Sally A. Edwards met Dizzee Rascal for our cover back in 2007 for his album, Maths + English. We were a little ahead as two years later he did exactly what he'd said he'd do in our last question for this interview. Anything is possible. Be sure about what you wish for.
The original story was first published in BLAG Vol. 2 Nø 8 print edition in 2007
Interview and Art Direction by Sally A. Edwards
Photography by Sarah J. Edwards
Styling by Harris Elliott
Grooming by Gary Gill
Styling Assistance: Sofia Heblom and Ezana Ove
Shot on location in Hammersmith, London
Dizzee’s doing things differently, switching things up. He’s not afraid to take risks and like a chef, far from frightened to add an extra ingredient into the mix to bring something special to the dish, or like a driver that’s not worried about pushing up a gear or two and taking a different route from everyone else only to arrive at his destination well ahead, and of course in style.
Dizzee’s new album ‘Maths + English’ is just that, Maths for the music and English for the tales within each track. He’s mixed rock with hip hop, drum ‘n’ bass and a good old bit of inspiration from Bugsy Malone. A little while back we were privy to a listening session at the studio with Dizzee and his manager; producer of many of the tracks and diamond geezer, Nick Cage.
On ‘Sirens’ Dizzee plays drums and Cage makes his debut on guitar. It makes you want to dance ‘til your soles are worn out – something Dizzee strived for with this new material.
It’s refreshing and exciting. This boy is from the future and he’s created a classic.
A week or so later Dizzee joins us at Jasmine Studios for the shoot and interview. He’s on top form, game to try on different looks and even gets into a full suit – only to be laughed out of it. “That’s too far, mate,” giggles his other manager Paddy. We go through a stack of clothes and choose three outfits, once on set Dizzee works it for the cameras, grinning and throwing his thumbs up, then switching immediately to a frown and flipping the bird – dual birds actually, cocking his head to the side then as quickly as he did that flashing a cheeky grin... Well, Rascal by name, rascal by nature.
Post shoot, Dizzee and I sit opposite each other at a table, interrogation style...
So... Mills... Mills, is it?? “I ain’t saying nothing.”
Where were on Tuesday evening at 7:30pm? “I ain’t saying nothing.”
Alright, now I know you’ve probably been asked this loads, but can you give me the story in a nutshell of going from Jungle DJ, to pirate radio, to Roll Deep and to solo?
“Yeah, OK. When I was about 12 or 13 I used to love listening to the pirate radio stations, especially Rinse FM and things like that. I used to like hearing the MCs. I got myself some turntables and I used to make tapes, this was drum ‘n’ bass and all the kids who used to be MCs – they were all a little bit older, used to come to the house. We used to make tapes, and every now and then I’d get on the mic for a joke, but I was more interested in the DJing side of things. Then it started getting to a stage where jungle was kind of dying out. So I started going to pirate radio and I was MCing to garage really. It was for a joke at first, I was just doing it. This is while I was 14 and 15. I started off on things like Flava FM and loads of other pirate radio stations. Eventually I started taking it really seriously, I started producing and making beats as well. I cut my first dub, it was called ‘Crab’ I think, it was at Holloway and then from there I started really getting my music heard and I used the pirate radio to get my dubs heard as well as MCing. Then I met Wiley and that. Target was always around, he was from my area.”
Is there anyone that found you, that you’re working with via hearing you on the pirate radio stations?
“Target was the one who kind of knew about me, because he was on Rinse. He was one of the people I used to listen to when I was little. I used to go round to his house when I was about 12. I used to go and buy records. One day he just gave up for whatever reason and he just gave me everything. So, yeah! From then, Roll Deep were working on a tune called ‘Bounce’ and I’d been hanging around...”
Had you finished school by then, or were you just finishing?
“I think I’d just finished, when I was 16, but I was still doing a lot while I was in school as far as radio, and pirates and raves. I joined Roll Deep to do that song, ‘Bounce’ because they needed a hook and I was just in the crew from then and we would go round doing raves and stuff like that. Until eventually I made ‘I Luv U’ and I made my mark as a solo artist. Then I just carried on from there, I knew, ‘I’m loving this, I just want to make music’ so I put out instrumentals and loads of other things on white labels and that. The response I was getting was big, so it was just natural for me to just carry on, as well as being in the crew and everything, I didn’t mind all that until eventually I got a record deal. And people don’t know that Wiley got a record deal because of me – that was the condition he got his record deal. I got my record deal, then Wiley got a record deal and stuff like that, so it kind of went on from there. So ‘Boy In Da Corner’ to ‘Showtime’ and then here with ‘Maths + English’.”
Good, that’s what I want to talk about. How would you describe the sound, because it’s really fresh and you’ve really pushed boundaries a lot more that before. You’re layering it up with loads of different things. So can you tell us about the making of it?
“It’s another step up, yeah definitely. Everything is more refined as far as songs and song format. Obviously, I’m still rapping, I’m still MCing, but there’s a lot more attention to detail on the musical side and on the lyrical side. The thing I would define as a good rapper is not always someone who can come up with the most complicated rhymes, or being flash or whatever, it’s just if it’s what he says is memorable. I try to make everything I say memorable whether it’s an easy abc, nursery rhyme format or what to me, it doesn’t matter, as long as you get it.
“I think it’s a lot more... Sonically, it’s bigger sounding, a lot bigger than ‘Boy In Da Corner’ and ‘Showtime’. It’s a lot more exciting. I think it will appeal to a lot more people. Like, I tried my best not to alienate anyone on there, so you can go from a straight grime record to... I don’t know, working with Lily Allen on it, you know what I mean? Then you’ve got a drum ‘n’ bass tune which Shy FX produced.
That’s kind of disappeared, so to hear it again is really refreshing.
“Mmmm. I originally brought the beat out and tried to do something else with it, but then Cage said, ‘No, this is good.’ So he rebuilt it and I wrote the thing and it came out really well, man. That was one that came last minute as well, like towards the end of the album. “That’s the thing with making one, you never know what’s going to happen. You’ve got something there like, ‘Sirens’ which is actually live. Me and Nick where just jamming in the studio. We didn’t know what we were going to do, so I started just playing the drums and he had the guitar and he don’t know how to play the guitar. So he was just doing anything and from there it kind of escalated from that, man. But that’s me playing the drums live through that song! [Dizzee’s face breaks into a huge, proud grin.] So it’s exciting, man!”
Can you pick one track and break it down for us?
“The one with Lily Allen. It’s called, ‘Wanna Be’, ‘Wanna Be A Gangsta’. That came about with me going to work with Futurecuts. They’re producers, they work with Lily Allen. I think they made ‘Smile’. So we were sitting down and they showed me a few beats. They’d come up with some good ones and that, but then they showed me this one. Like... du du du... I liked the melody. It was kind of bouncy and bumpy and happy. Like, I’ve got that to me as well as the whole dark thing, and the whole grime thing. I like the bubbly, almost pub-feel, you know! Then I realised what it was. It was from ‘Bugsy Malone’ and it actually had the original sample on it, [sings], ‘So you wanna be a boxer...’ So we’re sitting there thinking, ‘Yeah, that’s heavy but, what with sampling, maybe we could think of another twist?’ Then the first thing both of us said was ‘gangsta’. ‘What about gangsta?’ Obviously. So you wanna be a gangsta. Then we went through and actually Lily had already done that and so I wrote a few lyrics and it was working. Then eventually we got Lily in to come and re-record it. So we actually got to work together and I did have to rewrite a few times. There’s one thing writing for an album track, but for a hit, you’ve got to make sure the lyrics are right, so I did go back three or four times but we nailed it in the end.”
When you’re writing something that’s going to be a single, do you write it with any particular factors in mind? Do you write it with video for TV in mind, or sound for compression on the radio?
“Yeah, as far as trying to get radio play, trying to get TV, but them things are important...”
Or do you go more for the club?
“All of those things count, it depends. Sometimes you can get them all, sometimes you can get just one or two, but it’s the people. It’s the response. Like, I said it has to stick.
“If you break down every word, or sentence or syllabul, as long as it sticks in people’s heads – that’s what a good song does isn’t it? It’s just memorable. People just know it and they don’t have to try too hard to listen to it. A good song should jump out at you shouldn’t it?”
“That’s what I’m saying. So just trying to refine it as much as we could with little touches, between writing between us, she wrote the chorus and there’s bits in there where I wrote things for her to rap you see, just to add that little extra, you know what I mean? That magic there. It’s good though.”
Are there certain tracks where you feel like it’s pretty much finished straight away, or are there others where you just keep tweaking them and you have to stop yourself, because otherwise you’ll just keep going?
“That’s been the difference with this one, with this album especially because a lot of the time, when I first started off, I was just making music. Or my biggest crowds were in raves and then eventually festivals, and OK on TV and all that, but it’s subliminal. I wasn’t always attempting to make it, it was just something that came out naturally, so then I would just be doing a beat and be like, ‘Yeah, that’s done. Yeah, yeah, I’m not going back to that. Leave that moment.’ Like up my own arse basically, you get me? Like, ‘I did it, so of course they’re going to listen’. But with this one it’s like, ‘Nah. No. That could be better. So go and fix it. Stop waiting around, just do it and make it better.’ Then, when you do that you find other parts that can be better and better and you just grow. So, yeah! The Lily tune was like that, ‘Pussyole (Old Skool)’ was like that and you can make that better, just keep going back to it. Some of these tunes took weeks, some of them months even, going back and forth. Like whereas with the other album, I made the beat and that’s that. So there was definitely a lot of fine tuning on this album.”
How do you feel about it now that you can reflect back on it, after you’ve spent so much more time on it?
“I drove myself crazy making it, but to me it’s one of the most important, if not the most important album I’ve made, because it’s the one...like I’ve been in the music industry now for a bit, I’ve been on top of my game and I know I couldn’t mess around with this one at all. I know everything that was required of me, and I’ve seen enough to know that I can do it at a bigger level, but it’s just acceptance to push myself that bit further, or to try that thing. I’m always about trying different things. They said to try that, so try that. Listen to people and all that. Just seeing what happens and taking risks, you know what I mean? Not being afraid and it turned out well, man. Like I say every tune on the album goes good behind the one in front of it. Everything’s just a nice vibe on it, man. Everything’s real. It’s a moment. It’s a living, breathing thing, you know what I’m saying?”
Is there any particular track that works for how you feel at this precise moment in time?
“I suppose, ‘Da Feelin’.”
And what’s that one?
“‘Da Feelin’’ is the one with Shy FX, the drum ‘n’ bass one. It’s got a real rare groove feeling, I think people will be surprised by it. It’s got a real summertime vibe to it. I just feel happy and relieved that I’ve done it. I’m confident now that I’ve done it. I put everything into it, 110%. Like more than I’ve ever put...more effort, more time, more into it. I know I couldn’t have done any better. I’ll just move onto the next one, but I just want to see the response, because I do it not just for me, obviously. I do it for the people that understand what this game’s about.
“In hip hop it’s easy to get caught up in a load of things that don’t matter. Like the politics, the dissing, the clashing, the bla bla bla and OK, that’s entertaining, but it’s kind of negative ain’t it? It can only go so far innit, before it’s just like, ‘What’s the point?’ But with this I feel like I want to see people jumping around, I want people to feel good. I want it to be a moment and if that’s one good thing I can do, you get me?”
Absolutely. So, what do you want people to take from this album? Firstly from the lyrics and secondly from the music?
“I think a better sense of who I am as a person. You know I’m a bit older, I’ve opened up a lot more on this album I guess. Like, the first album was, I suppose, about being in the hood, the second was about going from the hood and being in the industry and all the new shit and all the bullshit. This one’s kind of a bit more about me as a person I guess, but without – like I say, being too up my own arse. It’s still for the fan, especially for the fan. There’s a lot of things there to dance to, or to vibe to or to roll in your car to. There’s not a lot of sit down, think and be upset moments on there. It’s a lively album, you get me? One I hope that will have an imprint in British music history.”
OK, can you tell us about the video for ‘Sirens’? Tell us about Wiz. Well, actually, can you tell us your thoughts from literally getting the treatment, to the shoot, your feelings on it and how you felt about the finished result?
“When I first got the treatment, I didn’t like it. I’m not going to lie.”
Well, how did you interpret it, when you first got it?
“It was literally a piece of paper and the clips talked about horses chasing... It was like a fox hunt and I just couldn’t see. I was like, ‘What do you mean a fox hunt?’ ‘The song’s about running around and robbing people on a council estate.’ ‘Fox hunt?’ I weren’t with it, and then the jacket with the fur. I didn’t really read it, I just looked at the pictures for a start, so that was part of it. I’d just glanced at it. Sometimes when you get these things, you get so many at once. You’re just like, ‘Ahhh...’ Then my manager showed me and said, ‘You should have another look at that,’ and that was a good thing. I looked at it and was like, ‘Oh yeah. OK. I get it.’ Then I met Wiz and he explained everything about it. It wasn’t until we went and shot it that I got it. It was quite surreal. I got into the role, but it was freezing!”
You went to Romania didn’t you?
“Yeah, freezing. Like, I even took Wiz to Bow. He rung me up on a random one, said he wanted to go to Bow, I was like, ‘OK.’ So we walked around there for about an hour. Just took him all around. Like, ‘That’s so-and-so.’ ‘Oh, there’s thingy... Actually he’s the boy I talk about in that song.’ I hadn’t seen him in about a year, or spoken to him and he’s the first person I’d seen. Like, loads of weird things happened. Like, ‘Oh, that’s where that thing happened,’ just taking him around Bow to get a feel for the area. I think he did it because we actually shot on a council estate in Romania and it did feel like my area or just a council estate, he got it right.”
I couldn’t tell where it was shot when I first saw it.
“That’s what I’m saying. It could’ve easily been anywhere, Hackney or home or wherever. He’s a genius, man. The message behind it, I didn’t get it until afterwards, like with seeing the video more and more, it’s crazy. It’s like a short film. It’s not even a music video. It was good to come back like that, because I might aswell do different shit, I love doing different shit. I love hip hop and do all the bling bling. I said ‘Fuck the glitz and glamour’, but that was one line in one song, you get me? I love all that still, but I don’t feel like I have to exude it because everyone else is.
“Fair enough, they’re doing that and I can respect that, but I’m 22 from a different age, different time, different generation, different country. I might aswell try something new. That’s how I’m seeing it, if I step back as a person, forget the artist. As I step back as a person and look at what’s going on around me. I think, ‘Fuck it, I’m in this thing. I’ve been blessed to have people listen to what I do, so I might as well.’ So with the video especially, it was a wicked way to come back. You know?”
You’ve got a lot of shows and festival appearances lined-up, do you have any special plans for those?
“Yeah, we’ve got a couple of little surprises there, just things to perk up the show, make it a bit more energetic, but I ain’t performed a lot of these songs. It’s going to be nice to perform a lot of these new songs and the level is just going to go up. The excitement is just going to go up. These songs have been built differently for a start, like I said, they’ve got a lot more weight and they’re a lot more powerful than a lot of the songs I’ve done before. A lot of the tunes like ‘I Luv U’ and that, they’re powerful, but they were of the time aswell. These ones are a whole different type and some people have been waiting two to three years for something, so it’s exciting, man! I can’t wait. It’s on!”
Alright, going back to your sound. It’s very open-minded. So I wanted to speak to you about how a lot of people are embracing so many styles and mixing up different things. How do think this is going to change things in a creative and social way?
“With this album?”
Yes and with regards to people generally being more open-minded.
“I think it’s good. Like, I dunno, it’s like Kung Fu. There’s all different styles, innit? Like, it’s all towards the same common goal. You’ve got someone like Bruce Lee who says; that style is that style, but really it’s all just one and it shows everyone, and I think that’s a good thing. Everything revolves around everything on this earth. It’s a living breathing thing. Like, look at the thin line between love and hate, or black and white, or anything like that. They’re so far apart that they’re so close, and I think that’s the way of the world really. Balance. So a bit of everything can’t be bad.”
Can you tell us about Dirtee Stank Recordings, because you’ve got a really interesting philosophy behind it haven’t you?
“Yeah. Grime. It’s the grimiest thing as far as the logo. It’s a piece of shit! That as well, but what it stands for is, I don’t know, it bridges the gap I guess between the street and the majors.”
It’s giving a lot of people a chance who wouldn’t normally get that though isn’t it?
“Definitely. Like as far as the hood or people with whatever kind of backgrounds, say criminal backgrounds or whatever. Just people that wouldn’t have had a chance. Like, I wouldn’t have had a chance if XL [Recordings] just didn’t understand – or they have people that make them understand. A lot of people where I’m from like socially or economically, it’s not like they don’t know how to act. It’s just that things are very different. There’s just some things that you weren’t taught or didn’t pick up. It’s a whole different set of rules on the street so, it’s hard to come from that into such a formal put together industry, like the music industry. The way to do things is like...”
It’s formal, but you also get away with so much more than other things. So it’s kind of about how to behave.
“That’s what I’m saying, it’s keeping the balance. It’s a hard thing and everyone will pick up on that. So Dirtee Stank helps because I’ve come from that environment, a lot of us have come from that environment and done alright. So we can show them. Like, ‘No, do it this way.’ They’re more likely to listen to someone like me than they are an exec, or an A&R who’s coming from a college or university background and would normally avoid that kind of artist on the street. So it just gives people a chance, man. ‘Cause there’s a lot of good music. Some of the best in the world that I think might never get heard because labels don’t know how to deal with the artists... and sometimes it works and sometimes it don’t as well. That’s the gamble innit?”
Yes. So who have you got and what are your plans with it?
“Right now, Newham Generals is the main focus. They’ve got a couple of mix tapes out and they’re going to have an album out as well. I worked with them on a tune called, ‘Lemon’. That’s another thing, just vibes. They’re people I really click with, like naturally, genuinely.”
I don’t know whether you want to talk about it, but you’ve done it a bit differently where by you’ve used your advance to build your own studio rather than hiring.
“Yeah, it weren’t even my advance. This was whatever money that I had. We decided to, yeah... build a studio, keep the thing running, get some better equipment, just a step up.”
What else are you listening to?
“I listen to quite a lot of old school rap that I missed, because the people that I listened to first were like Bone, Thugs and Harmony, 2 Pac, Busta Rhymes, Ludacris. Jay-Z.”
That’s old school?!
“That’s old school... and Snoop! To me they were. Now I’m hearing things like Easy E for the first time last year. I didn’t know who he was. He was the one that introduced Bone, Thugs, but I didn’t really know him and MC8, like Compton’s Most Wanted and some of the old OutKast stuff. That’s like a new world to me! It’s nice to discover things like that, and listening to other stuff like electro and going around festivals and being out of my nut or whatever at four or five in the morning outside listening to gabba, house, techno or whatever it is and soaking it all in. I soak it all in, man. I’m still in love with drum ‘n’ bass.”
Are there any other creative areas you’d like to get into?
“Singing. I want to do an R&B album.”
“The best of Deal1.”
Have you got any recommendations and it doesn’t have to be music. It can be style, it can be film, it can be places.
“I liked Ibiza. I recommend that... I recommend rappers, or UK hip hop artists go to America and try to really understand America and see what it is and why we’re different, why people ain’t selling as many records as they would like to be and understand the culture. Not even just hip hop culture, but the culture. Understand America and come back. I recommend that. I’ve gone there and I’m starting to understand it a lot more, but then I’ve been blessed that someone like, Bun B and then eventually Pimp C understand what I’m doing and respect it because it’s different. They can see the relation and everything. Like I’ve got UGK a big American Gangsta rapper, certified, certified Gs on a grime tune effectively, you get me?”
Can you give us a quick guide to East London?
“Don’t go there. Leave it alone.”
“No! What do you want to know about East London?”
What the people are like and where to go. I mean for anyone who hasn’t been there.
“D’you know, I’m really starting to enjoy Hoxton right now!”
“Yeah, I’ve started to go there quite a lot. I like that whole lot of people. It’s not the East London I knew growing up, like even going to Bethnal Green and places like that. It’s like, ‘No way! This ain’t the same place. Are you crazy?’ I used to sit here and get up to all sorts on this road and it’s totally different, but I like the way they’re carrying themselves. It’s a laugh. Nice people, man. Hoxton’s a good place. Yeah, I recommend Hoxton.”
Who do you think is really making an impact and creating classic work? It could be anyone from any area.
“You’ve put me on the spot... I know it goes back to me and it’s a bit conceited, but Wiz for that ‘Sirens’ video because if you look at British rap history, like the biggest moments that have been like, as far as video and that. There’s been So Solid’s ‘21 Seconds’ video and that’s still a performance video. You get me? It’s just the look of it. At that time there was nothing like that coming from British artists. That shit got me excited, but with the direction he’s taken he’s gonna have made the whole scene a lot more respectable with that video to be taken serious. That’s a serious video there, but seeing other videos he’s done. His things are like movies, having seen the Kasabian one and then to see how he actually works and see it all put together. When you’re standing there working and he’s having these ideas you can’t fathom how it’s going to look. It’s ridiculous. It’s deep. I learnt a lot. I learnt there’s deeper people out there, definitely.”
Now, I wanted to know your future plans, but not imminently. I’m talking a good few years away, say five years down the line.
“I hope to be doing it on a Snoop Dogg scale. Like, super worldwide, massive, huge. Just making as many people around the world jump up and down like lunatics and laugh, and have fun at shows and pass it on. I want to create good times, man. Forever, man.”