Dizzee Rascal, Reloaded

The iconic British emcee is getting ready to step into the next phase of his highly revered and celebrated career, but he has a few things to get off his chest first.

dizzee rascal
Photo by Thomas J Charters
dizzee rascal

“Yeah, I’ve been looking forward to this one. You’re the grime guy, innit? So don’t hold back… I wanna clear some shit up anyway.”

Of all the artists on my ‘to interview’ list, Dizzee Rascal—a British institution in and of himself—has always been up there, but even with all the chances I’ve had to do so over the years, it never felt like the right time. He was out of my realm now—or so it seemed—more suited for TV talk shows and red-tops than some UK music critic. However, ever since he released his sixth studio album—2017’s Raskit—there’s been a feeling that Dizzee was gravitating back towards his roots, the sounds that made it possible for him to enter the pop landscape and have number one hits with the likes of James Corden and Calvin Harris. Now, it was time.

Would he want to talk about his turbulent relationship with grime, his old friend Wiley, getting stabbed in Ayia Napa and the years he left the scene to go mainstream? I knew that if I didn’t ask these questions—as awkward as they might seem—I’d be doing not only myself a disservice, but the entire scene that he helped to build: one that wouldn’t be shining as brightly as it is today without the barrier-breaking contributions of Raskit and his grimey peers. The main point of our conversation, though, was to promote his seventh studio album, E3 AF. On first impression, the title would suggest that he is E3 ‘As F*ck’, Bow to the bone, but that couldn’t be further from the mark. The phrase ‘Aff’ was—and in some places, still is—a derogatory term for African people, but the man born Dylan Mills in East London has been proudly screaming that he’s an “E3 African” for a number of years on songs. E3 AF finds a Dizzee at his most comfortable yet: on the beats, most of which he produced himself, and in life more generally. 

Dizzee, today, is proud of all his achievements. He’s proud of “I Luv U’”s staying power and being the first grime MC to win a Mercury Prize for Boy In Da Corner. He’s proud of what he did in the commercial world, too. And you would be: Mills is now a multi-millionaire off the back of those “pop days”, and you can only but respect it. Though the grime scene felt neglected by him at one point (“I feel like the scene abandoned me!”), the respect for the countless doors he opened will always override that for most.

First speaking with Dizzee via Zoom and again at our photoshoot in East London, he answered all the questions he felt needed to be addressed for his next phase to flourish the way it deserves to. This is Dizzee Rascal: reloaded.

“I put grime on the main stage. I put all this shit, all the hip-hop, on the main stage at all these festivals when they didn’t have the confidence in it. I made them confident.”
dizzee rascal

COMPLEX: Raskit! How’s it going? How has life been for you during this global pandemic?
Dizzee Rascal:
I’ve been pushing through like everybody else... I’m just glad the album’s done now. I’m just promoting it and letting everyone know it’s coming and then it’ll do what it does.

Okay, so let’s jump into E3 AF, your new—and seventh—studio album. I’ll be honest with you: you sound the most comfortable I’ve heard you on wax in years. Where were you at, mentally, when you were piecing this album together?
I decided that I wanted to make beats again. It rolled off the back of the Raskit project; that’s when I started making beats again. I bought a new laptop in 2017, when I was on the Raskit tour, and I just started building beats. The first tune that ended up on this album, that kinda kicked off the whole project, was the one with P Money. I kept going to the studio that I was using over in South, I loved using that room, so it came to a point of me inviting people to come down. So I invited Chip, P Money, Ghetts, Frisco, Kano and all that. It was real organic. I hit up enough different people to try and be on the album, all the youngers as well. I’ve reached out a lot! My headspace was just trying to make... The last album, I had no guests at all because I was just trying to strip it back; I’d gone so far into the pop world with the fifth album, which was basically me trying to capitalise on how well I’d done. So with this one, every MC on there is someone’s favourite MC, basically. And I wanted to see how I’d be with them. I wanted to spar with as much different man as possible.

The way you sit on the beats on this project, you sound free, like you don’t have anything to prove to anyone anymore.
You’re talking my shit! It was about getting back to the bars, bruv! Like, reloads. I didn’t wanna overthink stuff too much, you know? I want people to listen back like, “Rah! What’s he saying!?”

Could you see yourself producing, executive producing whole albums for other musicans down the line?
Yeah, man. I did a couple for Yizzy recently. I would definitely do it, but it’s about getting people in the studio. I’ve got so much beats, it’s mad. But then, sometimes people hear the shit and they don’t necessarily know what to put on it. With a lot of my beats, sometimes I’ll put on a verse and a hook and then guys will come along and know what to do with it afterwards. I sent P Money the ting like that and then he did something with it.

You’ve got Chip on there as well. Now, if we’re talking about who came after you in the pop space and did it successfully, it was Chip. During those times, the late 2000s, did the two of you have any conversations as you were both moving and shaking?
I didn’t really know him, but I had a couple conversations with him on the phone when he was in a couple situations and I gave him a bit of advice. I’m sure that making this tune on the album is the second time I’ve met him.

For real?
Yeah, I didn’t know Chip. He’s 28. It’s not a crazy gap, but he came up after me. We didn’t come up around the same time.

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D Double E, Ghetts, Kano and Frisco all feature as well. What was it like getting back to your roots and working with these grime originals?
I just knew that they could spar with me on the level I wanted to spar. It came up organic. P Money, we’d already done something on the Don’t Gas Me EP. I just thought, “Who would I want to hear on one of my beats?” And some of it just came organically. I’m sure Frisco hit me up for something else and I said, “I’ve got something. Come to the studio.” With Double...

—that’s family at this point, you and D Double.
I hadn’t seen Double for a while, you know. I see Footsie more. I’ve known Double longer, but with Double, I did Shambala Festival and we ended up being on the same line-up, so I see him in Canada and because we’re fam, we ended up rolling together. That’s when I said, “Yo! I’ve got some riddims. I’ve got this tune with Frisco, come to the studio.” So when we got back to England, that’s when he came to the studio. Me and Double hadn’t been in the studio for a long time, since “Bluku! Bluku!”.

That’s a good nine, ten years ago, so it’s been a minute.
That’s where the name E3 AF came from as well: that song. With Chip, I saw his Daily Duppy and just told him, “This is sick!” And I just hit him up... Actually, I did a song for him first. So he’s got this tune coming out with me, him and J... Wait! Am I supposed to say yet? 

Exclusive! [Laughs]
[Laughs] Me, him and Jme. So I did that for him first, then I said: “I’ve got some shit as well. Come through.” Lethal [Bizzle] as well, he came through but we didn’t end up using that song because I just didn’t end up finishing it. Ocean Wisdom’s on there and he’s sick. That one came from a beat Splurgeboys had and I started thinking, “I need to get Ocean Wisdom in the studio.” That’s someone I think I’ll always work with, on the hip-hop side of things. I think we just work well together. Who else is on there? Oh yeah! Kano and Ghetts. Can’t forget them. Me and Ghetts had never made a song before this. The same with me and Kano. 

Considering you all come from the same generation of grime, it’s kinda wild that you haven’t collaborated with them before now, but I’m glad you finally have.
Yeah, it’s worked out good anyway. When I knew Ghetts back in the day, he weren’t even an MC. And then Kano, fuckin’ hell! I’ve known him since we were like 14, MCing on Flava FM and doing sets together. After Boy In Da Corner, I cut out. I was going round the world.

Gone clear!
And it wasn’t like today. You couldn’t just hit people up. I’m sure I could’ve got their numbers and that, but you can literally send someone a DM or whatever now. 

Releasing an album like this in a very drill, road rap-focused landscape, do you feel any pressure to appeal to that audience? 
You know what? Because I like that music so much, I don’t expect to come and smash the drill scene, but I like the music. I made it clear I like the music already. I’ve got a couple songs with Smoke Boys: one for their release, and one for this album called “Act Like You Know”. MKThePlug and Vader made the beat, so I jumped on a drill beat. It’s nothing. It’s easy! It’s a comfortable tempo.

To some extent, UK drill is grime’s offspring.
In a way, but at the same time it’s all influenced by the same stuff. Drill was influenced by crunk anyway, and all that Dirty South trap shit.

“People say Wiley’s the king of grime, but what are their reasons? What’s that based on? They think he built a scene, but there were grime raves before Eskimo Dance.”

When you’ve said in the past that grime is directly inspired by hip-hop, crunk specifically, people haven’t always agreed with you.
That’s because they weren’t in the studio producing it. I’m an active grime producer and that’s what I was into. That’s what inspired me: Three 6 Mafia and shit like that. That’s why my shit always sounded different to whatever else was coming out. Before Wiley, before all of them, that’s the shit I was making. They switched their ting. Wiley and them was making garage and then they switched to what we were doing. But my inspiration was Three 6 Mafia, and that wasn’t big here. You can be into music and not necessarily know the origins of what the people who were making it were into.

So, who would you say is the true godfather of grime, the originator? Most would probably say Wiley, but I have a feeling you’re about to say yourself. 
It’s not Wiley, and he knows it’s not. So when they say that, it’s like: what do they mean? He’s said it plenty of times, that I brought a tape to him. I had the tape. I was already making my shit, making beats and that. Stormin said it as well: “Dizzee made the first grime dubplate.” That’s Stormin! Them times, Wiley and that were making garage music. It was them, Heartless Crew and So Solid. But Pay As U Go were like the So Solid of East. There was no grime. All you’ve gotta do is listen to what Wiley’s tunes sounded like before I joined. There’d be none of this Eski stuff. That all came after me. People say Wiley’s the king of grime, but what are their reasons? What’s that based on? They think he built a scene, but there were grime raves before Eskimo Dance, if you want to talk about that… I won’t be moved on this. The truth is the truth.

When you do interviews, do you always feel like there’s an elephant in the room of people wanting to ask you about your old friendship with Wiley? 
It’s like Paul McCartney and John Lennon: Paul McCartney still has to talk about John Lennon even though… Yeah, man, it is what it is. People think of us together, even though I’ve done the majority by myself. It’s been like 17 years since I was anywhere near that man. Furthermore, I’ve seen Wiley probably two times in those years. For like 30 seconds, both times. The internet makes it like it was this big relationship, but it’s not even that.

Can you ever, in your life, see you and him on a track again? Like a new one. Is it possible? Put what happened with you and him, him leaving you when you got stabbed in Ayia Napa in ‘03, to one side. On a strictly musical level...
—no one knows what happened. Everyone just chats! But, secondly, where are all these Dizzee and Wiley tunes? Can you name some? 

It’s sets, mostly... The “I Luv U” remix? [Laughs]
“I Luv U” remix. Who made that?

That was you, right? Yeah, it was you.
Yeah, that was me. Name me some more Dizzee and Wiley tunes. 

I can’t, I’ll be honest.
This happens every time I ask someone to name actual tunes.

I just know I’ve heard you both go back-to-back on countless sets.
So does everyone want me to jump on a radio set with Wiley?

I mean, that would be epic.
And then what? So you can say, “Ahh, it’s not as good as it was in 2003 or 2001”? That’s all anyone does. After five minutes of nostalgia, then what?

You’ve got a point.
You see when something gets said so many times that it automatically becomes true because so much people say it, it becomes what it is. There’s a lot of bullshit from people who don’t know what they’re talking about. And people insist that they know what they’re talking about. They insist that they were there as well. I’ve just accepted it as one of them things. Okay, you see us like that, and in a way that’s fine, but it’s my life too. I do get a say. 

Back to the album, the title E3 AF, I honestly thought you meant that you’re E3 As F*ck, like you’re Bow, East London, to the end! But the AF actually means African. “Aff” was used as a derogatory term for African people, but it seems like you’re reclaiming it here. 
Yeah, it’s some hood shit as well. I’m the E3 AF! But like I said, it came from the “It’s the E3 African, ready for action” bar. It’s another thing like Raskit, one of my sayings but a newer one. I went through all that: “Aff”. I went through all that in the bits, but now I’m bigger than that. I hold that. Yeah, it’s the E3 AF! 

It’s all bless. It’s a celebration, man.

dizzee rascal

There’s always that thing at the back of my mind of UK MCs reaching millionaire status and not being able to relate to their fans because they’ve gone so clear. But lyrically, you manage to still give us that everyday relatability, which I think is important. 
I’m still giving a bit of chat on there, though.

You do flex at points—as you should!—but it’s more aspirational than the typical bragging we see from rappers and certain grime MCs.
See how easy we’re talking to each other? That’s because I still know how to talk to people. My music’s always been me just chatting. Whatever point I’m at in my life, even if it’s just in my mind. But with E3 AF, I’m talking to my peers. I’m talking to my brothers. I can floss, but I can still relate to people. I always talked about money and getting money, and how I’m gonna be rich. Back to Boy In Da Corner, half of it was that. One of my first songs, “Kryme”, I was always on that jack ‘em, stack ‘em. But as a person, I try to get on with everyone. I try to see everybody’s perspective and just move through life. I’ve seen such a wide perspective that it makes it even more interesting when I talk to people. Then the other thing is, when you think about all the albums that I’m influenced by, it was by 2Pac or Nas, people that spoke to the hood. I see myself as that. I’ve been there. But I’m not gonna try and act like I’m jumping out on the opps. 

“44’s in a four-door!” [Laughs]
[Laughs] Nah, it’s not that. I know how to talk to normal people about normal stuff. I’ve still got those tunes that are relatable. Like, the one I’ve got with Steel Banglez and Alicai Harley, that’s real-life stuff on there. Uncomfortable shit. I can still put down uncomfortable stories; uncomfortable, personal stuff. That’s the stuff people have always gravitated towards, even just as much as the chest-bumping shit or whatever.

I’ll be doing myself and the scene a disservice if we didn’t discuss your “pop phase”. You’ve had a great deal of success, and I salute you for that. But there was a period, a good few years, when it felt like you disowned the sound and scene that got you to where you were... 
And you know what? I feel like the scene abandoned me! How about that.

What the fuck do people want? I’m glad we’re having this conversation. Everyone gets to have their say and who the fuck do they think I am? So let me fucking say something.

Go for it.
You build someone up for them to be massive, then when they get massive, you’re like: “Look! He left.” What did you think ‘getting massive’ involved? I’m past raves where guys are getting shot around me. I go to festivals, I’m smashing the line-up, I’m doing the main stage. I’m doing big arenas and all these places, touring around with big rock bands and pop stars. That’s where this shit took me. So you deal with what’s in front of you and that’s what I was doing. So what was the alternative? Everyone’s got the thing they weren’t happy about, but what was the alternative? Everything I was doing then, everyone fuckin’ celebrates when other people do it now. Guys are rated. “Yes! He did it!” But when I did it, I’m a deserter? “He’s deserting us, look! He’s gone! Now he’s trying to come back, is he?” So what the fuck do you actually want? You get to a point where it’s like fuck ‘em, innit. 

I didn’t think about it like that.
Exactly! See. That’s what happened. No one knows! During them times, I did a bunch of stuff with D Double and Footsie. People have got selective memories. The pop thing naturally plateaued. It got to a point where, after I went Platinum on my independent album by myself, I tried to do it again and I went even poppier. I worked with the big, shiny pop producers like RedOne, who was doing Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj. It’s that sound on The Fifth. I had Robbie Williams and Sean Kingston on there; that’s the level I thought I should be playing on. That sound’s done now, though. The peak of that sound was Pitball and Flo Rida. It’s not that no more, is it? Everything’s moved on because that’s what happens. As an artist, you have to accept that shit moves on.

Boy In Da Corner, that was a whole new grime. It was a new thing. But eventually, people get used to shit and they move on. I actually came and did radio sets. One of Esco’s last sets, I was there with him! 2006 on Rinse. That’s actually the first time I’d seen Wiley since Napa, in passing. He’d just finished a set with BBK, which was the first time I met Jme. He came up to me, spudded me and cut out. Then I was on the set with D Double, Esco and Footsie. It’s still on YouTube. I’m doing all this extra stuff as well as going round the world, so that’s what I’m saying: what is it actually that the scene wants? I don’t know. They don’t know. Until someone else does it and they celebrate it. And then people actually try and convince you that you didn’t smash it. You haven’t got the answers. You’re trying to find other answers that ain’t there. They ain’t got it either, but I’m glad we talked about it.

“I feel like there’s some mad shit that I haven’t made yet. That’s how I feel. I only care about music. I know there’s other things out there for me, but I don’t care.”
dizzee rascal

One positive from your move into the pop world was that, for a lot of Black kids at the time, we saw someone on the TV that looked like us doing big things. 
I put grime on the main stage. I put all this shit, all the hip-hop, on the main stage at all these festivals when they didn’t have the confidence in it. I made them confident. I did Wireless in 2008. I was the first rapper at SXSW in 2004. Don’t get me started!

Do you feel like you get your just dues?
I feel like... Let me just finish what I was saying. When I watch these guys, that’s not actually the attitude I have, like, “If it weren’t for me…” I’m just watching thinking, “What am I going to do next? How am I going to entertain people?” On to the other question about my flowers, I usually do because I’ve got every British music award that you can get. I’ve fucking got a bunch of Gold albums, a couple Platinum ones. I’m not the old guy who paved the way that’s got no P. I’m alright. So it’s only sometimes when I hear stuff like, “Dizzee don’t get the ratings he should get,” or “If Dizzee had stuck with grime, look at how big he’d be now.” I feel like I’m big. I’ve done alright. It depends on what side of the thing you wanna concentrate on. That’s down to you as an artist. Sometimes that might determine whether you keep pushing on. If you start believing shit, then maybe. I still feel like... I’m 35, I’m not that old. 

Not even. 
I think people think me and Wiley are the same age. Maybe because we came out around the same time, that era, but I’m like six years younger than him. I’ve just been around that long. I feel like I’ve got a lot to learn about music still, to put it back into pushing my take on it. Because that’s all this is: me experimenting, learning, and then flinging out my input. You can put egos in it, but when you get caught up in all that, you get to a point of entitlement. “Well, I should be the thing. Why aren’t I the king?” But that’s not actually what it’s about. It’s actually about getting lost, getting fully lost in making some shit and then putting it out and moving people. This album wasn’t, “Okay, I need to sell shit loads and get out there and let them know I’m the guy, I’m the champ.” It’s like: no, I need to make some shit that moves people, something that can live with them forever.

You mentioned earlier that you toured the world, and I know you had a go at the States too. If you go to America now and ask anyone who’s into hip-hop if they know Dizzee Rascal, most will know the name. You definitely left your mark out there, but do you feel like you’ve got it in you to go again and properly break into that market?
I don’t know, because I understand America now through living there a bit and getting to absorb it outside of just going there to try and work, to break it. It’s about understanding my place, like who’s actually going to be into me? What is the reference? If you talk about hip-hop, what scene would it be that’s going to accept it? It’s gonna be a very open-minded thing. Because the hood, we already learnt they’re not fucking with the UK like that. Maybe the younger, younger generation is accepting some shit. They like it, but you saw what happened to 21 Savage [when people found out he was from the UK], and he practically grew up in America, putting in mad work in the hood in Atlanta. As soon as they found out, you saw the memes. It went mad. So, the hood is a tricky one. At this point, if I was to go out there, I’d just go to put music out and it is what it is.

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What’s your take on the current UK music scene? 
We’ve finally got to a point where we rate each other enough, but some of the yutes are still influenced by what’s going on in America. Like, Pop Smoke, as much as UK drill is smashing it, Pop Smoke was about to be the face of it and the face of hip-hop worldwide, if he didn’t get killed. But a lot of the vibe came from the UK so I think we’re still innovators. Even when we’re taking music from other places...

—we make it our own.
We did it with garage, which came from New York. But to answer your question, I think the scene’s in a good place. It’s at a place where I honestly can’t say I know where it’s headed, so that’s good. It means the youngers are doing what they’re gonna do with it and then there’s people like me, who have to still keep doing what we’ve always done—which is try and find new ways to excite people and make people think.

Have you come across anyone that reminds you of a younger Dizzee?
There’s obviously people who you can hear have been influenced by me, like Stormzy or whatever. But then there’s a load of the drill guys who’ve said the same thing, that they grew up listening to me. Dutchavelli’s told me that. Even Fredo told me that. I wouldn’t have known that or heard that if they didn’t tell me. But I haven’t come across another Dizzee, nah. I just see a load of guys doing what they’re doing to the point where I’m like, “Rah! Man’s just got a number one album.”

How near or far are we from seeing your life story on the big screen: the Dizzee biopic?
Rapman wants me to do one. I chatted to him a little bit about it, but I still feel like...

—you’ve still got a long way to go in your journey, but the story you’ve got so far, even at 35, it’ll be interesting to see it played out on-screen.  
Yeah, you’re right. But before that, I still feel like there’s a bigger album in me. 

I still feel like... Maybe I will break America. I’ll smash the world in. I feel like there’s some mad shit that I haven’t made yet. That’s how I feel. I only care about music. I know there’s other things out there for me, but I don’t care. When I care, I’ll do it properly.

Is there anything that you think we’ve missed here?
I don’t know, but I feel like you’re the guy. That’s why I was looking forward to this, to answer and clear up everything so everyone can shut the fuck up!

[Laughs] I think you’ve done that, for sure. 
I'm gonna cause some problems, innit? I appreciate this though, and I’m glad you like the new ting. I’m interested to see what it does when it gets out there, if people like it or not. I’ve already started work on the next one.

E3 AF is out everywhere on October 30.

Photography: Thomas J Charters
Creative assistant: Lisa-Marie Boateng
Stylist: Cora Delaney
Stylist assistant: Mikey Pearce

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