Dizzee Rascal is skilled at making you forget his status as cultural juggernaut.
Speaking to me from his home studio, the rapper and I are discussing our lockdown habits, when I absent-mindedly ask him about taking the bus.
“I'm not on the bus y'know,” he laughs. “Nah... I ain't been on the bus for a minute.”
You'd be forgiven for the mistake. For his latest album, E3 AF, Rascal is back in Bermondsey – the same postcode where he gave birth to Boy In Da Corner – and back on the buttons, too. The record resurrects his debut's gravelly production and spit-slick bars, and features a line-up of grime and drill's most wanted. The process and the product sound worlds away from Rascal's previous forays into the glittering world of State-side rap ... and that's kind of the point. “The new record has that early early Dizzee Rascal sound. And it's about getting back with the UK spitters. Everyone on there is someone's favourite emcee, and they've all got their own levels.”
Rascal says this album was “one of the most fun albums I've made”. He also knows the power of having such a dream team of emcees – including P Money, Chip and Smoke Boys – in the booth, both practically and commercially. “We bounce off each other. And it's wicked for people to hear us together, so there can be a bit of conversation about who's better. That conversation is sick: it's kinda why I got into the game in the first place. I'm happy to put out a body of work that makes people do that.”
Rivalry is, in a way, the lifeblood of emceeing. I wonder whether getting all these A-grade rappers into a room drew something more competitive out of Rascal, but he's diplomatic. “Obviously, no one wants to be out-done,” he says. “To be fair, though, a lot of the time, it's not that I'm trying to outdo them. I'm trying to match or compliment their thing to make it work as a song. You outdo guys on radio. If you're on radio, it's like” – yelling – “'Arghhhh fuck'. You're going in. But on a song, there's like... a narrative, a theme. And I usually care more about the theme than being a better emcee than the guy before me.”
Rascal admits that, despite being on his seventh studio album, the pressure of a new record can be almost defeating. “There's the doubt, there's the fear. There's the 'Can I do it again?' I think that's why I make it in the first place – it's the challenge. I've never gone into an album like, 'Yeah! Let's make an album, alright, sick'! It don't work like that.”
“I have to do something that I haven't done before. And something that will make everyone else interested. I have to block out social media as well, and avoid getting sucked into other opinions. So yeah, it's always hard.”
“And then knowing when to stop. And what different people are you trying to cater to? Because my fanbase is so wide. Like, 'What do you want to give them? What worked last time? … Do you even care about last time?”
There were, of course, many fans who found Rascal at his Radio 1-dominating pop-rap peak. I wonder if he thinks they will have followed him this far, as he slides back into the murky waters of grime. “Yeah no... that's done,” he laughs without apology. “'Cause I'd done so well with Tongue n Cheek, I went for the fully polished, big pop sound of the time. But the era's just done init? And that stuff works live. At the time I was doing all these huge festivals – I had that in mind – and I had access to all these massive pop stars so...”
When talking about things State-side, I can't help think Rascal's desire to 'return to his roots' might actually be an aversion to working with US producers. Not before professing his utmost respect for Steel Banglez – who leant Rascal the sublime dancehall beat for album track “Energies + Powers” – does he explain how his friend kind of succumbed to the more hands-on 'LA studio type' work ethic. “He's someone who's spent a lot of time there too, and picked up a lot of their habits. He may not even recognise it himself,” chuckles Rascal. “Maybe some of the younger artists he's working with over here for the first time will think that's just how it is, but I'm looking at him like... I recognise some of this behaviour.”
Can he elaborate? “Yeah, like – he wants you to record a certain way – like every two bars. He wants to to do this, he wants you to do that. And like... not really. I've been doing this for how long? To the extent where, I love ya, but I need you to go away and leave the beat for me. I've got nothing but love for him but...”
Donning a flawless Cali twang, Rascal also recounts his eerie experiences with a few LA-beat-makers when working on The Fifth.
“So... you've got the main producer and he'll be playing me a bunch of beats. Then one of his team will come in the door and be like, 'Yo... you playin' him the joint?' And the producer's like 'Yeah, I'm playin' him the joint.' And the guy's like – 'Ah that shit's dope, man'.”
“And then another one will appear from nowhere and be like, 'Yooooo! You playin' him the joint?' and again he's like 'Yeah', and the new guy's like, 'Ah sick'. And then another guy will come in, and another one, and another one, eventually you're sat there thinking, 'Yeah, I think this might be... the joint?”
“I swear they're all in on it.They've got these little tricks up their sleeves.”
It was in LA that Rascal had a behind-the-curtain moment, when he realised that “sometimes the actual producers that you're working with – you're not working with them, you're working with someone else in their production team.” I say I thought only film composers did this, like John Williams swanning in to bash out the theme to Harry Potter and then leaving the rest of the scores to a bunch of lackies. “Skivvies!!!” he shouts in agreement. “Yeah! I get it though. You've got producers like Calvin Harris who have their whole process down. And they you've got some people who are 'ideas' guys … they'll have the final vision to put things together. People like Puff Daddy.”
“I think a lot of the time, it's down to the brand. Someone like David Guetta isn't sitting there actually doing the ting.”
If that's the case, Guetta sits in sharp contrast to Rascal, who has produced a good number of bangers on E3 AF, from the pull-no-punches opener “God Knows” with P Money, to the fierce, dub-influenced “L.L.L.L (Love Life Live Large)” with Chip. Beside Rascal in his studio is a generous rack of synths – including the vintage Korg Triton, the quintessential grime synth that gave Boy In Da Corner (and, notably, a lot of Wiley's early eskibeat instrumentals) their instantly-clockable sound. Rascal says he's recently fallen back in love with the old school, and actually bought his Roland Alpha Juno from jungle producer Pete Cannon, who's made a career out of revitalising vintage gear.
“It's funny... I was talking to my manager one week about that old 90s sound, and wishing I could have fucking captured a different feel. It's different today, y'know? And Pete came up on the [YouTube] algorithm. He's got this video about how he uses all the old samplers to make jungle. And then I went to his house that week and he gave me this. It's where the original 'hoover' sound came from.” Rascal says nothing makes him happier than “buying keyboards that I don't know how to use”.
The studio is only in its infancy, having been built last November whilst Rascal was in Miami. When he returned to the UK, it was barely weeks before the first national lockdown. “And it was perfect timing!” he jokes. “I was like – 'Rah. Let's just get on with it then'.” His sunny disposition seems reasonably unshaken by COVID, despite having his second 'up the nose' test yesterday. “I feel like I was more worried about my album! Y'know what I actually found? People were nicer. People were actually checking in with each other more regularly, saying 'You alright?'... that's what I got from it.”
“At the beginning, obviously, it was really tense. But overall, I'm not paying too much attention. I gave up watching the news, only to hear the government say like, 'Erm... we're not sure what we're doing or what's happening but, erm, do this or you'll get a fine'.” He pauses his Johnson impression for a second, thinking. “Yeah, that's why I'm happy – because I just gave up on the thought of … 'Oh, I might die'.” Rascal's delivery of this line is so perfect I hear his manager Paddy spit out a laugh in the background. Rascal doubles down. “You know what? We're all gonna die, so just get on with it.”
Apart from giving him somewhere to wait out the apocalypse, having his own studio has allowed Rascal to learn how to record himself for the first time. “That was a proud moment,” he says. “I still had to send the vocals to an engineer, but I was really happy with that.” Rascal's exacting standards mean he says he “doesn't actually enjoy recording” – and things were especially hard this time round.
“I was really, really serious about getting my delivery right,” he insists. “No slacking, weren't letting nothing slide. And it's hard to execute your ideas. You've got something in your imagination and you've written it down, and it sounds wicked in your head, but you've gotta execute it right. 'Cause if I don't get it exactly how I wanna get it, I'll never want to listen to it ever again.”
This is where editing his own vocals came in useful: “Once I've hyped myself up to getting it the mood to actually do it, I'll do 30 or 40 takes and sit there and edit it. But I've got all the time in the world, and the clock's not ticking.”
“And when I've got one of the other emcees recording, I'll leave the room so they can concentrate on getting their sound right. Because with a lot of emcees, when you're recording in front each other, you want to sound your best all the time, like you're emceeing all the time. But recording a song doesn't work like that. It's not like being on the mic on radio, init.”
Rascal's mention of radio gets us to talking about coming up through pirate radio stations, back in the era of Nokia 3310s and Napster. He has a 'don't even know they're born' moment when I try and argue how inexpensive promoting yourself over the airwaves must have been compared to the Instagram marketing budgets of today. “You had to pay to be on radio though – 20 pound a month! Most people don't know that,” he explains. “First off, you'd have to find a way to get on the radio, like word of mouth or a recommendation through an emcee you know. And then usually they'd have a meeting every month, in whatever shitty building the station was in, and then you'd sit down and everyone who was on the station was there, and you'd have to give that 20 pound to whoever it was who run the station. That's how it worked.”
It seems wonderfully communal when compared to the anonymity of today's roots to recognition. Rascal admits that when drill started kicking off, and YouTube became the dominant battleground for up-and-coming emcees, he took his eye off the ball. “And the youth even younger than them, I don't even know if they use the same methods. The way they use their phones, they've got their own networks, they know who's popping on the playground. That element's always been there. But these kids have got their own videos now – and they can go on the site and say 'you're shit' or whatever.”
That's one thing Rascal didn't have to contend with as much as a kid – the non-stop 360 feedback of the internet. “What's mad is how they deal with it mentally,” he sighs. “Because, there's stuff I had to deal with... but it's a lot less than today. Their every move is being watched, and they can see everything that everyone thinks about them.” It's one of the reasons Rascal himself has been reasonable modest with his use of social media. “I just think this game's a circus and I can't be bothered with bullshit. I clocked it real early. There's a lot of dumb shit and I can't be arsed.”
That decision to check out of toxic environments might well be an age thing. After all, Rascal says that he's gotten wiser – though he's disappointed that there aren't any extra licenses granted for those over 35. He's also a bit baffled by people calling him 'OG', even though some young collaborators, like rapper and vocalist Alicai Harley, obviously still see him that way. “That [collaboration] came through being in the studio,” he tells me. “I just came out my room and was chatting to my friend, and this girl came up, and was like, 'Yo Dizzee'. She just really wanted me to hear her.”
“So I went into her room and she just started playing her shit and singing her song.” Rascal alikens the experience to when Bobby Shmurda clinched his Epic Records deal by jumping on the execs' table. “Usually shit like that... you wanna just get away from there. But you know there are some of those people who have just got it? She's wicked, just her whole vibe.”
“So I brought her in to my room and she just [wrote the hook]. Just like that. If she hadn't have been there that day, if she hadn't been bold enough to come up to me, it would have never happened.”
The track with Alicai – “Energies + Powers” – provides a glinting centrefold to the album, snuggled in between what Rascal describes as the most “chest-beating” anthems. On it, Rascal pulls out a list of wishes – from the tongue-in-cheek (wishing he had invested in Bitcoin) to the unguarded (wishing his mum didn't have to see another doctor). “I always have those moments on my albums, because those are the reasons that a lot of people love me. Everyone goes through hard shit in life, init. And it's amazing how music can get you through.”
“You have to dig deep and accept stuff, to put your vulnerable side out and into the world. Like ... 'I haven't got it all sussed really, and I'm feeling shit about this and I got this wrong'. Anyone can act like they're the shit, but really we're all in the same boat. Unless you are … actually a machine,” he laughs. As for the next album, Rascal reassures that he's already started it. “I'm not gonna wait three years again, init. I need to be doing shit … or there's trouble.”