Dizzee Rascal doesn't like the Brit awards. The man responsible for what was called "the most complete, intense and thrilling British hip hop record ever made" won't be there on Wednesday when the recording industry holds its annual festival of self-congratulation. "I don't think I've been invited," says the 23-year-old rapper.
Why should that be? He won a Mercury Prize, and that's much more prestigious. His latest album, Maths + English, is seen as one of the best of the last year. "Ain't no urban categories," says Dizzee Rascal with a shrug. "Whatever...."
Sharon and Ozzy Osbourne will be at Earls Court, because they're hosting the ceremony. Leona Lewis will be too, because the X Factor winner and warbler of inoffensive soul is up for four prizes. Sir Paul McCartney, Mika, Kylie and other luminaries of light pop will be there, but not the Rascal.
"I'm kind of out of touch with it," he mutters. "I watched the Brits when I was a kid, when it was Blur versus Oasis. That was exciting. After that? I've been there, seen what it's about, OK."
For a moment, he looks like letting the subject go. Then it seems to get to him. All that soft stuff, and no place for art like his? It is usually classified as Urban, which means rough-edged, of the city and most often of black origin. "Representing Britain, innit?" His incredulity is obvious. "The Brit awards. There's no room for Urban?"
It's a shame, I agree. "Ain't my shame," he says, shrugging again. "I don't give a shit."
Right, tough guy. But he does, really. Dizzee Rascal won the Mercury in 2004 as the sound of the council estate. A teenager from the East End, rapping on a pirate radio station high in a tower block, his was the real voice of a certain kind of young Londoner.
Grime, they called the music: frenetic, edgy, fizzing with energy and in his case wit and poetry. This newspaper described it as "like someone walking through London's busiest, most multicultural streets, 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 as stimulating as the sounds of the inner city".
High praise. But his ambitions were even higher. He grabbed his escape with both hands, making the big money that he wears on his wrists as a diamond and gold bracelet and a heavy watch. Since that breakthrough, he has worked with a surprisingly wide range of artists, from Arctic Monkeys to a jazz big band and full orchestra. "I'm an entertainer," he says. "I ain't losing track that it's entertainment."
Or a sell-out. That's how some of his rivals see him. Others have also wanted the Rascal to fit in with their expectations: namely the critics and politicians who were thrilled to think that here, at last, was someone who could articulate the anger, frustrations, dreams and demands of the young, black men they otherwise found distant.
A spokesman for a generation? Not today. Like others before him, he seems to have decided that is a straitjacket. "Obviously I can't speak for all fucking black people," he says. But he declares his songs to represent "reality, the London that ain't on the tourist brochure" and makes rallying cries like the one on the inner sleeve of his second album, in response to shootings and knife killings: "Black Britain, stop dying!"
So who are you, Dizzee Rascal? "Cultural icon is nice," he says, "but I'm just trying to entertain people."
This isn't Norman Wisdom. This is a young man who has other performers tripping over themselves to work with him, including Justin Timberlake and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. "Come on, man. That's shit some people dream of."
What do they get from him? "Realness," he says. But that currency gets harder to earn, the more hard cash you have. Asked whether he still lives near his Mum in Bow, east London, he says: "Nah, man. I go there. I'm always there. I've got family all around east London still."
He goes home to somewhere nicer? "Exactly. Like I'm supposed to." Like stars do. "Out of the way, where I can focus." A big rock star mansion in Surrey then? "It's not quite a mansion. I'm doing all right, know what I mean? Just jammin'."
Why shouldn't he? His neighbours on the Crossways estate didn't want to go on living in a dump, that's why it has been renamed and given a multi-million pound makeover.
The parallels with his life are obvious. But the further he gets from the old days and ways, and the more he goes on rhyming about them as if they are still happening, the less "realness" there will be, surely? Not a problem, says Rascal. He's beyond grime now, but he says he's going to do for British hip hop what a childhood hero did for martial arts. "I want all the angles. Like Bruce Lee. The wholeness."
If that really is the case, he's going to have to try much harder. We are talking at the launch of a new Nokia store in Regent Street. The footballer Darren Bent is here, and Ray Winstone's actor daughter Jaime and the photographer Rankin. The pitch is that they have all agreed to take pictures on their phones capturing London.
But Dizzee Rascal is reluctant to play the PR game. What is his London about? "Reality." Yes, but what does that mean? "OK. My London is racy. Hyper. Unpredictable. Uncontrollable. Er. Intense. Those are probably the five best words. But I want to add some humour."
Silence. Go on then, I say. He doesn't. Dizzee glowers beneath his tweed hat. They've told him he can't go home until some company bigwig makes a speech, so I ask another easy one: how did he get involved in this project? "Basically they asked me, innit?"
A little more, perhaps, Mr Rascal? You are presumably being paid to do this after all, or taking home all the gleaming kit you can carry. "Phones is a big part of my life."
The party is as unstreet as it gets: lots of thin, bald PR men and designers in thick glasses (the ponytail of the Noughties) and the girls they hire to make themselves appear younger. "Variety is the spice of life, man. I'm 23. I ain't running around doing the things I used to do."
A good job, perhaps? "Exactly." The young Dylan Mills was a troubled kid. His father died when he was two years old. His mother, Priscilla, encouraged the music he says saved him. "I was violent early on, and I saw violence," said the boy who saw his first dead body at the age of 10 or 11. "I ain't been short of people dying, getting shot and stabbed. That was always near me: fighting, bullshit, drugs, car crashes, crime."
A knife came far too close in 2003 while he was in Ayia Napa, Cyprus. There to perform in clubs, he was pulled off a moped and stabbed four times in the chest because of a gang dispute. Not long afterwards, to the astonishment of many in the music industry, his debut Boy In Da Corner won the Mercury. Equally unexpectedly, he defied hip hop convention and turned up to collect it. "A lot of the time, I don't know what people are talking about," he admits. "I'm just living my life and everyone's watching. I didn't really know much about the Mercury, but I went. It was a bit baffling. When I won, it was even more baffling. It's nice to be recognised though, innit?"
If quoting him verbatim like this feels a bit awkward, you should read his website. A typical entry reads: "U can watch da vid of me being shown da ropes..."
Success does not buy immunity from the hassles of the city. "I still get the same bullshit that some black boys get. The police... whatever. The world's a jungle in my eyes, innit? Everything's tribal. If you see someone who don't look like you – especially the colour of your skin – you're going to be suspicious, or not as welcoming or warming, innit? I've learned not to take it too personal. Just don't fucking... don't cross the line with me. It'll be safer for everyone."
Right. Scary. Or it would be, if he didn't look so lost. Who are the people closest to him? "S'pose like, Cage, my producer. Er... there's a few. Paddy here," he says, nodding towards a companion. "There's loads. Some that I wouldn't mention, to protect them. My girlfriend. My mum, to an extent. Cousins."
He used to imply he kept them anonymous for fear of reprisals from gang rivals. Reality is a little less street. "It's the pressure of fame. Intrusion. Some people just don't like you and cause problems, whether it be verbally, theoretically or physically."
Surely money – and moving out, and getting cars and bodyguards if you need them – stops the bad stuff happening? "To an extent. There's no point of getting into that." It wouldn't do his reputation any favours. "There's a string of shit from my past, from my present, from wherever, that ain't even been written about yet. That's what people are most attracted to. It's the shock factor."
It works. Instead of the Brits, this week he will play Manchester as part of the NME Awards shows, having been honoured for innovation. "NME is normally associated with indie rock," he says. "It ain't something I read as a kid. To be accepted it means I've done my job. I'm humble about it."
But not humble enough to have a proper conversation, instead of sitting hunched over the table and refusing to make eye contact.
Unusually, I feel like giving up. One more go, though: how would he describe his music to someone who has never heard it? "I don't think it needs too much description," he says, smirking at his friend. "Vague as it sounds. Put it on and if you feel it, feel it, yeah?"
Yeah, Dizzee. Whatever. We're done.Reuse content