ARCHIVE: How Dizzee Rascal has become grime’s formula for success

12 Jan

This is the first ever feature article I wrote. It was produced towards the end of my first year at university (circa April 2010), following UK rapper Dizzee Rascal’s Ivor Novello songwriting award nominations.


2009 saw significant chart success for Dizzee Rascal

Dizzee Rascal’s cake of chart success this year looks to have received even more icing in the form of two Ivor Novello award nominations this week. Having already won the BRIT award for ‘Best British Male,’ to receive the approval of the Novello panel for his song-writing is a testament to how Dizzee, or Dylan Mills to his mother, has successfully explored the use of rap in different (and often more marketable) genres of music, without sacrificing the skills of the rapping style that saw him win the 2003 Mercury Music Prize for his grime-orientated debut album, ‘Boy in Da Corner.’ The contrast between the gritty, insensitive story-telling Dizzee of his debut, and the fun-loving festival-playing Dizzee of today, is remarkable. The commercial and financial success that has stemmed from this change and innovation, however, has begun a dangerous precedent that appears to be mortally wounding the grime genre from which the East London teenager first emerged.

Until 2008, five years since his debut was released, Dizzee Rascal was considered a commercial failure. Although ‘Boy in Da Corner’ was critically-acclaimed (in addition to the Mercury prize the album was named Planet Star’s 2003 album of the year), neither the album, its singles or any material of Dizzee Rascal’s for the next four years threatened the top 20 best-sellers, a theme prevalent in the independent, underground and primarily-bootlegged grime genre. What separated Dizzee from his fellow grime-artists though, and ultimately spawned his commercial success today, was the occasional experimentation on his albums. On his 2007 album ‘Maths + English’, Dizzee Rascal’s repertoire varied from American hip-hop (The single ‘Where’s da Gs’ featured the platinum-selling Texan rap duo UGK) to soft light-hearted nursery rhymes (‘Wannabe’ starred Lily Allen on the chorus). This variety of sound in grime was unheard of and even frowned upon, with self-proclaimed “King of Grime” Wiley producing a track in 2007 entitled ‘Letter to Dizzee’ warning him to stay loyal to his grime roots. Dizzee ignored the flak however and his exploration into other genres finally began to bear fruit in the form of his 2008 single ‘Dance Wiv Me’, which reached number 1 in the singles chart. The track itself contained no real elements of grime, with the instrumental being produced by popular dance music act Calvin Harris, and Dizzee Rascal’s lyrics about partying and free-living were a departure from his violent street tales of yesteryear. Although he was heavily criticised by his core fanbase and fellow grime artists alike for his desertion of the lifestyle and sound that grime represented, some of his musical compatriots began to take notice.

The world of grime was shaken when Wiley, Dizzee’s most vocal critic created the electronic dance track ‘Wearing My Rolex,’ which reached number 2 in the charts. With the “King of Grime” openly following Dizzee Rascal’s lead, suddenly grime artists by the dozen wanted a piece of the action, and gave in to record executives who suddenly saw the appeal of cool gangster-looking artists making squeaky clean records. It was no coincidence then that the sudden openness to a more marketable sound by British rappers and grime artists from 2009 onwards has seen the sort of commercial success unprecedented in the British ‘urban’ scene. As Dizzee Rascal continued his success by scoring another three number 1 singles (one of which, ‘Bonkers’, is one of the Novello nominations), Wiley’s former grime protégée Chipmunk has amassed four top 10 singles from a top 2 debut album, and Tinchy Stryder’s movement to a more pop-orientated sound saw him top the singles chart twice. Even Professor Green, a former freestyle battle rapper who had tried and failed previously on a major record label back in 2007, reached number 3 on the singles chart with single ‘I Need You Tonight’, where he raps over a loop of a cheesy INXS track. Oblivious or indeed ignorant to any previous material or work in grime by these artists, newspapers and TV channels alike heralded these ‘urban acts’ as the future (“The New Britpop” as the Observer Music Monthly described them, or the “Brrrap Pack” in the words of The Sun). So where has this left the grime genre?

Despite the offer of commercial success there are still some grime artists who refused to compromise their material and body of work for chart success, with the likes of Giggs, Ghetto & Skepta choosing instead to fly the flag of grime, although their decision to do so means they rely on profiting from live shows rather than music sales (Skepta tried his luck with a dance single that sampled Underworld’s ‘Born Slippy’, before a poor charting saw him come back to grime music with his tail between his legs). In an attempt to justify his “King of Grime” moniker Wiley, who since ‘Wearing my Rolex’ has amassed three top 20 singles, still releases albums that, with the exception of the dance-inspired singles, remain primarily grime music (as indeed reflected by his relatively poor album sales), although his singles make him an easy target for other grime artists who see him as a sell-out (Skepta’s song “In the Country” about Wiley was 2009’s ‘Letter to Dizzee’).

Whilst the young pop music fans continue to lap up the “Brrrap Pack”, the temptation to desert grime music will remain, and artists will continue to do so, though rather than make their own moves, they’ll just keep waiting for the next Dizzee Rascal stroke of genius to imitate. Having bumped into Dizzee Rascal at a Drum-n-Bass rave in 2007, I was not surprised to hear an instrumental at the end of his 2009 number 1 hit ‘Holiday’ that was clearly influenced by that genre, and proved to me the depth of research and substance in his music. It annoyed me then when grime prospect Tinie Tempah decided to replicate the drum-n-bass ending on his ‘Pass Out’ single, which of course went straight to number 1. Whilst the poor young consumers know no different, the Novello nominations for Dizzee Rascal and him alone from the ‘urban’ acts mean that at least the music world aren’t being hoodwinked, and we are thankful.


One Response to “ARCHIVE: How Dizzee Rascal has become grime’s formula for success”

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