Most artists do not fuck around and make a classic album first time in the studio. Let alone produce an album that has managed to not only codify a subgenre of music on the fly—UK grime—but become the standard for what rap music could be for an entire nation. East London’s Dizzee Rascal managed to do all of that and more at the ripe old age of 18 years when his debut, Boy in Da Corner, dropped back in 2003.
When I spoke with Dizzee over the phone about the influence of his debut, he told me he believes Boy In Da Corner was “to UK hip-hop what Nas' Illmatic was to New York”—a bold statement but one I could agreed with. Boy In Da Corner brought grime—an influential subgenre of hip-hop birthed from the endless creativity of a bunch of kids from the United Kingdom—to the rest of the world and made a young Dizzee Rascal, his country's first international rap superstar.
On Friday, Dizzee Rascal will be headlining the Red Bull Music Academy Festival at the Music Hall in Williamsburg where the UK legend will be performing Boy In Da Corner in its entirety for the first time in his career. In honor of this event, Complex spoke with Dizzee about the influence of the album, discovering Southern rap through No Limit Pen & Pixel covers, and why he wants to speak about social issues in his home country today.
Can you give me a little insight to the Red Bull Music Academy. You will be performing your classic album, Boy In Da Corner, for the first time. What can we can expect?
The energy! I’ve been rehearsing. I don’t usually rehearse too much before a show because usually the stuff is quite recent stuff and I don’t need to memorize it. Some of the songs I’ve never performed before. Some of them songs weren’t made to perform because they were album tracks.
What songs would you be performing for the first time out there?
I’m not sure if I’ve ever done “Do It!” I’ve never done “Round We Go.” I’ve never done “Hold Your Mouf.”
Boy In Da Corner was released in 2003 when you were 18. What are you the most proud about that album after 13 years?
I’m proud that people have held onto it so much. It feels like it seems to mean to the UK what Nas’ Illmatic means to New York.
How would you describe Boy In Da Corner to a teenager today who hasn't heard the album?
It’s really energetic. It’s dark in a lot of places. A lot of it is like mosh music. Again, a lot the stuff 18 year olds are into right now? That’s what Boy In Da Corner was then.
Like in today’s grime scene?
Yeah, but even in the trap music [teenagers] are into, like with Lil Uzi’s music or other people like that. It’s turn-up music. That’s how I would explain it to an 18-year-old. It’s turn-up music.
Did you realize that you were making something special or did the reaction take you by surprise?
I didn’t know that it was gonna get taken as serious as it did. I just put everything into it. It was such a fun album to make. Again, I had never made an album before. It was almost like you were pretending to be a big producer-slash-rapper because there weren’t really that much pressure or attention on you and it just works.
[Boy in Da Corner] seems to mean to the UK what Nas’ Illmatic means to New York.
The album sounds very free spirited.
That’s it. There was no inhibitions, nothing to worry about because I was trying everything for the first time, experimenting and having fun. There’s something about [becoming an] elite rapper where the real pressure starts with the next one, trying to be bigger than the last one, having expectations and trying to prove something to critics. I didn’t have to prove nothing to critics. I didn’t know what “critically acclaimed” was and I couldn’t imagine never getting a Mercury Award. I never imagined getting anything for it.
You were definitely a pioneer in the UK hip-hop scene to make a sizable impact on American audiences.
What’s crazy to me is that I didn’t feel like a pioneer for rap in England because UK hip-hop was its own scene. They kind of saw themselves—people like Rodney P, Blak Twang, Roots Manuva, Skinnyman—that was its own scene. Growing up, I saw that as kind of backpacker-ish and wasn’t into it. I grew up on the pirate radio scene which started out as drum 'n' bass music. UK garage picked up and got bigger on the back end of that. I was a drum 'n' bass DJ at first but not any one of note. I was just mixing drum 'n' bass records, then garage came and then [grime music] was kind of on the back of garage. If you wanted to see grime? It might be a garage event but in a smaller room because they didn’t really want us there. They didn’t trust us.
Why do you think that was? Why did grime have such trouble breaking into the scene when garage was a big thing at the time?
It was a bit more of bougie thing, UK garage. Even though it started with real street persons, as it crossed over, it got a bit more fancy. A kid like me would have turned up in a hoodie and some trainers and that’s not what they wanted. They saw us as trouble even though garage and drum 'n' bass had its own trouble. We just looked like obvious trouble.
You have always mentioned that you appreciate Southern rap. I’ve always been curious how a kid from East London got into Southern rap.
I just did an interview with someone from Red Bull and they showed me this [mixtape] called A Trip Down Memory Lane and it’s got a bunch of my old tracks and old Wiley tracks. There were two tracks on this little compilation and one’s called “Kryme” and one’s called “Boidem About.” “Kryme” is like the first one I did and it’s got a dude called Red Rum. Red Rum was this older dude Adrian, and he was into Cash Money and Master P. I don’t know how and where but he showed me that stuff and I was like, “What the fuck is this?” I remember seeing the album cover and thinking, “What the fuck?” Because they used to have the album covers done with the jewelry in the writing—the jewelry graphics?
Oh, yeah. The Pen & Pixel covers. Those covers were nuts.
That’s it! Seeing Chopper City, with the choppers above B.G. I thought it was stupid. But when I heard the music? I didn’t think I liked Cash Money at first either but when I heard Three 6 Mafia and Project Pat, the repetition and the tempo was close to garage. That’s when I thought I could make beats because what they were doing, and what the Neptunes were doing at the time, was easy to replicate.
I couldn’t see myself making garage or drum 'n' bass—it was all too musical. I couldn’t play music. I could feel my way through and make some notes and things but I’m not classically trained. I couldn’t play any chords or nothing like that. When it came to Three 6 Mafia, I just loved what they did. When you hear “I Luv U,” that’s me doing Three 6 Mafia. That actual track is a mix of “What’s Your Fantasy?” by Ludacris and “Is That Yo Chick?” by Jay Z. That’s my version of that track. Even with the layout having the female and the male going back to back? If you go and listen those tracks, that’s what that is.
That makes a ton of sense because “I Luv U” doesn’t exactly sound like Sippin’ on Sizzurp but the feeling is there.
If you listen to “Kryme,” yeah? I sample, “All I wanna know where the G’s at,” and that’s from Three 6 Mafia's “Who Run It?” That’s Crunchy Black.
I love that song. It's one of my favorite Three 6 Mafia tracks.
That background in southern hip-hop, that’s what separated me from everyone who was doing UK garage and all that. The tracks I was doing with Wiley at first, they weren't quite UK garage-based because they weren’t into southern hip-hop or what at the time was “crunk.” Everything that Chief Keef, Lil Uzi Vert and 21 Savage are doing now was “crunk" in 2002. That’s what I was into and I was in the super minority because that’s when everything was listening to whatever was going on the west coast and 50 Cent. No one was into southern rap. Funny enough, up north in Manchester, they were into Master P and all that stuff heavily because it was like gangbanging music.
You mentioned artists like Chief Keef, Lil Uzi Vert and 21 Savage, earlier. Are those the type of younger artists you're into now?
I’ve been listening to Lil Uzi Vert because I wanted to see what the hype was about and again, I listen to his music and yeah, I get it, more so to Keef. I’m not upset with the simplicity of the lyrics because I’m a massive fan of Project Pat. I love Wu-Tang, I love Nas, I love Jay Z and all that too. But the simple, chanty stuff I love because that’s the shit that everyone catches. I love the beats coming through because it’s still a little bit different and little bit quirky.
“Fix Up, Look Sharp” samples Billy Squier’s “The Big Beat” and it sounds like nothing else on your album. How did you decide to use that?
[Nick “Cage” Denton] the guy who produced, he just played the record. We were in the studio like we always were and he played and I was like, “Ow! What’s that?” because I never heard it before. I hadn’t heard the Run-DMC version [“Here We Go”].
I started writing so that the “Woos!” would come at the end of the sentence. I built around that. It wasn’t crazy to me because I was into heavy metal and rock and grunge before I was into hip-hop. It was mosh pits that got me excited about music, not breakdancing. That’s another reason why Boy in Da Corner sounds the way it does.
Another big reason was that I wanted a song to be on Tim Westwood’s show. When I was doing my thing on the underground grime scene, I wasn’t getting no love in that world. I thought Tim Westwood’s show was the top show for what people considered real hip-hop at the time. I still consider myself a rapper even though I make a different type of music. I learned to MC over drum 'n' bass music.
Are you making any new music? It’s been three years since your last album, The Fifth, came out.
I know, man. You know what’s crazy? I’ve made loads of music but nothing was good enough to put out. I put out the Pagans EP and even though it was quite underground-ish, I wanted to do some big videos for it. As far as an album, I’m working on it now. The last one didn’t do as well as I wanted it to do but it still had big singles. But the way I feel now? I want to make a consistent rap album. I’m such a fan of rap music. I feel like I want to rap but it’s hard knowing that I’ve done really well off of dance music.
Do you have any idea what the sound will be? Your records have had a gradual shift over the years. You’ve gone from straight grime to working with big time producers like Armand Van Helden and Calvin Harris.
Yeah, Calvin Harris! Calvin Harris wasn’t a big time producer then. I’ve got another track with him coming out, too. The last time I was in L.A. I hooked up with him. We’ve got another big banger, another massive dance tune but it doesn’t necessarily sound like a Calvin Harris track at first. It’s gonna be nice to watch that drop.
As far as my album, I wanna rap. I really wanna rap. I’ve missed that side of it. I was still rapping on my last album but that consistent rap album? That’s what I’m into. I know that everyone’s into this whole grime thing, again which I think is cool as well, but I just wanna make banging rap music.
I’m looking forward to doing some dark shit as well. The stuff I’m doing with Valentino Khan is quite dark. I want it to have some social relevance but catchy. I want it to make some good observations about what’s going on. The world’s changed since Boy In Da Corner. The area that I come from is not the same. I don’t want to be rapping like it was. This album is gonna be more based on the UK and how it’s changed. That’s my aim.
Can you explain what’s changed and how that affects your music?
Crazy gentrification! I’ve covered it on some of my albums. I’ve got a track called “Slow Your Roll” where it breaks down how I blew up, I went away, I came back and the area changed due to gentrification. How the people I grew up are now trying to kill each other. Just explaining that story of what it was like to go back to that area pre-Olympics and how after the Olympics a lot of things changed. I performed at the Olympics [in London in 2012] and the area has basically changed. It’s not what it was when I grew up. The crazy thing about it was when Red Bull asked me to do this show they told me that it was gonna be in Williamsburg. Williamsburg was the first place I performed in America in 2004 on the back of a flatbed truck, right when the neighborhood started getting gentrified.
I’ve been in Brooklyn for ten years. It was already very gentrified when I moved in, but now? Sheesh. They’ve built these gigantic glass condos right on the water where abandoned factories used to be. It’s certainly stark.
That’s what it’s like going on now! There’s no way that I can ignore that. I know a lot of people want a Boy In Da Corner II album to take it back. That’s not realistic. The closest thing I can do is give you the passion that I had and the excitement and energy of the album. But I’m not the same person that I was and where I’m from is not the same place. This album is about my growth and not being afraid to be an adult.