An interview with Dizzee Rascal

Dizzee Rascal, the 18-year-old winner of this month's Mercury Music Prize, owes his explosive career to one man above all: Tim Smith, the music teacher at his school in London's East End. Here, the former pupil and his former master share their story

dizzee on mr smith

Dylan Mills was at Langdon Park school, east London, when he started making music. As Dizzee Rascal, he released the album Boy In Da Corner to rave reviews earlier this year.

BEFORE I GOT to Langdon Park I had been rinsed [thrown] out of a couple of local schools. The title of my album, Boy in Da Corner , is about my life at that time. I'd been that kid in the corner of the classroom, the street corner. I had my back against the wall in general.

But in Mr Smith's class there weren't any problems. I never had an attitude in his lesson. In the past I'd made up my mind about someone as soon as I met them, so I liked or disliked them straightaway. But I got on with him from the start he just let me get on with things. I might have had a bit of a bad attitude. I can admit that. But a lot of it was that they [other teachers] kept pointing me out so, a lot of the time, any little thing I did was highlighted.

I was in danger of being thrown out of Langdon Park and, in the end, the music class was about the only one I went to because I had been excluded from most of the others. In the other departments they didn't really want to keep me there and eventually I joined Tim Smith's tutor group as well. Sometimes we talked about school issues but mostly it was about music. He gave me a lot of time and freedom in the classes. At playtime and lunchtime I always wanted to keep on working on my music.

There were good facilities in the music department, which is why I liked it and it was the only place in school that I actually wanted to be. I was in the back room of the music department most of time, working alone. I was focused and I didn't worry about what else was going on. I played music as I'd always imagined hearing it in my head. In the back room there was a computer, mixer, mini-disc recorder, CD recorder, printer and a couple of other bits of equipment.

Tim Smith did things to help me like sending me across the road to a professional studio to get more experience. On Monday nights he let my friends from the street come into the department so we could lay down some tracks. It didn't bother me that he was a middle-aged man. He was my teacher age didn't matter, I respected him. He understood my music and understood what I was trying to do, so nothing else mattered. If he suggested that I listen to something I would, sometimes he gave me music or videos to watch as well.

School would have been pretty dead really for me without music. I liked IT, and English was all right, but that was it. Everything started there I mastered my style in that little back room. I don't really class myself as a musician, I can make music but I'm not the greatest technically. There were other people who were technically better than me in school but I knew how I wanted to sound and all I needed was to work out how to do it. For the past four years I have been focused on my music: DJing, doing pirate radio, playing at little raves and youth clubs before making the album.

Obviously Tim Smith has played a big part in my success, and the album was written to reflect how I felt and much of it came from my school days. I had to credit Mr Smith on the CD. I was never going to forget him. I'm not like that.


PLACE: Langdon Park school, London.

DATE: 5 Aug, 2003.

PEOPLE: Dizzee Rascal and Tim Smith.

Tim Smith was head of arts at Langdon Park when Dizzee Rascal was a pupil. He is now head of arts at Kidbrooke School, south London.

DYLAN CAME INTO my Year 10 music class about five or six weeks into the first term. I gave him a little task on a computer using Cubase [music software] and he was off. He used me and the other staff to explain things but he didn't need much help. He knew what he wanted to achieve and he worked quickly. He was noticeably better than the others because his music had a clear structure and pattern, an amazing balance between rhythm, bass and melody.

I try to let students do what they want. I aim to create an atmosphere where they feel safe and can experiment. My attitude is, 'Show me what you can and let's work on that', rather than, 'This is what we're going to do'. There wasn't a problem with Dylan's behaviour in my class. Okay, he had a reputation, but it didn't mean anything. I didn't need to know about that - a student is a student. I'm paid to teach, not to judge.

The headteacher was very supportive of Dylan and me, even though there were issues in other classes. Sometimes when his mum had been called in about his behaviour, I would meet her afterwards and play her Dylan's latest composition to cheer her up.

A lot of the music on his album Boy in Da Corner is similar to the tracks he made at school. When I listen to it I can visualise exactly how it would appear on the computer screen. I've still got 33 tracks Dylan made at school some of them are works in progress, but most stand out as very interesting. I'm a fan of minimalist composers such as John Adams and Philip Glass, and there is a similar feel to some of the music Dizzee composed on Cubase. I remember bringing their music to his attention, although he was never short of inspiration.

I was thrilled to find out that he had credited me on his album. A journalist phoned me before I heard the album. He told me what Dizzee had written ['Special thanx to Mr Smith, da best music teacher Langdon Park ever let go (you fools). I'll never forget da way you kept the faith in me, even when things looked grim']. I said, 'Come on, get real.' He said, 'No, it's on the album.' 'Well, that's fantastic,' I said. I was really chuffed. It's my job to help all the students, but Dylan has done particularly well. I'm very proud of him, and it's nice to be remembered.

I've been a teacher for 26 years and I've seen other talented students come and go but never achieve this kind of success. It's also got me a lot of cred at my new school. One of his tunes came on the radio recently and a lad was miming all the words, so I asked him if he liked Dizzee Rascal. He asked me how I knew him, so I told him that I used to teach him at Langdon Park. Instant cred.

At Langdon Park we were fortunate to have incredible access to computers and generous funding from local businesses. Companies at Canary Wharf threw away computers that we then used to make music. Langdon Park is in a very deprived area but there are incredibly committed and skilful people working there. I often think that if you can work in a school like that, you can work anywhere.

I like working in inner-city schools. I relish the challenges the feeling that something unexpected might happen keeps you on edge and can be the most rewarding thing ever. I want the kids to succeed. I'm fortunate to teach arts - you have a real opportunity to work closely with pupils. You can develop a one-to-one relationship that is quite unique.


Akin Ojumu

The GuardianTramp

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