Was only yesterday when London’s Black dance music scene seemed to cast off history’s weight and speed toward the millennium. To Black British music critic Kodwo Eshun, sociology, biography, and a fixation on “the real” had shackled Black music. While hip-hoppers strained to keep it real, Eshun wanted to take the brakes off the breaks. Black Atlantic Futurism had arrived, and promised great leaps forward into “possibility spaces.” The tempos rocketed, the colors blurred, and the streets disappeared beneath the clouds.
Turns out the real future shock is Dizzee Rascal, the U.K.’s 19-year-old Mercury Prize winner. When the sun rises on Dizzee’s “Brand New Day,” he is kotched up in the flat, punching out riddims into cheap PC software, beats born of ringtones, video games, and staticky pirate-radio sounds. They quiver and throb, struggle for internal equilibrium, and often refuse to groove. His processor works differently—on “Jus a Rascal,” for instance, he pulls together T.O.K.’s hysterical dancehall harmonies, a synthesized guitar line halfway between death metal and the English Beat, stuttering Southern hi-hats, and a kick drum retarded to a crawl. His is a William Gibson mirror-world, patterns de/recontextualized at the edge of recognition and seen in syrupy slo-mo. Dizzee’s sound of Young Britain doesn’t torque up and go, it just turns round and round.
When he opens his mouth, words pour out at a high pitch and pace, as if syllables are the only thing that can hold back a scream. Ms. Mills’s only son tells what he calls “the same old story”: fatherless child coming up in the East London council estates, aimless youth failed by the schools and the shitstem but saved by music, bedroom beat-head who went top of the pops by representing his streets but can’t escape their judgment. Right outside his front door, mates have turned predators. The future, he admits, “ain’t right.” On “Sitting Here,” what he sees burns his eyes. Police and thieves. Shottas and hotties. Childhood school chums who grow up to knife and shoot each other. There are no great leaps here. The daily is never routine. There are only moments for Dizzee to capture, encapsulate, and preserve, griot-like. East London calling, futurism is dead. Millennial velocity has crashed.
By now the scene has dumped both “speed” and “garage,” dragged its asphalt-gummy bass down to half-speed, and embraced the term “grime.” Where the futurists wanted a hermetic world of sound, grime’s voices attract the masses with sociology, biography, and the real. So Solid Crew’s members are hounded by coppers. Beefs multiply. Dizzee shows his stab wounds to interviewers, and British music writers and the global bloggerati hail him as the British 50 Cent or 2Pac. He represents the same old story told from Vallejo to Kansas City to Kingston to Cape Town, rap that talks locally and connects globally. Boy in Da Corner‘s one concession to the hip-hop motherland—the Billy Squier “Big Beat,” back-to-the-Funhouse freestyle of “Fix Up Look Sharp”—is far too eager to please. Blame that one, and an assortment of other battle-rhyme clichés, on youth.
But when Dizzee thinks very deeply—worrying about growing up, about those around him who won’t grow up, about dying before he grows up—he sounds like, what else can we call it, the real thing. He delivers threats with KRS-style meta-awareness. “Just remember this: I am you,” he shouts on “Cut Em Off.” “So if you think you’re real, do what you gotta do.” Like Tricky or Massive Attack, the boy is best at taking you inside, at internalizing rather than externalizing. He can be even more specific and desperate. His breakout “I Luv U” describes two teens in a high-stakes stalemate over an unwanted pregnancy. Locked in the estates’ web of relations, they use sex as blackmail. By the end, the boy is reduced to fantasizing about a college girl, someone who has escaped but still gives ghetto head. Then the frenetic beat seems to take over and the boy freestyles his last lines as if once the music fades he too might disappear. Dizzee manages to make this all sound funny and horrifying at once.
It’s a measure of just how much Brit-rap has matured that a year ago, Home Secretary David Blunkett and Culture Minister Kim Howells turned the bully pulpit on Black music, blaming rap for “glorifying gun culture and violence.” Hysteria followed—same old story. Perhaps Dizzee’s Mercury coronation late last year should be read as the redemption of Brit-rap and Black British music, and a sign of the permanent American-style culture war to come. In the U.K. press, Dizzee’s line is quoted everywhere: “I’m a problem for Anthony Blair.” If he remains this compelling, that’s one boast he will undoubtedly be called upon to back up. His future—and that of Black British music—isn’t the one Eshun envisioned at the millennium. But it’s full of possibilities.