Dizzee Rascal has been the most exciting rapper in the world for the past four years, yet, as reported by Billboard
, his third album, Maths and English
, is not being released in the States on cd. Here one can only download it or wait for delivery from Amazon UK, as I am currently doing. This is very bad news, particularly while American hip hop continues to suffer the hegemony of crunk. (His first two albums, Boy in da Corner
, belong in everyone's musical library.)
I was lucky and curious enough to attend Dizzee's U.S. debut at Volume in Williamsburg on February 7, 2004 before I had even heard any of his music. The buzz from Britain was deafening at the time, and being a lifelong rap aficionado I figured what the hell. What I saw and heard that night blew me away. The space itself was bizarre for a concert venue. The club, which had only been open for a month and is now long gone, was a high-ceilinged, featureless, hangar-like space. And slashing across it diagonally was a huge, shiny, stainless steel flatbed truck.
When Young Master Rascal finally emerged, he climbed right on top of that shiny hulk and, charisma in abundance, turned it into a runway-style stage as if there could not be any other conceivable uses for a flatbed truck. On first listen, and live no less, I had no clue what the hell he was saying, but I was in awe of his speed, his skills, and his confidence in performing a style of rap that, musically and vocally, was like nothing I had ever heard before.
Dizzee Rascal's great accomplishment has been to pioneer a style of rap that is true to one of the original missions of American rap while while sounding nothing like it. Musically, his work is distinctly British in drawing on garage and electronica. It's as much about the beeps as the beats. Obviously, he is neither the first nor the only British rapper, but he is the most distinct and has unapologetically ventured the furthest away from the American sound. Vocally, even among British rappers, no one sounds like Dizzee. He has his own unique accent which sounds like that of no other English-speaker on earth, and he raps precisely while keeping to a pace that would exhaust most vocalists, not to mention some listeners as well. For the sharpest example, download his first big hit 'Fix Up, Look Sharp', and note the exaggerated emphasis he consistently puts on his oo's:
'Flushing MC's down the loo,
If you don't believe me bring your posse, bring your crew. '
Thematically, his songs return to the early American tradition of urban testimony—think 'White Lines' or 'The Message'. But there is a second, less noticed tradition that he draws on: that of the angry young men of the postpunk late 70's—Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson et al.—and their frustrations and dim understandings about sex and romance. His lyrics to 'Round We Go' from his first album demonstrate what I mean:
'She used to love him, he used to love her, she used to kiss him, he used to hug her, call it deep love or puppy love, they bunked off school.
Now there's no flame, things ain't the same, look's like she's changed, thinks it's some game, he's left in the rain, trying to point blame, talks for a fool.
She moved on quick, he's still lovesick, she's not having it, thinks he's some prick, he won't believe it, wants it just how it was in school.
He keeps calling, night or morning, break of evening, break of dawning, he keeps ringing up, she keeps hanging up, oh what a fool.
She is the best friend, of a ex-girlfriend, of a old school friend, who is the close friend, of this best friend, best friend likes this boy called Blue.
Best friend loves him, best friend needs him, but the ex-girlfriend, of the old school friend, who is the close friend, of this best friend, likes him too.
So the ex-girlfriend, of the old school friend, who is the close friend, of this best friend, sits with best friend, who by now has slept with Blue.
Now the ex-girlfriend don't want to pretend that she ain't slept with that boy Blue 'cause he was a friend of an ex man too.'
From the chorus:
'Ain't no love ting here, it's just one big cycle here.
Ain't no friendship here, it's just one big cycle here. '
These are unusual observations, not to mention line lengths, for a rapper. On the rare occasion that his vocal persona disses women, it's not misogyny but youth being served. In 'I Luv U' his perspective is de-centered by a female response that calls his claims into question:
'That girl's some bitch, you know.
She keeps calling my phone,
She don't leave me alone,
She just moan and groan,
She keep ringing me at home.
These days I don't answer my phone. '
'That boy's some prick, you know,
All up in my hair,
Thinks that I care,
Keeps following me here,
Keeps following me there,
These days I can't go nowhere. '
So is that girl really 'some bitch', or is he a jilted stalker? Ah, youth.
When Dizzee testifies to how he's living, a rap commonplace, he marks his turf as distinctly British and tackles the class question from a fresh perspective, as in 'Imagine' from his second album:
'Imagine if I showed you one day I was leaving the hood,
Would you call me a sellout? Would you say it's all good?
Would you follow if you could?
Or would you just tell me get the hell out?
And imagine if I showed you that I found another way of getting dough without doing dirt—let's blurt.
Would you love me for giving me some hope
Or resent me 'cause your pride got hurt?
Imagine if we never grew up on a council estate
And was country manor-raised with a spoon in our mouth,
Would we still be making fuss about the East and the South?
Would we shiver at the robberies, murder and the crack
And thank god that we didn't have to live like that?
Just the image on the TV as we're comfortably sat
Sipping wine, room lit by the summer sunshine
Not a worry in the world as we casually chat. '
Unlike American rappers boasting of their hustling ways while they're chilling at their mansions (not that there's anything artistically wrong with that), Dizzee is dreaming of a materially better life and simply wanting, without apparent anger, what others have: not the bling but the bucolic. Life on a council estate, or in the projects, is not something to boast of but something to get away from.
Yet another strength of his œuvre is the unexpected sources of his samples. On his first album, the standout was 80's arena rock star Billy Squier's 'The Big Beat', a source later used by Jay-Z on '99 Problems'. Outdoing Jigga one more time, on his second album Dizzee turned to the Broadway canon, once removed. It was both brilliant and daring when Jay-Z sampled Annie on 'Hard-Knock Life', but Dizzee went after bigger game: Rodgers & Hammerstein. On 'Dream', he not only took the chorus to 'Happy Talk' from South Pacific but specifically sampled Captain Sensible's 1982 pop recording. Yeah, he's that cool.
This is the young prodigy whose new album won't even be out on cd in the States because no one here is listening. According to the Billboard article linked above, his first album sold 58,000 units here and his second a mere 16,000. I wrote a blog entry last December called 'the problem with American hip hop today
', but I see now that the biggest problem may be something else entirely: an uncurious, risk-averse buying public. Why are American rap listeners not supporting this important and groundbreaking artist? Are their needs really being met by the stale crumbs of the crunk mafia?
Reader, if anything in this blog entry sounds interesting to you, download a song or two and if you like it buy Dizzee's albums. It's time for the United States to work with its hip hop allies around the world. Clearly, we can't go it alone anymore.
Labels: Dizzee Rascal, hip hop, music, rap