Streets ahead: Dizzee Rascal

The former bad boy from the East End has turned into a national treasure, going further than any British hip-hop star before him

Ian Burrell
Saturday 19 September 2009 00:00

Dizzee Rascal has surely made it now. Leaving the concrete jungle of the Crossways estate in east London's Bow to live in a house in the leafy comfort of suburban Kent, Britain's most successful rapper has not so much got out of the woods as escaped to them.

He has debated politics on Newsnight with Jeremy Paxman, shot the breeze with Jonathan Ross on his chat show and performed at an Oxford University black-tie ball. Prince Harry is one of his fans. He was the star performer at this summer's Glastonbury festival, has had three successive No 1 singles, and his fourth album, Tongue N' Cheek, is being released to critical acclaim, prompting The Daily Telegraph to declare him a "national treasure". No one who has travelled the unforgiving road of trying to make it as a British hip-hop star has ever come anywhere near this far.

But do rappers ever really leave behind the ghetto, and can they afford to if they want to continue to produce music authentic to the street? Even now, Dizzee Rascal, who was famously stabbed four times in the chest in 2003, just as his music was coming to national attention, is reluctant to disclose too much geographical detail during interviews. Expelled from school three times, he still feels the restraining influence of authority, complaining last year that "I still get the same bullshit that some black boys get. The police ... whatever". And he made a track on his third album Maths + English called "Paranoid", addressing the idea that he might be kidnapped. "Getting sucked back in," he pondered in an interview two years ago. "That's the story of my life."

Yet if anyone has the force of personality to break free of such constraints it is Dizzee, or Dylan Kwabena Mills, to give him his real name. In making his first album, Boy in da Corner, he displayed a remarkable originality. "I'd try to build a tune in 15 minutes using the most obscure sounds I could find – put a microphone next to a frying pan and knock it – just to see how they'd fit together," he said at the time. "Considering how rough it sounds, I am surprised people get it in the way I wanted."

But get it they did. The Independent on Sunday said the 2003 album was "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". The judges of that year's Mercury Prize agreed and declared him their youngest-ever winner.

That Mills even made it that far is extraordinary. His Nigerian father died when he was two, leaving his Ghanaian mother to bring him up alone. He was an angry child, blasting heavy metal and jungle music from his bedroom window, running wild on the streets and fighting with his teachers, one of whom coined his future stage name. It was only in the music room at Langdon Park comprehensive in Poplar, east London, that he found somewhere to channel his creative instincts.

His manager and mentor Nick Cage first came across Dizzee as an energetic 16-year-old, trying to get a first foothold in the emerging grime scene, London's own sub-genre of hip-hop. Talking to The Observer, he remembered him as "extremely clever" but also troubled, sat silently and sullenly on a chemical waste bin for four hours, deep in marijuana-inflected thoughts. Cage realised the teenager was different, and felt protective towards him because of it. "There is nothing worse than being clever or creative and having no outlet, or being in peer groups where people think you are weird if you want to work hard at something."

It was Cage who helped to nurse Dizzee following his stabbing in the Cypriot resort of Ayia Napa, where the rapper was pulled from a moped and knifed within centimetres of vital organs. His second album, Showtime, reflected the vulnerability he felt in the aftermath of the attack and has been described as "brooding" and infused with "pent-up" fury.

Not that Dizzee is an innocent. In "Sirens", a track on Maths + English, he brags of his street smarts "1 to the 2 to the 3 to the 4, Limehouse police knocking at my door, 12 black boots on my bedroom floor, what they want with Rascal I'm not sure", before a graphic description of the perpetration of a street mugging, which appears to be autobiographical.

But in the past 12 months, his profile has been utterly transformed. That process began when the election of Barack Obama led to Dizzee being invited on to Newsnight, as a symbol of young black Britain. Asked Paxman: "Dizzee Rascal, Mr Rascal, do you feel yourself to be British?" Incredulous, the rapper – who has expressed disdain for those British rappers who adopt American accents – replied: "Of course I'm British, man! You know me!... I think it don't matter what colour you are, it matters what colour your heart is." The great political interviewer was reduced to suggesting that the assured Mills stood for office.

Dizzee's music was always infectious, but it feels much happier now and less grimy as he works with dance producers such as Calvin Harris, Armand Van Helden and Tiesto. His string of No 1s – "Dance wiv Me", "Holiday" and "Bonkers" – have been among the biggest anthems of the past two summers.

By the time Dizzee pitched up at the Pyramid stage for this year's Glastonbury, he was more than ready to conquer the mainstream. Displaying the showmanship that he has always possessed, he stepped out to the sound of Paxman remarking on his prime ministerial credentials. Still only 23, this product of the east London school of hard knocks had sufficient confidence in himself to dress in a jacket, and he soon had the crowd bouncing with an enthusiasm not generated even by the great Neil Young, who had occupied the same space the previous night. "There's no feeling like seeing however many thousand people jumping up and down, bubbling and happy, all because of you," he said subsequently. "I could do that all day and all night. The world would be a better place if it was just about that."

Dizzee's success has opened the door for other London rappers such as Tinchy Stryder and Chipmunk. His career path already bears comparison with that of the superstar American rapper Jay-Z who, the year before, had won over the Glastonbury audience with a similar panache. Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter, a one-time roughneck who grew up in the Marcy public housing project in Brooklyn, New York, is 16 years older than Dylan Mills and has gone on to become a multiple Grammy-winning artist as well as wealthy entrepreneur and philanthropist who commands respect in American business and political circles. Jay-Z was in London last week, making an appearance on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross before heading off to perform an intimate gig which attracted sponsorship from the likes of Barclaycard.

Dizzee made it on to Ross's show in May, confident and smart in white jacket and tie. And just as Jay-Z was a former GQ magazine man of the year, so too this month was Dizzee, attracting headlines for rebuking Kate Moss for her rude behaviour while he was being interviewed. Jay-Z is a confidant of President Obama, and though the British artist might not be at that level, Jeremy Paxman has acknowledged his qualities as an opinion-former.

Or maybe Dizzee Rascal will just carry on rapping. "He is established in the musical fabric now in this country," his manager Cage recently asserted. "From that point he should be able to do what he likes."

A life in brief

Born: Dylan Kwabena Mills, in Bow, east London, 1985, to Nigerian father and Ghanaian mother

Early life: His father died when Mills was two, leaving his mother to look after him alone. Mills was expelled from three schools in four years; a frustrated teacher was the first to refer to him as Rascal.

Career: After flirting with pirate radio, he produced his first single, "I Luv U", about teenage pregnancy, aged 16. In 2002, he formed Roll Deep Crew with 12 school friends. He released the acclaimed solo album Boy in da Corner in August 2003, winning the Mercury Prize. Showtime, Maths + English, and Tongue N' Cheek followed over the next four years.

He says: "Everything I do is for the music. I want to master it like Bruce Lee mastered the martial arts."

They say: "Guys would come and attack him with concrete posts and bricks. And he would always face it out, take them all on." Producer and mentor Nick Cage

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