Dizzee Heights - Dizzee Rascal interview
Erstwhile underground sensation, critical darling and now serial chart-topper Dizzee Rascal, aka Dylan Mills, has just notched up three MOBO Award nominations to complement his three consecutive number one singles. Fame has not phased him, however, and he’s taking his huge critical and commercial status in his stride, as Doug Johnstone discovers
Some people think he’s bonkers, but he just thinks he’s free. Man, he’s just living his life, there’s nothing crazy about him.
Perhaps not Pulitzer Prize winning sentiments from Britain’s first genuine rap superstar Dizzee Rascal, but there’s clearly something about ‘Bonkers’, his humungous summer anthem with Armand van Helden, that has struck a chord with the multitudes, instantly firing the man into tabloid-fodder celebrity status, and turning him into a bona fide pop sensation into the bargain.
The extent to which ‘Bonkers’ has wormed its way into the national consciousness can be ably demonstrated by the fact that my four-year-old son can rap along to the entire song, word perfect. And the wee man’s not the only one; for weeks it seemed that every time you turned on the radio or TV or went to a club, everyone was going, well, bonkers for ‘Bonkers’.
‘It’s been amazing, man,’ he enthuses. ‘Most artists never get that ever, and for some artists that only ever happens once, so I’m very appreciative.’
‘Bonkers’ is far from being a one-off hit, however, and is just part of an extraordinary leap in profile for an artist who had garnered plenty of critical acclaim in the past, but not really the record sales to match.
The transformation from edgy grime artist to Ibiza-friendly dance guru began last summer with ‘Dance Wiv Me’, his collaboration with Calvin Harris, and has continued through to recent single ‘Holiday’, complete with cheesy bikini-strewn pool party video. All three singles hit number one in the UK and have sold by the truckload, something which didn’t entirely surprise the man himself.
‘I knew they were going to be big,’ he says, ‘but going to number one with three singles in a row, especially with it being an independent label, that’s amazing. I don’t know anyone else who’s done that.’
The label he’s talking about is Dirtee Stank, a small indie affair co-run by him and his long-time manager and mentor Nick Cage. His previous three albums were released through esteemed label XL, who must now be well and truly kicking themselves that they didn’t hold on to the man just as he was plotting to aim for the commercial bull’s-eye.
And so Rascal, real name Dylan Mills, has just released his fourth album, featuring all three hit singles and a wealth of other instant dancefloor classics. With typical knockabout humour it’s called Tongue ‘n’ Cheek, and Rascal apparently used Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle as a blueprint for the kind of thing he was trying to achieve.
‘People won’t be disappointed by the album tracks, man,’ he says. ‘It’s total party music. I know the sun’s stopped shining and that, it’s not as hot, but I think people will still be able to have a real party with this record. It’s really upbeat all the way through, pretty happy, I guess there’s some dark moments on it, but it’s a fun album, that’s the key emphasis, fun.’
It all seems a million miles away from Boy in Da Corner, his Mercury Award winning debut album in 2003, which shot him into the spotlight at the tender age of seventeen. That album was packed with jittery, uncompromising grimy beats and lyrical musings on the nastiness of inner city street life, and it sounded unlike anything that had gone before.
In the same week the album was released, Rascal was stabbed five times in a club in Ayia Napa, then a summer haunt for the UK garage scene, so he clearly knew what he was rapping about; he had first-hand experience of how dangerous that life can be.
There then followed Showtime in 2004 and 2007’s Maths + English, a brace of albums which continued to meld streetwise observations with deadpan humour and some seriously inventive yet often very dark soundtracks. So what happened, exactly, to produce the recent dramatic change in musical direction?
‘I wanted to try more commercial stuff because it was something I hadn’t mastered really,’ he says frankly. ‘I’d done plenty of dark stuff and edgy stuff and hardcore stuff, and I kind of found that stuff easy. But making the bubbly, happy stuff, the more mainstream pop stuff, that was a real challenge, to get it done and do it well, and I think I’ve done that. It makes me feel good, man, my change of direction, it couldn’t have gone any better, so I’m happy.’
There is an interesting hint of defensiveness about his tone on this subject. Rascal is clearly no idiot, and he realises that having built his reputation on gritty urban street credibility, he’s bound to face accusations of selling out from hardcore grime and garage fans, accusations that he’s abandoned his roots in favour of the mainstream dollar and notoriety. He’s having none of it, though.
‘No one can establish what selling out is,’ he says a little tersely. ‘I can’t be bothered about something which ain’t clear, so fuck it.’
Rascal now finds himself on the celebrity carousel, and he seems to be revelling in it. I ask what he thought of Speech Debelle winning the Mercury Prize this year, in many ways mirroring his own achievement six years ago.
‘I didn’t see it, man, I was at the GQ Awards, they were on the same night.’ Ah yes, the GQ Awards where, according to the tabloids, he spent the evening cracking on to Natalie Imbruglia and opera singer Katherine Jenkins, then had an argument with Kate Moss in front of journalists. It’s a strange state of affairs for someone who rapped on early single ‘Fix Up, Look Sharp’ that ‘being a celebrity don’t mean shit to me, fuck the glitz and glamour’.
‘I see all that celebrity stuff now as whatever, man,’ he says. ‘What’s more important is that everyday people are liking my music, it’s got to that stage. I’ve worked really hard for a long time for it to come to this point, where I’m putting smiles on people’s faces, and I’m loving it.’
It’s impossible to begrudge the man his time in the spotlight. He remains a genuinely engaging character and artist, funny and intelligent in equal measure, and while his new dancefloor anthems might not be to the taste of those who preferred him edgy and gritty, they’re certainly a damned sight better than most of the insipid, four-to-the-floor dross that hits the charts every summer.
Rascal himself spent the summer on the festival circuit, where his crossover success was confirmed by huge crowds of predominantly white, middle-class indie kids going nuts for his act.
‘Glastonbury was amazing, that’s the reason you get into it, man, the bigger the crowd the better,’ he says. ‘When you’re doing things like Glastonbury main stage, and there’s 80,000 people and your hits are going off, it’s at those moments you sit back and breathe and take it in, man, cos it might never happen again.’
The breadth of appeal that Rascal now has is remarkable, from four-year-old kids to music professors, from hardcore clubbers to stag and hen parties to, apparently, Prince Harry. If he could bottle the essence of that appeal and sell it he’d make a fortune, but then he’s making a fortune anyway.
‘It’s about articulation,’ he says. ‘Everyone can see where I’m coming from, the music’s real. It evokes feelings, so that no matter where you’re from, or who you are, music will make you feel something, music will make you relate in some way.’
Like any successful young, black British artist, especially one who comes from a difficult background, Rascal has long been held up as a role model to kids from a similar background. Does his increased profile create any added pressure in that respect?
‘Man, I get asked that question so many times, my ears are bleeding,’ he laughs dryly. ‘I was a role model before the press and everyone picked up on me. People have been following me from when I was on pirate radio eight years ago, so I guess that’s your answer.’
Not for the first time in the interview, he sounds a bit shirty. Earlier, he ignored a question about his three MOBO nominations and rather dismissively revealed he wouldn’t be at the awards ceremony, in Glasgow for the first time. Maybe he’s just fed up doing endless press. For an artist so young, his career has already been an incredible journey, so I ask if he thinks he’s changed along the way.
‘A fundamental part of me is still the same, but I’ve adapted to every situation that’s been thrown at me,’ he says honestly. ‘So in that way, I guess, I’ve changed quite a bit.’
Finally, I ask what his unsigned, teenage self would’ve thought if he’d been told that he’d have three number one singles in a row on his own independent label. Rascal gives out a confident laugh.
‘I might’ve believed it,’ he chuckles. ‘I probably would’ve said hurry up, give it to me now.’
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