The rapper changed the face of British music before he went pop. His influence is stamped on the charts, but hes not impressed by the current crop of stars or #grime4corbyn
On the roof of Googles offices in Kings Cross, Dizzee Rascal is excitedly taking in the London panorama. Look, theres Stratford, he says, picking out Anish Kapoors Orbit sculpture before spinning around with puppyish excitement. Canary Wharf Alexandra Palace Wait, wheres Wembley at?
Fifteen years ago, Dizzee only really knew a tiny part of this city his hometown of Bow, the place where he, with a little help from a school computer and a handful of peers, helped sculpt the sound of grime and changed the face of British music for ever. He was just 18 when his debut, Boy in da Corner, was released, a record that for once justified a music journalism cliche: it sounded pretty much like nothing else that had gone before it, a spray of ricocheting beats and lo-fi computerised bleeps that underpinned his lyrical gift for sharing the thoughts of an edgy, paranoid, smart, frustrated, vulnerable kid from a council estate. It was the sound of the future, of critical acclaim and awards. And then Dizzee went pop. By 2008, he had hooked up with Calvin Harris and embraced EDM; his fourth album, Tongue N Cheek, scored a string of No 1 singles. The boy from Bow, born 32 years ago as Dylan Mills, had conquered the city, and then the world. But hadnt done so without his share of criticism: those saying he had sold out, abandoned his roots and headed too far down the pop mainstream. His follow-up to Tongue N Cheek didnt help matters: 2013s The Fifth saw him teaming up with the likes of Jessie J and Robbie Williams. It felt like his first proper misstep.
A few people thought that, its cool, he acknowledges. Hood pulled tight, he deals with questions like a boxer sparring in the ring: the answers come at pace and with the same forceful delivery that mark out his records. Im proud of those songs, proud that people play them at their weddings or that their two-year-olds dance to them. But youre restricted when youre making housey, electro poppy beats, and some people dont necessarily take you seriously as a rapper.
And so now on Dizzees sixth album, Raskit, and not for the first time in his career, there is a radical change of direction. I made a decision that Im not going to chase pop hits, he says. I wanted to go back to being as honest with myself as possible, not worrying about radio or that kind of shit.
Certainly, theres nothing here like Bonkers or Dance Wiv Me. In their place Dizzee delves into the fears he once had as a young rapper performing in the wrong postcode, frets about the precarious nature of fame (Wot u gonna do, when it all goes sideways? Gotta work weekend shifts at Mac Ds, and you cant party on a Friday) and even tackles the housing bubble that is ripping up communities in the capital. On Everything Must Go, he goes as far as to sample such hip-hop luminaries as Margaret Thatcher and Boris Johnson, who turns up to promise us that London will never become ghettoised like Paris.
I guess a lot of what is happening now started with Thatcher, he says, showing me the book he is currently reading, Big Capital: Who Is London For by Anna Minton. But it wasnt about having a dig, it was about illustrating the story.
Has gentrification had a negative impact on him personally?
Im from east London, he says, as if the answer is obvious, but then adds: I dont feel like I have the right to say. Youd have to ask people who still live there [in Bow]. Its all good going back, but then I can leave. Its all good if you have a choice. Dizzee currently lives in Kent he is done with the mortgage, as he points out on Business Man but he also spent a period living in Miami that, funnily enough, fired up an interest in politics hed never had back home. When we talk about the ghetto here, we have some harsh social conditions, he says. But over there, youve got third-world conditions there are places in Miami that are no different to Jamaica or Haiti.
Of course, Dizzees music has always been political, even if that wasnt his main intention. Partly this was a matter of visibility along with artists such as MIA, Dizzee represented a fresh, multicultural vision of British music and partly it was through his journalistic approach to documenting the realities of estate life: on Hold Ya Mouf, Dizzee famously threatened to remove you from your car, before boasting: Im a problem for Anthony Blair.
And Ive had it quoted back at me for ever, he says, shaking his head. Its not like Id sat down and knew all his manifesto. I was just trying to be a bit cheeky. Dizzee used to say he had no time for politicians, and in that respect not much has changed: I dont go out of my way to try and be around them, he says, You have to look at their intentions or why they want you around.
What about Jeremy Corbyn? Doesnt he agree with fellow MCs JME and Stormzy that the MP for North Islington really is different to the others?
I feel like maybe people feel the same [about him] as they did with Tony Blair, he shrugs. Although I was in the barbers and the barber was telling me about a problem he had, getting his kid into a school or something. He rang his local MP and Jeremy Corbyn sorted it all out for him. So thats what Ive heard, firsthand. But as for #grime4corbyn and all that, I dont know about it. What are their reasons for supporting him?
I mention Corbyns anti-war voting record, his history of standing up to racism, his desire to help out poorer communities.
See, I didnt know any of that, says Dizzee. Was Tony Blair like that? I guess not. So Corbyn is more like Bernie Sanders or whatever, isnt he?
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