Dizzee Rascal: “This album is making a statement – I’m a fucking serious rapper”

Following chart success and a globe-trotting career, the rapper finds inspiration in his east London locality Bow for album seven

Dizzee Rascal is properly buzzing. At a North London studio tucked away amongst leafy streets, Dizzee is finishing up a lengthy photoshoot with NME’s Zoe McConnell. The two-storied open plan house gives access via a glass wall into a sunny backyard patio deck with mustard chairs and off-white benches. The living room walls are adorned with pictures of iconic artists like Bob Marley depicted in a pop-art style, and a mural of Grace Jones covers the wall opposite behind the record player and speakers. Dizzee walks around the kitchen and living room at ease; his boisterous laugh filling the space, louder than the music playing.

“I’m in my element,” he tells NME in the backyard minutes after finishing up his last photo. He’s in full promotion swing for the release of his upcoming seventh album, ‘E3 AF’, and there’s no time to rest. The evening before, he was on a walking tour of Bow, his old neighbourhood in east London. He was stopped by shop and cafe owners greeting him as he walked around. Though he’s happy wanting to talk about his new album, he considered the time he spent back in Bow a reminder of his upbringing, and the difficulties people still face there.

During the lockdown, Dizzee returned to East London to help distribute emergency food parcels to residents. Part of Kitchen Social, a Mayor’s Fund for London programme, Dizzee donned PPE to support local families – an initiative he is insistent deserves more of a spotlight outside of him being a part of it.

NME Big Read Dizzee Rascal
Credit: Zoe McConnell for NME

“To be fair, they were dishing out the food parcels. I don’t want to claim it because child poverty is one of those things that needs to be highlighted,” he says. London has the highest rate of child poverty of any English region; there are as many poor children in London as in all of Scotland and Wales. As of 2018, Tower Hamlets in East London has 53.40 per cent of children in poverty.

“That was my immediate habitat,” Dizzee states. “East London influenced me, but I was also on pirate radio in Tottenham. South London influenced me as well. If it wasn’t for music, I would never have met anyone from Leeds or Manchester or Liverpool. They were the only places I knew about because of football. Music took me out.”

It’s been nearly 20 years since Dizzee first gained local acclaim, before becoming an international music hero with platinum-selling albums and a string of illustrious awards, including the Mercury Prize, Brit Awards and, of course, NME Awards. He recently picked up the Rated Legacy Award for “his contribution to sculpting the sound of grime and changing the face of British music forever”.

NME Big Read Dizzee Rascal
Dizzee Rascal on the cover of NME

Now that he’s here, having just turned 36 and living between London and Miami, Dizzee’s return to Bow the night prior mirrors that of his upcoming album. He’s surveying the landscape, looking at the genre and neighbourhoods he influenced nearly two decades following his iconic 2003 debut ‘Boy In Da Corner’. With two decades in the game – and the Rated Award celebrating his legacy and influence – does he feel like an elder statesman now?

Dizzee takes a few seconds. “To an extent, yeah,” he says. “It’s weird. I didn’t realise these upcoming artists were that much younger than me, but I still don’t look at it as anything other than God intending us to age.”

On ‘E3 AF’, Dizzee Rascal doesn’t sound or act his age, keeping pace with the likes of newcomers and contemporary heavyweights like Ocean Wisdom, Smoke Boys and Alicai Harley. The non-stop energy throughout is infectious. It spans styles, touching genres like Afrobeat and Dancehall while paying homage to old-school grime and tipping its cap to the electrifying sound of UK Drill. Dizzee manages to cede even more space here, bringing pals like Kano, D Double E and Ghetts onto the album. On his seventh album, he’s nodding to his history right down to the album title: “It’s E3 AF as in African.”

“I’ve done my best to keep my mouth down and just fight and give music”

It’s also his first album since 2007’s ‘Maths + English’, which was written, recorded and produced in the UK. Dizzee’s usual razor-sharp and quick-witted rhymes are elevated even higher. “No two tunes are the same,” he boasts. “They’re different vibes, different personalities. It’s almost like a conversation.”

The opening tune, ‘God Knows’, featuring P Money, is a self-produced high-octane “chest-thumping” banger. From here, Dizzee gleefully guides a journey through Black British music past, present and future. The infectious ‘Act Like You Know’, featuring Smoke Boys in their ice-cold drip, allows Dizzee to slot into the future drill sound. Alicai Harley’s sweltering saccharine vocals on ‘Energies + Powers’ are a refreshing dose in a high-energy album, before Ocean Wisdom and Dizzee trade double-time bars on ‘Don’t Be Dumb’ over a frenetic, triplet-hi hat beat which deserves a few rewinds, not least for the lurid lines.

“I’ve got all these rappers and MCs for those moments to rewind,” he says. “Listening to tapes is how we came up. We were on pirate radio, people dubbed us or recorded us onto tapes that floated around. That’s how we made our names. There was no YouTube, no Instagram, none of that. So, the fact that you have to rewind that tune…” He tails off. Maybe Dizzee is realising in real-time his age, but it feels like he’s thinking back on simpler times.

NME Big Read Dizzee Rascal
Credit: Zoe McConnell for NME

Dizzee Rascal was born Dylan Mills and raised by his Ghanian mother, Priscilla, in the East London neighbourhood of Bow; his father passed away when Dizzee was young. Mills struggled to settle at a string of secondary schools but honed his skills after practising music production on his game consoles. Influenced in equal parts by UK Garage and Nirvana as he is by UGK and Timbaland or Three 6 Mafia and Black Sabbath, Mills was peerless in his production ability to amalgamate various genres into a cohesive song.

Starting off as an amateur drum’n’bass DJ, he rapped over the tracks on pirate radio stations in the capital like Rinse FM. He became an integral part of the Roll Deep crew in 2002 and was dubbed one of the early players in a new kind-of genre: Grime. A smorgasbord of UK Jungle, Dubstep and hip-hop, the emergence of grime felt new and rare: a new genre hadn’t been so innovative in its sound in decades. Its emergence allowed Black British music to shoehorn itself into a white-dominated industry and develop an array of stars still producing today.

It was his peers that challenged Mills to rise above the rest. “In a way, you hear shit that inspires you and just makes me think, ‘Oh that sounds sick,” he says. “I still played football, did whatever else, but these guys just cared about getting on the mic, so I couldn’t wait to get on the radio.”

“This album is the most complete Dizzee Rascal you’re going to get”

Dizzee’s first single ‘I Luv U’ summed up his extraordinary ear for a beat: baseline rhythms, dubstep wobbles and garage influences underpinned by a clattering beat. The single’s prominence led to a deal with XL Recordings who released ‘Boy In Da Corner’ in August 2003 to universal acclaim. NME’s review at the time confidently called it “one of the most assured debut albums of the last five years.” Mills would go on to win the Mercury Prize at the age of 19 and nab the NME Award for Innovation the following year. With the release of ‘Boy In Da Corner’, Dizzee Rascal had helped shape the future of the UK scene immediately.

Despite his global success, Dizzee has had a complex relationship with both the mainstream and the media. Prior to this interview, we’re told a handful of topics are off-limits, one of which is Dizzee’s relationship with former Roll Deep member, Wiley.

In the same week ‘Boy In Da Corner’ was released in 2003, Dizzee was performing with the Roll Deep Crew in Ayia Napa, Cyprus and stabbed six times. No arrests were made in relation to the incident. A decade later, a spokesman said that “Wiley isn’t responsible but feels guilt over his part in the incidents that led to Dizzee’s stabbing.” Following the incident, Dizzee left the crew and hasn’t looked back since.

A media narrative has followed: one of contention, a long-standing beef that has been fuelled by digs at one another over social media, alleged diss tracks and a feud that many think still exists.

“It’s mad that some people still feel like I have to answer or he has to always be a part of my promo,” Dizzee says, clearly perturbed. His arms are crossed, he’s leaning back, unsure on how to engage. “I’ve seen this guy twice since Ayia Napa. We’ve seen each other for 30 seconds in 17 years. I don’t really care for him.”

NME Big Read Dizzee Rascal
Credit: Zoe McConnell for NME

Dizzee is hesitant to go further before asking himself rhetorically whether Wiley is his enemy or is it a fabrication of being swept up in the narrative around their relationship. “How can someone be your enemy if you haven’t seen them for 17 years?” he asks himself more than anyone else. “The same things come up in my interviews all the time. Is there nothing else to talk about? I’s just a fucking reoccurring theme over 17 years. That’s why I don’t like interviews, they’re just bullshit.”

An awkward silence ensues.

Mills doesn’t want NME to bring it up again. For him, there is no conversation to be had about Wiley anymore. And with that, it feels like the final nail in a coffin that took 17 years to build.

“A lot of people like to see pain and suffering,” he says suddenly. “I’ve made a conscious effort over these years even despite my little few controversies I’ve had. I’ve done my best to keep my mouth down and stay out the way and just fight and give music.”

Despite these best intentions, Dizzee is seemingly mired in one controversy after the other, rarely of his own doing. Volunteering at a food parcel distribution in his old neighbourhood and donations to his alma mater Tower Hamlets Summer University are ignored in place of the next clickbait-inducing moment he can provide.

“Do I feel like an elder statesman now? To an extent, yeah”

Take his recent appearance on Good Morning Britain. Contentious presenter Piers Morgan questioned Dizzee about the Black Lives Matter movement, asking him to “try and articulate to people what that means” to which Dizzee responded, “what makes you think I know?”. Piers’ rebuttal of “because you’re a Black man” led to the East London rapper to not engage. Piers followed up his line of questioning repeatedly, with each of Dizzee’s responses measured. It felt, well, largely forgettable. Yet, within hours of that appearance, it was doing the rounds on social media and tabloids carried it on their front pages describing it as an apparent “clash” between the two. To Dizzee, it was nothing.

“I can’t keep up, really,” he says exasperated. “Sometimes you get caught up in it, and then it is almost like an echo chamber, and you start thinking that everyone thinks a certain way. But that’s only if you read too much into it. I’m not interested in unnecessary confrontation or conflicts. I’ve always just wanted to get on with the music.”

NME Big Read Dizzee Rascal
Credit: Zoe McConnell for NME

After the acclaim of his initial releases, Dizzee embraced a pop-rap direction. It was a risk worth taking – his fourth album, ‘Tongue n’ Cheek’, is his best-selling. With features from DJs like Calvin Harris, Tiësto and Armand Van Helden, Dizzee’s name was elevated to a new status; one of a pop king. In the years after, several other grime MCs attempted to replicate his formula but haven’t come close to the heights. Dizzee’s venture into pop-rap and EDM-influenced territory was possible not only due to his success, but his refusal to be boxed in by any one particular genre.

That time in Dizzee’s career helped globalise his image while strengthening his artistic choices – the massive festival crowds that seem to agree it was a good decision. But Dizzee faced backlash, with a belief amongst many critics and fans that he ‘sold out’, abandoning his roots along the way.

“People want that feeling that they got when they were 17,” he says, sounding frustrated. “You’re not 17. I’m not 17. That’s why people will never be satisfied. I’m over the pressure. I’ve accepted that. Some people are just not gonna like it. Some people are just stuck in that era. Maybe I can make people feel like that with this new album.”

NME Big Read Dizzee Rascal
Credit: Zoe McConnell for NME

‘E3 AF’ is a continuation of what he delivered on the transatlantic sixth studio album 2017’s ‘Raskit’. But, ‘E3 AF’ feels even more personal to Dizzee as he did “more of the production on this”, stating that this upcoming album may be the “most complete Dizzee Rascal you’re going to get. That’s all of me.”

For several years, Dizzee allowed others to handle his production. It was after his third album, ‘Maths + English’, where the Bow boy fell out of love with producing. “I tried but I didn’t have the vibe,” he says. “I didn’t have the patience. I wasn’t feeling it. I kept going to other people for beats. I was enjoying going to LA and finding different producers.”

In 2017, Dizzee was driving his friend J Mike around North London when he noticed J “had his feet up in my car, had his laptop and he was making a beat on a program I had never seen before.” Introduced to Ableton, Splice, Serum and other software, Dizzee became obsessed with the idea of using these programs to produce again. While on the Raskit tour, he decided to buy a brand new laptop and start producing – the first beats of which became the 2018 ‘Don’t Gas Me’ EP.

“Some people will never be satisfied. But I’m over the pressure”

When he started to conceptualise what came after the EP, it was leaning towards a grime-heavy project. At least, that was the initial intention. “I thought it would be an album or mixtape,” Dizzee states. “I decided to invite in different people to the studio and see [what they brought].” Steel Banglez brought several songs, MK the Plug sent through a pack of beats while P Money, Kano and others clicked instantly with what Dizzee had produced himself. “It ended up becoming a variety. And I’m happier about that.”

Collaborators also jumped on the chance to be a part of the album, with Alicai Harley running into Dizzee in the shared kitchen of studio space and singing for him. “It felt like an audition,” he says with a laugh. “She had so much confidence and then I went back into the studio to finish my song and realised it needed a hook. I thought of Alicai.”

“Dizzee Rascal’s career is something I want to do with my career,” Harley tells NME, reminiscing on those fruitful sessions. “He’s just a real person. That’s why I don’t think I was shy when I first met him.”

NME Big Read Dizzee Rascal
Credit: Zoe McConnell for NME

Likewise, producer Steel Banglez is similarly enamoured. “‘Boy In Da Corner’ was a pinnacle album that turned a new page in UK music,” he tells NME. “It shows just how much of an influential knowledgeable person he is that Dizzee is still putting out music and sending a solid message 17 years down the line. It’s so important that we have him.”

‘E3 AF’ is an album underpinned by an urgency for Dizzee to get out what had been building inside of him. After travelling the world, linking up with producers from outside of England, splitting time between North America and Europe, London called him back. Each of his previous projects was another step towards returning home. A full circle.

This is an album underpinned by urgency, a sense that it was time for Dizzee to look to London again for inspiration. Every album that followed ‘Boy In Da Corner’ was another measure of success for the prodigal talent from E3. His awards stacked up, his collaborators grew more famous, his sales skyrocketed and his festival crowds grew bigger. Yet, in venturing out into the world, he found what he had been missing all along: home.

“I’m trying to give you all sides of me,” he says leaning back. “With ‘Raskit’, I purposely didn’t have no one else on there. It was making a statement. That’s what that was about. Then the EP ‘Don’t Gas Me’ was where I got back into producing so it’s a bit of a taste. Now on this album, we’re in full swing.” He leans forward intently, takes a glance at the recorder to make sure he’s being heard before exclaiming: “That’s what ‘E3 AF’ is about. It’s making a statement; I’m a fucking serious rapper.”

Dizzee Rascal releases ‘E3 AF’ on October 9