DIZZEE: GRIME’S NOT HIS NAME

Interview from last July I did with Dizzee:

A lot of time has passed since Dizzee Rascal’s 2003 debut album Boy in Da Corner put the rap-phylum “grime” on the flapping lips of record execs and the keyboards of journalists everywhere. Rolling Stone, The Village Voice and even The New Yorker ran ecstatic columns announcing the miraculous birth and blossoming of this newborn sound.

They named it “grime” and despite its lowly-sounding name it was going to go far.

By all their accounts, this chimera of drum ‘n’ bass, dancehall, hip hop and punk was a dynamic new force materialized from the dismal brick and concrete of East London council estates (that’s “projects” to all you North Americans). Suddenly, grime acts like Dizzee Rascal’s ex-crew Roll Deep, Wiley, Kano, Lady Sovereign and a slew of others jumped ship and swam for the sunny promise of big record deals. Grime looked like it was going to escape the choppy seas of poverty and pirate-radio, hijacking the mainstream media to have their say and their sound heard.

But that’s old news.

These days the name “grime” rubs its main figurehead Dizzee Rascal the wrong way. The former ambassador of the genreexplains some of the myth surrounding the term over the phone. “It all started with the journalists spreading the names…,” he huffs while driving to his London studio. “Grime’s done well enough that the name precedes it. But it’s just a name. Like with crunk you got the Lil’ Jons of this world and they’re doing the same song over and over. There’s a whole lot of people making music that’s different and better than that.”

And Dizzee is one of those people making “different and better” music. Unlike some of his contemporaries, he’s moved on and evolved from the cloying title of “grime”. His most recent album, 2007’s Maths + English not only toed the line of what purists expected of him, but jumped clear over their boundaries. Dizzee’s collaborations with pop and rock acts like Lily Allen, Arctic Monkeys vocalist Alex Turner and (before Dizzee decided that her voice was making the track “too poppy”) Joss Stone, left many fans grumbling about his departure from the style that had made him famous.

But Maths + English was applauded by critics for its diverse array of samples and guest appearances as well as a shift towards more American influences. Dizzee has likened Maths + English to a rock concert where the old and young are all “wildin’ out” together. Unsure of what “wildin’ out” involved, I ask him to elaborate on what one of his shows is like:

DR: “It’s the energy you get from the crowd, real bass-driven and up-tempo jumpin’ around. Just no air guitars.”

SP: “What about moshing?”

DR: “Moshing and crowd-surfing yes, just no air guitars.”

This sounds suspiciously like the scene set at the Glastonbury Festival last month when Jay-Z won over a crowd of doubters with a barely-strummed acoustic guitar and a cover of Oasis’ “Wonderwall”. Much to rock-festival traditionalist Liam Gallagher’s chagrin, it looked like rap was about to dethrone the tired old tyrant rock ‘n’ roll.

But when I ask Dizzee what he thinks about this shift of power, he suggests it’s nothing new, responding with a seemingly random but diverse list of life-long inspirations ranging from Ludacris to Nirvana. “I was always listening to everything, everywhere,” he explains. “Maybe most rap isn’t open to that. But rap’s always borrowed from everything. It’s a back-and-forth.”

There is a very clear exchange of ideas between rappers and skinny, white indie kids these days. Consider Dizzee’s current single “Dance Wiv Me” featuring electro-absurdity Calvin Harris. I suggested a few examples of geeky culture filtering into rap right now: Tyga sagging skinny jeans in the video for “Coconut Juice”, Lil’ Wayne’s obsession with Sci-Fi, The Pack’s track “In My Car” sounding exactly like Steve Urkel. Dizzee catches on to the direction I am heading, “Yeah, you mean like Cool Kids and all that stuff.” Before I can finish my assertion that these “nerdy” leanings are a sort of foil to the culture of “dangerous”, “sexy” and
“cool” that hip-hop has always been associated with, Dizzee picks up saying, “That’s always been in hip-hop, there’s always been nerdy fads. Like, look at De La Soul” – I immediately flashback to the bespectacled Pos miming air-trombone on “Eye Know” – “that geek thing comes in to counter that whole rap-gun-man-lunatic-psycho-puff stuff. And that all gets a bit boring, doesn’t it?”

After prodding him unsuccessfully about his days MCing pirate radio, I ask him about American acts he’s into and he rattles off a list of Southern gentlemen so fast I can’t transcribe them all, “. . . Shawty Lo, UGK, Three 6 Mafia forever . . . ” There is a distinct pause. ” . . . of course, Young Jeezy.” I hear a slight quiver of excitement ripple from the other end of the line. He sounds like an excited fan as he launches into a story. “I was in New York for the first time ever and I met Young Jeezy. I promised him I’d listen to his stuff. I wanted to be from that fan perspective. So I waited in queues outside the store for it to come out at midnight.” I suggest that waiting in line outside a New York City record store for an album to drop might be just a tiny bit dorky for a famous rapper like himself. Dizzee graciously brushes it off: “I don’t mind being a little geeky or doing geeky stuff. The key to life is people.”

So now, five years on from winning the prestigious Mercury Prize for best album of 2003, Dizzee Rascal has continued his up and outward trajectory. These days he’s been dipping his toe in indie waters as this summer has already witnessed him release a number one single, “Dance Wiv Me”, and covering The Ting Tings’ ubiquitous “That’s Not My Name”. The live recording of the cover conveys something more than the original pouty fit as Dizzee appropriates singer Katie White’s candied shout to make more of a statement.

“They call me ‘Black’/ They call me ‘Rudebwoy’/ They call me ‘Oi’/ . . . They use the N-word/ Like it’s a game/ That’s not my name!/ That’s not my name!”

This simple switch-up that turned a girly pop-anthem into a sharp retort slung at racists seems to echo the annoyance he expresses at labels like “grime” and “raga” that stick to him and his music.

“Before my time is up and he hangs up the phone, Dizzee leaves me with a golden-nugget of a quote: “Music ain’t got no name, just different ways.”

And his wise-sounding aphorism is right. The countless cross-pollinations of popular music are defying definition despite our vain attempts to come up with terms for every fleeting fad and one-hit-genre. So even though you might hear people call Dizzee Rascal “grime”, just remember: that’s not his name!

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