London-born Dylan Mills, who's better known as Dizzee Rascal, has a biography that gives record executives their 50 Cent's worth -- but unlike many of his U.S. contemporaries, he seems largely indifferent to exploiting it.
Examples? In July 2003, mere weeks before the British release of Boy in Da Corner, a CD that went on to win the Mercury Music Prize as the United Kingdom's best disc that year, Rascal, then eighteen, was stabbed five times by what the BBC referred to as "a group of unknown youths"; at least one member of a rival band, So Solid Crew, was questioned following the attack. Then, last month, on the eve of an American tour to support his impressive sophomore recording, Showtime, he was arrested in his home town for riding in a car equipped with a police baton, a stash of marijuana and a container of pepper spray, which the local constabulary considers to be a "section five firearm." Yet other than confirming that he'll be in Denver as scheduled (he was originally slated to appear in court the day before the Colorado gig, but the date was changed), he declines to discuss either subject. Moreover, he shrugs off the suggestion that talking about these scrapes might be good for his career.
"That's not really important when it comes to music, I don't feel," he says in an accent thicker than Jessica Simpson's head. "I'm not a gangsta rapper, so I try not to get caught up in that kind of hype."
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Granted, he's not entirely averse to marketing. He was happy when the English branch of Nike designed and manufactured a shoe called Dirtee Stank Air 180 as a limited-edition promotional item -- and why not? The sneakers' tongues feature the flies-and-turd logo of his record label, Dirtee Stank, and the soles are stamped with a map of the East London area where he grew up. Try to credit him as the first hip-hop figure in his country to have inspired a pair of kicks, however, and he bristles at being categorized. "I understand that people need to identify music and that people will identify your music differently because of how they hear it," he concedes. "But I just want to be known as an artist -- that's all."
To date, this desire has gone unfulfilled. Phrase-makers searching for a way to describe Rascal's style, which merges hip-hop with a rugged, spare dance subgenre dubbed U.K. garage, came up with the term "grime" and installed him as the movement's progenitor and guiding light. Since, in his mind, grime means "hostility -- harsh, energetic music," he doesn't object too vociferously to the designation, but neither does he take it very seriously. "I just roll with it," he says. "Whatever."
Keeping acclaim in perspective is a good idea in England, where musicians are elevated to hero status with great frequency, only to be casually discarded shortly thereafter. Even so, few have risen from obscurity to celebrity more dramatically than Rascal. His father died when Rascal was young, leaving his mother to rear him on her own, and because she was working multiple jobs to put food in the pantry, he had lots of time to stir up trouble. The perpetrator of numerous petty crimes, he was bounced from several schools and might have stopped attending classes sooner than he did if Tim Smith, a sympathetic music teacher, hadn't allowed him to use a computer to produce his own beats.
The British press has sentimentalized this relationship, with one article pointing out that Smith phoned Rascal to congratulate him the day after he took home the Mercury. What went unreported, Rascal says, is the fact that the media facilitated the conversation, and he hasn't spoken to his teacher since then. Nevertheless, the production acumen he gained proved vital to his development. He thrust himself into a slew of different musical pursuits, serving as a DJ at underground events, hosting pirate-radio shows and performing live as part of the much ballyhooed Roll Deep Crew. But his breakthrough came on a self-produced solo track titled "I Luv U." In an age of sonic soundalikes, the song was immediately distinctive. For one thing, the beats, which Rascal claims to have assembled in a mere twenty minutes, are so unadorned, they make some Neptunes productions seem ornate by comparison. "It was a conscious thing," he says. "I'm an MC, and I'm always trying to leave space for the MC. I'm, like, the last instrument, and if you leave room, you can hear more of what the MC has to say."
Or, in this case, the way he says it. On "Luv," Rascal's voice is a frantic yelp that races from syllable to syllable at tremendous speed. The specifics of the narrative, which finds him rhyming in the second person about getting a fifteen-year-old girl pregnant (he was only sixteen at the time), are less noteworthy than the edgy delivery. Some listeners adored it, others despised it, but everyone remembered it.
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As soon as "I Luv U" hit the British charts, music companies came knocking, Def Jam among them. In the end, Rascal inked with XL Recordings, an imprint with a wide range of artists, including Basement Jaxx, the Streets and Badly Drawn Boy. This affiliation guaranteed that reviewers would be on the lookout for Boy in Da Corner, and they liked what they heard from the very first notes. "Sittin' Here," the initial cut, sports a sinister groove, but rather than build on the aural danger in a stereotypical way, Rascal delves into confessional subject matter that most rhymers are too scared to share. As he tries to get a handle on the crazy world around him, he sinks into a daze that gets deeper with each verse: "I'm sittin' here depressed, and I don't know why/I try to pull myself together, tell myself, 'Fix up'/And I keep myself from bawling/But my eyes, they erupt." The song is an exercise in tension that's all the more compelling because the action is internalized -- not that Rascal would explain his approach this way. "I just wrote about what I was feeling, and I didn't see anything wrong with that," he says. "I was feeling it, so I put it down."
Thanks to moments like these, not to mention the popularity of "Fix Up, Look Sharp," a Top 20 smash, Corner became a critical and commercial juggernaut in England. Unfortunately, crossing over on this side of the pond has proven to be more difficult, for a variety of reasons. The album was released in America on Matador Records, an imprint that's comparable to XL -- but because the U.S. record industry is more compartmentalized than it is in Britain, the company has had difficulty exposing the music to hip-hop fans who might embrace its starkness. There's also the matter of Rascal's idiosyncratic pronunciation, and his use of slang that many Americans find impenetrable. Typical is the "Cut 'Em Off" line "You're in your neighborhood, thinkin' that you're nang." Rascal, who translates this last word as "very good -- fuckin' bodacious," sympathizes with people trying to unlock his linguistic mysteries. "We have to do the same thing with American hip-hop," he says. "It's interesting to see it in the reverse role."
Rascal believes that Showtime will be easier for statesiders to process, and he may be right. The sound is slightly more fleshed out, and the words to songs such as "Stand Up Tall" are relatively straightforward, by design. "I want my lyrics to be accessible, and not just to Americans. Europeans, Japanese, everyone," he emphasizes. A certain amount of decoding remains inevitable, though. For instance, numerous websites specializing in lyrics claim that he name-checks Porsches in "Everywhere," but he says that what he actually mouths is "Pinto" -- a huge difference, thematically and automotively.
Still, Rascal believes that once people here listen for themselves, they'll be more interested in the sounds he's making than in his brushes with the law. "I'm from the street and I'm young, and I've had my situations, but I love music," he says. "I'd rather stick to that."