If it weren't for rap music, Dizzee Rascal might be hitting the weight room in a U.K. jail by now. His father died when he was young, and he opted for the unsanctioned lessons of the streets over school. Every time he was expelled, his mother got him back in.
The amount of schools who revoked his status? Four. An impressive feat-how exactly does one achieve such prolific bouncing?
"Um, quite easily, y'know-too easily," laughs the 20-year-old in an English accent so thick that it's like I'm barely speaking his language, as I only understand every third word or so. "I was seeing so much outside of school that that kind of affected my attitude. I used to fight a lot in school, I was disruptive. But when I work, I work. My grades weren't actually bad. But my behavorial patterns weren't the best."
His street-level lesson plan, which he says "wasn't that positive, to tell you the truth," was also what made his raw-grime style of rap so damn appealing. After all, N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton wasn't an amazing record because of its positivity and social manners. The title of Dizzee's debut album, released when he was 18, said it all: Boy In Da Corner. Backed into that corner, he lashed out with a pissed-off, hard-hitting collection of tracks with a dark sense of humor-the album won the 2003 Mercury Prize in the U.K., beating out Coldplay, Radiohead and The Darkness for the honor.
The album wasn't like the garage scene that was informing most U.K. rap at the time, and that's mostly because Dizzee and his friends didn't really have access to it.
"My kind of people-all the young street kids-90 percent of the clubs I couldn't even get into," he says. "I'd have a hood, a hat, trainers, slack suit, and it didn't meet the criteria to get in there. So [the garage scene] got to a phase where [it was just] champagne and suits and shoes and glitzier and a bit fake."
Dizzee compares his style to the southern rap or crunk scene in the U.S., the rude shit that came out of Atlanta. And now, on the brink of his first headlining American tour, he'll be playing to their audiences. The tour's a near guarantee to sell-out, his hype still reverberating even though his second album, Showtime, slipped under the radar because he released it so quickly after his debut. But you gotta wonder, with his impenetrable accent, whether Yanks will understand a damn word he spits.
"In time, I think people get used to it," he says. "I've also found with music that whether it's in America or what, people just pick out a few words and it might be the rhythm that's driving them or the bassline or the melodies or the hook.
"People had that whole thing with the South as well, where they couldn't understand what they were saying, and that's in America, know what I mean?"
And what about how music saved his life, or did it? If not for rap, I ask him, what would you be doing?
He pauses... a long pause, almost answering five different ways, and then stopping, as though he'd thought "sales manager" and then realized that's a sham.
Finally, he gives up. "It might not be in a positive," he admits.
You might be in jail, might you?
"Oh really.... reallllly....," he says, half-offended, but good-natured. "That might be extreme, Maybe I would've... uh, uh... well..."
Silence. A long pause. I say nothing.
"Nah... yeah, you're right," he finishes with a slight, defeated laugh.
Two weeks after our interview, Dizzee Rascal was arrested for carrying pepper spray. The driver of the car he was in was also arrested for possession of pepper spray, a knife, a truncheon and some weed.
Rascal's parole ends April 8, two days after his show at 'Canes in San Diego.Dizzee Rascal plays on April 6 at 'Canes. $17-$20. 858-488-1780.