Look Sharp

Despite his party's decline in opinion polls, Prime Minister Tony Blair is expected to win re-election May 5 when British citizens take to the voting booths. For Dizzee Rascal, the rapper who declared, "I'm a problem for Tony Blair" on his first album, Boy in da Corner, one might think the East Londoner would be amped. He is, after all, known for his explosive, electrically charged lyrics about growing up surrounded by gangs, gunfights, poverty, and drugs, and as a symbol of London's class wars. "Queen Elizabeth don't know me so/How can she control me/When I live in the street and she lives neat?" he asks on "2 Far." Not everyone, apparently, breaks for tea time.

But, as Rascal has said before, the statement about Blair was blown out of proportion. (It was about music, not politics, he has said.) Besides, the poster boy for the UK hip-hop/drum and bass/R&B hybrid currently known as grime has his own approval ratings to worry about, or tend to, rather, as he is in the midst of his first headlining American tour for his sophomore effort, Showtime.

"Every now and then reality kicks me in the face," Rascal said from a hotel room in Los Angeles, where he prepared to perform later that night at the El Rey Theatre. He is discussing the question of why a bloke who was kicked out of four schools and never had anyone to encourage him to succeed at anything has been lucky enough to pursue a musical career. "It's overwhelming sometimes," he says, "but I'm here, so I might as well go with it, right?"

To a point. All of twenty years old, Rascal can already claim a Mercury Prize, which he was awarded for Corner (the first rapper ever to win the award, Rascal beat out, among others, Brit darlings Coldplay and Radiohead), and the not-too-shabby feat of bringing music journalists around the world to collective orgasm. Characteristically those same writers are now beginning to mark the time when the young star stops telling true stories about the streets and starts boasting about his bling. Rascal can't very well talk about stealing cars now that he's able to drive off the lot -- legally -- with any ride he pleases. It's a dilemma, but one the kid who would still rather play PlayStation than mingle with celebrity swank isn't really concerned about. Yet. To the idea of his lyrics containing any references to cash, money, or hoes: "I don't care about that stuff. It's not me. Plus," he adds, "I don't even like diamonds. I've never been a big jewelry fan."

It's a humble, admirable statement, one that makes you think there just may be hope for hip-hop yet. But then again, Rascal isn't exactly hip-hop. Grime is heavily influenced by Jamaican dancehall and came out of Britain's late Nineties rave scene, fusing the speedy BPMs of jungle and UK garage (no relation to garage rock) with equally quick lyrical rap deliveries.

As a young teenager, Rascal recalls his trips to the local pirate radio station, where he would buy the latest drum and bass. "I would save up money and then go to the station to buy records after school," he says. Eventually the DJ just plopped his whole collection into Rascal's arms. "I still remember that day like it was yesterday. He gave me everything. I still have all those albums."

Years later, when Rascal was on his fifth and final high school, his music teacher Tim Smith, whom he thanked in the liner notes to Corner and in his Mercury Prize acceptance speech, let him fool around on the school's music software. (By the time he was sixteen, Rascal was already creating a buzz in the music industry via his membership in former unit So Solid Crew.) It was with that equipment, which he used to while away his afternoons, that he created many of the beats and tracks on Corner; and the raw, blissfully awkward sound he produced, combined with lyrics that left you feeling pumped up and worn out at the same time, helped sell more than 250,000 copies of the album worldwide and turned tracks such as "I Love U," a bemused tale of teenage pregnancy, into underground hits.

Asking a 20-year-old kid who rattled off 86 words in 15 seconds without half-trying during an appearance on MTV UK's Total Request Live last year to coast for a while on Corner's critical acclaim, however, would have been a waste of breath. In the summer of 2004, he quickly followed up Corner with Showtime. Although slightly more polished and less discordant than its predecessor, Showtime still infects listeners with robotic ringtone bleeps and video game blasts and Rascal's smart, hyper-speed rhymes. This time around, however, Rascal talks less about life in the ghetto and more about how to get out of the ghetto. Like a motivational speaker with ADD, he tells us: "Don't give it half-hearted, give it all" and to "Pull up your socks" in "Stand Up Tall." Then, like a hustler just trying to earn some respect, he warns his critics in "Learn": "You don't want the beef/You don't want the grime/You ain't got the guts/I ain't got the time."

Even with his entire life still ahead of him, it seems that time is something Rascal refuses to waste. He's already thinking ahead to his next album, on which he plans to spend more time perfecting the music, since he threw Corner and Showtime's beats together in as little as twenty minutes. "[On the last two albums] I just wanted to get as much done as I could," he says. "Working more on my beats -- that's the next step."

For now, though, Rascal is doing what he loves to do most -- perform. He often turns the music off altogether during shows and rhymes a cappella, he says, "to make sure they're hearing me, to bring them into reality, to show them that I'm really doing this live." When asked if he's always felt like a performer, the answer is an emphatic yes. "I've always been a natural onstage," he says. "I've been doing this stuff for a long time. I've performed for the hardest crowds -- street crowds -- so nothing phases me now. There's nothing like crowd response."

Rascal seems delighted, as if he's accomplished what he's set out to do. His audiences are a mix of "hip-hop kids, indie kids, Mohicans, and the pop crowd." People even form mosh pits at his shows. "I love that," he exclaims. "That's rock and roll shit." He relishes the fact that he can't be pigeonholed and that he's different from anything Americans have ever seen. "I'm one in a million," he says, audibly smiling over the phone. "I think America is ready for something new."

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Jessica Sick