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Dizzee Rascal returns, dancing to the beat of his own drum

The rapper has released his seventh studio album ‘E3 AF’, a defiant throwback to the sound that made him – here we discuss production, lockdown, and legacy

“I’ll probably be doing this, doing this forever,” spits Dizzee Rascal on the hit single “Fix Up, Look Sharp” from his seminal debut Boy In Da Corner, released in 2003. Nearly two decades later he shows no signs of letting up, as he releases his seventh studio record E3 AF, a triumphant return to the sound that announced him. Dizzee, 36, might not be the biggest British artist of the past 20 years, but he can certainly lay a claim to being the most influential, the embers of his explosive first record still burning in the UK underground and its mainstream charts.

As is custom in 2020, I’m speaking to Dizzee over Zoom as he signs records in his new homebuilt studio. He seems happy, relaxed, curious to know why I like the new album (I do like it), and keen to show off the synths he’s assembled on racks over lockdown. Given Dizzee’s status as a public-facing British pop icon, it’s easy to forget that he’s a studio rat at heart, and a producer as much as he is an MC, something he’s keen to remind people of.

As the title E3 AF suggests (E3 being the postcode for Bow, the east London area where he grew up), this record returns to his roots wholeheartedly and calls on some scene legends including Ghetts, Kano, P Money, and D Double E. While it could have been tempting to try and ride on the coattails of UK drill, or return to the pop arena, there’s a defiance to E3 AF that pays tribute to the sound Dizzee pioneered, a style that has defined Britain’s streets.

That’s not to say that there aren’t moments on the album that make anyone pine for the dancefloors locked off by COVID-19 – for example party banger “Body Loose” and the eerie club track “Don’t Be Dumb” – but E3 AF feels like the work of an artist comfortable with where and who he is. As he says on the album’s final track, “Be Incredible”, “I keep it real, that’s what honest is, it’s coming out of every orifice”.

Let’s start with 2020 – has the pandemic altered your perception of the world or altered your creative process?

Dizzee Rascal: As far as creative process goes, it didn’t affect me too tough, it made me relearn. I had to use a lot of equipment and learn to record myself – I’d never recorded myself before, I had to learn to do that. No engineer, just me. So it was good for that I guess. 

My perspective on the world... I mean, funnily enough, if you watched the news, it looked like the whole world was at war, but I felt like people were nicer. I feel like people were checking on each other more like, ‘Are you alright, are you coping?’. People you’d never spoken to before. I saw the good side of people to be fair. 

E3 AF feels like a homecoming. Why was it important to make an album like this?

Dizzee Rascal: A lot of people don’t see me as a producer, but on a lot of my early stuff I made the beats myself. That return kind of happened before the album, with the EP (Don’t Gas Me). In 2017, I was on tour and I picked up one of my friends, and he was making a beat in my car as I was driving. He was using all these programs I’d never seen, like Serum and Ableton – I’d heard of them but I’d never used them. After I saw him use it, that’s when I got back to making beats again. So the return to original form was really off the back of that. By the time I’d done the EP I’d gotten comfortable making beats again. 

All the other producers on the album are British as well, people I’ve known for a long time, so it’s all kind of UK-based because I was here for the majority of this album. The last album I made between here and the States, but this one was solely here. It was wicked because all the features – maybe there was two I didn’t get in the studio with – everyone else I was in the studio with. P Money I was in the studio with, Frisco I was in the studio with, D Double E, I was in the studio with Chip. I was in the studio with Alicai Harley, I was in the studio with Ghetts, Ocean Wisdom. It was nice to really vibe it up.

Do you feel like this is your most honest work?

Dizzee Rascal: It’s definitely up there. I’ve always been honest in my music. I’ve always had reflective moments, from my first album all the way through to this album. Maybe less so on the last EP. But yeah, it’s very honest. Maybe it helped that it took so long?

It’s a range of different emotions, vibes, and feelings because I had time to live life and go through stuff, so it wasn’t like I just got in a studio for a few weeks and knocked up an album, you know what I mean?

On “You Don’t Know” (fifth track on E3 AF), you talk about being “the original, the leader, the pinnacle”. You mentioned at the start of this interview that nobody thinks about you being a producer. Do you think you get enough credit for being a boundary-breaking avant garde artist as well as a popstar and a rapper. For example when “I Luv U” (from Boy In Da Corner) came out, no one had really heard anything like it.

Dizzee Rascal: I just think a lot of people don’t know. They know you’re a big rapper, they don’t necessarily know I sat there and made the beats. Some people just don’t look into it that much. I never pushed myself as a producer/rapper. Back then there wasn’t a lot of information, it’s not like today where guys are making videos, you can record everything. I can record myself making a beat now and fling it up for everyone to see.

“No one pushes it the way I do” – Dizzee Rascal

Do you want people to see you in that way or are you not bothered?

Dizzee Rascal: I don’t know. I feel like I’ve achieved and been credited with so much.

Which UK artists do you think are pushing it the way you were pushing it back then?

Dizzee Rascal: I’ve always liked the drill stuff, I love what Millionz is doing. But no one pushes it the way I do. I’m producing it, I made “I Luv U” myself, I made “Jezebel”. Like, made the beats. So as far as a producer/rapper, the only person I can think of is Mez.

Do you feel pride because you’re an elder now, looking at things like UK drill really take off?

Dizzee Rascal: Yeah! Because growing up I used to listen to Jungle & Garage MCs, and they gave me the buzz, you know what I mean? I didn’t grow up with loads of UK rappers that I listened to religiously but I sit on GRM Daily checking new shit out and enjoy it. I know they grew up listening to me. 

I love that interview with your old music teacher, Tim Smith, where he talks about you making music in his classroom. You rang him after you won the Mercury – can you talk about the impact he had on you?

Dizzee Rascal: Credit should also go to Tim Russell at my school before, he taught me to use the computer. I went to learn music but I wasn’t good at sheet music, and Tea, Coffee, Lemonade, all that shit. But that teacher showed me Cubase one day on the computer. When I built my first beat, that was that.

I got kicked out of that school and I got into Langdon Park, and I already knew how to do stuff. I just went to the room, I didn’t come there for easy class, that’s what I came there to do. I was already MCing, on radio, I just added beatmaking and Tim (Smith) just let me get along with it. Basically, that’s why I liked him, he encouraged me. When the school wanted to fully kick me out, he definitely stepped in to make sure I could get in and only go to music class. So I went to school, but I stayed in the music thing. The backroom had this little studio set-up. There were a few other people in the school who used it as well, but that became my room. I’d go to school early to get in there, I’d go break time – fuck break time I needed to finish this beat – lunchtime, eat a little something and get in there, and after school for a couple of hours. That’s what I cared about. I knew what I was going to be, I never wanted to be nothing else in life, I only wanted to do music. I just knew I didn’t want to do anything else.

“I never wanted to be nothing else in life, I only wanted to do music. I just knew I didn’t want to do anything else” - Dizzee Rascal

You’ve been making music nearly 25 years. Is there anything else you see yourself doing outside music? 

Dizzee Rascal: I really like property, just renovating properties, making them nice. I like that. 

Maybe it’s the same mentality as making a beat? Taking the shell, fiddling around with it, building out the body...

Dizzee Rascal: Fully! I think that’s why I like it. I love Homes Under The Hammer. I love it!

Do you ever think about your legacy and how you want to be remembered?  

Dizzee Rascal: I do a lot, and then I remind myself you can’t...

Can’t really dictate it?

Dizzee Rascal: Yeah because there’s already so much bullshit in it. You can’t control how people view you and see you, even some of the ways people view me and see me now surprises me, like why do they think that? What I care about more is whether they like my tunes. Have I made a tune that everyone likes? That’s my main focus of my life.