Stand Up Tall is a new e-book by sometime FACT writer and scribe at The Guardian, New Statesman and more, Dan Hancox, detailing Dizzee Rascal’s debut album Boy in Da Corner and the birth of grime music.
Boy in Da Corner turned 10 years old last month, and for many its bleak depiction of council estate life in East London has never been topped. In Hancox’s words, “while New Labour were flooding urban Britain with ASBOs and CCTV, teenagers like Dizzee looked up at the gleaming towers of Canary Wharf and contemplated their own poverty; telling stories of devastating bleakness, backed by music that shone with the futurism of a brighter tomorrow … a teenage genius with nothing to lose made the best British album of the 21st century.” The album won Dizzee the Mercury Prize, and by the time his fourth album, 2009’s Tongue ‘n Cheek rolled around, he had become Britain’s biggest black pop star, with four number one hits on that album alone. Across the next three pages, Hancox, FACT editor Tom Lea and Mr. Beatnick talk in depth about the Boy in Da Corner‘s genesis, its impact, its context and more.
Mr. Beatnick: One thing I really like about the book is where you draw from your research and knowledge of the neighbourhoods – you talk a lot about Canary Wharf and Bow, and I think it would be good to start by talking about that.
Dan Hancox: Well I’m not from East London but I think it’s fairly clear that grime is, perhaps more than most types of music, situated in the place – or places – that it comes from. You could maybe argue that about any type of music or art, that’s a separate discussion, but with grime it’s inseparable from the place it came from. There’s a point I made in the book, that I nicked from a good friend Dave Stelfox, which is that when Lil Jon is shouting out his ends, he tends to shout out The South… which is a hundred million people. When grime MCs shout out their ends, it can be London, I mean Dizzee shouts out London, or even ‘UK stand up tall’, but a lot of the reference points are so specifically East London.
Tinchy Stryder has a tune where he just describes a day’s events in Roman Road; Dizzee’s got a number of reference points in East that no one would get if they weren’t from East, but he doesn’t care about that. I suppose the overarching point that I wanted to make is that grime is always described as claustrophobic, and intense, but this isn’t music made by folk musicians looking out over hundreds of miles. This is music made by people who can’t see 100 feet, because that’s London, that’s cities. But I wanted to look back at the history of East London. I’m a big fan of the Museum of London Docklands, which everyone should go to, and it’s free. That makes you realise that Bow and Poplar and Limehouse and the postcodes around Canary Wharf weren’t that dissimilar 300 years ago, or even 1000 years ago in some respects. You have people living in impoverished conditions, you have petty crime going on all the time and great creativity going on all the time. And what we see as Canary Wharf now, a series of buildings with mostly banks in them is a bizarre imposition on top of it, and yet even that’s situated in the history of East London as Docklands was the place where Britain’s empire unloaded its gold; where historically all the money came into London – it’s also where the Romans were like ‘wait, we could do something with this wet little hamlet’, because they brought stuff in on boats. And when the docks died, the boats were replaced with international banking transactions.
Tom Lea: I’m glad the book looks at the duality of Canary Wharf, the fact that in some ways it’s a beacon Dizzee can see through his window and in other ways it’s oppressive.
DH: He switches, he talks about it really positively and he talks about it really negatively, and reading interviews over the years the positive stuff has come more recently. There’s a great BBC London interview where he talks about it as an inspiration. It’s something DJ Target does as well – ‘it’s an inspiration, it’s our statue of liberty’ – which is an incredible description, but when you walk around London don’t you think that way? It’s part of our landscape, even if it represents something that you don’t approve of.
TL: I think everybody who grows up in London has a weird relationship with Canary Wharf, it’s almost mythologised; like I remember the first time I was told ‘that’s Canary Wharf’, you know, that big building with the red light that you’ve never not lived in the shadow of.
DH: And that’s what Dizzee says – ‘it was always there, it was always there’. It’s something you can’t ignore, and what it represents is not lost on people who grew up in E3. Wiley talks about shopping there – “Canary Wharf retail therapy all day, that’s me”.
MB: You have to ask where he’s shopping in Canary Wharf, really. Waitrose?
DH: Dizzee says that he never felt like part of London when growing up, and it shows so much in this music he made when he was 16, 17, 18, i.e. Boy in Da Corner. There’s an interview with Robert Elms on BBC London, where Dizzee says that he feels more a part of London ‘now that I’ve come up in the business world a bit’.
TL: Which is really depressing in a way. It’s basically ‘I feel more a part of my hometown because I’m rich.’
DH: It is. But that’s how I feel about grime and politics generally – when I was first listening to grime in 2003-2004, I ignored the fact that it was opposed to my politics, in that it’s all really aspirational and acquisitional, and it’s all about get money get money. But then I’m from a white lower-middle class household, I’ve not had to struggle in remotely the same ways. Since then though, I’ve realised that grime is quite political, because it reflects the politics of the world in which it was established. So when Dizzee is feeling that the only way he can possibly pursue his music career is to sell out… and he does say sell out, on ‘Imagine’, which is a fucking great tune on Showtime, he has the line ‘who’s to say I’ll make it unless I fake it’ – the only way he can see out of the hood is to do anything he can to make money. And that perfectly reflects the politics of Canary Wharf, and the politics of London for the last 10 years. Grime’s political because it reflects the politics of our age.
TL: I daresay it’s mostly subconscious, too. It’s natural, if you don’t have money you’re naturally going to feel oppressed because of what you don’t have access to, you’re naturally going to make really odd music like Boy in Da Corner. The minute you don’t have those problems there’s less to draw from.
DH: Definitely, and the title Boy in Da Corner is really significant, it’s significant personally as well as politically. He feels alienated, he feels isolated, he was the kid getting kicked out of the class – that’s what it literally refers to, sitting in the corner – but even in the grime scene, where people were building up this camaraderie of being in crews, etc, Dizzee was never properly in a crew. He rolled with Roll Deep, he rolled with N.A.S.T.Y., but he never repped them like a full member. In that scene from the Conflict DVD, which I highlighted in the book because it’s so profoundly symbolic of all the other trends, he’s literally standing in the corner, slightly sheepish and waiting for his moment… and he’s suspicious, eyes darting around, he feels isolated and alone. It’s fucking bleak, but then we’ve all been teenagers.
TL: Talking about selling out, it brings us to the relationship between him and Wiley. Wiley’s in this weird position where he’s a bonafide star, which he’s always craved – and quite openly craved – but he’s found himself in this openly conflicted position about what he wants to do, whereas Dizzee, for better or worse, is a lot more at ease with his position.
DH: Wiley’s articulated much more candidly and honestly – the way he does about everything – along the way, where he’s like ‘I’m gonna do this [major label] album, I don’t care about this [major] label and I don’t care about this music, but I’m going to toss it out because it’ll make me some money.’ And he’s been doing it for the last five years!
TL: Which is incredible, the way he keeps pulling the same trick.
DH: I know, how are the labels not saying ‘this is really offensive to us, we think we’re making good pop music with you’?! He’s so open about not caring about the music, and just doing these albums because he needs a bill and he’s not going to get it making another Second Phaze or Grime Wave… But he does it in a really successful way. Dizzee, I think, flew towards the mainstream with much more open arms. He’s said in response to people criticising him for selling out, ‘well I make these underground mixtapes but no one fucking listens to them, they just wanna criticise me for not making Boy in Da Corner over and over again’, he gets very defensive about it. I don’t think Dizzee feels the same affinity for the whole 140 [beats per minute] UK thing the way Wiley did though. I mean Wiley came up through jungle, we’ve all heard his jungle bits, which are fun…
TL: Well it’s funny that Dizzee references jungle in the book, because I’d never heard him do that before and I never really thought that Dizzee was into jungle. I thought he was coming from much more of a US hip-hop fan’s perspective. In a recent interview Lisa Blanning did with Dizzee [for Electronic Beats] he claims that ‘I Luv U’ was his attempt to re-make ‘Is That Your Bitch?’ [by Jay-Z], which I’d never clocked but it makes perfect sense.
MB: ‘I Luv U’ is the song that most of the heads will remember, but I think plenty got into Dizzee through ‘Fix Up Look Sharp’. There was no grime context to that song for most people, initially everyone just thought it was a UK rapper crossing over, and that grime attachment wasn’t necessarily obvious … That Billy Squier “The Big Beat’ sample is a really classic hip-hop staple. On that tip, that whole “chipmunk grime” period with speeded up, high pitched voices definitely relates to the US hip-hop from that period. To my ear, grime production has always echoed and put a new spin on a lot of the contemporary trends in US hip-hop.
TL: Well Roll Deep practically had it as a party line when they released In At The Deep End, which was an… alright album. They were always getting told that they’d tried to make a pop record, and they’d respond by saying that they were trying to make a Dipset record. I don’t know if they used those words exactly, but they emphasised a lot that all they’d listened to while making it was Dipset and Just Blaze and Heatmakerz, etc.
DH: I remember when I interviewed Rapid and Dirty [Danger, from Ruff Sqwad], and we were talking about their melodic productions…it became clear that a lot of their ideas were inspired by the US. ‘Died in Your Arms’, for instance, there was already a US rap version of that, and they were like ‘why don’t we do this at 140?’. Dare I use the phrase hardcore continuum again, but one chink in the armour of that otherwise perfectly robust theory is that there is a US influence on grime. A memory that sticks to my head was interviewing [Ruff Sqwad’s] Fuda Guy, in the bedroom that he shared with his older brother XTC…
TL: See, I only found out recently that XTC was Fuda’s brother. He made two of the most perfect tunes ever, had a freestyle on Risky Roadz and basically did nothing else.
DH: Yeah, he told us that it was that bedroom where he made ‘Functions on the Low’…like this computer, right here. Anyway, the point I was making is that pinned to the wall behind the computer, they had a picture of Dizzee, cut out from The Mirror or something, which is really sweet considering they’re contemporaries but Dizzee has broken out, and next to it was a photo of…I think it was Dipset. Basically, it was this pairing of the local boy who’d made it, next to a photo of the biggest people in the US game at the time, and that’s a dynamic that’s ignored by the hardcore continuum’s reductive, linear thing… like, how could you not be into hip-hop if you grew up in London? Or anywhere, actually – but particularly in London if you’re a young, black, British guy with access to MTV Base?
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MB: I’ve got to emphasise that I’m quite a casual listener when it comes to a lot of grime, but it’s very striking, and it’s something Dan puts across in the book very well, that Dizzee’s music didn’t really sound like anything contemporary, it didn’t really sound like anything… yes, there are echoes and reference points which you two have picked up on, but the beat for ‘I Luv U’, it comes from somewhere else. Just the way it’s put together, sonically, it’s really got a stain of its own. Even his contemporaries, some of the people you mention, it doesn’t really sound anything like them. Is that part of why it hasn’t dated – why it’s so timeless?
TL: I think that applies even more to ‘Brand New Day’. I don’t think I’ve heard anything else that sounds like it in that sort of context, ever.
DH: I’m not an aficionado of Philip Glass, for example, who is one of the people cited by Dizzee’s music teacher… and this is something that the broadsheet newspapers made a big deal of in 2003, that Dizzee had this mentor called Tim Smith who was head of Music and Arts at his secondary school, and who was quite paternalistic towards him after he’d been kicked out of every other class. It was the only GCSE that he got a good grade in, and this guy Tim Smith was interviewed by quite a lot of the broadsheets and said that he’d tried to introduce Dizzee into a lot of the stuff he liked, which was abstract, experimental modern classical, the kind of things you read about in The Wire – no disrespect to The Wire! But there’s no way of knowing, without pinning Dizzee down, which to my discredit I haven’t done, and asking him ‘did you actually pay any attention to that?!’ But there are some very strange arrangements and strange uses of the sound palette that he had available to him.
I really recommend everyone read the Sound On Sound interview from 2004, because everything about Dizzee’s production techniques and stuff, that I’ve found, has been taken from there. He was very direct, a lot of it was very unvarnished, he did not spend a long time on any of those productions really. There’s a great quote from him where he says ‘why do one tune in a day when you can do four?’. He was rattling through these things, but something like ‘Brand New Day’, as you say, is absolutely extraordinary. There are other tunes that are almost unlistenable, production-wise, in the sense that… they are avant-garde in the sense that they’re not attuned to the way that the human ear hears music – they’re awkward, and difficult, and a lot of the reviewers say ‘it’s edgy!’ and use words like awkward, and difficult, most likely, but there’s a musicality there. It’s there in the music, and it’s there in his voice.
His voice is jabbing and not inherently melodic, but he makes it do things… he’ll speed up and slow down the cadence in a way that’s very effective, it all seems very instinctive and I suppose it is, because he’d never had any musical training or anything.
MB: Speaking from a production angle, the interesting thing about, if you like, “outsider” producers as a whole, especially people who use their own voice, is when they build a backdrop that perfectly suits, and maybe could only suit, them. That’s what strikes me about Dizzee, there’s a space in those beats for him and his voice alone, and you can’t really imagine any other rapper on it.
TL: And Dizzee’s said that, there’s a quote in the book about how he couldn’t spit on other people’s beats so he had to make his own.
DH: That’s key. There’s another quote I found trawling through the archives, where he says that he thought he couldn’t spit over garage so he had to make something that worked for him, and that was as awkward, and jarring, and halting and inconstant as his vocal delivery. Another very telling quote was where he said that if he sounds like he’s yelping all of the time, it’s because that’s what he had to do to be heard on pirate radio.
TL: Nick, I thought it would be interesting, as you’re very much from a hip-hop background… when I was at school and this record came out, a lot of my friends who were big hip-hop heads rejected it out of hand. They hated it, they were like it’s bullshit, it’s really jarring, it’s just shit. What was the reaction like from your circles, in 2003?
MB: That’s a very good question. Speaking honestly, I don’t know if I was that convinced then either – I always loved ‘I Luv U’, and I bought the 12″ single. I really liked ‘Fix Up Look Sharp’, but I was quite perplexed by a lot of it… grime in general was something that perplexed me then. The irony for me is that the sequence of places that I lived in London was Finsbury Park followed by the isle of dogs, followed by Bow. I was living in Bow during the golden era of a lot of this shit, the music was all around me, but I went to Rhythm Division once, maybe twice? I look back now and it’s like ‘God, what the fuck?’ But you’ve got to understand, if you were an underground hip-hop head in 2003 you were big into things like Dilla and Madlib, they were right in the middle of the Jaylib project, a new wave of beat music was evolving in bedrooms around the world, you were up on the more experimental sounds that were orbiting that. I was drawn to a very different sound at that point in my life, and the genius of this music is something I’ve only really understood retrospectively – back then a lot of grime beats sounded very harsh, cheap and digital to me.
DH: But was its experimental nature not appealing to people who like Dilla, though? Or were the production values simply too raw?
MB: I think it relates. I remember one of the Itch FM DJs, the best hip-hop pirate station at that time, chastising me in a Dizzee debate, like ‘you don’t understand, Dizzee’s the don, he’s the master’, so he definitely had support in those circles. I’m not sure if that was consistent across the board, but you’ve got to understand – UK hip-hop is a weird world. It was a very inward-looking scene.
DH: Which didn’t like this other very inward-looking scene.
TL: To me, that period of UK hip-hop was inward-looking but it never seemed that UK… A lot of UK hip-hop from that period was just dudes trying to recreate Pete Rock and Dilla.
DH: Which is why grime was refreshing to me, I suppose. I saw Taskforce around 2003, at a few festivals and stuff, and it just left me thinking I’d like to either see US rappers do it properly, or listen to this thing happening just round the corner which is more exciting.
TL: Best track from Boy In Da Corner, which one would you pick?
DH: [long pause] ‘Stop Dat’. Just because I love the way the track is composed, you have the whirring of some bizarre electronic robotic noise, there’s a wailing noise and all this cluttered sound – which isn’t what you expect from Dizzee, he’s usually quite sparse – but you have so much there, and then you have the drop, and the drop is just ridiculous. I mentioned this when I did Boy In Da Corner for FACT’s Albums of the Decade, but that moment when Spyro played it at The Egg in 2009… the drop is so fucking hard, it’s a crowd-pleaser if the crowd is right. A lot of people would just stand there looking aghast at this complete assault, but when that drop comes it’s so hardcore. Maybe that appeals to the side of me that was listening to Blood Brothers at the same time. It would be between that and ‘Brand New Day’.
TL: I have to go ‘Brand New Day’. That one sound, that the track opens on, is just the most haunting, ridiculous thing. I’d never known what instrument it was until you identified it in the book. The whole song is perfect, and it’s one of the only rap songs in history that I’ve seen made better with a live band. He did it at the BBC Proms, and it’s unreal. They up the drama in the second half of the song, they go completely overblown on the strings and it’s just incredible. The first time I watched it I was transfixed – hairs on the back of my neck going mad. I love ‘Jezebel’ too. The one thing about Boy In Da Corner, and you mention it in the book but I think you make excuses for him, is the sexism…
DH: I did say that he uses words like ‘gash’ in a way that makes you go ‘yeeeesh’…
TL: Yeah, and on ‘Stop Dat’, ‘don’t stop don’t stop ‘til you’re bleeding’. But that aside, ‘Jezebel’ – and ‘Round We Go’ actually – they’re so powerful. ‘Round We Go’ is such a universal tale of inner-city life that surely anybody who’s lived in a big city and isn’t a millionaire can relate to it.
DH: Which is seeing poverty repeating itself, basically – ‘round, round, round we go’.
TL: And the micro-details and consequences of it repeating themselves day to day.
DH: It’s just one big cycle here… that’s Dizzee as reporter, and I’ve made quite a big thing in the book about Dizzee as reporter, because that’s how he saw himself. At that time, he was saying ‘yes this is my experience but I wanted to tell the stories of the people around me as well. If this is my one chance to tell a story about what living in Bow is like at this moment in time, as a teenager, then I’m gonna tell everyone’s stories’. Did he think he was going to end up where he is now, doing that? I’m sure he didn’t, and that’s the context you’ve got to remember it in. You can’t listen to Boy In Da Corner in 2013 and think ‘well obviously he knew he was going to be doing that shitty England World Cup song’.
MB: That’s an argument you make in the book for the double meaning of Boy In Da Corner, partly the idea of the outsider pushed into the corner because he doesn’t fit it, but also as a reporter, or a voyeur or a fly on the wall.
DH: ‘Jezebel’ is a perfect example of him as a voyeur. I think it’s pretty clear that he’s sympathetic to the girl, despite describing her in unflattering terms. The last line of that is the really telling one, after the cycle repeats itself – ‘two kids, even worse, two little girls / that’s two more of her, that’s two Jezebels’ – and it ends on ‘if only she was six years younger… damn.’ That ‘damn’, it’s too late. It’s fucking heartbreaking, as a lot of the album is.
TL: Well a lot of grime, as we said before, is nostalgic for childhood, and wanting to be six years younger doesn’t just apply to getting knocked up, it could relate to being caught up in any sort of cycle, really. That then ties into Dizzee potentially only having once chance to make this album matter.
DH: Staying out of trouble doesn’t just mean with the police, though that’s part of it. It’s getting through your teenage years and becoming the adult that we are. We all kind of hate ourselves as 16 year olds, if we look back at ourselves at 16, but we’ve had the chance to grow out of that. Part of Dizzee’s point is that a lot of people don’t, because they get in above their heads before they have a chance to reflect and think ‘well that’s a stupid thing to do’, whatever it is. One slip and you’re done, and those slips are far easier to make if you grow up on a council estate in Bow than… well, I refer you to ‘Imagine’, again, because that is the perfect description of the polarisation of British society, really. I love that song, it’s my favourite one on Showtime, definitely… it’s Dizzee talking about the other side, and what he thinks it is, even though he doesn’t quite know. He knows more than he did making Boy In Da Corner but he still wasn’t huge. And that’s why I had to make the book about Showtime as well, because it reflects exactly those same sentiments and does it just as well – it’s a fucking brilliant album, but it suffered from coming so soon after Boy In Da Corner.
I ended the book on the last song on Showtime, because it really captures him at the crossroads – do I sack off all this madness and shoot for the mainstream, or do I stay true to myself? Musicians and artists have been talking about this forever… would it be better if Dizzee was still talking about ghetto life when he wasn’t living on a council estate? No, obviously not, and respect to him for moving on and not pretending, basically.
TL: My problem isn’t with what he’s making now but what he could be making. He’s in a position where he could be making incredible music, and cherry-picking artists and producers from the UK and the US to work with. Good ones, not Will.i.am and Jessie J. He occasionally does it – the tune he did with Bun B, which has been kicking around for a while – it was on one of those mixtapes you mentioned – and I think is on the next album, it’s really good.
DH: This is where he’s got it twisted, with his defence against criticism from his fans back in the day. Of course people move on, and people should be allowed to move on but it’s a shame, the way that he’s done it… for me a lot of it is actually about production, Dizzee is an incredible producer, he’s got an incredible production talent that he doesn’t use anymore, and yes he’s a charismatic, and lyrically genius rapper or MC, but I miss his production, which could be, surely, as exciting as it was in 2003 and 2004 when he was making those first two albums. Imagine what he could make now. With Wiley, just when you think he’s become this hilarious pop comic character, he’ll come out with a beat that just blows your mind, and it’s proof I suppose that if you’ve got if you’ve always got it. That’s not something that Dizzee’s challenging himself with, and I’d like to see him do that.
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MB: Do what extent do you think that Dizzee, despite being a massive part in helping establish grime as a genre, felt alienated by it? I mean, he goes to Aiya Napa, he gets stabbed, his manager then ends up pulling him away – you have a sense of someone commentating on this world that bore him, but ultimately ended up pushing him away even further.
DH: He was definitely eager to get out. You can see that in the Conflict DVD, and I think that and the Aiya Napa incidents were turning points. Both happened in the summer of 2003, Napa was within a month of Boy in Da Corner’s release. He was always the boy in the corner, so he never felt that sense of carrying a scene with him, which is what Wiley felt, and even people like Skepta and JME stuck with, they had a community sensibility, they were people you saw at radio and in the couple of studios that this stuff was made. This idea that you could do more, better, together – Dizzee never had that mentality, he was always the boy in the corner. The fact that he flew away faster than anyone else shouldn’t be a surprise.
MB: But we shouldn’t brush over the fact that grime was infused with a lot of negative elements. There was Crazy Titch, who appears on the Conflict DVD and later ended up in jail for murder over some lyrics. I’m playing devil’s advocate here, but there were documented events that alerted police – so to what extent was grime a victim of its own behaviour?
DH: You see in the Conflict DVD that Titch steps to Dizzee, apparently for no reason, and Dizzee obviously feels that he has to hold his own, and it keeps threatening to boil over into an actual fight… the way I phrased it in the book is that Dizzee’s looking at that, and he’s got his debut album out which three months later would win the Mercury Music Prize, things started to change quite rapidly after that point. From his point of view why would he stick around in the pirate radio scene dealing with bullshit like that when he could be progressing, as it were?
TL: It’s worth remembering how fucking awkward it would have been for Dizzee, still going up to Deja having just won a Mercury Music Prize. Can you imagine, everyone would be either trying to leech off of him or trying to get hype by taking shots at him.
DH: Everyone would have been either begging off him or trying to shoot him down. And some people have the mentality for that, Wiley’s always dealt with being the big man who everybody wants to take shots at – which has been the case for many years.
TL: The thing is, Wiley’s always been an elder in grime so it’s different.
DH: And you can see that in the Conflict DVD, he’s the one who’s looking around going ‘ok, step back, step back’. I think you have to have the right mentality to think it’s worth sticking with this, and Dizzee didn’t have that.
MB: I don’t feel that we’ve emphasised the fact that it’s an incredibly competitive genre, a lot of it revolves around parring people, there’s a lot of harshness to it – yes, some of it’s theatrical, but it’s there and culturally embedded in it, and I don’t know if you can embrace one side of it without acknowledging the fact that although there’s an incredible burst of creativity and positivity to it, it’s also grounded in some really negative, horrible things. You guys were talking about misogyny earlier, that misogyny that pervades some of the lingo, it’s there right at the core. You can reconcile the two halves, I think, but it’s a narrative that reoccurs in lots of hood music, where people come out of tight-knit communities, and they blow up only to find themselves dragged down by the very people that propelled them to success.
DH: The gender politics of grime are fucking awful, there’s no getting around that. There are very few female MCs, and too many of the male MCs – who made up 98 or 99% of grime MCs at the time we’re talking about – used unapologetically sexist – and also homophobic – lyrics a lot of the time. Which is why when you get love songs, like ‘Died In Your Arms’, or the ‘I Luv U’ remix… obviously grime MCs are human beings, with feelings, like anyone else, but it’s hidden under so much bravado and maschimo. But I think that’s also been a driving force, the competitive sensibility in beef tracks. You get it in American hip-hop, obviously, but it’s so intense and common in a way that it probably isn’t other forms of rap music around the world?
MB: The thing is, none of these people were really famous – maybe they were famous on a micro-scale.
TL: But that’s the scale that grime works on, it was a localised genre where if you were big in your postcode, then you were big full-stop.
DH: A big part of grime’s early atmosphere, as Rapid and Dirty said to me… going to radio stations in other postcodes was really dodgy, and people would ask them ‘where are you from, we don’t recognise you’, and that’s something that probably affects you as a young black teenager in a way that it wouldn’t if… I mean I grew up in London, and no one ever asked me where I’m from like that. The idea of slipping – there’s a Wiley tune called ‘Slippin’, about ‘slipping in South-West London’ – that’s an element of grime that I don’t think a lot of people know exists, the idea that you have to keep your friends close, and know where you’re welcome. That’s why you have to get a car quickly, and a lot of black young Londoners I’ve met talk about needing to get a car as soon as possible, so that they can move around safely – it’s something that would never occur to me. Which is why I’m 32 and can’t drive!
Dizzee came out with incredible social realism on his first record, because he felt like there were stories to be told there and he wanted to tell them. I always wonder who he viewed his audience as – he says ‘I’m a problem for Antony Blair’, but did he really think that someone connected to Tony Blair would hear it? Or was it simply the case that he had a set of stories from his ends, that he wanted to make an album about. As it turned out it made a huge impact, but what if it hadn’t? This would just be another sleeper album. There are other attempts to do this from London artists, London Posse for one, and Skinnyman’s Council Estate of Mind, they’re attempts to tell these kinds of stories, but there’s not many of them – mostly these stories are untold.
If you think about the film or TV depictions of council estate life in East London, it’s a steady chain of things like Bullet Boy and Kidulthood and Adulthood, which I’m sure are well-meaning originally but…
MB: They basically revolve around stereotypes.
DH: Exactly, and I feel that Dizzee’s portrayal of that world was so much more adept than the presumably 30-year old screenwriters who wrote those films. I don’t know who wrote those films but they weren’t 16 and living on a council estate.
TL: We should never forget how young Dizzee was while writing these songs – and how untempered the writing is. You mentioned that quote ‘why spend a day on a beat when you could spend it on four beats’ – as if spending a day on a beat is ages – but also it applies to his writing. I know he wrote the album over a period of two years, but I’d love to know how long he spent on some of the lyrics to those songs, because they’re so direct in their observations – and yes, there’s clever wordplay, some of which you point out in the book, which he has obviously thought about – but sometimes its so direct and blunt and cutting that it’s clearly not been overthought, and the results are just haunting. On ‘Live-O’ there’s that line ‘I’ll make you wish you were born elsewhere’, which is such a fucking terrifying thought from a council estate perspective, where you’re living in the same block of flats as half the people you know. It reminds you how shut in Boy in Da Corner’s environment was.
DH: Yeah, it’s a reflection of that same claustrophobia that I talked about before.
TL: There are certain grime MCs that revel in that – not claustrophobia, necessarily, but the small frame of reference in terms of areas, there’s Tinchy’s Roman Road one, the Wiley track where he just shouts out various Bow chicken shops, Slix and Dirty Danger’s ‘Bethnal Green’, they revel in how localised it, whereas Dizzee clearly does find it claustrophobic, he sees these cycles and he finds them depressing, and that’s why he flew the nest.
DH: Nick, we never got round to your favourite song from Boy in the Da Corner.
MB: Boring choice, but ‘I Luv U’.
DH: That’s not boring! It’s a tune that every time you hear it in a club you get excited, and you need to find a girl to do the back-and-forth chorus with!
MB: I liked earlier on when we were talking about Philip Glass, and to my ear – a detached ear – there’s something to be said about how the palette that he uses is not always melodic or harmonic, but it comes back to that musique concrete thing about sounds, they’re not melodic noises, they’re sonic, they’re textures, and I think it’s something specific to that record. Even Showtime, it happens here and there but not to the same extent.
DH: That’s why I miss him as a producer, I think there’s that incredible instinct to the avant-garde towards experimentation, and that’s why it’s worth looking up this mixtape, which is where I found the tune ‘Win’. It’s an obscurity, but it’s another reflection of that particular period where Dizzee was making such bizarre beats. I really want to track down Tim Smith, Dizzee’s mentor, he claims that he’s still got – well, he said this in 2004 or something – about 50 Dizzee beats that never came out. If he still has them, they would be fascinating to hear.