Prime-time Grime

Dizzee Rascal brings the sound of U.K. pirate radio to American ears

Dylan Mills is not your average 20-year-old. At this precocious age, Britain's hip-hop wünderkind -- better-known as Dizzee Rascal -- is already the star of a new music genre he helped establish. He's also the first hip-hopper to win a prestigious British music award, started his own record label, and remixed Beck. Along with all these accomplishments, he released his sophomore album, Showtime, last year, just 14 months after his debut. The guy makes Bright Eyes look lazy.

It's easy to recognize Dizzee Rascal's music simply because it sounds like nothing else. His singular mix of jagged beats with tripped-up samples and a mouthful of garbled, cockney-inflected vocals is not for the faint of heart. Hence its branding: grime. Since his first album, Boy in da Corner, came out in late 2003, grime's visibility has multiplied like a virus. Taking its cues from American hip-hop, Dirty South, crunk, dancehall, reggae, dub, and U.K. garage, grime is a grassroots movement, particular to the harsh environment that fostered it. The music's gritty, reactive sound is far from the slick productions of the P-Diddys and J-Los. While Dizzee and the Streets might be the best-known names stateside, back home, there's also Dizzee's mentor, Wiley, the rest of Roll Deep crew, and up-and-comer Lady Sovereign.

"Grime is a rough, urban-music scene in the cities of the U.K.," Dizzee explains on the phone from Seattle, into the first week of his North American Showtime tour. By nature, his heavy East London cockney/patois hybrid swallows his words and is peppered with "rawght, yeah" and "y'know wha' I mean." The movement, he explains, is "based around pirate radio stations and harsh raves. It's highly influenced by drum 'n' bass, garage, and all that. Basically people making something bigger out of the little that they have. The beats were dirty and grimy sounding -- grime." He pronounces it gram.

The South London projects look strangely like downtown Miami.
The South London projects look strangely like downtown Miami.

"Before grime even had a name or anything, I'd been searching for something different," Dizzee says. The young MC thrived in what has become a veritable clearinghouse for grime talent: pirate radio, underground clubs, and the Internet. Instead of traversing traditional distribution paths, Dizzee cut his teeth MCing for pirate radio stations and getting club DJs to release his tracks on limited-edition dub plates. Then there's the Web, which is like the blood pumping through grime's veins. "You know how the Internet works," he says. "A lot of my albums got bootlegged before they even came out. That helped me as well."

And so emerged Boy in da Corner,whose raucous maelstrom redefined the boundaries for contemporary U.K. hip-hop. With erratic tempos, pile-driving beats, and abrasive vocals skittering frenetically, Boy's overall insolence was obviously not primed for commercial success. But it could also be unmistakably poppy, producing a British top-20 hit, "Fix Up Look Sharp." The lyrical content was also noteworthy, inspired by its young author's life in the projects. Tracks like "Jezebel" and "I Luv U," written when Dizzee was 16, bespoke of hard knocks like STDs and teenaged pregnancy. With confrontational lines like "Queen Elizabeth don't know me so/how can she control me/when I live street and she lives neat," it was an unlikely contender for critical acclaim but nonetheless beat out Coldplay and the Darkness for Britain's Mercury Prize in 2003.

Refined and minimal, Showtime quickly evolved out of all the buzz. "Sonically, [Showtime has more] variety and range," Dizzee notes. "The first album was a lot darker and sparse. With the second one, you've got things like 'Dream.' Totally like love, hearty, kinda positive. Others, like 'Respect Me,' are a lot darker. And I think my flow advanced a lot more as well."

Showtime also seems angrier. More than half of the album features Dizzee spewing conceited and defensive bombast. Against a Nintendo-like score on "Stand Up Tall," he claims he's "hotter than Nelly/I can't lose." That rhetoric is inspired by a real-life violent side -- he's been both stabbed and arrested. Allusions to such experiences appear throughout Showtime. In "Respect Me," he rhymes humorously, "U.K. rapper stabbed in Napa/'Cause of gossip, 'cause of chatter/He's still breathin', he's still a dapper/Retaliate with gun clapper."

Regardless of thuggish antics, Dizzee's musical influences are hardly provincial. A rapper who still goes on about the proverbial bitches, hos, and weed, Dizzee is also inspired by Nirvana's In Utero. "A lot, actually," he says. "It was weird for a kid like me to be listening to Nirvana. I also like Guns N' Roses. I think the first rap I got into was Tupac, then Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. And as I got older, I started to really get into Jay-Z, you know, harder. A lot of Timbaland, crunk, dancehall. I've been into everything."

This voracious musical appetite has served him well. With shoutouts in the New York Times and the New Yorker, as well as moonlighting gigs producing for the likes of N.E.R.D. and Jay-Z, Dizzee Rascal is looking like the grand homme of grime these days. "To meet people with knowledge in something that was for a time frowned upon back home, it's amazing," he marvels at underground America's embrace of a U.K. phenomenon. "It's just beautiful for it to see it's found its place in the musical world. Full stop."

With the new British invasion in full effect, we could all benefit from a few choice Dizzeeisms.

Rah -- "Wow! Whoa!"

Nang --"When you say something is nang, that's like very good."

Swag -- "When something's swag, it's rubbish."

Choong ting -- "That's a fine girl."

What about a hater, Diz? "That's universal, man."

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