Dizzee Rascal Reveals The Secret History Of 'Boy In Da Corner'
Dizzee Rascal tells the story of the LP that put UK Grime on the map.
Tonight in New York City Dizzee Rascal, the artist who took UK Grime to a world stage, will perform his debut LP Boy In Da Corner live from start to finish for the very first time as part of RBMA's annual Spring Festival. In an age when Skepta is reigniting the global prospects of grime, it's worth revisiting the moment some 12 years ago, when a young London MC introduced the word into the vocabulary of music heads everywhere. DJ and grime documentarian spoke to Dizzee to record the LP's secret history for Okayplayer.
It is rare that the first album release of a newly minted genre of music is a bona fide classic. Boy In Da Corner is that rarified case. Largely self-produced, written and performed by a 17 year old East London rapper, Dizzee Rascal’s 2003 opus is arguably grime’s first proper album and remains the genre's benchmark of excellence to this day. A masterpiece of a grime auteur in the making, the album captured in sharp focus the emotions of a boy on a rough council estate. On Boy In Da Corner, along with crafting sonically layered soundscapes, Dizzee pitched his lyrics through boastful defiance, anger, wit and careworn hopefulness at breakneck tempos. The results were infectious, frenzied and arresting. The album went on to win Britain’s coveted Mercury Prize that year, beating out Coldplay and Radiohead, among others, making Dizzee the award’s youngest ever recipient.
In 2003, Grime was the next stop on what music writer Simon Reynolds calls the hardcore continuum – British music’s ongoing underground mutation, a uniquely gifted, shapeshifting child of Jamaican soundsystem culture, breakbeats, DIY pirate radio, speed and bass. It had morphed from late '80s hardcore techno to jungle to drum & bass to UK garage.
By the mid '90s, its latest metamorphosis, UK garage - sped up house music with sub bass and syncopation - had emerged from the underground and begun to set dancefloors bubbling across Britain. Garage songs started topping the UK charts, often with female vocal R&B hooks over rumbling low frequencies – bass weight with feminine pressure. At raves, rapid fire MCs often chatted lyrics on the side, but more often as masters of ceremonies than frontmen. The energy was bright and bougie, and the garage nation dressed the part, sporting expensive, sexy designer gear and sipping champagne while having it large.
By the early 2000s, the scene had gone a bit darker and violence started to hinder UK garage raves as its popularity waned. All but locked out of what remained of the blinging scene, and seeing the success of newer MC-led garage outfits like So Solid Crew,Pay As U Go and More Fire Crew, the next wave of London’s garage kids looked to create their own music, frontloading a more lyrical rapping style over ever-rougher basslines. The next iteration of the hardcore continuum was born. Young producers, often from their bedrooms, built harder, darker garage instrumentals, riddims, for MCs to spit lyrical versions over, on pirate airwaves and at the few raves promoters were able to organize under scrutiny of London’s authorties. Along the way someone called it Grime, perhaps derisively at first, and soon the moniker stuck.
It was out of this next wave that a young Dylan Mills, BKA Dizzee Rascal, would emerge, developing his own unique sound that would bring forth Boy In Da Corner. He recently took time out while preparing to perform his groundbreaking album in New York, in its entirety, live for the first time, to share the making of BIDC...
“We kind of come off the back of that, when music started getting a little bit darker. I was influenced as much back by Three 6 Mafia and what they were doing and Neptunes, like as far as beat wise. So that's what influenced how I made beats personally.”
Dizzee remembers the transition from garage to grime as a distinct divide. “Kids like me at the time, who were young, might be wearing a hoodie or wearing trainers and weren’t necessarily dressed too smart, wasn’t up with the dress code, they didn’t necessarily want us in those clubs. So even when grime started in the first place, we were in the small room when we were performing. If there was a club, and it was a big garage night, we would be in the smaller room, like it was more of a niche thing.”
Raised by a hard-working single mom after the death of his father when he was young, Dizzee grew up in a public housing council estate in Bow, East London.
“My mom was always really supportive of what I was trying to do," he recalls. "I wanted a set of decks when I was fourteen and my mom gave me money to buy them. I don’t know what kind of fuckin’ decks they were. They were wooden with a round circle belt drive. And I used to put elastic bands in it to make it feel like a direct drive Technics. Those were the first decks I had but my mom paid for those. My mom did cleaning jobs, my mom did everything. So, as hard as it was, my mom was supportive.”
With a helpful record donation from a neighbor, DJ Target, Dizzee started out as a drum & bass DJ, jamming in his bedroom with his MC friends. “Sometimes I would just pick up the mic and start MCing anyway. MCing came to the forefront for me because I think I loved the attention that the MCs would get at the raves. I kind of thought I like this. It was a better way to express yourself I think.” He soon began to explore grime.
School was troublesome for Dizzee and he bounced around to a number of schools but by the fourth one he’d learned to make beats in Cubase. He focused on music and went on to a college music course. At the same time, he was gaining notoriety on the Grime scene releasing instrumental tracks like “Ho” and “Go” on his own label, Dirtee Stank. By now he was also rolling with Target, Wiley and Roll Deep who introduced him to Nick Cage, a producer with a studio in Bermondsey, South London. Cage gave Dizzee lots of studio access and he spent long hours there making tracks. He decided to drop out of college. “I was already on pirate radio outside of college, people knew who I was so it just didn’t make sense to be there. So I dropped out and that’s the year where I actually made “I Love U” within that few months of dropping out.” “I remember making that beat. The idea and the theme for how it was going to be laid out, was based on “Is That Your Chick?” “That track was kind of like 2-step garage at the time. It was different to anything else that was out in hip-hop. It was closer to what we were doing over here. And “What’s Your Fantasy?” “It was the tempo and the structure of the vocals. So you had the boy and girl call and response on both of those tracks.
Dizzee needed a female rapper for the song but knew no female MCs so he lied to a local girl he knew, a singer named Jeanine Jacques, and said he had a song for her to sing on. “When she heard it, obviously she was like, What the fuck is this...?"
"No one had heard anything like that before. Imagine hearing that beat for the first time. I showed her the lyrics and how to say it and she killed it!”
It was in this fully experimental mode that Dizzee could try new things and he kept making tracks. “I got the point where I just started making an album I guess.”
“I Luv U,” like many of the other tracks on BIDC, was composed by Dizzee’s layering of far-flung samples, almost like sound design with intricate percussion. “Obviously, a lot of the samples were stuff that Nick Cage had in his computer. I went crazy. It’s like, Rah! I had more sounds than I’d ever been able to play with before in my life!”
“A lot of the time, especially back then, I might play the drum pattern for the whole three minutes. So, that’s why if you listen to “I Luv U,” in the drums, it’s crazy all the way through. There are so many variations, because that’s how hungry I was.”
The biggest single from the album,“Fix Up Look Sharp” would be it’s un-grimiest, a nod to the big drum breaks of old school hip-hop.
“That was Nick playing records. I heard it (Billy Squier’s “Big Beat”) and I was like, What’s that?”
Dizzee wrote to the record and guided Cage in chopping up the samples into a call and response with his lyrics. “It was something to write around so the Wooo! - and then I’d flow in between the singer, Billy Squier." "Fix Up" was originally a dubplate for Tim Westwood to get more airplay on the personality jock's influential show, the premiere hip-hop slot on Radio 1. “I respected old school hip-hop and I though this was a chance to make an old school hip-hop record.” As for the lyric, “Fix up, look sharp was something I heard one of my friends say on the estate one day. He just said it taking the piss. That’s how he said it, fix up look shaaaarp! And I remember laughing my head off.”
Before he began rehearsing for his upcoming live Boy In Da Corner performance, Dizzee was wondering how he’d handle voicing the thoughts of a seventeen year old again. “Like, fucking hell, I’m 31 now, I don’t even feel like that. Like, how am I gonna… But I gave myself a head start. Like two weeks ago I started listening to the album, like in the car – like rah! Did I say that? Rah, that beat! That’s crazy! Okay, shit! Boy In Da Corner live'll be a rare treat because there are songs on there that I’ve literally never performed..."--songs like “Round We Go”; Wot U On” and “Cut Em Off”--"...because they were never meant to be performed!”
When he looks back on writing tracks about girls and sex like “Jezebel,” he admits to “being kind of a cheeky shit.”
"Growing up in such a promiscuous kind of culture. It was almost competition to kind of fuck as many girls as you could. Same thing, girls would get around. I had that kind of perspective on it. But, I don’t know if it was really about one person in particular, thinking about it. That’s kind of how I saw sex at that point--maybe women at that point. Now that I’m older that’s not necessarily a good thing. That’s not good."
Another collaboration yielded another anthem, ‘Jus A Rascal’. A Norweigan studio hermit Vanguard Vardoen from next door created the bouncing staccato rock riff and the “jus a rascal” vocal hook was sung by Taz, an artist Cage worked with. Dizzee remembers initially being put off by the singing. When I heard that with the operatic singing on it I was like, What’s this? But they were like,This is massive! Are you crazy? Someone’s just made a fucking 'Bohemian Rhapsody' for you!” Although they recorded a massive tune together, Dizzee never really had a conversation with Vanguard, and remembers him as being “a bit different” but quite talented. “It’s crazy, I remember that dude, Vanguard, at the time he was living in his little studio. He used to have a clothesline going through. He used to wash his clothes in the studio. I think he got really depressed and moved back to Norway. I’ve never seen him since or heard from him. So, if you’re out there: Come check me, man.”
While Boy In Da Corner has plenty of bombast and swagger, it’s the introspective tracks like “Brand New Day”; “Do It!” and opening track “Sittin Here”, which seem to frame the underlying themes of the record. ”Sittin’ Here” captures the gaze of young kid who’s seen too much and too little hope. It haunts the rest of the album. Dizzee’s production is a numbing pulse invaded by screeches and gunshots as he questions the violence and hopelessness around him. “Vulnerability. That’s what makes that album what it is. It’s not all just unrealistic, macho shit. I think that’s the Tupac side of things. I was heavily into Tupac growing up. I knew so many people who were going through stuff so I knew about making soulful music. It was my version of soulful music. I was into R&B but I couldn’t play that type of music. I didn’t know R&B chords. I couldn’t play music. So, what you’re hearing there, that’s just my soul through the keyboard as much as I could do.”