Dizzee Rascal has gone from underground raves to opening the Olympics. ShortList’s Emily Phillips meets the Boy In Da Corner turned British icon
It's a terrifying moment, selecting appropriate dance moves to show just how much you’re enjoying the one-on-one first play of Britain’s biggest urban artist’s new album. While they stand beside you, cueing up songs.
The skinny teen responsible for Boy In Da Corner might be long gone (in his place, an imposing, beefier man approaching 30), but the mischievous grin on Dizzee Rascal’s face is still there. And it hints at a man fresh from nearly three years away from the public eye, topping up vitamin D levels in Miami.
It also nods to his amusement at the ungainly Carlton Banks impression I’ve settled on and sums up his pleasure at having taken his sweet time on a comeback album full of hits-in-waiting. The Fifth – referencing that favoured US amendment as well as the release’s place in his discography – has a little something for everyone. He’s been neatly dividing and conquering audiences throughout the past decade, and this album is the culmination of these efforts to win over every household in the land with at least one of his songs.
Genres covered include Sort-of Indie (courtesy of Goin’ Crazy, featuring Robbie Williams), Pop Banger (a host of tracks genetically modified to top the charts by Gaga-and-JLo-hit-wrangler RedOne) and Dirty South (on H-Town with Houston rappers Bun B and Trae The Truth). My enjoyment of which may have filtered through into some daytime-inappropriate winding.
So just how has the grime upstart from Bow propelled himself from pirate radio and grabbing the mic at raves to the main stage at Glastonbury and the Olympics’ opening ceremony?
His crossover from straight-from-the-estates authenticity to chart-climbing king of Ibiza has left some fans up in arms – can The Fifth unify his audience? He’s definitely hoping so...
This summer marks 10 years since the release of your first album. How have your fans changed in that time?
I make music for the people I seein front of me. Initially, it was mainly young black and white people just like me from council estates, in underground clubs and under-18s raves. Then festival crowds – people with muddy shoes. Then the fluorescent-coloured fans – the ravers. It’s kind of how I’ve learned about [different] people.
So having come through that grime scene did you think that you would still be around now, doing pop?
I tried it earlier. People were surprised when I did pop, but I actually did it with Basement Jaxx. You see me jumping around rapping with no break? It’s hard. It helps to have a hook to come in to sing for the people. Not everyone can rap like you, but they can sing along.
You like to sing along, then?
I don’t mind it. The kind of pop I’m doing now, the Ibiza style, I don’t think I really appreciated it until I went there. When I was younger, I wasn’t into it at all. But I remembered the melodies.
So you weren’t into the dance thing?
Nah, maybe UK garage. That was dance to me.
Would you do garage now?
I’ve been given beats but I wouldn’t jump on a garage track now. I just don’t know how long this [new] wave is going to last – which is probably why I jumped on the Robbie [Williams] thing first. When he played it to me, I thought it was indie. I always respected indie music because I’m from the Britpop era when Oasis and Blur were on top.
It reminded me of that, but it had a bit of funk to it. I thought that was maybe going to be the next wave of music.
What was Robbie like to work with?
I went to his house to record his parts. He was cool, man. I got there at six in the evening and we got the job done in an hour and a half. I left at about six in the morning. We were just jamming. He’s a funny dude, he’s got stories.
Did he tell you about Take That?
I steered away from anything I thought might be boring to him and make him want to kick me out of his house before I wanted to leave [laughs].
And you’re working with Calvin Harris again…
We’re actually working on one right now. I always felt that his music had life, I thought it was mad. When I heard Acceptable In The 80s I was like “Wow, what’s this? I could rap on this guy’s music.” Seeing his shows as well; the energy is what every musician wants.
You’ve got both Jessie J and will.i.am making appearances on your new album. Are you working your way through judges on The Voice?
I met Tom Jones. He’s a G. If you want advice on how to move right and get sh*t done, that’s someone you want to be around. I respect him a lot.
Met anyone else like that?
I love Snoop, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Justin Timberlake. I’ve met Jay-Z a few times – really cool, respectful.
Did you speak to Jay-Z about business?
Jay-Z’s a hard dude to talk to about anything. But I respect that. You can’t just walk up to him and start saying you want stuff and asking for favours. He’s got [mystery], which is why I admire him. One more person I met was Lionel Richie. He’s how you’d want to be at that age.
Will you try to stay in the music industry for that length of time?
I recognise now that my family and the people I keep around are more important. I’ve got the confidence to know that I’m always going to be able to do something.
One day, I want to have kids. I don’t want to be the ‘live fast, die young’ type; you become iconic, but then what’s the point? I like seeing an old dude still getting it and still healthy. I want to be that old dude.
Back to the music, you’ve switched genres quite cannily. Is that you adapting to your changing fanbase?
Yeah. Some people don’t understand that. Some people think that it’s just for money. Obviously, that’s a little part of it. There’s big money involved. But it’s the fact that I’ve got different types of fans and I recognise that. Some of [my mixtapes] go under the radar and people are still moaning that I don’t put out enough. But I’m at the point where you know what comes first: living. It’s like I hadn’t been living. I didn’t start living until a couple of years ago.
Hence moving to Miami…
That was a part of it. It’s the first time I’ve made an album away from England. It was an all-new experience, not drawing off anything old. Really, a lot of what I do and whatever else I’m into, it’s been American. Actually being there, understanding the place, that helped me put aside a lot of the bullsh*t about what I thought I had to be.
Do you still have a house there?
Yeah, I still go back there. Got it two years ago, but it’s mainly in winter.
You like to escape the cold?
It’s a bit dead [here], innit? People have got vitamin D deficiencies and all sh*t like that. It was nice to be in the sun, absorbing the party culture. I didn’t rave a lot when I was younger. When I went to raves, I was trying to get on the mic. Miami was like going out on my own. I started a new life.
Oddly, Craig David lives out there too, doesn’t he? In a hotel?
Now that’s living, innit? These days, the kind of room he’s in is like an apartment anyway. He just gets to see loads of people downstairs. What I’ve got is normality, I guess, living around people in a tower block, walking to the shops, buying groceries, normal sh*t. I’m known there, but it’s not like here.
You made the album out there, but it took a while. How many manifestations did it go through?
It’s mad because it has been four years since my last album and I’ve just put things out there to let everyone know that I’m around. I wasn’t out [in Miami] the whole time, but the album has changed a few times. A lot of the big stuff really came at the end of last year, so I’m glad I waited. I needed to come back strong. Goin’ Crazy is so big and different.
Will it divide people?
Only as much as Bonkers or Dance Wiv Me did. It’s the same people moaning that you don’t sound like you did 12 years ago. They want me to do raves. I’ve been on pirate radio a couple of times [recently], but haven’t done any raves in a while. I’m doing f*cking Glastonbury and sh*t like that.
But the album’s got a balance?
That’s the good thing about it. But if I haven’t divided people, it means I haven’t done my job because I haven’t catered for the next set of people. People have strong opinions. Some of them are really trying to hurt me with the sh*t they say. But you know I might catch you on another song later. Or you might end up liking some song I did ages ago. A song is there forever. People will pick up on sh*t when they’re meant to, but I have to keep moving forward. I’ve got a job to do.
Did you consciously decide to pursue mainstream success?
Yeah, naturally. I was 19, with a grime album or two, and I’m there supporting Justin Timberlake in front of 19,000 screaming girls. I’m playing Jus’ A Rascal and they’re still digging it. But as a performer you want to have the crowd up there all the time. And a big part of that is something they can sing along to. People say it’s money and that’s all good. Not being funny, but my record deal was always kind of decent, so it’s not that.
So what did you listen to when you were younger?
Heavy metal, drum’n’bass, hip-hop, garage, Nineties R&B, whatever.
It’s not like you were listening to ’N Sync, then?
No, you couldn’t have played that sh*t for me. But at that time, what was pop?
R&B and Britpop…?
Because it crossed over, it was cool. Some people, they’re music snobs. I’ve stopped being a music snob, even though I’m into a lot of really interesting new music.
You recently played a gig with Muse. Do you change your set for big stadiums?
No, my set works. It’s full of hits at this point. When people hear it in context, some people might not like it, but you might be at a festival, think, “Ah f*ck it, give him a chance, I’m here anyway.” I put a lot of energy into my performance, it’s one thing I’ve always cared about.
So who’s the dream collaboration?
Timbaland. Beats-wise and music-wise, he’s one of the people who made me want to make beats in the first place.
And finally, was playing Bonkers at the Olympics opening ceremony, er, bonkers?
What got me was the rehearsals. They had the crowds with the 80,000 people, when I got to see all the other stuff that was happening, like f*cking Mary Poppins. It made me feel very humble inside to know that they made sure I was a part of British history. The actual performance on the night was really easy, because I just focused on who I could see in front of me. I couldn’t really see the audience because they’d stuck all those lights on the seats.
The Fifth is released on 1 July
(Image: PEROU @ JSR)