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Here comes the neighborhood
But can Dizzee Rascal get grime out of East London?
Related Links

Dizzee Rascal's official Web site

Whether you saw one of the bright yellow billboards plastered around town to plug his US debut last year or one of a zillion New Yorker pieces written about him already, I trust that by now youíve heard of Dizzee Rascal. Everything they say is true: Dizzee, a/k/a Dylan Mills, is 19, from the working-class neighborhood of Bow in East London, and the brilliant MC and producer who won Britainís Mercury Prize in 2003 for his XL label debut, Boy in da Corner. And yes, Dizzee takes part in this brand new thing everyoneís talking about called grime, a localized outgrowth of British garage and jungle that began when crews like So Solid dropped dark beats that were equal parts dance-floor killer and MC-friendly. Americans say grimeís just British hip-hop (gosh darn, guys), but everyone else knows that grime borrows more directly from hip-hopís own predecessor, the riddim-centric world of Jamaican dancehall. More than a few have said that grime is like rap from some distant planet, with its own impenetrable slang, Gameboy bleats, and near-always gruff delivery.

Dizzee, who was grime even in his pre-grime days as a bedroom jungle producer, then rave thrower and radio pirate, has become East Londonís ambassador by virtue of his rare big-label backing by Britainís XL Recordings, whose holdings include the Streets, M.I.A., and the White Stripes. With DJ Wonder in tow, he comes to perform for Americans who far from being fans are just finding out about grime. Meanwhile, Vice Records has just released the first stateside grime compilation through Atlantic, Run the Road, a jumpstart for anyone interested in (yes) the most exciting thing happening in music right now. Britainís most important musical export in years is finally ripe for our discovery. But should we care?

Grimeís local nature remains its most fascinating quality. The world is smaller than ever, and the cross-pollination of ideas, fashions, and especially music is a given. The existence of some pocket of raw culture in a vacuum, with its own logic, symbolism, and system of values, is a fascinating anomaly. All the sceneís major players and crews ó Wiley, Riko, Kano, and Roll Deep, N.A.S.T.Y., More Fire, Lethal B, Lady Sovereign, Jammer, Ears, Demon, Crazy Titch, DEE ó still live within a couple miles of one another in East London. "We come from a place where we make big things out of the little that we have," says Dizzee over the phone from Portland, Oregon, on the tour that brings him to the Middle East this Tuesday. "At the same time, the whole grime scene is fickle. Weíre all very different."

In its geography, grime resembles late-í70s hip-hop, which was confined to the Bronx and took years to spread even downtown. Each form grew out of its own sound-system culture, with peers providing one another a venue for party and creativity. Dizzee says that grime "is one of the best things to happen in England for a long time, as far as for inner-city youth."

But there are also telling differences. The hip-hop story is one of class and race struggle, and the music, when it became rap-centric, reflected the issues most crucial to the black public. Fans and critics alike valued an artistís story or his "realness" over verbal technique. Only gradually did hip-hop settle into a more æstheticized, persona-driven art form, first as ghetto narrative and now as a powerful cultural currency in constant struggle with its own commodification.

Grime tells the occasional hard-hitting story, such as Dizzeeís own 2002 white-label tale of teen pregnancy called "I Luv U," but grime MCs seem to live more for the battle of skill in the DVD-documented and pirate-radio broadcasted "clashes" that take place almost daily. If you saw Eminem in 8 Mile, youíll recall that clashing is when two MCs spit equal time over the same beat, hurling insults at each other and wooing the crowdís approval for their snark and smart turns.

Although the genre is still in its infancy, looking to define itself but increasingly borrowing from others, grime MCs kill hip-hop MCs on the mike ó theyíre faster, cleverer, and less burdened by tradition. And since very few labels have poached the scene (apart from artistsí own upstarts like Aim High, Aftershock, Paperchase, and Lethal Bizzle Records), grimeís primary concern has remained the music. The scene can get fast-paced, ephemeral, and, with no recorded trail, viciously insider.

Which is why everyone is making a big deal out of Run the Road. Hand-picked by the respected music writer Martin Clark, the compís tracks represent the sceneís remarkable variety of voices and styles. Heavyweights Kano, Riko, and Wiley of the Roll Deep Crew dominate, offering archetypal grime backbeats and some of the sceneís confident flows and trademark lines, like Kano on "Pís and Qís": "Wow you got your first rewind/But the second line sounded like the first line/I ainít got punch lines Iíve got kick lines/And they ainít commercial but Iíve got hit lines." Jammer hints at Miami bass on his nasty "Destruction" riddim, and first-timers might be surprised how much grime production shares with crunk when they hear Demonís "Da Rush," which is built on thick electric guitar distortion, a monochrome hook, and lots of huffy Lil JonĖlike "Yeah! Yeah!" outbursts.

Two highlights come from the sceneís two top female MCs, Shystie and Lady Sovereign. The 18-year-old Sov, whose cheeky flips have earned her Missy comparisons and a major-label deal with Island, has just enough in common with American hip-hop that she could end up bigger than Dizzee. Her "Cha Ching (Cheque 1, 2 Remix)" may be the best of the bunch, her rhymes inconsequential but way put-together: "You canít handle this/The white midget the riddim vandalist/My dad had slept on an old mattress/Bangoda donít smell like catís piss/Cuz I donít have a cat it died/Understandably I just cried/Mewmewmewmewmewmew . . . " Yes, thatís Sov making cat sounds.

Dizzee and the Streets make appearances here too, though as Clark demonstrates, their distinct personalities and their worldwide appeal have by now put them outside the scene. With its rock-shuffle beat, verse-chorus-verse structure, and í60s-beat guitar riff, the Streetsí stray-cat riddim "Fit But You Know It" sticks out; itís redeemed only by the string of VIP freestyles atop it. Listeners could recognize the track from his 2004 LP A Grand Donít Come for Free (Vice/Atlantic), so maybe Clark was underscoring the sceneís indebtedness to dubplate culture ó in fact, much of what hits East London radio is freestyle over any given weekís choice riddim.

"Any given week" is key ó grime keeps its turnover fast to keep itself interesting, but the sceneís hyper self-involvement keeps physical outsiders at a distance. The closest non-Londoners can get to grime is on the Internet. Blogs like Boom Selection, TofuHut, Chantelle Fiddyís World of Grime, and Bostonís own Lemon-Red scour for pirate radio excerpts and post new grime tracks as soon they hit; writers like Simon Reynolds, Tim Finney, and most recently Jess Harvell at Pitchforkmedia put together grime primers for unassuming audiences. Writers, labels, and now radio may be eager to accelerate the grime takeover ó New Yorkís Hot 97 just playlisted Lethal Bís "Pow (Forward)," grimeís first appearance on commercial airwaves ó but does that mean grime wants out of East London?

"I see the road to success/Iím getting out of here," goes the chorus of Roll Deepís "Let It Out." The crew, who bemoaned the loss of Dizzee to commercial aspirations, are now readying own official full-length; Kanoís 679 debut comes out later this spring. As grime MCs and producers seek out their own identities, they turn the "What is grime and why should we care?" question back on itself and the excitement starts anew. "Grime was a stepping stone," says Dizzee. "I make music thatís for around the world now."

Dizzee Rascal performs this Tuesday, April 26, downstairs at the Middle East, 480 Massachusetts Avenue in Central Square; call (617) 864-EAST.

Issue Date: April 22 - 28, 2005
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