England - Full Moon 86 - 10/10/03
Boy In Da Corner
In his essential book on the cultural history of dance music, Energy Flash, Simon Reynolds posits
a theory about the way truly innovative electronic music has been classified. It's a theory I admire
for its iconoclasm and wilfulness than any real impact it's had on my listening, but Reynolds legitimately
claims that so-called progressive artists are really the conservative ones, that they become critical
darlings merely because those critics are able to understand their music within the context of received
norms like jazz or funk. The prime example is of jungle: the original sounds of dark bass and thunderous
breakbeats grew out of rave and hardcore, but the label seemed to attain its cultural art form status
only as it morphed into "intelligent drum 'n' bass", with its latent danger largely sidelined in
favour of chin-stroking jazzy motifs.
One look at the relative labels for these two types of music and you see the potential implications.
Jungle vs intelligent; primitive vs educated; black vs white - the delineation is outmoded and offensive,
and one that of all genres dance music should be above.
So, where does all this precedent place the critical, prestigious Mercury Award-winning success
of Dizzee Rascal's debut, Boy In Da Corner? The victory last month certainly surprised a few
people. This is the sort of music that normally takes years to sink in, to seep into the mainstream
before its influence shows it up to have been ahead of its time. Maybe the judges were relieved to
find a less objectionable version of the urban music pedalled by the So Solid Crew, or maybe they
felt they could assuage a little bit of white liberal guilt by rewarding an 18 year old black kid
from East London. Or maybe they just chose yet another debut album as this year's recipient as debuts
so often feel like the grand musical gesture, the announcement of a distinct identity as much as
a collection of songs. Either way, this is a startling record; one whose immediacy is matched by
a feeling that it will continue to reveal new depths long after the hubbub over Dizzee himself
Dylan Mills is a product of East London's Langdon Park school, the largest in the country with
2000 pupils and ridiculously unmanageable class sizes to match. Excluded from almost all lessons
but music, Mills starting using Cubase and learned how to realise the music he heard in his head.
It's obviously not a place you'd want to be for any period of time, given the predominance here
of digital bleeps, chest-quaking bass, whooping sirens and twitchy, tetchy beats. Ominous and in
your face, hollow synths and ragga rhythms combine to make it clear why those looking for the
new 'sound of the streets' feel compelled to herald Dizzee's arrival. Making The Streets' Original
Pirate Material sound like a walk in the park, Dizzee has concocted a truly urban onomatopoeia.
Tracks like "Wot U On?"," Round We Go" and "Hold Ya Mouf" hit home with a unique British sense of
sonic invention. The unpredictable bounce of "Sittin' Here" and "Seems 2 Be" sounds threatening,
but there's always compelling reason to stick with it. You do end up rapt at the assault on your
ears, a sucker for your own destruction. The album is at its most accessible on the single, "Fix
Up Look Sharp", wherein what sounds like an old Def Jam break powers through a Billy Squire sample
catchy enough to wrong-foot anyone buying Boy In Da Corner on the strength of this one track.
The only thing to nearly match it for pop sensibility is "Jus' A Rascal", where a chorus chants the
title in a way that sounds half frantic, half hysterical. Just like the way Dizzee sounds all the
And it's this MC style that is often the most startling element to this album. Where most rappers
are content to lecture, boast or just flow, Dizzee sounds like he's drowning in the urban/sonic
miasma around him. Barely holding on to his emotions, he resembles a rabbit in the headlights, but
one determined to make himself heard before he gets mown down. With astonishing maturity for his
age, he tackles teenage pregnancy and casual sex, drug use and the sickeningly narrow life opportunities
offered to him and his peers.
The title Boy In Da Corner may well refer to the way he felt about sitting in class at
school, but it pretty much sums up the view someone like Dizzee has of the life set out in front
of him. Before the critical powers that be start congratulating themselves too much, it's worth
noting that the lad's massive achievement was to get noticed at all. By the time the awards and
broadsheet articles dry up, how many potential Dizzee Rascals will we have let slip through our
Copyright © 2003 James Caig