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May 10, 2005

Dizzee Rascal, Roots Manuva electrify U.K. hip-hop

Ask around about British hip-hop artists, and you'll most likely be given the Streets, Dizzee Rascal, Roots Manuva, and more recently, Wiley and M.I.A. No! From that list, the only one who could be called hip-hop is Roots Manuva, but he hardly represents the U.K. scene, because he's always done his own thing. Most of the beats underneath Mike Skinner's (a.k.a. the Streets') humorous lyrics are U.K. garage (but anyone who takes that man too seriously is an idiot). M.I.A. does her own blend of grime, garage, Bhangra, and other sounds, but it's never hip-hop. And Wiley and Dizzee Rascal are mainstream vanguards of garage and grime. Dizzee Rascal played Chicago's Double Door last week.

The Mercury Music Prize likes to acknowledge new genres in British music by giving prizes to artists who then become thought of as pioneers for bringing the music out of the underground. Roni Size opened the market to drum 'n' bass when he won the prize in 1997; Talvin Singh did the same with the British Asian scene in 1999. Dizzee Rascal won in 2003 with Boy in Da Corner (XL), and is now the figurehead for the new grime movement.

Grime, that Molotov cocktail of hip-hop, drum 'n' bass, garage, electro and heavy bass, exploded out of East London recently enough that the quibbling over what to call it (dissenters want eski-beat, sublow, crunk, or something else) is only just now dying down. Dylan Mills (a.k.a. Dizzee Rascal), intent on maintaining his self-proclaimed title as grime boss #1, tries to step away from U.K. garage (blatantly, with the lyric, "I ain't U.K. garage" on "Vexed"), but he can't escape the garage sound. "Imagine," for example, remains one of the worst garage tunes ever released on a major label.

In the role of Grime Ambassador, Dizzee Rascal brought DJ Wonder with him from London to open what was billed as An Introduction to Grime (fair enough, because I think it was the first live grime set that most of us had seen). DJ Wonder's set of—I hate to say it—the garage-end of grime was all right, but the whole time, I wanted them to turn the bass up.

The best track he played was a jungle remix of Apache Indian's "Original Nuttah." The Double Door definitely fixed the bass for Dizzee Rascal. For a mainstream artist, his beats are ridiculously raw. Tunes like "Stop Dat" and the bass drop on "Seems 2 Be" came off sounding really heavy. For some reason, though, more trebly tracks like "Fix Up, Look Sharp" and the operatic "Jus a Rascal," which I thought sounded pretty dope on the record, didn't sound so good live.

My favorite number was his redo of the 50 Cent song "P.I.M.P." Lyrically, 19-year-old Dizzee Rascal isn't anything special, but it's not what he says; it's the way he says it. Well suited to grime, his Yardie jungle-style lyrics carve out their own rhythmic flow. It was worth seeing this undoubtedly talented MC live. The sold-out crowd was jumping from start to end, although with all due respect, I think you could have plugged that crowd into anything and they would have been jumping.

In 2002, Roots Manuva, who played the Empty Bottle on Tuesday night, became the first hip-hop artist to get a Mercury Music Prize nomination for his weakest album, 2001's Run Come Save Me (Big Dada). R&B artist Ms. Dynamite won that year, and Roots Manuva has yet to receive the mainstream treatment. All three albums (1999's Brand New Second Hand, the aforementioned Run Come Save Me, and Awfully Deep, to be released in the U.S. on April 19) are on U.K. independent Big Dada.

The latest album places Roots Manuva at the head of the eclectic rap sound emulated by label mates like Ty and French group TTC. He draws from all kinds of influences, from electro to the dancehall styles of his own Jamaican heritage. Some of the tunes are even pretty grimey but, as ever, Mr. Manuva adds his own level of sophistication: "Colossal Insight," for example, uses noises from Super Mario Bros., and there's a vacuum cleaner turning off and on in "Awfully Deep." The point is, this is brand new hip-hop. He's original, which is why he doesn't represent the U.K. scene. On "Colossal Insight," he raps, "Those bourgeois blacks have been far from convinced/But I don't give a damn about U.K. rap/I'm a U.K. black makin' U.K. tracks/And I've got love for every one of those scenes/And they pigeon-holes were never nuttin' to hold me."

The openers on Tuesday night, Airborn Audio (the hip-hop duo formerly known as the Anti-Pop Consortium) were pretty sketchy, maybe because they arrived 15 minutes after they were supposed to go on, and maybe because they were playing mostly new stuff. They did play some pretty nice beats with drum machines onstage. Known for his theatrics, Rodney Smith (a.k.a. Roots Manuva) introduced his DJ and vocalist while he remained off stage ("These are my friends …") and then walked on in a big hooded coat saying "It's windy out there."

The show kicked off right away. About 10 minutes in, though, a fuse blew out in the turntables. Without delay, DJ M.K. grabbed the mic and did a beatbox over Mr. Smith's wicked freestyle about the Empty Bottle and the fuse problem. Then, his vocalist did a beatbox over which he did "Clockwork."

Well, the sound system still wasn't fixed. Then a beatboxer got up out the crowd and actually did one of the sickest beatboxes I've seen. He revealed his name was Louie Lane, and where was he from? Not Chicago but the U.K.

The sound got fixed, and they did a great set. The only thing was that Roots Manuva seemed to be getting a bit bored after a while (he even looked at his watch). The crowd wanted more, though, and shouted him back on for another couple of tunes.