These are the known knowns: Dizzee Rascal is an MC from Bow, East London, and the UK government calls him Dylan Mills. His debut album, Boy in da Corner, won the prestigious Mercury Music Prize last July in England and was released this month by Matador/XL in the United States. The album, recorded partially on school computers under the tutelage of a music teacher named Mr. Smith, has gone gold in England. Dizzee just turned 19 and is so popular he can’t go out to clubs anymore, fearing both rival crews and police. (This can’t be written off as paranoia: Dizzee was stabbed at the Ayia Napa resort last July.) Boy in da Corner refracts all the light it attracts: The young see their own sense of possibility and nerve in it; older listeners hear a galaxy of familiar references, and even casual listeners find themselves asking, “What the hell is this?” as it plays in record stores. The album is a remarkable and ferocious flag-planting, a bank-robbery note that says, “Put everything in the bag and forget what came before.” The respected critic Simon Reynolds has called Dizzee “the best MC that Britain has ever produced, period.”
While Dizzee’s commercial success suggests that Reynolds’ opinion is a popular consensus in Britain, he seems a contender for permanently well-known unknown in the States, because his abrasive, energetic music doesn’t fit easily in any American genre. That doesn’t mean he’s not an MC—just that there’s no easy and quick way for Americans to understand exactly what kind of MC he is. A boiled-down reduction of several dance-related genres, Dizzee’s music doesn’t exactly belong to British hip-hop, a gene pool distinct from U.S. hip-hop. (The last great hope of British hip-hop was Tricky, whose slow and warm music was attractive to listeners who didn’t usually go for hip-hop.) Critics and record vendors often describe Dizzee’s music as “underground garage,” since Dizzee and his peers are descended from the U.K. garage scene. But garage, a light, syncopated blend of house music with flashes of American R & B and Jamaican music, is suited to the sweet and sincere (as heard in Craig David and Ms. Dynamite, two of the best-known graduates of U.K. garage).
Sweet and sincere do not describe Dizzee particularly well. As a sensory experience, Boy in da Corner is a bit like being trapped in an MRI chamber while somebody yells at you; it is hammering, anxious music. “Grime,” the term record stores and critics have agreed on, feels like the right word. While American hip-hop songs sometimes show up as instrumentals in live grime sets, grime moves nothing like American music. The tempos are faster than hip-hop’s. Jay-Z, for example, favors the 100 beats per minute range. Grime lives around 130 BPM, a zone of urgency and movement. 50 Cent sounds like Simon and Garfunkel next to Dizzee Rascal.
Dizzee’s mentor, Wiley, a producer, MC, and architect of Dizzee’s scene, calls his music “Eskimo Dance,” abbreviated as “Eski,” a term he explains as his idiosyncratic synonym for emotional coldness. There are few legato sounds and the reference points are the tools of digital life: cell phones, pagers, video games. Inorganic squawks fire around constipated, angry bass lines. Sounds enter and exit quickly, without explanation. Imagine a teenager slamming a door over and over.
The same words pop up again and again in descriptions of Dizzee’s remarkable voice: “choking,” “strangled,” “yelping.” And his rhymes do sound like they’re trying to leap back down his throat before he spits them out. The effect is a bit like fried ice cream—two different sensations at once. Dizzee’s musical backdrops are just as complex as his voice. An anachronistic interjection like “You haven’t gotten the foggiest!” delights and worries, because Dizzee is that kind of teenager: His facility and wit don’t mask the fact that he’s not entirely in control of his emotions. His breakthrough single, “I Luv U,” was made almost two years ago; its backing music still makes even the most abrasive hip-hop sound easy like Sunday morning. Two bass sounds and two percussive sounds, possibly robots imitating the “Bumfights” video series, burst around Dizzee’s voice. Keyboard and string sounds enter and exit irregularly, as if the doors and windows were trading places on the wall. The energy level is closer to ska or garage rock than most hip-hop. Rascal has confessed a love of Nirvana, Sepultura, and other “heavy” bands, and this could be a key to his future in America. Hip-hop artists from the south like David Banner and Lil Jon can match or better Dizzee for nervous energy, but the harsh production style on Boy in da Corner will probably attract rock fans first.
Conceptually, Dizzee writes rhymes that suggest American “emo” rock or realist American MCs like Mobb Deep and Wu-Tang Clan: angry confessions and detailed snapshots of everyday life. Dizzee’s opening track, “Sittin’ Here,” could fit into a news magazine episode on troubled youth: “I watch all around, I watch every detail/ I watch so hard I’m scared my eyes might fail/ I’m just sitting here, I ain’t saying much I just smile/ It’s funny cos I haven’t bust a smile for a while.” He moves from the specific to general in the next verse, replacing self-pity with a sense of community: “Cos it’s the same old story, intelligent yaps in hospie flats/ And it’s the same old story, benefit claims and checks in false names/ And it’s the same old story, students truant, learn the streets fluent/ Yeah, it’s the same old story, strange, there’s no sign of positive change.” His thick East London accent makes no concessions to global marketing—Dizzee is a local boy and the story belongs to him and his friends. The poetic compression and line delivery are available to everyone, though, and any teen in the world would understand this great parsing of the word “screwface”: “Screwface means I’m not pleased/ Screwface means I’m not amused/ Screwface means I just wanna walk, not talk/ Screwface means I just wanna leave.” Slam!
If you want to understand the scene that Dizzee’s emerged from, you’ll have to buy lots of white label 12-inches, listen to British pirate radio, download clips, and browse Web sites. If you can get through an entire eight-CD mix-tape pack, you’ll find dozens of useless instrumentals that were destined to be cell-phone ring tones, but also chunks of amazing music and a few MCs in Dizzee’s league. Kano is a fleet and funny MC whose summer hit “Boys Love Girls” is like a lighter version of “I Luv U,” and Bigga Man and Ears’ “Players” is as good as anything Dizzee’s done. Wiley’s own album, due in the spring, will likely be the next major album in the genre, whether it’s called grime or eski. But it seems unlikely we’ll hear another album as good as Boy in da Corner, even if grime keeps fielding skilled MCs and producers. The album’s considerable horsepower comes from the clever bluff of a boy convincing himself he’s a man, but Dizzee knows the emotional hook lies in what he’s leaving behind. He didn’t call the album Roughneck in da Corner or Genius in da Corner. Next time, he may be just another successful professional with a genre to call his own. He won’t be in the corner, and he won’t be able to slam the door.