To different generations, Dizzee Rascal means different things. To one, he is part of the group (alongside Wiley and a handful of other performers) that put grime on the map taking it out of the East London pirate radio stations and warehouse raves and into the public consciousness. To others, he is the chart topping rapper of pop songs like “Dance Wiv Me” and “Bonkers” who has had success on both sides of the Atlantic. To both, he is one of the first names on their lips when asked to name a British rapper. Not bad for someone who appeared as a performer of a style many claimed wouldn’t last more than a few years.
Rascal grew up in Bow, East London and by the age of fourteen he was already making beats on his school’s computer, helping to forge the sound that we now know as grime. Starting out initially rapping and djing drum and bass on pirate radio stations, Dizzee’s music would take on a new style by the time he released the self-produced track “I Luv U” at the age of sixteen in 2001. The following year he would join forces with the 13-piece collective Roll Deep Crew, containing an array of former school friends including Fowdan and Dizzee Rascal’s mentor at the time Wiley. Although a member of the group for only a short period, it would be during this time that members of the crew would push the music forward and take grime into the public eye and beyond the limits of pirate radio station signals.
For those unfamiliar with grime, the style emerged primarily in the boroughs of Hackney, Newham and Tower Hamlets, some of the poorest districts in the UK. The youth of urban regeneration took to their microphones, creating a scene fed almost entirely by basement studios, pirate radio and a determined DIY ethic. A scene where an artist is often a veteran before they reach twenty, grime was clearly a genre made for the youth by youth, with most MC’s starting at fifteen or even younger. With a sound distilled with the polyrhythms of jungle/drum & bass and garage to the backdrop of a minimised sound occasionally consisting of nothing more than a queasy bassline and a single, clipped video game squeak. Arising as a backlash against the crossover sound of commercial garage, grime’s early practitioners took influence from artists like So Solid Crew to bring lyrics straight from the streets and the lives of those involved. Dizzee Rascal was very much among them.
Having signed a solo record deal with XL Recordings the previous year, Dizzee Rascal released his seminal debut album “Boy in da Corner” in August 2003. The album peaked at number 23 in the UK charts and at the same time exposed people all over the world to the sounds of grime, especially with the single “Fix Up Look Sharp”. The following month Rascal would be nominated for and win a Mercury Music Prize for best album, making him the youngest ever winner of the prestigious award at the age of only nineteen. With follow up single “Jus a Rascal” faring just as well and a collaboration with Basement Jaxx helping to reach new audiences, Dizzee toured America for the first time in 2004 shortly before releasing his second album “Showtime”. Commercially, this second album would eclipse his debut peaking at number 8 in the UK chart and the singles “Stand Up Tall” and “Dream” both reached the top 20, showing just how far grime music could be taken.
By his third album, however, he began to take a different direction musically. “Maths + English”, released in 2007, indicated a steering away from grime towards others styles as the rapper adapted and reacted to the changing tastes of the public as popularity in grime started to wane. Neverthless, at this point the lyrics were still very much seeped in grime proved by the single “Sirens” and the apparent Wiley diss track “Pussyole”. The move towards a commercially friendly pop sound was complete by the release of his fourth album, “Tongue n’ Cheek”, in 2009. This was also Dizzee’s first full length release on his own label Dirtee Stank, having resurrected the name in 2005 after initially using it on his first white label release when he was sixteen. The move towards pop would prove to be by far the most successful period for Dizzee Rascal with “Tongue n’ Cheek” bringing four number one hit singles in the charts, with “Dance Wiv Me”, “Bonkers”, “Holiday” and “Dirtee Disco”, as well as a first appearance on the US Billboard charts for the “Loca” collaboration with Shakira. This level of success would lead to numerous awards and large tours as well the opportunity to perform at the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.
The follow up to “Tongue n’Cheek”, 2013’s “The Fifth”, proved to be much less successful with collaborations with the likes of Robbie Williams and Jessie J failing to capture the public attention in the same way as those with Calvin Harris and Armand van Helden. This may be one of the reasons for the change in musical direction with his sixth and most recent album, “Raskit” released in 2017. The album appeared to steer away from the pop hits towards something similar to early Dizzee Rascal, with the rapper as an almost elder statesman of grime looking back at the scene when it was very much in its infancy. The move back towards this style seems apt given the growing popularity of grime once again in the public eye, a sound that wouldn’t even have existed if it wasn’t for Dizzee and his peers.
As is to be expected, Dizzee Rascal’s choices of career direction have attracted a fair bit of criticism, with many accusing him of selling out and abandoning his roots. Nevertheless, his ability to adapt and switch styles, ensuring he remained popular when many of his peers disappeared as grime fell back into the underground is not something to be dismissed. Grime was, and still is, a sound that has had a massive impact on popular music in the UK and Dizzee is definitely one of the people who helped make that happen. His lyrical legacy can still be heard in a number of grime acts even now and there are few British rappers who have had the level of success he has. Something that should be commended even if you don’t like all of his output.