After pop success, a starring role in the Olympics and even a Robbie Williams collaboration, Dizzee Rascal is back with ‘Raskit’, a vital – and angry – album that takes him right back to his roots. With a new wave of grime artists now the rock stars of the day, Alexi Duggins meets the genre’s first superstar as he returns to show them who’s boss
When Dizzee Rascal signed up to perform at the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, he didn’t really understand what he was getting himself into.
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He knew he’d be performing ‘Bonkers’ as part of a bigger production, but the sheer scale of director Danny Boyle’s plans came as a bit of a surprise. “Suddenly there’s all these amazing things: these f**king flying Harry Potters! All this NHS stuff,” grins the MC. “I was like, ‘Rah! These people look at me like I’m a part of British history – like I’m up there with the Industrial Revolution.’ I was so proud.”
Five years later, he’s less sure how he feels about it. As we sit in the sun-baked forecourt of a photo studio on a Bow industrial estate, he waves his hand over his head to indicate where he grew up (“My estate is actually down this road – Lincoln Estate”). In the time since he’s lived here, it’s changed beyond recognition – riddled with identikit luxury flats serving as investment opportunities for foreign speculators – and it doesn’t exactly fill him with joy.
“I wonder what the Olympics was all about now. Look at all the housing they built: it’s this whole new postcode, this whole new clinical little town. Round here people’s houses are getting knocked down and they’re getting moved on because they can’t afford what’s being built in their place,” he sighs. “Back in 2012, I was like, “Rah, it’s the Olympics!” But now I can’t decide whether I feel good or bad about it.”
We’re in Dizzee’s old stomping ground for his NME cover shoot ahead of new album ‘Raskit’, named for a pseudonym he’s had since his early days as an MC. It’s his sixth album and it’s a real departure from the dance-pop party tunes of his last two efforts. Sonically, it’s a lot heavier – the poppiest it gets are laid-back moments of G-Funk that reflect his youthful love of 2Pac (‘Man Of The Hour’, ‘She Knows What She Wants’). There are moments of bombastic trap-like distorto-beats (‘Wot U Gonna Do?’), monstrous clap-strafed basslines (‘Sick A Dis’) and the kind of grandiose synth-horn belter that you’d expect to hear on a Rinse FM grime show (‘I Ain’t Even Gonna Lie’). The reason? Partly a growing sense that this is what his fans wanted (“Of course I could feel that a lot of people were calling for me to make a rap or grime album – I don’t live on the moon”), but partly because he’d done so much EDM that he worried it might become boring. “I didn’t want to make people bounce up and down,” he says. “I feel like I’ve maxed out on it.”
Experimenting with the new is a bit of a hallmark of Dizzee’s. By the age of 16, Dylan Kwabena Mills had already grown out of a youthful stint as a drum’n’bass DJ and established himself as one of London’s best MCs via his incendiary pirate radio appearances. He’d joined grime crew Roll Deep, formed a prolific partnership with Wiley and generated such buzz around his precocious talent that he found himself being given free rein at a south London studio (run by Nick ‘Cage’ Denton – still his manager to this day). There, he went on to set up his label, Dirtee Stank, and create ‘I Luv U’ – a song so unlike anything that had come before it that it created an entirely new sonic template for the genre – earning him a deal with XL before he was old enough to buy a pint of shandy legally.
So ahead of its time was the resultant album ‘Boy In Da Corner’ that it’s only recently that the rest of the world has caught up with it. In March, Stormzy (rightly) won plaudits for speaking openly about his struggles with depression, with it being seen as a bit of a first that he’d done so via grime. But 14 years earlier, Dizzee was overlaying his frenetic beats with poignant introspection about life on his estate, shot through with talk of despair and tears. Listen to ‘Sittin’ Here’ and it’s hard not to wonder: is he chronicling a depressive episode?
“Is depression something I struggled with back then? I guess so. I think there’s loads of undiagnosed depression where I came from,” he says. “Post-traumatic stress disorder as well. Some of the things you see as a kid are like the things you’d expect to see in a war zone, but there’s no one to talk to about it because running to a psychiatrist ain’t the thing.”
When ‘Boy In Da Corner’ won him the 2003 Mercury Prize, it wasn’t all roses, either. Fascinated by his unlikely win, the press decided to camp outside his mum’s flat, refusing to leave without an interview (“I was ready to hurt them.I was like, ‘Yes I’ve won the Mercury award, but I still live on a council estate in Bow. You lot are making my house hot.’”). Eventually, driven by the fear of experiencing the same violent threats he’d seen UK garage stars from his area go through (“I saw them being extorted. I saw them having to sleep in the studio because they couldn’t go home”), he had to move away from the area he’d grown up in – which didn’t do wonders for his social life. “It was very isolating,” he admits. “It upset people too: I had friends who thought they should be able to follow me everywhere, but I realised early that having a big group of people with me all the time wasn’t going to make my job easier.”
Now, ‘Raskit’ finds Dizzee revisiting that sense of isolation. ‘Wot U Gonna Do’ sees him worrying what would happen if his career ended (“You’ve gone too far, you’re a star and you can’t go back to the street”) while the herky-jerky digi-funk of ‘Bop N’ Keep It Dippin’’ features him talking about how he “relocated off the ends / I was bored, but got my peace of mind”. It’s an introspective album that sees him variously announcing that if he wasn’t rich he’d probably have fallen into a life of crime (‘Dummy’) while criticising the decadence of the environment his career has thrown him into (‘Everything Must Go’). “I was in this restaurant in Miami with massive f**king yachts pulling up to it and all these smug p***ks in it started spraying Champagne around while waiters handed out umbrellas,” he grimaces. “I felt miserable. I looked at it, like, ‘Is this it? You’ve worked hard, you’ve made it and is this what you do now? You spray Champagne around for a laugh?’”
By now, Dizzee is standing amid a smoke canister-induced cloud while a photographer points a lens at him. Around him are razor-wire-topped walls and the thunderous roar of traffic along the northern approach to the Blackwall Tunnel. He coughs and chuckles, “They’re really going for this smoke thing, innit?” while looming out of a giant orange dust storm that smells a bit like burnt eyebrows. He’s wearing a T-shirt bearing the words ‘Dystopia lives’, which is appropriate wear given some of the issues that ‘Raskit’ tackles.
There are two separate tracks (‘Slow Your Roll’, ‘Everything Must Go’) that rail against the gentrification-cum-social-cleansing that now makes him question the Olympics, sampling speeches by Margaret Thatcher and Boris Johnson (“Thatcher because Right To Buy was a big catalyst for all of this and Boris Johnson because he said ‘We wouldn’t move all the poor people out’ – and then that’s exactly what happened”). The opening track ends in a skit featuring a woman mistaking the word “Brexit” for “Brixton” (“Because I wanna make the point: who the f**k knows what Brexit is really about?”). It’s his attempt to make sense of things that worry him (“I was just trying to put these things into music, because they matter – even if I can’t do anything about them”), but there are still some political issues he’s staying well clear of. “Grime 4 Corbyn? I just don’t know what I’m supposed to feel about that – does he even listen to grime?” he ponders. “Did he say anything about grime onstage at Glastonbury? No? Well, there you go.”
At points, it’s hard not to wonder whether this is the sound of an artist who’s struggling to find his place in the world. The last few years have brought Dizzee fame way beyond that of most of his peers – numerous Number One singles, a platinum-selling album, the Mercury Prize and even the offer of Celebrity Big Brother (“I said no. They got Kenzie from Blazin’ Squad instead”). But with the exception of recent sellout shows where he performed ‘Boy In Da Corner’ in its entirety, the poppier direction he’s been pursuing hasn’t always seen him fêted for his grime credentials in the way his one-time MC colleagues have been. It’s a theme he repeatedly refers to on ‘Raskit’: the narrative that seems to have misplaced his contribution to the genre’s history.
“I get people moaning like, ‘Ah, you’re trying to come back to grime, now?’ What are you talking about? I was making grime before anyone else… That’s not something that’s even really out there as a fact,” he exclaims, before becoming more sanguine. “But at the same time you’ve got people like Stormzy bigging me up, saying that I’m the one who influenced him. And you can hear it.”
There’s one notable thing that’s been missing from Dizzee’s music for over a decade: beef with other MCs. For years people have spoken of a feud between one-time mic partners Wiley and Dizzee – supposedly due to an incident where a rival crew left Dizzee in an Ayia Napa hospital with knife wounds. But while Wiley has chronicled his side of events with ‘The Ayia Napa Saga’, tried reaching out via tracks like ‘Letter 2 Dizzee’ and frequently referred to tension between the pair on Twitter and in interviews, Dizzee has always avoided engaging, denying the existence of a beef. Even his 2008 track ‘P***yole’, which some interpreted as being about Wiley (prompting Wiley to hit back with ‘Reply To Dizzee’ and ‘2nd Dub 4 Dizzee’), could arguably be about a completely different person.
But there’s no room for interpretation in ‘The Other Side’, in which he names Wiley on record for the first time in his career. “Tell Willy I don’t need a penpal / Stop writing me these letters because I don’t know what to do with them / It ain’t ever gonna be ’03 or ’02,” he raps at one point, in a song that also takes pot-shots at So Solid’s Megaman (as well as including a further lyric about “the godfather” which was part-blanked out on our promo version). The mere rumour of this song’s existence a couple of weeks ago prompted Wiley to bait Dizzee to meet him and play him the track, promising a response of his own (although he’s since said that Dizzee having his say is “fair” given all the times he’s done so himself). Why, after all this time?
“What made me write that song? Being honest with myself. What did I say, anyway? It’s just me saying, ‘What do you want? This is an imaginary feud.’ If I don’t feel like working with someone, it don’t mean there’s no feud.” He pauses. “I’ve learnt that putting that stuff out on Twitter don’t help a lot of the time, so sometimes you’ve got to put it in a song.” What about the lyric “Don’t need a co-sign from the Mayor, cos I got a pretty penny”: surely a deliberately provocative reference to when Wiley and others were photographed with Sadiq Khan at the NME Awards? “It’s whatever – I didn’t say nothing about NME and I didn’t say nothing about Wiley,” he says, trying to fight the smile that plays around the corners of his mouth. Even if that’s true, surely he realises that this is guaranteed to provoke a reaction – it already has, after all? “Look, Wiley always mentions me. The reason he kicked off about this track is because he was scared about what I was going to say, because I do actually know some stuff. I’d be glad to expose that guy, but that’s not my job.”
The shoot done, Dizzee’s actual job is finished for the day. One final question before I leave: with all the uncertainty about his place in the world, is this album a bit of an identity crisis? “I don’t know. Is trying to work out where you are an identity crisis?” He pauses. “Maybe I’m in a different position to most people, because I constantly have people telling me who they think I am – usually referring back to my 18-year-old self. Even today: how many times did you ask me about that? Imagine what that’s like.” I stand up to make my exit. “I’m cool, though. I get on with it, I did a photo shoot today. Mainly I just can’t wait for the album to come out.” You and most of the country, pal. You and most of the country.