“Made an album/Over 100,000 people bought it,” Dizzee Rascal boasts on “Dream,” a track from his striking new record Show Time (XL/Matador).
In characteristically thoughtful fashion, he is quick to tack a “Thank you” to the end of that bit of bravado. Even the British braggadocio Mr. Rascal, n?e Dylan Mills, is more polite and interesting than his stateside contemporaries.
In a way, “Dream” is to hip-hop what Paul McCartney’s “Getting Better” was to rock and roll. The track finds the London MC looking back whimsically and wisely on his past in a way that belies the fact that, at 20, he’s younger than most who buy his records. But his last three years have been a whirlwind that has given him license to pontificate on such matters.
The massive-selling album Mills references is his 2003 breakthrough, Boy in Da Corner (XL/Matador), a hodgepodge of Atari beats and cockney rhymes. Created when he was only 17, the album was startling enough to win the Mercury Prize, the highly esteemed British equivalent of the Grammy. Although Jay-Z is a personal favorite of Mills’, the record is more similar to Jigga-nemisis Nas’ debut Illmatic, at least in content. Both deal expertly with growing up amid poverty and violence. Turns out that Queens and London look a lot alike from the tenements.
Asked about his sage-beyond-his-age lyrics, Rascal points to his upbringing. “I’m from the projects, so I learned my lessons a bit early,” he says. “You have to learn how to make a lot out of the little that you have, and that kind of makes you older.”
Faced with such an environment, Mills found motivation from within. “No one pushed me into it, I just did it,” he said. “The more I did it, the more I realized there wasn’t a whole lot else to do, outside of it. Not a lot of hope. People talk about ‘escapism, escapism, escapism,’ but you free yourself. It’s something positive you can do.”
Both Boy in Da Corner and Show Time have seen wide release in the United States this past year, and both deliver on the buzz that threatened to swallow Mills before people even heard him spit. A feral yawp resonates throughout both records, and a playful humor provides a foil to his rough growl.
Lay aside the fact that Mills grew up in London’s roughest neighborhoods, and try to ignore the reality that he happens to have created two absolutely astounding records for a second, and consider this: he’s 20 years old.
Most 20-year-olds can’t be counted on to do their laundry on a semi-regular basis, much less create great art and offer words of wisdom. This perception is a constant in Mills’ life.
“People try to look down on you because you’re younger,” he said. “You just have to show them how strong you are. I’m not that na?ve. I know what I’m doing.”
In addition to his own records, Mills is working on his record label, Dirtee Stank Recordings, as well as the soundtrack for “Rollin’ with the Nines,” which he describes as the “first black British gangster film.”
Dizzee’s British consciousness is evident throughout his records, but in the end, Mills isn’t defined by anything or anyone but himself. Asked whether it matters that he’s from London instead of New York or Los Angeles, Mills says with a laugh, “No, man, as long as people can feel it.” And to the 100,000 people currently “feeling it” – Dizzee Rascal thanks you.
Dizzee Rascal will play at the 9:30 Club Monday with DJ Wonder. Tickets are $15.