Street’. It’s all there.
Dizzee Rascal’s 2003 debut album ‘Boy In Da Corner’ is the ultimate document of these feelings, the sound of a teenager unsure about life, the future, himself. Looking at Dizzee Rascal circa 2012with his house in Miami, and the pop collaborations, this seems ridiculous. But a decade ago things weren’t so swell for him.
The record opens with ‘Sittin’ Here’, and the desperate words: “I ain’t saying much I just think/My eyes don’t move left or right they just blink/I think too deep and I think too long/I think I’m getting weak ’cos my thoughts are too strong”. What follows are 14 songs written by a smart-as-fuck teenager rapping ferociously about the chaos surrounding him. No subject is off limits.
He goes deep on knife crime, over the aggy garage of ‘Stop Dat’: “You got a big gun? Come bring it out/Butterfly-knife, come along, fling it out”. And again, more brutally, on ‘Cut ’Em Off’: “My butterfly leave you lookin’ like a sieve” and “I’ll chop you up and share you out between your friends”. He tackles underage sex on ‘I Luv U’, a song so harsh it’s difficult to listen to: “Pregnant? What you talking about?/Fifteen, she’s underage, that’s raw”. And attitudes to regular sex on ‘Round We Go’: “Bend her over and I leave her limpin’/No lips in that, that’s not interesting”.
Then there are ditties about law enforcement on ‘2 Far’: “I don’t obey no policeman, ’cos they forget they’re human / Get excited quickly but he ain’t got a gun, so I’ll kick him and run”. And threats of violence on ‘Seems 2 Be’: “We chuck grenades at Scotland Yard”. And ’cos that’s not tough enough, a third of the tracks feature gun sounds. It’s terrifying, thrilling, chilling, brutal, raw, dark, heavy, and as righteously angry, articulate and aggressive as the best punk songs. In parts, it’s just mental.
As if to justify the brutality, on the album’s third single ‘Jus’ A Rascal’ he explains: “I talk tough ’cos life’s been rough/Gritty, shitty, life ain’t been too pretty”. It’s the best vocal on the album, a tirade of rage wrapped in Dizzee’s savage, venomous flow.
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There are lighter moments like ‘Fix Up, Look Sharp’, the album’s one mainstream hit, and the moment on ‘Cut ’Em Off’ when he sums himself up: “I wear my trousers ridiculously low/I love females, money and creps”. But overall it’s a relentless tour through issues ignored by people with the power to fix them. Chuck D of Public Enemy once called hip-hop “the black CNN” because it talks about problems the news ignores. ‘Boy In Da Corner’ borders on investigative journalism. Dizzee could’ve written The Wire.
There’s more to the album than words. Despite the odd reference to US hip-hop (“bad boy forever like Sean Puffy Coombes” on ‘Stop Dat’), it’s a very British album. Grime was the first time UK hip-hop was influenced more by UK garage and bass music than Notorious B.I.G or the Wu-Tang Clan. The production on ‘Boy…’ is stunning, and it’s not an exaggeration to say 90 per cent of its beats are grime classics, flitting between gabba (‘I Luv U’), rave (‘2 Far’) and bouncing electro (‘Brand New Day’). But for all its lyrical and beat-making genius, the record was ultimately Dizzee’s way out of his shit life, an attitude summed up in six words from ‘Seems 2 Be’: “Get rhymes, get heard, get seen”.
He sure as hell did that, didn’t he?