As huge as hip-hop has gotten in the U.S., mainstream America has yet to really embrace artists from overseas. Case in point: Dizzee Rascal, a savage MC from East London who is still mostly unknown here, despite years of generating a buzz.
Rascal broke out of the U.K.'s grime/garage scene of the early '00s, a movement that also spawned acts like M.I.A., Lady Sovereign, and the Streets. Much like his peers, he started rapping in his teens, MCing on pirate radio stations and underground venues. He rapped with a heavy Cockney accent, filling his rhymes with native slang and flowing over beats often generated from a videogame console. He first achieved acclaim in 2003 with singles "Fix Up, Look Sharp" and "I Luv U," and his debut album, Boy in da Corner. "Fix Up" was a Top 20 hit in the U.K., where Boy in da Corner won the prestigious Mercury Prize. In the U.S., it was named one of the 50 best albums of the year by Rolling Stone. In 2004, Rascal released Showtime, which debuted on the U.K. charts at number eight and solidified him as the star of U.K. hip-hop.
Despite Rascal's continued success back home, his lyrical ferocity is known by a select few in the U.S. This might be because British hip-hop hasn't always been user-friendly. MCs rapping at warp speeds with thick accents sound unfamiliar to the average listener. Furthermore, when fans are already inundated with hip-hop from every American region, it's easy for overseas MCs to get lost in the shuffle.
Nonetheless, Rascal hopes the U.S. release of his latest album, Maths + English, will inscribe his name in the minds of American hip-hop heads. Both musically and lyrically, the album is more straight-ahead than his previous releases. "I worked a lot more on my flow, so it was easier to follow," he says. "I still use a lot of slang, but I just slowed things down a bit so people could understand what the fuck I was saying."
Rascal exhibits a more deliberate delivery on Maths' introspective opener, "World Outside," about creating distance from the London hood life. The production is both grimy and accessible. And while some of the songs are crafted to sound more "familiar" to American listeners, with traditional drum breaks and the occasion soul sample, the album retains its British feel. His frenetic garage sensibilities are apparent on songs like "Sirens" and "Temptation." The album offers a middle ground that both Rascal and his new label, Definitive Jux, hope progressive hip-hoppers will embrace.
"I think it's a dope, new, relevant sound for America, and the shit is really edgy," says El-P, owner of Definitive Jux. "It's hard not to put on [Maths + English] and not want to punch someone in the face. But I make music that sounds like that, so maybe I'm biased."
It took almost a year for Maths + English to get a proper U.S. release in April (previously, it was available only digitally). The American version has three new tracks, including an El-P–produced remix of "Where's Da G's?" featuring UGK.
El-P and Rascal are hitting the road together as the latter launches his first U.S. tour in three years. If all goes as planned, Rascal is ready for Maths + English to launch him into the American mainstream. If nothing else, the rapper doesn't sound the least bit sentimental about his years in the underground. "Yeah, I really miss getting jerked for my money at shows, dealing with dodgy promoters, and always having to watch my back when I'm at a club," he deadpans.