Mercury rising

The Mercury music prize was awarded this week to the newcomer Dizzee Rascal. Fiona Sturges applauds this year's decision but wonders whether the prize has been devalued by past mistakes

For an award that is supposed to celebrate British music, the Mercury prize doesn't half get people grumbling. Of course, it's customary to harp on about the pointlessness of awards ceremonies: that they're crude, self-congratulatory affairs populated by cynical marketing types with cash registers for brains. But this year the Mercury prize has finally managed to prove its worth. The judges have burrowed through the mountain of mediocre music and alighted on one of the most exciting talents to have emerged in recent years.

Dizzee Rascal, aka Dylan Mills, a diminutive 18-year-old from Bow, in east London, has made an album that sounds like no other. Of all this year's contenders, Boy in da Corner is the only work that can genuinely claim to be pushing the limits of music and bears testament to the rude health of the British underground garage scene. It also lays waste to the frequent contention that pop music is stuck in the past.

Mills rose through the ranks of the urban-music scene as a member of the Roll Deep Crew, the East End's answer to So Solid Crew. Unlike So Solid, however, he comes with an authentic voice and an original sound that draws on garage, ragga and drum'n'bass, as well as obscure vocal samples. A gifted lyricist, Mills casts a spotlight on the reality of life on a London council estate, a world of "blacks, skanks and street robbery... pregnant girls who ain't got no love, useless mans with no plans". Songs such as "Brand New Day", delivered in Mills's hysterical, high-pitched squawk, examine the burgeoning gun culture and disputes settled with "eight-millimetres". Mills was recently stabbed in the Cypriot resort of Ayia Napa.

While the Mercury judges' decision is to be applauded, it's true that the prize has suffered a crisis of credibility of late. Three years ago, the former Creation boss Alan McGee lambasted the shortlist, memorably describing Coldplay as a bunch of "bedwetters". The following year, Gorillaz turned down their nomination, writing it off as "a dead albatross". This year's shortlist did not exactly restore one's faith. As always, there were glaring oversights. Where was Beth Gibbons and Rustin Man's Out of Season, Mull Historical Society's Us and Cerys Matthews's Cockahoop? Eyebrows were raised at the inclusion of Radiohead and Coldplay. They are, after all, commercial big-hitters more suited to Brits-sized awards ceremonies. Equally, the presence of so many new acts led one to question the judges' abilities as talent-spotters. Athlete and The Thrills are two bands who have produced serviceable debuts in the past year, but neither album could feasibly be deemed award-winning. Another perennial complaint about the shortlist is the annual token jazz and folk nominations. Regrettably, this year was no different. Talented though she may be, it's safe to say that Eliza Carthy stood little chance of winning the prize on Tuesday; similarly, it's unlikely that the jazz maestro Soweto Kinch bothered to prepare a thank-you speech.

Over the past decade, the judges have made some truly heinous decisions. In 1994, M People's ghastly Elegant Slumming was for some reason deemed superior to Blur's Parklife, while Radiohead have made it into the running three times now without landing the prize. Oasis and Massive Attack are among the other nominees who, having left the Mercurys empty-handed, went on to change the course of popular music. Last year's winner, Ms Dynamite, was among the more decent contenders, but there's no doubt that The Streets, aka Mike Skinner, widely upheld as the most authentic voice in British music for years, was robbed. But the judges have made good last year's error. Their decision makes a mockery of claims that they are apt to go for the safe, easily digestible option. There's nothing polite about Dizzee Rascal, and Boy in da Corner sure as hell ain't dinner-party music. It's an eccentric, unpredictable, sometimes distressing work that demands your attention.

Whereas the Brits seem to be about rewarding album sales, the Mercury is about rewarding talent and innovation. Along with the Mobos (Music of Black Origin awards), it's one of the few prizes that both the music industry and consumers take seriously. Being on the shortlist can not only increase kudos but also give an instant boost to sales.

But what really makes the Mercury worthwhile is its championing of new acts. In the past, artists such as Tom McRae, Ed Harcourt and Goldfrapp have all had a useful leg-up from their nominations. This year's shortlist contained eight debut albums, Dizzee Rascal's included.

Of course, Mills would be wise to remember that the award can be a mixed blessing. After winning with Dummy in 1995, Portishead disappeared from the musical radar and didn't make another record for three years. Unable to replicate the success of their winning albums in 1997 and 1998, Roni Size and Gomez's profiles have been on a downward slide ever since.

Who knows what the future holds for Dizzee Rascal now? Well, he's unlikely to be swapping his council tower-block for a penthouse overlooking the Thames just yet. One thing's for sure, though. A lot of people are going to hear his record over the next few months who otherwise wouldn't have. That can only be a good thing.

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