Following his appearance our recent EB Festival Poznań (you can watch HD footage of his set here), we caught up with the grime pioneer to reflect on his straddling of both the underground and mainstream, the impact of American hip-hop on his music, and old beefs that die hard.
Dizzee Rascal released his first album Boy In Da Corner ten years ago as both MC and producer at the age of 19, scooping Britain’s coveted Mercury Prize (awarded for the album of the year from a UK or Irish artist or band) and introducing the sound of grime—that particularly British genre of underground electronic music often accompanied by MCs—to the world at large. Six years later in 2009, he scored his first number one hit with the Calvin Harris-produced “Dance Wiv Me”. Several more number ones later, and his most recent single “Goin’ Crazy” features a collaboration with the ultimate pop idol Robbie Williams. Yet with his record label Dirtee Stank, which continues to release key grime artists as well as edgy free mixtapes—such as the one given away at the end of last year—he remains grounded in the scene that made his name. His career has traversed both the underground and mainstream, giving him a unique perspective on music.
Tell me the record recently that you’ve really been enjoying, that isn’t on Dirtee Stank.
You know what I love, when I was in Miami, I was listening to “Show Out”, Juicy J. I love Juicy J anyway. That song excited me when I heard it. I just love the beat, it’s just ignorant and it makes you just jump up and down.
So, are you a fan of Three Six Mafia?
Yeah, from early! If I didn’t listen to Three Six, I would have never have made grime. My first single, “I Luv You”, that was all based on that. I would never have known how to do that if I had never have listened to Three Six Mafia. So if you hear the connection now, it all makes sense.
Do you mean as a rapper or as a producer?
I guess as a producer. Even some of the way I MC’d, even, just the simplicity of it. A lot of it was I grew up listening to Project Pat at a time when people weren’t listening to down South music. Especially in the UK, like that. That’s around the time when Eminem was big. I was into Three Six Mafia and the Hot Boy$ and Master P and all that, as well. But especially Project Pat.
Southern rap, basically .
Yeah, basically. Now it’s a dominating force, which is amazing, but back then, it wasn’t. It was obscure.
You say that influenced you to make “I Luv U” and presumably Boy In Da Corner, but wasn’t that stuff all happening around you anyway? You’re saying Three Six influenced you more than Roll Deep?
I was making grime before I was in Roll Deep. I was doing it before they were. I was grime, I’ve got tapes and shit, when Wiley was making garage.
Yeah, I was in school, making grime. All their shit changed when I came around. I was already doing it. But like I said, my influence—as well as UK garage, drum ‘n’ bass, and general hip-hop, as well—it was the Southern thing. People like Ludacris had a major influence on me. “I Love U”, you could say, was based on pretty much Three Six Mafia, Ludacris, and [Memphis Bleek ft Missy Elliott &] Jay-Z “Is That Your Chick”. That was the format for that thing, the boy/girl thing, and just the way I wrote it.
Have you not been doing that much producing anymore?
Nah, I haven’t. Especially with this album, there’s been a lot of bigger-sounding production. It’s kind of nice to be working with all these bigger producers and getting a bigger sound, so I just focus on writing the songs. It’s all seasoned people, it’s a different thing. I enjoy it. I’ve got people like Jean-Baptiste, RedOne, a guy called Tim Anderson—who was actually in a rock group called Ima Robot—just working with them and doing it different. I don’t mind not making the beats. I started to fuck around in the studio last week and get into it a little bit more, work out Ableton and all of that—started to make a few little bits. But it’s been nice just jumping on different shit. I don’t necessarily make big dance records as production, myself, so I don’t have the expertise to get it at a level that someone like RedOne would. To even get that weight, it makes a difference. I know my limits.
I’d be really interested to hear what you were coming out with these days, myself. You’re still doing the label, and to me it seems like a split between your artist life and the label. The label’s still doing underground stuff, basically.
Well, Footsie does a lot of wicked beats, as well, so I like to jump in on his stuff.
The last couple of Dirtee Stank mix tapes, there’s some really raw shit on there.
Yeah! When it comes to the mixtapes, I’ve done a couple of beats. I just do it for fun. But as far as trying to get this big worldwide album done, I haven’t really jumped in on that. The most I do as far as production is arrange a track. A track might come to me differently, and I write to it and tell him, “Naw, structure it like this.” That’s as much as production as I’m going to do, for the most part, on this album.
This is how I see it—the effort that’s put in in making those mixtapes is the same effort as making an album, time-wise and effort-wise. And a lot of it still goes over people’s heads, because it’s not a big proper release and things like that, so people are still asking, “Ah, when you gonna make that grime?” And they’re moaning about it, and I’m like, “Well, I just put it out.” So, sometimes it’s a bit deflating, so I just need to do that for fun. When it comes to the big, serious work of trying to make music worldwide, it’s about working with other producers and that, because again, I’ve been at the forefront on things. “Bonkers”, I was at the forefront of EDM. We were taking “Bonkers” around in America to the labels, and they weren’t getting it. And how many years later, EDM is the big thing. So, now it’s like, right, they’re ready for it, so let me continue on. But I don’t produce that music, personally.
Okay, let me ask you a question: how much are you trolling your audience?
Trolling? What is trolling?
Trolling is when you get online and you provoke people, and tease them.
I don’t provoke and tease.
The thing is, the stuff you’re doing now, it’s aimed at a lot more people. But those of us who have been following your career for a long time know that you do way more serious stuff.
Yeah, and like I said, I still do way more serious shit. You do a mixtape and it just goes over people’s heads. But i didn’t get into the Twitter thing for ages because I knew that the type of person I am, I react to certain things, and it’s not healthy. So when I did finally start using it, that’s exactly what I did. Started seeing people talking shit and then I get onto them. And after a while, it’s like, “What am I doing?” It’s stupid. But sometimes you can have fun doing it, because some people it’s just banter. And some people just go overboard with it. But I’m not into just trolling or stuff like that.
But it always struck me that it seems like you had quite a devilish sense of humor that comes out in the music and the things around the music, and that’s what I meant trolling—with your music.
Sometimes I have banter with people, but for the most part, I try and stay off Twitter full stop, but it gets stupid for no reason. It starts taking up time and starts getting personal, it starts taking up your personal life. No need.
Well, I think you have always been really respectful in the press and you don’t ever talk shit about people, that I’ve ever seen. But I gotta ask, you and Wiley, you guys ever going to be friends again?
That’s one thing on Twitter I did address, I think early this year. People believing there’s been some kind of beef for all these years and that, and there isn’t. I saw Wiley maybe six years ago, I’ve seen him once in six years. It was like, “What’s up, brother?” Everything else has just been when he goes off on one, like he does, and he just starts calling people out, and I’m one of them. But that’s just through his frustrations because people keep bringing up our names and stuff that they don’t really understand about situations that’ve happened, that they don’t really know about. And I’ve never bothered to correct them because I’ve just been busy trying to do what I’m doing. But I haven’t got no problem or beef with anyone. At all.
Like I’ve said, you’ve stayed above it all, but sometimes he gets on Twitter and it’s like he sounds sad about it.
Yeah, but that’s just down to him. At the end of the day, he’s doing well. He’s making music. At this point, we’re all just older, innit? I’ve seen so much of the world and had a little while to breathe—it just seems like, what’s the point? I’m just thankful that I’m still in it. There’s a scene that loads of us have crossed over into the mainstream. It’s like, we’re not getting younger, let’s just eat and be happy. Some people have got kids, we ain’t got time for squabbling. There’s big shit to be had. EDM is taking over America [laughs].
As an American, I think that you were the first British MC to pierce the American consciousness. People may have heard of Roots Manuva, but they didn’t care. But you were the first one where people were like, this guy is doing something new, I’ve never heard this. Because it’s rapping, but it’s not like American rap.
Even though it’s heavily influenced by American rap.
Obviously, because it’s rapping.
But again, you didn’t know that Three Six Mafia was a heavy, heavy influence. And most people don’t. But what I got from American hip hop was a sense of themselves and I was able to translate that, put it into my music, maybe better than people before me that tried to make almost American music and sell it back to them.
Yeah, but it was different. It was original. And the person that pointed that out to me was an American rapper named Murs. I remember he said about you, “I’ve never heard rapping like that before, he’s doing something completely original.”
And that’s why it’s time to come back now again. And times have changed. So, I’ve jumped on electro or house music, the range. When you actually hear the album, I can actually do everything. It’s just nice to be able to put that in a package and it actually work. That’s what I’m happy about, that all these songs side by side, with all these features as well, which is another thing, and it all works. So, I’m just glad about that, really.
I’m quite shocked about how great “Dance Wiv Me” still is, because I have to say, that track, I guess people wanted to hate it because it’s a pop track, but it’s actually a really good, really appealing, bouncy pop production. But the way you ride the rhythm is really fantastic, actually. Every time I listen to it, I’m still amazed at how good the rap is on that.
You know, I’ve noticed, every time you do something different—I get it with “Bassline Junkie” now, all the different things; not so much “Bonkers”, people tend to like that one, but “Dance Wiv Me”, that’s the first time out on my own to try pop—people don’t get it. They can’t see things coming, they kind of shun it. I’ve been through that a few times with stuff. But that always lets me know that in the end, I’ve done the right thing. Because as long as you do something different, people will catch on later. That was Calvin Harris’ first number one as well, and look where he’s gone to. It’s good. I like taking risks. I know my safe zone. I could have stuck to doing what I was doing in 2000. I was churning it out all day. But what would be the point? I would just be that cool, “Remember Dizzee Rascal?” instead of sitting in the back of an S-Class in any part of Poland.
You make a really good point there. That’s quite an answer to anybody that says they do just want you to make grime. In all honesty, Boy In Da Corner is now a classic.
At the time it wasn’t.
It kinda was. It won a Mercury.
It won a Mercury, but the way I hear people talking about it, moaning about it—like you’ve got nine year-olds on Twitter whinging at me, “I like the old Dizzee.” I’m like, you were like three, what are you on about? Shit like that. People act like everyone loved it at the time. They didn’t. That’s what I remember. It was very different at the time.
Yeah, because it was grime. It was the world’s introduction to grime.
People at the time were saying that it wasn’t grime, as well, because of everything else. Do you know what pisses me off about grime? No one wants to make up and decide what grime is. I put out all my mixtapes, I put out stuff that I consider grime, I sat there and made it. Do I get a say? I dunno [laughs], I kind of was there at the beginning, making it. But people say, “Nah, that’s not grime.” You’ve got new generations of people, new generations of kids, and rightly so, they’ve got their take on it. So, they should dictate it, I guess. So, that’s why I’m not caught up in the whole, “I’m making grime, this is a grime record,” this and that. I just make music now, I just experiment. That’s the best way. The basic thing about it, if I never won an award or got no money, or no anything from it, it’s the fact that it took me to other countries, it took me to see other cultures in their environment. I understand America now, not just through TV and rap, like I did when I was younger. Now it’s actually because I had the money to be there and live there, in Miami for a bit. This is the first album I’ve made in America. So I’ve spent plenty of time there. Shit like that. Not just America, but music took me around the world to travel and embrace other cultures. And that was through experimenting and doing different shit. So, I’ve got no regrets.~
Dizzee Rascal’s new album The Fifth is set for release this summer.