Dizzee Rascal’s ‘Dance Wiv Me’, featuring Calvin Harris and Chrome, has sat at the top of the UK singles chart for the past four Sundays. It is the smash of the summer, an immediately catchy pop-rap record that rides a retro beat and delivers rhymes purely associated with getting behind a young lady’s "backbone". Pulling, the art of, in a nutshell.
But mainstream success for the man born Dylan Mills in Bow, London in 1985 has always been coming – his debut album of 2003, Boy In Da Corner, won the Mercury Prize and blew east London’s grime beats overground; its follow-up, Showtime, reached number eight on the domestic albums chart, spawning the singles ‘Dream’ and ‘Stand Up Tall’, the latter peaking at ten. Last year, Maths + English went a place better, reaching number seven on the chart. And then…
DiS catches up with Dizzee as he’s just got back to London after playing at Ibiza Rocks. Clearly in good spirits, he’s refreshingly pleased as punch about his chart success – any expectations that he’d brush the recent zenith of his many commercial achievements aside as a footnote in a much more detailed documentation of his career are soon dismissed.
So, let’s talk four weeks at number one for ‘Dance Wiv Me’…
It was alright, wa’nit? It might seem like the most unlikely thing, but I think I’ve handled it quite well.
The paparazzi aren’t at your door?
I’ve not been papped once! Not at all. Punters – your average person in the street – have come up to me and asked for photos, but the paparazzi have left me be. But then again I’ve not been here – I was in America when the song went to number one, and then I went to Ibiza.
So you’ve been in the spotlight professionally, but not so much personally?
Yeah, it’s kind of how I’ve always done it.
It’s such an immediate song – did you ever think it’d be such a hit though?
When I heard the beat he (Calvin Harris) sent me, I knew it was special – I could feel it, and got in the zone straight away. But I could never have predicted it spending four weeks at number one. But Kid Rock is closing in this week.
The song feels a little lighter than some of your murkier tracks – does it feel good to inject a little humour into your work? I love how you say you might feel like a “wally” in it… who says that in a rap song?
Exactly. It’s me coming through with the slang I grew up with, coming from east London, and having a little fun with it. It’s the sort of song I want people to be able to play in pubs as well as clubs, and I’m a party guy, y’know, so it’s good to show that side of myself.
I’d say it’s a cross-generational hit, too.
Yeah, all ages.
I can imagine it sitting on the next Now compilation nicely.
I think it is on it. I’m really pleased to be in this role though, I love it.
Can you see yourself repeating this really pop formula again, or does ‘Dance Wiv Me’ present an opportunity to do the opposite thing next and get even darker?
I’ll always make dark music, y’know, but if I could ever get a repeat of this: yes please. I’m not knocking it at all. It’s taken five years to get here.
Calvin’s written online that he feels his involvement in the single’s a little underappreciated (news) – does he have a point?
I say: “shut your bludclart whining, bwoi”. Nah, I’m joking. I’ve always made it clear that he made the beat, but what others write about it, fuck knows.
Did you meet each other prior to doing the video for ‘Dance Wiv Me’?
Nah, I never met him ‘til we had to perform it and do the video. Well, we met each other to exchange numbers, but after that everything was done via e-mail.
It’s quite a modern way of putting a song together – even five years ago, that wouldn’t have been so easy.
Yeah, definitely. It was very convenient though.
And was the Glastonbury performance of it as impromptu as reports made out?
Yeah, but that’s how we’ve done a lot of things – when I did a song with Arctic Monkeys at Glastonbury, we’d never rehearsed that song before, and never played it ‘til that day.
Video: Dizzee does ‘Dance Wiv Me’ at Glastonbury
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You don’t feel under any pressure when performing these unrehearsed songs live?
No man, because that’s how I came up, y’know? When I was on pirate radio, doing an hour-long or two-hour-long set, I didn’t know what the DJ was gonna play ‘til he played it. That was the whole thing about being an MC, a master of ceremonies. A tune comes on and you keep it moving. It’s the same rule at gigs: I’ll do a few songs in soundcheck to open my voice up and then it’s bam, bam, bam, one after the other. I might take a sneaky peek at the sheet once and again, just to check the setlist.
Are live shows now very much a case of giving the fans what they want, rather than taking any freestyle tangents?
Obviously we’ve got to play all the hits, with more from this most recent album. A lot of the newer songs I wrote to be good to perform, so they’re good for festivals.
That was quite key then, was it, to make Maths + English as ‘live friendly’ as possible?
The albums before it had that as well, but Maths + English made it easier. The more I toured and the more festivals I played, the more I realised I needed material that was easy to perform live. ‘Sirens’ is easy to perform, and ‘Old Skool’ is easy to perform. Something like ‘Respect Me’ – people like it, but it’s harder to perform. It gets tiring after the thirteenth show, and pisses me off more than everyone else.
Talking about festivals, you’ve just played the Pitchfork Festival – what’s it like playing events with really diverse bills?
It was just good to be in America again, really, although at that show they fucked the sound up. It was okay though – I improvised and got on with it.
And you’ve never encountered any heckling, or hostility, at a festival show?
Nah, and it’s mad when I read about other rappers getting it. I’m not sure people see me like that, though – since Boy In Da Corner a wide range of people have been into it, and I’ve played to so many different crowds and at so many different shows. I don’t think people think I am trying to sell them a lifestyle, like 50 Cent or whatever. I think people see me as a straightforward artist – I’m not pushing stuff down peoples’ throats.
Just a tiny tangent – Boy In Da Corner won the Mercury in 2003, how did that affect you?
I didn’t really understand it until the paparazzi were at my house demanding to see me. That was a bit much.
No doubt. So what’s your advice for this year’s winner, since it’s the season…?
Just get it over and done with when they come, man (laughs). Play their game as quickly as you can.
Cool. Do you think you cross genres, so to speak, because there’s an honesty in your lyrics that isn’t perceived to be there in the world of some big stateside rappers?
Yeah, it’s from the heart, and there’s vulnerability in the music. And a little arrogance.
I guess you’ve got to have a little arrogance, a little braggadocio…?
Yeah, totally. Fucking hell, sometimes I can be really arrogant. But everything in moderation.
So assuming everything must be done in moderation, how do you wind down after a particularly fiery set?
Oh, I try to get a blowjob. That does help! That, or I’ll just sit back, listen to some music and do nothing. After Ibiza Rocks I sat down and just played computer, played Fifa for ages.
You’re not a Pro-Evo man, then?
Oh man, I’ll play any of those games – that was just what they had at the hotel there. I’m up for competition all the time. It’s everywhere, and people are willing to fight over that shit!
Do you think that if your upbringing was any different – growing up on a council estate without your dad, getting kicked out of school – that you’d be somewhere else now? That maybe you wouldn’t be a pop star?
I could have been whatever – I could have been a drug dealer, I could have been an athlete, I could have worked in a bank, I could have worked with computers. Fuck knows, man, but I really wanted to do this, and did everything I could to do it. I’ve taken everything that’s been thrown at me to get here, so, whatever.
Do you remember the first time you rapped in front of someone?
The first time… No, actually, before I even rapped I played in school concerts – one year I played a Nirvana song on guitar, and the next I played drums on another song. Another year I’d play keyboards on a drum and bass version of that Pulp Fiction song. Rock music was a big part of my life – Nirvana, Iron Maiden, Guns N’ Roses, Korn... Nirvana were probably the main one. So I was performing before I was rapping, but the first time I rapped…? I remember my friend Robert Benham – we called him Blinky – did a beat-box in front of the class and I did a little rap… we must’ve been nine. I’ve always been into this shit. Do you remember those little things you’d strap onto your arm, and when you threw a punch it made a noise?
No… I might be a little too old.
Oh, well, these things – they made a noise, and back in the day we’d rap over them.
So you’d use whatever was at your disposal to make beats?
Yeah, back then we would just fuck around with things, and rap over things. Any little thing I could find to make music with, I was always into it. So maybe it was always going to happen, thinking about it.
Video: ‘I Luv U’, from Boy In Da Corner
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‘Dance Wiv Me’ is out now and (at the time of writing) still at the top of the singles chart. Find Dizzee on MySpace here and see him live as follows:
8 London Underage Festival
20 Inverness Ironworks
21 Edinburgh Liquid Room
22 Leeds Festival
23 Reading Festival
1 Sheffield Plug