Dizzee Rascal: Boy out da corner

He won the Mercury Music Prize, survived a stabbing, can rap 86 words in 15 seconds, and is about to release his second album. And he's still only 19. Garry Mulholland meets Dizzee Rascal
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The Independent Culture

'Now, we want to see how fast you can rap. You're up against Britney Spears and Rolf Harris. You've got 15 seconds..." Dylan Mills looks at the TV producer. There is a brief pause. A pause where, perhaps, he wants to tell this perky lady with the clipboard that Dizzee Rascal does not want to trivialise and humiliate himself by having an MC battle with a video of Rolf Harris, not even for the glory of appearing on MTV's Total Request Live, because, if one of his friends or rivals from the east-London garage scene sees this, he will lose every last shred of credibility. But, at the ripe old age of 19, the producer and MC whose overnight success has put the gnarly garage/hip-hop hybrid known as "grime" on the mainstream map is already used to scenarios like this. The pause passes. He grins happily. "Cool," he says, before taking his seat in the Green Room that isn't green.

'Now, we want to see how fast you can rap. You're up against Britney Spears and Rolf Harris. You've got 15 seconds..." Dylan Mills looks at the TV producer. There is a brief pause. A pause where, perhaps, he wants to tell this perky lady with the clipboard that Dizzee Rascal does not want to trivialise and humiliate himself by having an MC battle with a video of Rolf Harris, not even for the glory of appearing on MTV's Total Request Live, because, if one of his friends or rivals from the east-London garage scene sees this, he will lose every last shred of credibility. But, at the ripe old age of 19, the producer and MC whose overnight success has put the gnarly garage/hip-hop hybrid known as "grime" on the mainstream map is already used to scenarios like this. The pause passes. He grins happily. "Cool," he says, before taking his seat in the Green Room that isn't green.

If the promotional whirl accompanying the release of Dizzee Rascal's forthcoming "Stand Up Tall" single and second album, Showtime, is taking a physical or spiritual toll on the teenager, then everyone's favourite Bow street rhymer is hiding it pretty well. His fellow guest in the MTV studio is Jodie Marsh, his spot is sandwiched between sappy videos by Bryan McFadden and Nelly, but he is the height of good-sport friendliness and pleased-to-be-here pep throughout.

The kids in the audience, and dotted around Leicester Square waiting patiently for a sighting and an autograph, obviously adore Dizzee, and remind you of what an amazing year 2003 was for him. The first album, Boy In Da Corner, deservedly won the Mercury Music Prize, and forced trendy pop-watchers to at least attempt to get to grips with his lurching, brittle, synthetic beats and darkly comic motor-mouth rhymes, dominated by black working-class youth slang and dripping with the reality of violence, police harassment, crime, machismo, poverty, gender war and the desperation to escape an environment that eats its young. With its trio of knock-out singles, "I Luv U", "Fix Up Look Sharp" and "Jus' a Rascal", Boy In Da Corner remains one of the great London albums, an eerie, pungent mash-up of cultures under stress, a snapshot of a young underclass being put through an economic and environmental ringer. With jokes.

At the same time as Boy In Da Corner was picking up Mercury panel votes, Mills quickly became a different kind of famous. The tabloids and music press had a field-day when a summer 2003 trip to Ayia Napa ended with Mills as the victim of a near-fatal stabbing, complete with rumours of London gangland feuds - a perfect story for all those who believe that all young black men, no matter how talented, are trouble with a capital "T".

Nevertheless, the Dylan Mills I meet in a small reception room above the MTV studio does not behave like a man under pressure, either from the difficulties of following up a debut masterpiece, or from violent outside forces. His chatty demeanour and who-gives-a-damn attitude to life in general belies the material on his new Showtime album, which, while being plugged as a broader and lighter record than Boy In Da Corner, is dominated by threatening verbals and pre-emptive attacks on any criticism that may come his way. Mills dismisses my suggestion that Showtime should have been called Come and Have a Go If You Think You're Hard Enough by insisting that his rhymes are "of the moment", and reminding me of the tradition of metaphor within the culture of battling MCs. "A lot of times, because of how vivid it sounds, people can't differentiate between reality and someone just writing something, especially someone who ain't familiar with the rap culture. It's been known for people to get into all sorts of drama from that, especially with the pirate radio thing. It's no different from two people who've got a problem with each other who see each other at McDonald's. It's gonna kick off."

Mills's voice is deeper than on record, just as he is taller and thinner in person than he looks on screen or in photos. His accent is pure London/Jamaican hybrid, a succession of glottal stops and chewed vowels which is rhythmic and musical without trying. Nevertheless, it wasn't rapping but a desire to DJ that provided a 13-year-old Mills with his earliest musical ambitions. After a local DJ gave the fledgling DJ his entire record collection, Mills and an older group of MC friends made tapes in his bedroom. Encouraged by his mother and Tim Smith, a music teacher at Langdon Park School, Mills turned towards making tunes on computer. It became a welcome distraction from the council estate bother he was being pulled into.

"I was all over the place at school. Sometimes I'd be excluded for whatever reason. So I'd just write lyrics when I weren't at school. I forgot about the DJ-ing eventually." When I ask Mills about what "all over the place" means, his voice becomes quiet, almost embarrassed. "I used to fight a lot. Always fighting. I had issues. A major problem with authority. A lot of friends were older as well and they weren't always in school, so I was bunking off and getting caught up in a few things I didn't need to get caught up in. You get that mind-state and you take it to school, and you're not gonna let a teacher tell you nothin'." (It was around this time that the moniker "Dizzee Rascal" was coined.) "My Dad died when I was two and that might have been a part of it. There was no father-figure so all I knew was that I had to make myself a man. Obviously, that just comes out as animosity. Bullshit, innit? But that was my outlook on it." So music was an escape from that world? "And a lot more. 'Cos over the last few years I ain't been short of people dying, getting shot and stabbed. The other day a friend got shot twice. That was always near me, fighting, bullshit, drugs, car crashes, crimes. Not that I'm the biggest hardened criminal in the world. I got caught up and whatever. At the same time, especially with 'I Luv U', it was, 'At last - another place to go, aside from home.'"

"I Luv U", Dizzee's extraordinary, nightmarish vision of unwanted pregnancy and he-say-she-say council estate claustrophobia, became an underground anthem almost as soon as he left school. The track's impact was such that, as well as getting Dizzee signed to XL records (home of Prodigy, Basement Jaxx and Badly Drawn Boy), a response track from a female perspective called "I Love You" performed the same miracle for Hackney's Shystie. Rather than sue or start an Eamon-style feud with her, Dizzee publicly praised the track. "I loved that," he nods approvingly. "You don't know how happy I was. She thoroughly understood where I was coming from and it made me feel like I did it right. The fact that she was a girl as well, and said what a girl would wanna say... I know I've had a massive effect on the underground. I can hear it in the way people MC and make beats." With the release of the first album last year, his influence on the grime scene was matched almost immediately by mainstream acclaim. The winning of the Mercury Music Prize remains a source of enormous pride. "Yeah, that was amazing. More and more, every day, as it sinks in, it bewilders me. Because it means something around the world. Sometimes I only wish I knew something more about it before I won it. Before Ms Dynamite won it the year previously I didn't know what it was! It's something that sets me aside from the rest for ever, and I'm so proud of that." But overnight fame made the less positive side of Dizzee's life the subject of press speculation. There was a mysterious falling-out with fellow Bow MC and producer Wiley. At the beginning of 2003, the pair were doing radio spots and live shows together. By the close of 2003, they were no longer on speaking terms. "There's some deeper politics that the world don't need to hear. That's just bitching: 'I don't like him because...' I wanna try and be as adult about it as possible. I don't think Wiley was as important to me as a lot of people think. I met him from doing my own thing and I'd made a name for myself already. No one taught me how to make beats or how to MC. But it's not for me to sit here and slag someone off when I can't even tell you the way it was. That's a part of my past I'd like to get past, and not dwell on it."

Which brings us neatly to the stabbing in Ayia Napa. Dizzee is sharp way beyond his years (at one point he remarks that, "I've been through some things that a few 30-year-olds haven't seen in their lifetime."), and he laughs darkly when I pull the ancient journalistic trick of leaving the most awkward question to the end of the interview. "See dat! He saves it right till the end, man!" Nevertheless, he dutifully shows me the large, stitch-marked scar over his ribcage. "And there's a few more on my back. So what do you wanna know?" I want to know what happened. "It's something that I don't go into that deeply. Shit happens, can I say that in your paper? This isn't new to me. I've been in a few life-threatening situations. It sounds so clichéd that I don't even wanna say it." But was it, as everyone suggested, an incident related to London gang warfare? You're now stuck with that image. Tell me something to end that image.

"I don't know if I can end the image, y'know? That incident wasn't about the east- and south-London thing that people think it was. It just so happens that one set happens to be from south and one set happens to be from east. It was an ugly situation. There's more to it than people know about. But what's important is that I'm alive and I'm here."

Dylan Mills puts his success down to "perseverance and God". But there's much more to it than hard work and God-given talent. Dizzee Rascal is a bridge between worlds. His vivid, evocative music is like someone walking through London's busiest, most multi-cultural streets - say, those around Dalston or Brixton markets - absorbing every noise, from the bhangra or dancehall reggae coming from a car to the constant trebly chirp of mobile ringtones and car alarms, and making it into a polymorphous music as irritating yet stimulating as the sounds of the inner-city. At the same time, his words link the constant conflict and stress of ghetto life with a wider world that is both thrilled by and frightened of its blend of struggle, violence and hustling to survive. I ask Mills if he'll put the lyrics on Showtime's sleeve, to help us make sense of the speed and the slang of his spitting rhymes. He won't. Doesn't he have any fears about being misunderstood? "Listen, man... I've been on the edge of society. Misunderstood? Misunderstood? Young, black, misunderstood... I've been looked at from a negative perspective most of my life. And that's not an exaggeration - that's real. That's what people expect me to say, but I still will and I'm not scared of saying it. So I ain't worried about being misunderstood, by any means."

Incidentally, Dizzee, of course, won Total Request Live's impromptu speed-rap battle. Mills managed 86 words in 15 seconds, live, no second chances, each word of "Stand Up Tall" as clear as it is on the single version, which is as clear as Dylan Mills is willing to make it. Britney and Rolf never really stood a chance.

The single 'Stand Up Tall' is released tomorrow. The album 'Showtime' is released on 6 September, both on XL

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