We are our both tied to our titles – the rapper and the writer, the popstar and the journalist, the interviewer and the interviewee, entwined in the most quiet of cold wars, a deathless game of cat and mouse played out whenever there are albums to promote or by-lines to fill, awkward encounters staged in cafes and coffee shops quiet enough for low conversations over black Dictaphones. This is one of those encounters.
I met Dizzee Rascal in the restaurant of Shoreditch’s Ace Hotel outpost – a popular east London spot, where people who might call themselves creatives sit in packs around hard-plastic tables and chatter and clatter laptop keys under the dim yellow lights. He arrived just after 1PM; and I arrived with preconceptions, about the story we already know so well: the one that begins in the early millennium with the breakout classic album Boy In Da Corner – the record that took a local lad from the East End on stages around the world. Grime’s magnum opus: 15 tracks weaved together by a prodigy, loaded with dystopian production and a bottled bleakness that documented an east London long lost and never returning; an east London now forever tied to the nostalgia of youth and the passages he once wrote.
That was 16 years ago. Now, six albums deep, Dizzee makes music not out of necessity, but because it is all he knows, and is what he loves. It’s the reason he’s put out new EP Don’t Gas Me – a five-track instalment with something for everyone. Songs like the Skepta-featuring “Money Right” (below) are fashioned for the grime heads clawing for yesteryear. “Patterning Vibez” stirs memories of his big hits “Bonkers” and “Dance Wiv Me”, albeit less commercial and reminiscent of bassline. It’s a feel-good EP, essentially – crafted for the old fans and the new ones, and the future ones, who watch on as he deftly steers through the separate genres that have built his fame. It is all there, laid out like a brief oral history of his time in the field.
And during this time, the tension between Dizzee and the reporters has rumbled on. Ever since he was 17, he said, he has been sitting in interviews, sometimes 11 a day, opposite journalists who at times have twisted his words, played nice to his face and then lobbed low blows in the press. And now, 16 years later, he seemed a little over it all: over the questions, over explaining himself, over watching his tongue, over the deathless game of cat and mouse.
So, I arrived ready to speak to a rapper, who, with good reason, was perhaps tired of speaking to writers. He sat opposite, polite with a wide smile, direct with his gaze, confident in his speech, but reticent to reveal too much. I asked him whether music filled some kind of void. He replied, only the void of not making music. I asked about the most recent lesson he’d learnt. He told me that he liked FILA again. I asked about why be boxed. He said, “It keeps you sharp innit,” and then before further thought added:
“I like discipline, working hard, putting in the effort. When you’re actually boxing, unless it’s a proper grudge match, it’s less about beating the person up and more about being better within yourself. Being patient, timing things, like chess, so really, it’s as much down to you as what the other person does – and that’s life. That’s a good way to manoeuvre in the world, especially in the music industry.”
In brief: it was a meandering conversation tampered with casual flares of insight, like rummaging for pearls in the sea. We pick things up below around halfway through, the point at which I am all out of talking points – the short answers, the stump sentences, the rare flashes burnt through in 20 minutes of stiff conversation, leading me to eventually ask:
Noisey: Do you like fame?
Dizzee Rascal: I like that the sight of me can make people happy. That’s nice innit? I like that people like my music. I like that you get perks sometimes. Sometimes people treat you better, but through that there’s the opposite as well. I don’t always get used to it. You walk down the street and you forget and then you’re in situations where people remind you. I went to the dentist yesterday and the woman was all being like “I’ve heard you’re a really famous musician.” I’m just thinking I want to get in the chair and get my teeth looked at [Laughs]. But whatever, she’s happy to see me, it’s all good.
Do you like interviews?
Nah, I hate interviews.
Because fucking, whatever. I don’t always know what people’s motives are, I don’t know how the journalist is going to sit there and write it, depending on how he wants to come across to his readers. All sorts of reasons. I don’t like answering dumb intrusive questions, but I understand that people want to know shit. But why not? I like to know about artists and people I like innit?
Have you had bad experiences in the past then?
Yeah there have been a few pricks. Journalists, one minute they’re in your face behaving themselves and then they’ll go and write something, like they think they’re tough or something. But that’s not how they were behaving when they did it. They’re being all sarky.
But only in words.
But not in my words, sometimes they twist it. Editing and all sorts of shit.
Does that make you wary of doing interviews?
It makes me prefer it being filmed.
If you had a choice, would you not do them?
Of course. I never wanted to do interviews. I never wanted to be seen in the beginning. I come from pirate radio, we wasn’t seen until we went to the raves.
So what’s it like, me coming here, asking you all these questions that you might not want to talk about?
With you, it’s alright, because I’ve been past this place [he motions around the hotel] a million times. I thought it was a flower shop. I come here, I got a bag full of new stuff that I bought. I got some nice squid, this turned out alright.
As an interviewer – I can’t speak for anyone else anyway – you might be interested in them as a person, have listened to their music for a while, so you want to ask these intrusive questions. Not about gossip and stuff, but generally about their lives. But I guess if a stranger did that to me, I’m not sure if I would be so forthcoming.
Nah people generally ain’t. If you went up to someone and started filming them, they would be like: ‘what the hell are you doing?’ But for me, people start getting their cameras out. It’s just normal, but it’s just the job innit.
Do you see interviews as part of the job then?
Interviews are definitely just part of the job. But at the same time, you have to give people information. How are people going to know I’ve got something coming out? You’ve got to break things down for people, give them a little bit of your personality and tell them how you feel a little bit. People want to connect, so I understand it.
What was it like when you first started doing interviews?
Tiring. When I first started doing interviews I was 17, thrown into it. And It wasn’t always here. Maybe we would go France for the day and because I’m not from there, you’re cracking everything into a couple of days. You might have 11 interviews this day, 11 interviews the next day. That’s a lot; that’s not fun for a teenager. That’s what it was like. Same questions usually as well, everyone is coming from the same angle.
Does it get boring having to talk about…
The same shit?
Yeah. I get you want to sell music, but if there was another way to do it, would you opt for that?
The podcasts, where we’re just having a chat, you’ll probably get more out of me like that, than just formulated questions. It felt like before people would just go on Wikipedia, pick a few points and then come and ask me that. Well you should’ve just stayed at home, innit.
I remember you were talking about PTSD from growing up. How did you reconcile that? If you’re not going to go to a therapist.
I don’t know. With me it’s hard because everyone keeps bringing it up, so I don’t know. I just kind of get on with it. Make music, and make money.
Fair enough. Talking about money, on the EP you were talking about going back to get a law degree.
I wasn’t talking about that. I was talking about name trademarks, and I was having problems with some of the categories I was choosing. I had to go and have a fucking sit down, go and do a bunch of bollocks, and [the lawyers] just made it harder than it needed to be. So I said I might go and get a law degree so I could go and do it myself, and not pay all the fees.
When people say you should try and change your career every ten years or so, what could you see yourself doing?
Who said that?
It’s one of those quotes you hear around.
Where? Where do they say that?
I’ve heard that quite a few times, where people say you should change your career every ten years.
Yeah? I don’t know about all that boy. Maybe, I don’t know.
Could you see yourself doing anything else?
Nah… Other than property; I quite like property. But I don’t think I have to give up music to do that. I can’t see myself doing anything else, it will always be music-orientated, other than if I get to a stage where I’ve discovered gardening or some shit. Something random, I don’t know.
Have you picked up any hobbies that you were surprised at?
I quite like thai boxing. But then I’m not surprised because I did taekwondo and karate and judo and all of that when I was a kid, and then just stopped when I got a bit older. Then I went back to it and was like ‘yeah I like boxing and all of that other shit.’ Other than that, what do I like?… I don’t know man… Fishing. I quite like fishing.
Where do you do that?
When I go Miami, I go deep-sea fishing. I love doing that.
What is that like?
It’s cool. You just spend the day on the boat really. You’ve got the people you’re checking for, it’s all bless. You get a bite, you have to fight with it depending on how big it is. It might be a two-minute or five-minute fight, sometimes you might be fighting for 20 minutes. It’s almost therapeutic, because all that matters is that you’re out there. It’s satisfying. Then you take the fish back on shore, they’ll cut it up for you, then you go and take it to the restaurant and they’ll cook it for you. It feels natural: to be out in the middle of the ocean and to pick something you can’t even see and bring it on to land. Back to basics.
Is it kind of crazy going back through east London and seeing how much the area has probably changed?
Sometimes, but I see it everywhere. Look at Kidbrooke [south-east London]. You’re from Orpington innit? So you know. It hasn’t reached Orpington as much yet, but everywhere around London I see it.
Would you ever move abroad?
I lived in Miami as well, but I don’t know if I would fully move. Because I feel like this place is really, England is really quite individual. There might be a few places that are a bit similar, but there is still really nothing like it. So I do miss home, I do prefer it here, but sometimes I need to get away.
What do you like about England?
It’s where all my history is. It’s home innit. Most of my big important lessons, I learned here. Everything from the banter, to the way we talk, to the cultures, it’s from here innit. It’s only when I go to other places, that’s when you know you’re different.
I feel personally, that your music is a unifying thing for people, if that makes sense.
I feel like your music brings people together. When I went to university, for example, I met people who listened to different music, but we would both listen to “Bonkers.”
I’ve heard people say that, and that’s like, for what I do, that’s like the highest compliment if you can bring people together. That’s what it’s about.
Have you been back to Ghana at all?
Yeah. I’m Nigerian as well, but I would, I’ve just never done it. I’ve heard it’s popping there, I see what Skepta and all them do over there. And even that’s proper changing over, innit? It’s popping, so it would be good to see that. I haven’t done much of Africa.
Do you feel Nigerian and Ghanaian?
Do I feel it?
How do you feel it?
It’s a personal thing isn’t it. I feel Cameroonian and Nigerian and British. But I didn’t feel British up until a few years ago.
Was you born and raised here?
Yeah, I was born and raised here.
Why didn’t you feel British?
I think because growing up in Orpington, there was a lot of racism and stuff like that.
You was a minority?
Orpington and Bow remind me of each other still. Even the way they talk, they sound how they do in Bow. I feel like I’ve always felt British, not white British obviously innit. But yeah… I feel Ghanaian because my cousins are Ghanaian. Maybe I feel less Nigerian because I’ve been around less Nigerian family, I’ve been around more Ghanaian family. But it’s in me innit. But I was raised here, so a lot of my culture is here. I didn’t go [back]. A lot of people, Skepta and that, maybe they went to Nigeria every year, every summer. Some of my cousins, they go to Ghana every winter, so that’s their connection. They’ve got that connection. I haven’t got that connection. My Mum didn’t speak to me in Ghanaian growing up, she just spoke it around her family in front of me.
Would you ever want to try and go back every year at some point?
Course I would go there. I’ve been to so many places. I don’t think there’s anywhere in this world that I wouldn’t go.