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Straight Outta London

Fugitive from justice: When Dizzee Rascal returns to the UK, a charge of pepper-spray possession awaits.

Poverty transcends time. It was there in the South Bronx in the '70s, in Compton in the '80s, is in the Fifth Ward right now, and it'll still be in Hunter's Point next year. Poverty also knows no national boundaries. It's there in the sweaty slums of Rio de Janeiro and in the grimy projects of East London's Crossways projects. It looks similar everywhere you go: Broken glass, discarded syringes and filthy government housing are just part of the ghetto-universal template.

But it is amid all that, beyond the accoutrements of sorrow and the aesthetics of decline, that you most often find the sort of 11th-hour inspiration that arises only in the most desperate of situations. They may have the money, the poor folks allow, but we have the music. And while the Bronx may have invented hip-hop, H-town codified screw and Brazil originated the bouncing favela funk, East London is home to a new and exciting ghetto genre: grime.

Over the past half-decade, grime has emerged from pirate radio and UK rave culture to become one of the most compelling sounds of the new millennium. With bubbling bass, breakneck, drum 'n bass-inspired rhythms, and dirty and at times convoluted samples, grime carries the fresh, unpolished urgency of early hip-hop. Its emcees come equipped with thick Cockney accents spit in frantic flows that owe equal parts to ragga toasting and crunk's hollered, rushed rhythms.

For American audiences, no one performer personifies this new sound as much as East London's 19-year-old Dizzee Rascal, né Dylan Mills. His 2003 debut, Boy in da Corner, sold more than 250,000 albums and produced the hit single "Fix Up, Look Sharp." And while you aren't likely to see Dizzee's mug on Teen Beat, it was greeted as nothing less than a sonic revelation by hip U.S. audiences. Released in the States on indie stalwart Matador Records, Boy in da Corner was crowned one of the year's ten best albums in The Village Voice's annual Pazz & Jop critics' poll.

For Dizzee, the 18 months since Boy in da Corner's release has been a blur of hard-earned praise and burgeoning popularity, but also violence and condemnation. But with the release of Showtime late last year, Dizzee Rascal has emerged on top of his game. And while the world is slowly coming to terms with the fact that Dizzee and grime are here to stay, Dizzee and crew are quickly beginning to understand that their worlds have also changed, and for better and worse, things will never be same.

The product of a broken family, Dizzee was born in the East London council estate of Bow in 1985. He had a tumultuous childhood. He experienced minor scrapes with the law; he was detained for robbing a pizza deliveryman and stealing cars; and the academically apathetic youngster was kicked out of four different schools.

In the late '90s, Dizzee's salvation began to take shape in the form of London's pirate radio scene. Underground stations such as Rinse FM and Déjà Vu rose up and served as vital outlets for developing music genres. "I came straight from the pirate radio scene, straight from the streets," Dizzee says in a recent phone interview. "That's an important part of mine and a lot of other people's past."

Hyper-caffeinated rave-offshoot genres such as garage, hardcore and jungle found a home on these stations. But what's more, a community (and thus a culture) began to sprout up around the stations. In this regard, the UK grime scene recalls American hip-hop and gang culture: Based on geography and street politics, allegiances are drawn and crews such as So Solid, More Fire Crew, Nasty Crew and Pay As You Go congeal. And while the scene had it fair share of the usual problems -- guns, drugs and violent rivalries -- it also infused its participants with a strength-in-numbers philosophy.

Dizzee joined the Roll Deep crew when he was 16. The crew had already been around for more than five years and included producer Wiley, who would go on to become one of the scene's biggest stars. At last Dizzee found his focus: music. Wiley, Dizzee and the rest of Roll Deep would spend the weekends playing UKG (UK garage) raves and would hustle for money the rest of the week. But by the time that Dizzee reached 18, he'd had enough of the street hustle and wanted to record his debut album, Boy in da Corner.

Which upon its release in July 2003 was heralded as an instant classic. Its blend of hardened hip-hop bravado and touching teenage vulnerability presented Dizzee to the world as grime's first great spokesman. On the stellar "Brand New Day," Dizzee acknowledged his violent and desperate background, rapping, "Looks like I'm losin' sight / Coz I'm lookin at the future, it ain't right." And his declaration on "Sittin' Here" that "It was only yesterday / Life was a touch more sweet" recalls the premature and tragic nostalgia of Nas's "Memory Lane."

Boy in da Corner was a shot of adrenaline for a then-stagnant UK music scene, and what's more important, at least in terms of commercial acceptance, it won the 2003 Mercury Prize, a prestigious award honoring the UK's top album from an up-and-coming artist. (Previous winners include P.J. Harvey, Roni Size and Primal Scream; Franz Ferdinand took the honors in 2004.) "Winning the Mercury Prize was one of the major things to happen to me," says Dizzee, who was the first rapper to win. "It rocketed me into the mainstream so that I was known around the world."

But fame has proved difficult to digest. While preparing for the release of Boy in da Corner, Dizzee was stabbed -- reportedly by a rival crew -- on the resort island of Cyprus. Early last month he was detained in East London for possession of marijuana, "a section five firearm" and "an offensive weapon." What was he packing? A Glock and an Uzi? Nah. British law is so quaint -- the former refers to a canister of pepper spray, the latter a baton. Still, the rapper was slated to have appeared in court on April 8 on the pepper spray charge -- the same night he had a show in Salt Lake City.

As street violence in the UK reaches record proportions, politicians have sought scapegoats, and unfortunately for Dizzee and his cohorts, grime musicians seem to fill the bill (i.e., young, poor and politically powerless minorities). Dizzee says this is a classic case of missing the forest for the trees. "Sometimes the violence overshadows everything. They overlook that this is a self-sustaining scene that came from inner-city London, that came from nothing and is now being recognized on an international level."

In addition to catching the ire of politicians, Dizzee and the grime scene also became subjected to the media's expectations. Dizzee believes that today grime is having its identity "forced" upon it by the media. "In the first place, it was just about people making music on the little equipment they had, but now the media has turned it into something else."

Still, Dizzee is confident that grime's roots will always shine through and finds comfort in the success of crunk music, which Dizzee feels is the closest American corollary to grime. "Whether grime becomes commercial or not, it'll always have its edge," Dizzee says. "It's like crunk. Lil' Jon is just as edgy as a lot of the people coming from the underground, people you've never even heard of. And there're quite a lot of similarities between crunk and grime. They're both very energetic and true to the streets."

Dizzee is touring on the strength of Showtime, Boy in da Corner's follow-up record. "After Boy in da Corner, I went straight into [recording] Showtime," says Dizzee. "I've just been trying to keep my priorities straight and focus on the music."

While Showtime builds off many of Boy's themes, it also presents a more mature, if less settled, portrait of Dizzee Rascal. Boy's more frantic rhythms have been supplemented by more of a pop sensibility, and there are strong hints of a developing social consciousness. On the song "Imagine," Dizzee sounds like a UK Talib Kweli: "You've been living in da grime," he raps. "Don't you wanna climb da ladder of life / da wall of enlightenment?" On "Everywhere," Dizzee acknowledges that "Life's been ugly so far but these are fine times…I always want to be a star my city or the sands" but goes on to say that "I try not to be stupid wiv my fame / But constantly I sense fassies" -- Jamaican/London slang for homosexuals -- "being clever with my name."

Showtime not only signals that Dizzee is continuing to mature as an artist, but also cements the idea that grime is here to stay. Dizzee is no longer alone: Artists such as Lady Sovereign and Kano are set to break in the States, and Dizzee's own imprint, Dirty Stank, is gearing up to release Class A's debut album. Predictably, Dizzee is optimistic about the genre's future. "Grime came from pirate radio in the slums of East London, and gained notice in the media community. That's big. And as more and more people consider it art, it's just getting bigger."


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