Dizzee Rascal: Bringing it all back home

Neither his recent stabbing nor a Mercury Music Prize nomination is going to divert Dizzee Rascal, discovers Nick Hasted. He's taking us into his world
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The Independent Culture

The first time you hear Boy in da Corner, it's a jolt.

The first time you hear Boy in da Corner, it's a jolt. The debut album of 18-year-old Dizzee Rascal has just been nominated for the Mercury Music Prize, but more important is the impact it makes on your head as it forces its way up from the underground - musical and social. Born Dylan Mills in Bow, east London, Dizzee has made the freshest British album since The Streets' Original Pirate Material, an unexpected grafting of old-school jungle-squelching bass and helium vocals to whistling oriental cyber-chimes and pizzicato strings, big rock drums, and locking guns. An eccentric, alienated and unpredictable sonic world, Dizzee's raps - in a voice that sometimes seems not to have broken - adds distressing mood swings, schizoid self-hatred, newly minted slang, careless slagging, nostalgia for childhood, fear of the future, and suicidal thoughts. If it wins the Mercury, and becomes the middle class's annual "street" purchase, a million dinner parties will grind to a halt.

Dizzee was in the headlines just before the Mercury announcement, when he was stabbed three times in the chest by mystery assailants on Ayia Napa, the Cyprus playground of the UK garage scene he is sometimes considered a part of (though he'd disagree). Members of So Solid Crew, also on the island at the time, were questioned by police then released, and denied any involvement in the incident.

But if Dizzee gets branded with a "garage crime" tag, like So Solid, it will be unearned. His own tale isn't unusual. Raised by a single mother on a council estate, he was an angry, disruptive child, excluded from every class except music, where one teacher saw his potential. He MCed first as a hobby, but it became an obsession, and he would shimmy up the sides of buildings with pirate radio wires in his mouth, in return for air-time. "I Luv You", a harsh battle-of-the-sexes single written when he was 16 after getting a girl pregnant, was his calling card. Now, with XL Records (home of The Prodigy and The White Stripes) behind him, he has the muscle to make people hear.

When I meet Dizzee, outside an up-market east London club, Ayia Napa is understandably off-limits. It doesn't seem to have traumatised him too much, anyway. He is small and calm, with a teenage boy's way of talking in jerky bursts, and clear, interested eyes. Talking about the London of Boy in da Corner, he describes the daily boredom, made dully tense by potential violence, that forged him.

"I'd be out sitting on the wall all day. Chat shit. Watch cars go past. Or do other stuff. I used to bottle things up, then explode, at the wrong time. Growing up on a council estate, that didn't really stand out. There's thousands of me. But eventually, you have to be a rock, and stand firm and do your deal. Music was the first thing that channelled my energies. Where normally I'd be on the street starting trouble, I'd be in the studio, for hours. It was hard, at the beginning. But when I think about it now, it kept me out of so much - that fight, and that shooting."

Dizzee soaked up music almost from birth. Beginning with incendiary, uncensored rappers such as Tupac and Eminem, he branched into jungle, punk and metal ("the extreme musics"). Sham 69 are somewhere in Boy in da Corner's DNA, as are Nirvana. Discussing the purging power of the latter's In Utero, he hits on what it shares with his own record.

"If you're feeling bad, it cleanses you, because the rage is in the music. So once the album's done, the anger's gone with it. It's been angry for you. I'd like people to think of my record from that point of view. A lot of people feel like me in this city. So they can turn it on for 60 minutes. And then, get on with things."

"Do It", the album's barely positive closing track, talks of "looking under a stone" to find the world Dizzee knows. It is a rare surface salvo from the buried part of a schismed Britain, the bit that isn't made up of happily shopping couples. But Dizzee doesn't want to be tied to one social point.

"There's so many things, really. It's to show people, maybe who even live where I do, what's going on around their corner - adults just think they know, but they look at it from a newspaper point of view. I'm deep in, but I've got a brain, and I don't just want people from the estate or even the country I'm from to understand. I'm trying to give a perspective, from outside-in and inside-out. The best thing about the album is that there's loads of questions to be asked that haven't been asked before. I'm just saying, this is what I know. This is the hand life dealt me. Did you know?"

The Mercury Music Prize nomination brings a different angle to the two Britains that Dizzee's linking. I tell him The Streets' Mike Skinner has complained that, since middle-class listeners adopted him, garage fans won't play him any more - as if the moment you're widely heard, you become neutered, and irrelevant.

The thought makes Dizzee boil. "I've got nothing but respect for Mike Skinner - even though I called him Frank Skinner by mistake once. But he shouldn't worry about that, because progression is progression, and if garage people decide they don't like ya - that fanbase ain't that big anyway. He's progressed to the middle-classes, to make people understand him, but garage people still know who he is. It's the same with me. I ain't worried about, oh, they're gonna think I'm not ghetto no more. You can't tell me. The truth's there, and it's never going away. And I'm not here to be the most ghetto anyway. I don't give a shit about that. I'm making music now, and I can leave any time, man. The ones who go, 'I'm not leaving the ghetto', really it's because, deep down, they know they're never going to get a chance to. Why would anyone want to stay there?"

But still, is there an energy and strength he'll take with him, that he wouldn't have if he'd grown up soft - the thing, maybe, his suburban listeners ache for a piece of?

"Yeah, of course. Street's with you forever. It's good, if you apply it to something else. It don't do much for you otherwise. I might never be socially accepted, or middle-class. But you make your own straps when you're from the road. I ain't got nothing against middle- or upper-class people. I just ain't got much in common with them. I think it's more important to come from nothing, and make yourself big. No disrespect to anyone born with a silver spoon in their mouth," he politely concludes.

Dizzee's wider desire is to take his strange, genre-less black English music to America, and beyond. "I was born in this little bit of rock, in the East End. But I'm in the world now."

Does he feel happy, as he contemplates his achievements so far?

"Yeah, man. I'm alive for a start, innit? Some people, they go to sleep, and don't ever wake up."

'Boy in da Corner' (XL) is out this week