A young man in a satin New York Yankees jacket steps up to the plate, squares his shoulders, crouches, swings the bat…and misses. And misses again. And again. Dizzee Rascal is at the batting cages in Manhattan’s Chelsea Piers sports complex, and the 19-year-old British baseball fan is finding that watching the game on TV is quite a bit easier than stepping into the batter’s box. ”I’ve never played before,” says Rascal, removing the batting helmet and smiling a mischievous, streetwise smile. ”But I’m handy with a bat. Louisville Slugger, innit?”
Of course, Rascal’s future depends on his mastering a different (but still uniquely American) game: hip-hop. As the winner of this year’s prestigious Mercury Music Prize (the U.K. equivalent of all the Grammys rolled into one), the artist born as Dylan Mills is the brightest light on the Anglo rap scene. Which, admittedly, is a lot like saying you’re the best shortstop in Liverpool: There’s not a hell of a lot of competition.
But unlike past U.K.-to-U.S. rap invasions, Dizzee’s stunning debut record, ”Boy in da Corner,” is more than just an accented imitation of Stateside rap. ”[Americans] don’t want to hear someone from Brixton trying to sound like someone from the Bronx,” he says. Be assured, however, there’s no confusing Dizzee’s music with anything from the Boogie Down. His mix of dry urban observations, dark humor, and experimental digital grooves is particularly British. Besides, most folks on this side of the Atlantic will need a glossary to grasp his slang-intensive lyrics. U.S. fans have already had a taste of Dizzee’s dizzying syllables on ”Lucky Star,” a standout track on Basement Jaxx’s recent ”Kish Kash” album, but hip-hop heads will get a full dose on Jan. 20, when ”Boy in da Corner” gets an American release on XL Recordings/Matador Records.
Dizzee is on his first trip to Manhattan, but you’d never know it. With his crisp B-boy gear and up-to-date knowledge of the latest Neptunes track, Dizzee could be any hardcore rap fan from Harlem to Oakland. But once he opens his mouth and the thick syllables start pouring out, it’s obvious he’s from another world altogether. ”People just see [London] as tea and biscuits, red telephone boxes, Buckingham Palace. That’s it,” he says while munching on a green salad at a nearby brewpub after batting practice. ”I come from the other side of the city, the harsher part.”
Dizzee grew up in East London, a multiculti part of the city that doesn’t get much screen time in Hugh Grant films. Brought up the single child of a single mother who worked as a legal secretary, Dizzee wasn’t the easiest kid to raise. ”I’ve always been one of those bad boys, rude boys,” he says. ”One day one of my teachers said to me, ‘You’re such a rascal!’ And the name stuck.”
It was music that helped Dizzee escape from a rascally adolescence. After learning how to DJ, he kept busy on London’s pirate radio scene, a subculture that operates much like New York’s hip-hop mixtape underground — where record labels and promoters discovered artists like 50 Cent and DJ Clue. After a couple years of hard work, his blistering white-label single, ”I Luv U,” landed him a record deal this past February.