Profile: Dizzee Rascal

Three months ago few people had heard of 18-year-old Dizzee Rascal. Now he has an acclaimed album, the Mercury music prize - and the tabloids at his door. Or rather his mum's door. He talks to Alexis Petridis

Dizzee Rascal's publicist sounds slightly perturbed. "It's not that he doesn't want to do the interview," she explains, "but the press are outside his house. I think they want to talk to his mum. His brain's a bit scrambled at the moment."

And well it might be. Twelve hours earlier, on Tuesday night, the 18-year-old east London rapper and producer, born Dylan Mills, was awarded the Mercury music prize for his debut album Boy in Da Corner. In the past, Mercury prize winners have displayed a marked tendency to be the sort of worthy, slightly dull musos unlikely to attract tabloid attention: drum'n'bass producer Roni Size, earthy blues-inspired band Gomez, "conscious" rapper Ms Dynamite. In Mills, however, they have a genuine story.

In July, the same week Boy in Da Corner was released to widespread critical acclaim, he was stabbed five times in Cyprus resort Ayia Napa, the garage scene's equivalent of Ibiza. Although nobody has been charged with the stabbing, rumours abounded that the stabbing had something to do with an ongoing feud with So Solid Crew: one story suggested that Mills had been attacked as revenge for pinching the bottom of So Solid Crew singer Lisa Maffia. No wonder the tabloids are interested.

"My head's all over the place," he confides when he eventually comes to the phone. "People have been telling me it's like the most prestigious award. I'm starting to understand it more and more as I wake up. I'm getting more and more aware of what's going on now. I'm very very very very happy about it, but it's a bit much, because I wasn't expecting it. I didn't expect it to get this much coverage, because it's grimy and the kind of audience it was aimed for isn't a massive audience. I always put people with my kind of background first. It's just amazing that it's reached so many people."

If the tabloids do decide to dig into his background, there's plenty to discover. Mills grew up on a council estate in Bow, east London, an only child in a single-parent family. His father died when he was young. "I grew up and learnt to hold my own. My mum was doing two people's jobs. It makes you grow up early. There's less people to talk to, less close people, innit? You're going to end up being lonely because you think a bit more. I had to learn to be a man myself."

He was, he says, "a bit of a naughty boy". This, it is fair to say, is a heroic understatement. He managed to get himself expelled from four different schools in as many years and excluded from every class except music in a fifth, Langdon Park in Poplar. He's cagey about exactly what his youthful "madnesses" entailed, but in earlier interviews he's mentioned fighting with teachers, stealing cars and robbing pizza delivery men.

"In the end," he says, "music was the only option open to me. It was a blessing I pursued it. I put all my energies into it. I didn't care about no other subjects. I'd have just ended up carrying on a life of crime, I suppose. I would have done anything to get money. Where I'm from, there ain't a lot of other options, you know what I'm saying? Entertainment or football or crime. I don't want to spread the message that all you can do is music or sport," he adds hurriedly, perhaps mindful of the media camped on his doorstep. "You can be anything. Anything. That's the message I like to spread."

Encouraged by a music teacher, Mr Smith ("he rang me this morning actually, he congratulated me, he was 'nuff excited"), he began making music on the school's computer. He was already an amateur DJ, but his aspirations to become an MC on a local pirate radio station were stifled by the unique delivery you can hear on Boy in Da Corner.

In contrast to the laconic style of most garage MCs, Mills rhymes in a startling, panicked yelp. "I always ended up shouting and screaming," he says. "When you're on pirate radio, when the speakers are blaring and everything's loud and in your face, you have to shout. I just didn't sound good over garage. I had to produce my own beats, because I didn't really fit."

What emerged from Langdon Park's music room may well be the most original sound heard in British music for the best part of a decade. A thrilling, propulsive racket, Mills's take on garage features clattering, arrhythmic beats, screeching electronics and occasional bursts of rock guitar, the latter apparently the result of an unlikely love of Nirvana: "There was something rugged and rebellious about them - Kurt Cobain, he was just heavy, man."

Then there are Mills's lyrics. In marked contrast to most current hip-hop and garage, which celebrates a "bling bling" lifestyle of riches and success, Mills offers an unflinching, exceptionally grim view of life on the council estate where he grew up: violence, poverty, drug-dealing, underage pregnancy - the latter the topic of his darkly comic debut single I Luv U.

On Boy in Da Corner, Mills's own persona is about as far removed from the standard alpha male rapper as it is possible to get: instead, he is riven with anger and despair and occasionally suicidal. "Do I still feel like that now? Every now and then. However I feel at the time will come out in my music. It doesn't necessarily have to be angry. Right now I'm feeling quite happy. I'm not angry about too much right now, man."

Gun crime crops up regularly in his narratives. "About two or three years ago, more and more people started getting shot, there were more guns about. Was it easy to get hold of a gun? It depends on who you are and how serious you are about getting them. It ain't just Bow or east London. Everybody knows there's a gun thing in this city."

He seems curiously uncomfortable with his success, possibly because it has yet to entirely extract him from the violent surroundings in which he grew up. "My real friends are still the same, we go out, we do whatever. It's as confusing for them as it is for you. People see you on the TV and that, and they forget that you're from the streets. All the public things that you get, success and other things, there's another side that people might not know too much about. They might think you're just saying these things in your lyrics. Shit does happen, you really experience these things on the streets and success - that can be a problem. A gift and a curse, you know what I mean?"

It's a situation compounded by the complex rivalries within the garage scene, that regularly seem to explode into violence. He claims he did not instigate his ongoing row with So Solid Crew. "Asher D [So Solid rapper] dissed me first. I would never call somebody out for no reason. It's not in my nature. He came out of prison and he started talking. In that whole garage scene, I've always been one to do my own thing. They can have their little wars and that, MCs clashing, whatever. A lot of people from the street are really doing it. People take things very personally sometimes, because they've got that street mentality. People's egos, man: they'll fight about anything - they just happen to be doing music, you know? Everyone thinks they own the garage scene. I came into the garage scene altogether different. I've never been the same. But I don't care. Maybe it has made people more resentful of me, but whenever they decide that they don't wanna hate no more, they can look back on the fact that I'm different and I've done it, when they've got bored hating."

He is understandably guarded about the incident in Ayia Napa, attempting to brush it off as "a bit much". "I did just take it like every other thing that's happened to me. I've been through madnesses before, violence. You can't say you're from the street and talk shit if you haven't been through those kind of experiences. You can't handle... I know that was a big thing, but I've been through stuff. How can I explain? When you do whatever stuff you do when you're from the street, you know what kind of thing can happen to you. When it happens to you, there's obviously a bit of shock and that, but you get over it, because you knew in the beginning that this could happen to me."

His voice tails off, his attention clearly drawn to the television blaring out the lunchtime news in the background. On the other end of the phone I can pick out a handful of familiar phrases: "East London... garage MC... Mercury Prize." Dylan Mills chuckles. "Shit, man. They're discussing my future on the BBC. All these people talking, talking about me. I'm just like - carry on." He sighs. "News, innit?"

· Boy in Da Corner is out now on XL.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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