Dizzee Rascal: 'The music just got bigger and better'

Who'd have predicted that Dizzee Rascal would go from grime pioneer to global pop star? He discusses the pros and cons of fame and his new life in Miami

At the start of last year, Dizzee Rascal moved to Miami. He'd gone there for Christmas, and decided to stay. "I went there and thought, what the fuck am I like? I want to live here!" he says, sitting in his south London studio. "It's mad because I'd been there twice or three times before and it had meant nothing to me. It must have been the point that I was at."

His burgeoning fame was, he says, a factor. After years of critical acclaim and respectable rather than spectacular sales, he had suddenly become one of the biggest pop stars in Britain. He'd had three No 1 singles and a platinum album and won a Brit for best British male in the space of 18 months: two more No 1 singles would follow. It wasn't that he didn't enjoy the celebrity that came with it, he says, but he'd already had to move house once because he was plagued by people singing his songs outside. "It got to the point where I'm walking down the street and I don't know why people are staring at me. Is it because they know me or because they know who I am or is it because they think I'm a cunt? It's confusing. Because then to walk around thinking everyone does know you, that's another thing. It's another piece of shit." He shakes his head. "I don't know man, it's just fucked."

So Miami, he thought, might offer him a degree of anonymity. He could explore the city's club scene without the baggage of being recognised. "I started from scratch, I wanted to go there incognito and just be normal. I didn't go there and go: 'Look, I'm Dizzee Rascal, can you get me anything?' I went as a punter first." He pauses. I'm expecting him to follow through with news of enlightenment and revelation, a Damascene moment when, freed from the shackles of celebrity, Dizzee Rascal realised that music sounds better in the communal embrace of the dancefloor, rather than the rarefied surroundings of the VIP area. But apparently not. "I realised how shit it can be as a punter," he frowns, outraged. "They treat you like a cunt on the door because of your clothes or because they just don't like the look of you, or it's: 'You ain't got no girls with you, you can't come in.' I'm like: 'What – do I have to bring girls to the club? I don't understand! I come here for girls!' It's just all bullshit."

Having hastily revised his idea of turning up at clubs incognito, he seems to have rather taken to life amid the palm trees and art deco architecture. He talks excitedly about the people he has met there: Lionel Richie, Snoop Dogg and Quincy Jones, who advised him, a little dispiritingly, that the music industry was finished and that he should instead concentrate his energies on selling mobile phones in China. He plays me some tracks he recorded in the US, intended for his next album, due later this year: there are also plans for an online lifestyle channel, Dirtee TV, plus tour dates with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and other big, surprise live performances.

Some of his new tunes were produced by Dr Dre cohort Fredwreck: they sound like 90s g-funk, his voice scratching against the smoothness of the production. Others cleave more to the four-to-the-floor thud of Bonkers, albeit with a noticeably tougher lyrical twist that makes you wonder what Radio 1 might make of them: the chorus of one track features Dizzee Rascal bellowing "pussy, weed, orange juice and ecstasy" over and over again.

He says wouldn't mind having a stab at success in America, where he thinks the dance scene might be catching up with the records he made years ago: "We took Bonkers around and they weren't ready for it, and now that's what everyone's doing, and every big producer I meet, like Will.i.Am, talks about how they were influenced by Bonkers and it's like, oh, for fuck's sake, do you know what I mean?" But he'd never leave Britain permanently: he likes the way Americans rejoice in success, but also what he calls "the putting-shit-into-perspective and holding back of England". Nevertheless, he is clearly having a high old time in Miami, perhaps evidenced by the metaphor he choses to illustrate the difference between Americans celebrating success and British reserve. "I'm not going to lie, it can be fun throwing money over a naked midget in one of the most famous gangster strip clubs in America," he offers, sagely. "But after a while, throwing money around is not sensible, even if the midget is willing."

He laughs. He seems happy and content, which wasn't always the case. First there was the difficulty of squaring his success with his tough upbringing on a council estate in Bow, east London, then a relentless workload as he plugged away at his career. "Just the pressures of growing up and the pressures of being in the limelight and then all the niggling other bullshit that comes with it, that you can avoid but it's just a lot of brain power and it's depressing. That's why you see so many artists fucking strung out on drugs and fucked up and that."

He attributes his ongoing good mood to taking the last year off, which he says was the first real break he's had since he was 16. "I liked going to the Caribbean, just having nice holidays, do you know what I mean? And," he smiles, "I was fucking a lot, obviously."

Certainly, this all makes for a nice contrast with the last time I met Dizzee Rascal. That was nine years ago, not long after the release of his debut single, I Luv U, and already a certain reputation preceded him. For one thing, there was the terrifying racket that leapt out of the speakers when you played his forthcoming debut album Boy In Da Corner. It was incredibly exciting and unimaginably alien. If you hadn't been paying attention to recent developments on the fringes of British urban music, the music sounded like one long WTF? He said himself it sounded "like the end of the world", a sensation heightened by the panicked voice over the top of it, yelping about stabbings and shootings, drug deals and suicidal depression. He was already embroiled in various feuds on the garage scene and had recently been photographed wielding a knife. "Was I that bad?" he laughs, when I remind him. Well, no, but he was, to put it charitably, erring on the surly side of perfect. He wasn't big on eye contact, except when you asked him a question he didn't like and he glared at you. This happened quite a lot. He only really perked up when discussing his lyrics: "It's what's going on under people's noses whether they like it or not. You can try and ignore it, but if you ignore something that's under your nose, sooner or later, it'll punch you in the face." A few weeks later, he was stabbed six times in Aiya Napa.

You might just have imagined him, a decade on, as one of Britain's most influential pop stars, but you would have got long odds indeed on him ever attaining something like national treasure status, which he also appears to have done: performing the anthem of the England World Cup team, palling around with Prince Harry, appearing on Newsnight to discuss Barack Obama's election.

The change began in inauspicious circumstances. His then-label XL was uninterested in Dance Wiv Me, the wildly commercial track he recorded with producer Calvin Harris in 2008. "The fact they didn't want the track was just like: 'Oh now I don't understand you.' When people hear this they're going to think you forced me to do this, and I'm giving it to you on a plate because I'm done with all that, I can't be any more experimental and win, so this is the way I am now and I'm enjoying it."

He ended up putting it out himself, reviving the Dirtee Stank label on which he had released his debut single. It was the first of five No 1s, and heralded a remarkable shift in British urban music. Rather than his lurch into pop attracting opprobrium, a succession of artists followed his lead: Tinchy Stryder, Tinie Tempah, Wretch 32, Professor Green, Example. By the end of last year, pop rap was the dominant force in the British charts. "It just felt like the thing to do at the time. There's a million factors, there's a million things we could sit here and say, but it felt like the thing to do and the point was just holding my balls and going independent and taking that risk, because it just confirmed to us that it's us that know what we're doing with this music, it always was. And it's just got bigger and better."

When he's not in Miami, he lives in suburban Kent. He's friendly with his neighbours, which even he seems a little surprised by, and does kickboxing at a local gym. "The gym's full of wrong 'uns," he chuckles. "But lovable wrong 'uns."

He has, a little troublingly, developed a liking Zecharia Sitchin, one of those God-was-an-astronaut theorists popular in the 70s. "It's far-fetched, but like only as far-fetched as every religion out there that everyone kills each other for and enslaves the world for. He just includes aliens. Basically we were genetically modified by aliens. I'm not saying I believe any of his stuff, I'm saying it's refreshing to hear something else." He frowns. "But, as I've learned, it's not good to talk about on a first date."

He doesn't seem to miss the "voice of the streets" tag that attached itself to him in the wake of Boy In Da Corner. You could argue that last summer's riots were the dire presentiments that he offered me a decade ago coming true – something under your nose that you tried to ignore punching you in the face – but he was nonplussed by media suggestions that he should make some kind of statement. "What was I supposed to say?" he frowns. He goes back to his old estate a lot, he says, and it's still the same. The nearby Olympic stadium is: "impressive looking, it reminds you of how shit it was, innit. But through knowing people that still live there, there ain't much changed really, they're still not having a great time for the most part." He occasionally visits the local youth clubs. "But I don't want to be standing there reminding them that you need to do something with your life, because it don't work like that. They're just happy to see me. They've got their own issues and when they see me their issues are gone, so it's like: 'Just jam and chill and just tell us about all that wicked stuff that's going on.' All that preaching bullshit … God knows, I've tried, and nothing ends up happening. You end up fighting people sometimes, because that's the mentality you're dealing with. Some people don't want to be helped, they want to do what they're doing, it's all they know. Not that they're thick or they're dumb, just that not everyone expects to get out. They know you, you got out, it's cool, you come round every now and then and you limit the time you're there as well. There's nothing I could have said."

For the first time today, he looks a bit surly. The thing is, he says, he doesn't even know who his fans are any more. It used to be kids like the ones in the Bow youth clubs, but now he hasn't got a clue. Yesterday, he stopped at a service station near Manchester to buy a magazine, but when he tried to pay, the woman behind the counter wouldn't hand it over. "She's about 50, a little fat woman, just staring at me going: 'It's you in't it?' I said: 'Yeah' and she started going crazy: 'Oh my god! Oh my god!' She's come out to the car to get a picture and she's literally skipping around me." He laughs. "She was big, man, and 50, and she was skipping. So you never know."

Again, I say, you would have got long odds on anything like that happening to him a decade ago. He nods. So much has changed, he says. "I'm rich, bitch! Nah, I've done stuff, I've just grown. I take shit a little less serious now, innit."


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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