[T]here’s an unmistakable buzz about the studio today. Dizzee Rascal is in the house, and he’s brought the energy of ten men with him. Some of this is down to the presence of other members of the Dirtee Stank family. There’s Cage – Dizzee’s producer, manager and label co-owner – and their latest discovery, Pepper. The rest is pure Dizzee. “An artist is someone who has a strong presence. They’ve got something that won’t come out in the wash – that can’t be covered up with powder and auto-tune. This one’s a very special artist,” Cage explains, and, well, he’s not someone you’re going to argue with.
Cage has been Dizzee’s staunchest proponent since the beginning, back when Dizzee was part of the Roll Deep Crew, MCing on pirate radio and making beats. Incorporating elements of UK garage, hip hop, bashment, and even a bit of Nirvana-inspired rock into his music, Dizzee was at the forefront of the budding grime scene. Unlike the medallion-wearing American hip hop stars of the era, who glamourised the gangster lifestyle, Dizzee told it like it is. He grew up in Bow with his Ghanaian mother (his father having died when he was young). Drawing on the everyday expulsions, abortions, stabbings and shootings, Dizzee’s music was a part-angry, part-despairing documentation of the tougher side of London. He yelled at those removed from inner city life to listen up. And they did. His talent attracted the attentions of XL Recordings, who released Dizzee’s debut album Boy in da Corner. The album went on to win the 2003 Mercury Prize.
Two more grime albums followed before Dizzee took a dancier direction with Tongue n’ Cheek. Where his first album made people stand up and take notice, and attracted an unexpected ear to the East End grime scene, the platinum-selling Tongue n’ Cheek was a different kind of expression. Like The Clash did for punk, it sliced through Americanised pop and proved that homegrown talent – with a distinctly British sound –could compete with mainstream American hip hop. It introduced an entirely new kind of pop/hip hop/dance music, and paved the way for the next generation of London rappers, including Tinchy Stryder, Tinie Tempah and Labrinth.
Dizzee made the decision to take some time out last year, mentally and physically exhausted after ten years in the business. He’s working on his fifth studio album, due for release on Universal later this year. There’s a lot of pressure on him – Dizzee has that “boy done good” vibe that inspires feelings of excitement or cynicism. Despite the level of success he has achieved, people are still divided into two camps: rooting for him or waiting for him to mess up. But Dizzee is too busy to be fazed. He recently released a Dirtee Stank mixtape, which should keep his die-hard grime fans happy, and has a new, slightly unexpected signing to his grime-led label. Dizzee and Cage came across Pepper after working with her on the Sky1 talent show, Must Be The Music. “She blew me away,” says Cage. “I still get goosebumps thinking about when she opened her gob down in Hackney,” adds Dizzee. The Hunger met up with the three of them to find out more.
PEPPER, HOW DID YOU FIRST GET INVOLVED WITH MUST BE THE MUSIC?
Pepper: I was at music college in Manchester. I wanted to work in music but not necessarily as a performer, I thought I’d do PR or something along those lines. They had auditions opposite the college for a music show and I thought ‘I’m not doing a TV talent show’. But then I did it. And it was the best decision I ever made. I met these two, and it’s worked out pretty well. I went on the show with my friend Piano, but she found out she was pregnant when the show was over, so wanted to concentrate on being a mother.
Cage: She left to have a baby grand!
What did you think of Pepper when you first saw her perform?
Cage: There’s something about seeing and hearing music performed live, and Pepper’s singing was massive. Pepper and Piano didn’t win, but with a lot of these shows, the people who don’t win are often the ones who go the furthest. Pepper is a really good rapper and songwriter, as well as being a great singer.
“I HAVEN’T GOT TIME TO WAIT FOR PEOPLE TO CATCH UP TO ME, I NEED TO KEEP IT MOVING.”
Dizzee: After a day watching a mix of the good and the not so good, anyone pretty decent would stick out like a sore thumb. And Pepper was serious. She’s got a realness and quality – she captures you, when she sings nothing else in the room matters.
PEPPER’S ONE OF THE FIRST ACTS ON DIRTEE STANK THAT COULD BE CONSIDERED A BREAKTHROUGH ARTIST.
Dizzee: It’s refreshing, and it’s about time. I really enjoy working with the Newham Generals, I know Footsie is going to come up with some beats that I’ll be able to vibe with. But with Pepper’s singing, it’s different for me, it’s a whole new world. She opens up a load of other doors – it’s wicked.
Pepper: You guys are going to make me blush. I guess what I was writing – what we were writing – was all there. It was just a case of somebody bringing it out, and that’s what these guys did.
You’ve personally managed to adapt your sound for a more commercial audience – do you think some grime artists struggle with that?
Cage: Some people inhibit themselves, you know?
Dizzee: Yes. It’s how you move. Talent is not the biggest part of it – it’s how you work with people, how you present yourself, turning up to things when you’re supposed to, and how you come across. The whole commercial thing came four albums in. I’d been on the TV before that, but as far as commercial success, it was on the fourth album that I released ‘Bonkers’ and ‘Holiday’. When I listen to the early stuff, I think it’s cool, but it sounds really tinny and bad quality. I had such a high-pitched wail. Now, I like to hear weight in the music. But people won’t ever let you forget your past, it happens to everybody. It’s like posting pictures on Facebook when you’re 14, it seems a great idea at the time.
Pepper: It’s not that bad is it? Oh, shit.
Dizzee: I love my first album because of how personal it was and what it has done, and people seem to love the vibe and energy of what it was documenting. But I don’t feel that way anymore. I’m 27 and I’m in a good place. Let me live, man, please.
Read more of our exclusive interview in Issue Two of The Hunger, on sale now.
See more about Dirtee Stank artists on their website.