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I’m a free man born of the U.S.A. (This guy’s not, though.)
I met Dizzee at the Def Jux offices on Friday afternoon. They’d set him up in an office with a box full of Maths + English liner notes so he could autograph all of them. When I got done interviewing him, as I was leaving the room, Dizzee told me, “Don’t take it all so seriously, man. It’s just fun, innit?” So maybe I followed the wrong line of questioning through this thing. That’s something that might get lost in translation in Dizzee’s music as it crosses the Atlantic: he makes fun music. Maths + English is Dizzee’s third album; he released it in England last year, and it came out in America as a digital-only release. But it’s just now coming out as a physical album in America because Def Jux picked it up and decided to release it. Over the next few months, he’ll be touring America with El-P. Dizzee’s an interesting fit for Def Jux because he basically makes pop music, or music that scans as pop music in his homeland, but it’s easy to imagine his discordant synths and raw-throated quick-tongue catching on with that label’s base. When I walked into the room, Dizzee was listening to I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead for the first time. He liked it.
How does it feel to be back in America? It’s been a while.
It feels wicked, mate. It’s a brand new situation, best situation I’ve been in in America, I think, as well, because I’m on a indie-rap label. So I’m trying to reach open-minded hip-hop fans, and that’s their crowd. That’s exactly what I need right now.
It’s funny that this album took so long to come out here. I hear it as your most American album yet.
But I weren’t in America, so there wasn’t no point in putting it out. You kind of need to be here, to do shows and perform and tour and shit like that.
So it was your decision to not put it out in America yet?
Well, it’s kind of between me and my manager. There’s no point, innit?
What is your relationship like with Def Jux? Were you aware of them before you linked up with them?
I heard the name Def Jux from my cousin years ago. He’s into that whole progressive hip-hop, different hip-hop, as well as all the mainstream stuff. He really knew everything. So I heard the name then, but I never really heard too much.
So did El-P contact you?
No, it’s all through Cage. [Note: This is Dizzee’s manager and frequent production collaborator Cage, not the Def Jux rapper Cage. This took me a while to figure out.]
This record here is my favorite one of your albums yet, and there’s a couple of tracks, “Pussy’ole” and “Sirens” especially, where you’re on some real old rap shit, but with the evil buzzing synths added on. To my ears, it doesn’t sound that different from, like, “I Get Money.” Were you on an old rap kick when you made those records?
Yeah, actually. Prior to that, I’d started listening to Eazy-E. I didn’t listen to Eazy-E when I was a kid. So it was just hearing all the banging old-school gangsta rap, going back to basics, back to that basic flow. I wanted to do that. The whole album obviously ain’t like it. But that’s why I slowed down a little more, kept things more basic, more to the point.
What got you back listening to that older stuff?
Just being in hip-hop and doing everything I wanted to do up til now, just going back to the roots. Everything that’s happening now, it’s all current, so I’m with it because I’m here, and it’s my age, innit? Snap music or crunk or anything that’s happening now, I get it. But shit that’s happening in 93 or whatever, I was too young to understand it for what it really was. So I’ve got to go back to it and listen to it now, get a different perspective.
What have you been listening to the most lately?
It’s in my car lately; I’ve been listening to the new UGK a lot. I love listening to that, especially the first CD, just rolling around town to it.
You’ve got a relationship with Bun B, and you had UGK on your record. How did that come to pass?
South By Southwest, that’s where I met Bun, really, three or four years ago. And it just clicked since then. I listened to them, so I was familiar with their music. When I got stabbed, that’s what I was listening to. I was sitting there on the balcony looking at the sea when I was healing, when I was recovering, just listening to UGK. And the Streets, actually, as well; that shit was helping me mentally.
That’s interesting that you’d be listening to both of those. Those are really different groups, but the real heavy emotional content is there in both of them.
They’re the CDs that I had at the time. It’s what I took out there with me. It’s just what I had. I was listening and healing, so I was recovering in a dodgy hotel room somewhere, anywhere, just trying to keep my mind occupied. I was going crazy, and I was trying to get back to planet Earth.
Your stuff has a similar thing to the Streets and UGK, though. You get intensely into whatever’s going on in your head. Not a lot of rappers do that.
Well, a lot of the rappers I was first into, a lot of the music I was first into, that’s what grabbed my soul. With Tupac or Bone Thugs-N-Harmony or Nirvana, it’s all soul-wrenching shit, innit? And then, early on, even when I was an MC, I wasn’t just spitting yo yo on the mic and that; I was saying mad shit. And they’re like, “What the fuck is wrong with this kid?” But that is definitely what sets you aside from another MC, innit? Because no one else could have your personality. It can’t be imitated. So as much thought as I put in, it was to set me aside from everyone else, to give me that edge.
Other than you and maybe a couple of other people, grime and British hip-hop have never really taken hold here, and I think it’s because of what you just said, how people were just saying their names and shit, and that didn’t really translate. It was the people who came through with some emotional intense shit. Is that the impression that you’ve had over here?
Yeah, hopefully. There’s content, for a start. It’s entertainment, first and foremost, but there’s content. It could speak to you, no matter where you’re from, what language you could speak. I could be in Chile or Japan somewhere, and they’re singing my lyrics back to me. They know it. They get it. Sometimes they just like the beat.
You’ve got good beats, too. You produced or coproduced most of the beats on Maths + English. Is that something you want to keep doing? Because Boy in Da Corner, that was almost all you, right?
Yeah, but Cage was still there in the background a lot. Cage did “Fix Up Look Sharp.” Cage has done my big hits, really. He’s got a lot to do with it.
You seem to think in movements; all three of your albums hang together as albums. Is that something you think out beforehand?
Yeah, I understand music in its wholeness. An album should be a complete package; it shouldn’t just be a bunch of songs thrown together. To an extent, it’s hard to plan an album out. You make that song, make that song; it’s got to come organically. But what it is is trying to piece everything together and make it as much of a journey as possible, from beginning to end.
You’ve never been on a hip-hop label over here before now; you were on a rock label. Do you think that’s affected what audience you’ve drawn over here?
I suppose. That’s who it’s being sold to first, and anyone else outside of that would have to be people who are on the internet and who give a shit about music that ain’t from America. That makes a difference. Being on an indie hip-hop label, they might really give a shit about what I’m saying when it’s being pushed in their face. Like, “Oh shit, he’s really saying something. I don’t quite get his accent; it might take a while to get over it. But I like the beat.” Or not. Fuck knows. We’ll just see.
Do you think you could get on BET out here? Get on Rap City?
Well, I done the cipher for BET up on the roof with Wyclef. It’s just bits and parts; it’s going to take people a while. But it’s a good sign. It’s like with Bruce Lee; it was the top martial artists that got into him first, before the world. It’s a really good sign.
What other rappers over here have you formed connections with?
It’s a few people that have talked to me. But I’ve done tours with a few American artists. I toured with Justin Timberlake back in the day. I supported Jay-Z twice. I performed with Nas. I performed with Talib Kweli and Mos Def. I’ve supported Sean Paul. I fucking supported the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It’s a few.
You’ve got these relationships, and I’m excited to see what’ll happen if you can break through to some of these people’s audiences. You’ve got a very different sound, but it’s one that is close enough to what we hear over here that it could potentially change things in American rap.
Oh, most definitely. Everything influences everything. It ain’t like fucking Timbaland ain’t been influenced by all that European dance music. All musicians are influenced by fields around the world. And all I’m trying to do is master my art. Once I master my art, I’ll conquer the world anyway, basically. If I don’t get all these people’s audiences, the world’s big enough for me to get my own.
I wanted to ask you about dance music, too. In England, it’s more a part of popular culture, something you’d get exposed to, and that influence has manifested itself in interesting small ways in your music.
Definitely. It’s what sets me aside, the fact that I liked hardcore when I was growing up, or drum & bass and jungle and that. My field don’t really mention it, but it’s different; we got different influences. That’s where the whole hard-hitting edge comes to my music. I always try to have it hard, banging, aggressive. That’s where all that comes from. In America, a lot of it is warm. The bass is warm, kind of bouncier. Some of it’s thumping, like Three 6 Mafia and that. And then you got other stuff that’s kind of different.
You mentioned Nirvana earlier on. How do you think that’s affected what you do?
Soul. Not soul as in Marvin Gaye, but somebody’s soul, real soul, real feel. Nirvana’s music is living and breathing; it’s not throwaway shit. That’s why it transplants to so many people around the world and kids, when they grow up, it’s passed on to them forever. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” ain’t gonna leave this planet. That’s what I get out of it, just the realness. Although that man’s dead, he gave as much while he was alive that it don’t feel like he’s dead, really. He’s just not here in the physical. And most of us never knew him or saw him in the physical anyway. So that’s how we know him, that’s how he’s alive to us. That’s a living, breathing thing.
And you bring that same emotional intensity to what you do.
I try and pack it all in there. It’s the best way to organize my thoughts, my feelings, my expressions in a creative way. I’m one of two things; I’m creative or destructive. It ain’t much in between. I put everything in there. Sometimes I don’t even know why. It’s like breathing to me. I have to do it. Things go wrong when I don’t.
Voice review: Jeff Chang on Dizzee Rascal’s Boy in Da Corner