Dizzee Rascal talks about staying on top of his game, pioneering a genre, and how excited he is to be returning to New Zealand for two beautiful festivals.
Fifteen years after grime pioneer Dizzee Rascal became the youngest person ever to win the Mercury Prize, Raskit (one of his many nicknames) is still battling his own peculiar demons.
“I’ve got a room full of trainers, and I can’t remember which ones they are and I clearly don’t need them.
"You know what ends up happening? You only ever wear the trainers that you can just see in front of you: the same pair you put on the floor every time you take them off. They’re the trainers you actually wear.”
Dizzee first visited New Zealand in 2004: a whirlwind two-day stopover to promote his award-winning debut Boy in da Corner. He bought ten pairs of trainers while he was here.
Meanwhile, the album would play a crucial role in establishing the genre known as grime. Its influence is all over pop music today and culturally, it's a thriving and lucrative scene.
When grime was emerging in the early 2000s, pop radio was awash with Shania Twain and Britney Spears. Eminem was shocking America and in the UK boy bands and the Spice Girls were fitfully gasping their last dying breaths.
Back then, Dizzee – an East London native, didn’t want to be lumped into a music scene or genre, despite being one of the figureheads of the grime movement – he just wanted to rap and have fun.
“I’m glad that someone like you remembers that. All the way on the other side of the planet you remember that.”
Five albums later his sound has bounced around like his lyrics: he’s come from producing beats with underground producers and pirate mixtapes to dropping rhymes on Calvin Harris songs.
“I gave [Calvin] his first number one and he gave me mine.
"Really some of the best stuff comes from fun. Some of my biggest songs are songs where I was just having a bit of fun – trying something new.
"Like 'Bonkers'. One of the quickest songs I’ve ever written. Didn’t think nothing of it for months. Sat on it. Didn’t even listen to the song. Then I must have performed it in Liverpool once and the reaction I got from it was crazy. I thought – this is mad. And that’s probably my biggest song to date.”
When voices like Dizzee’s began to move from pirate radio to BBC1, for many young people, it was the first time they'd heard something so raw and real. It was the first time they'd heard voices like theirs telling stories they related to.
The Streets were another group that played a big part in the rise of grime. The Streets' vocalist Mike Skinner even gets a shout out on Dizzee's ‘Ghost’: a playful song from his latest album Raskit.
“When that album (Original Pirate Material) came out, I was actually on pirate radio as an MC, and a little bit as a producer. And when Mike Skinner was blowing up he singled me out in an interview and said, 'Dizzee Rascal – he’s the next one to watch.'
"And then when I did blow up, he was one of the first people to take me on tour with them. We’ve got history.”
That history spawned a generational shift. Today the grime scene is so big and so culturally dominant – in London particularly, it has its own parody: fictional grime MC Big Shaq (aka Michael Dapaah) released a song last year called ‘Man’s Not Hot’, which charted in the UK and went viral around the world.
A comedian, playing a fictional grime MC, can now sell out shows across the world.
But Dizzee – the once 19-year-old rap prodigy credited with pioneering grime, tries not to think about his legacy. He just wants to focus on the music.
“It’s a weird one 'cos sometimes I do [think about his legcy]. But when I get to that point where I do, I think – I just need to make new music, now.
"Because it’s easy just to get stuck in your own hype – don’t believe the hype. And also, work with some of the younger artists.
"I’ve got a song with a guy called Ocean Wisdom and he says that he used to listen to me growing up or whatever, but when it comes to getting in the studio with him and hearing him rap, I just feel that as a rapper, lyrically he’s on my level or a bit of a challenge for me. I’m thinking I need to work with him because he’s making me better at what I do.”
Catch Dizzee Rascal this weekend at Splore Festival and Electric Avenue:
- Splore | Friday-Sunday, 23-25 February | Tapapkanga Regional Park, Auckland
- Electric Avenue | Saturday, 24 February | Hagley Park, Christchurch