Dizzee Rascal: Scaling the Dizzee heights

Since the Mercury prize, Dizzee Rascal's audience has widened, and his new album reflects that, as he tells Chris Mugan
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Dylan Mills sighs in frustration when I bring up the most quoted line from his debut, Mercury prize-winning album, Boy in da Corner: "I am a problem for Anthony Blair." To many commentators, the phrase summed up his importance as the rapper Dizzee Rascal. For the first time since Goldie's jungle classic "Inner City Life", here was an artist able to encapsulate life in Britain's most deprived areas in thrilling fashion. Mills, though is having none of it.

Dylan Mills sighs in frustration when I bring up the most quoted line from his debut, Mercury prize-winning album, Boy in da Corner: "I am a problem for Anthony Blair." To many commentators, the phrase summed up his importance as the rapper Dizzee Rascal. For the first time since Goldie's jungle classic "Inner City Life", here was an artist able to encapsulate life in Britain's most deprived areas in thrilling fashion. Mills, though is having none of it.

"That line was way over-quoted. It was just a rhyme, man. I was talking about stereotypes, just mucking around. Like, there was a lot more that people could have picked up than that one thing." So what lines would he like the album to be remembered for? Mills does not have to think long. "'Sleep tight, everything will be all right/ At the end of the night will be the day/ Just pray that you see it/ Strong you gotta be if you wanna live through it/ Stretch your mind to believing you can do it.' Who can't relate to that? In any language?"

You would think that, with his experience of the media, he would be aware of its dictum that bad news sells. After all, the star of the London-based pirate-radio scene came to most people's attention when he was stabbed at the infamous Ayia Napa resort in Cyprus, allegedly as part of a feud with members of So Solid Crew. Yet Mills still wonders at the public's appetite for the negative side of life. "How much bad news do you see on TV? It must be the end of the world. There has to be good news somewhere."

Even if there were positive messages on his debut album, Mills' voice was still that of a hypertense teenager, one that seemed to drip frustration and paranoia, but he claims that that is a misconception. He needed to shout to be heard. "People get that anger thing a bit twisted. I was coming from an environment where it was two hours of pirate radio, shouting and screaming over these mad beats; smoking, synthetics, going to raves that were unorganised, unsafe, hostile."

It is a perfect time to set the record straight as, merely a year after he received that Mercury award, Mills has returned in double-quick time with the follow-up, Showtime. Despite a mammoth promotional schedule for Boy in da Corner that took the 18-year-old from east London around the world, Mills found time to pen lyrics and program beats for another stunning record.

"As soon as I finished Boy in da Corner, I knew definitely that I wanted to make a second album, and I knew that I wanted to bring it out a year later, to show people that I could progress as an artist."

As he jotted down notes on his A4 pad or laptop, Mills realised his status was changing from local hero to international star. First, he crossed over to the UK charts, then came trips to the US and Europe where he found appreciative audiences among American indie kids and German hip-hop fans. Showtime became the sound of an artist breaking free from the scene that nurtured him. Away from radio stations and raves, Mills sounds much more relaxed. He is able to express himself in more varied ways, with the intimate reverie of "Imagine" alongside the bravado of "Hype Talk". Its title suggests that Mills himself recognised that he had developed from a street-corner diarist to a full-blown entertainer.

"I wanted to put across the transition I'd made from underground to mainstream without compromising on anything. I'm not just a garage MC or an urban MC or a rapper, I'm capable of taking something new and innovative to a commercial level and making it popular music."

Given the interest in his lyrics, it is easy to forget that Mills is intimately involved in creating the music that he raps over. On Showtime, his production has become more sophisticated. While the spare rhythms remain, he has found time to weave in rich layers of sound to create more intricate patterns. On the single "Stand Up Tall", for the first time, a tune was recognisable beneath his dense raps.

Mills takes as his role model the production outfit The Neptunes, the R&B team that record their own music as N*E*R*D, yet also devise tunes for the likes of Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears. "In time, I'd love to produce for other people. I used a singer for the first time [on the album track "Get By"], and that was a good experience."

For now, this progression has allowed Mills to step up as a vocalist. He may never sing, but his lines fit the tunes well. Just such a development helped the most successful US rappers, and Jamaican artists, such as Sean Paul, to reach a global audience, and Mills is unashamed about making a similar step.

"On Showtime, I was still thinking about the people that went to raves and listened to pirate radio, but I knew that I now had an international audience, so I had to write songs with universal concepts."

While his lyrics are still peppered with local slang - kids with screwfaces (scowls) conch (slouch) in stairwells - the rapper has moved on from vignettes of teenage pregnancy and casual brutality to songs that use his experiences to discuss jealousy, respect and ambition. Unfortunately, Mills still can't quite remove himself from the backbiting garage scene. Several tracks on the album address people that accuse him of selling out, or seek to prolong the rifts and vendettas that pervade the genre, though he feigns not to care.

"I'm as concerned as the Government is about giving people congestion charges. Do they care? I'm following my path, you know. Where I come from will always be a part of me, but what I need to do will take me somewhere else. Some people are happy with that and it's all love, and some people ain't happy. I can't make it my problem. One thing that I've learnt is that pleasing other people just makes you unhappy."

His reason for writing about how some people speak of him is to prevent it detracting from his music in the way that has happened to other artists. "Certain DJs will try to hype off it themselves. They'll just play tracks where you diss other people. I don't think they realise how out of hand things get. They can play a big part of it then wash their hands of it when there's a situation. I don't think I'd be where I am now if I went down that route, because that becomes more main focus if you want to clash with people."

Mills is still looking over his shoulder, and any personal questions are met with guarded suspicion. He won't reveal whether or not he has moved out from the bedroom in his mother's house, where he lived even as he was awarded the Mercury prize. "I'm from London, innit. Would you tell people where you live?" he asks to evade the question.

Yet Mills is starting to get on with the world at large. On Showtime, he suggests that kids should "stick with school", surprising given that the rapper himself was ejected from several institutions for being a disruptive influence.

"School was rocky for me, but I did finish in the end. Just. I went to a million schools, but I would encourage it. I don't agree with all of the curriculum, but any learning is good. You can take some things with a pinch of salt, then do your own investigations."

Even more surprising is his track "Dreams", mooted as the next single from Showtime. For just as the rap superstar Jay-Z appropriated the soundtrack to the musical Annie for his hit "Hard Knock Life", Mills has borrowed the chirpy "Happy Talk" chorus from South Pacific. But, rather than use the original soundtrack, in a gloriously perverse fashion, he has gone for the Eighties version by the former punk rocker and drummer in The Damned, Captain Sensible. "I saw it on Top of the Pops 2," Mills reminisces. "Man, they looked like a circus. It was so different to what I do that I wanted to see what I could do with it."

Not so long ago, Mills opened for Jay-Z at Wembley Arena, where a UK urban artist has yet to headline. An artist with the confidence to sample "Happy Talk" has to be a contender - no matter how irritating the tune.

'Showtime' is out now on XL. The single 'Dream' is out on 8 November

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