As he retraces the steps he takes to the flat where he grew up in east London, Dizzee Rascal bumps into Reckless K, an old DJ friend from a rival crew he hasn’t seen in nearly 20 years. Bless Beats (the east London producer best known for producing Wiley’s “Wearing My Rolex”) randomly pulls up on his bike moments later. It’s a proper reunion between childhood friends – conversation flows back and forth as though no time has passed at all.
It’s been almost 20 years since Dizzee made his name as a DJ and young MC coming up in Bow, a residential district in east London. We’re here because he’s about to release seventh album E3 AF (the name is a reference to the area’s post code, “E3” and slang term “AF”, as in “as fuck”). It’s the first album he’s written, recorded and produced in the UK since 2007’s Maths + English, and as we walk around the area he’s bumped into by reams of old mates and peers.
“Do you remember when you had to clash this yute called Dizzee for your name?” Reckless asks him.
“This is probably the first time I’ve mentioned this in an interview, it’s never been in print,” Dizzee says, emphatically. “We were in YGS crew back then, this was before [famed east London grime outfit] N.A.S.T.Y crew. Reckless was in another crew, he was the don. We used to go [east London youth club] The Link and there was a guy called Dizzee in Reckless’s crew and I had to clash him for my name.”
Reckless jumps back in: “I’ve got so many stories bruv, I’ve got tapes of us when you came to the yard, mixing jungle – just straight DJing. But you know who was spitting? Tinchy [Stryder].”
Dizzee Rascal was 18 in 2003 when he released the Mercury Prize-winning Boy In Da Corner – widely considered to be the one of the best British albums of all time, as well as a landmark moment for the UK’s grime scene. In the years that followed, Dizzee became a fully fledged pop star. He topped the UK charts with huge collabs with DJs like Calvin Harris and Armand Van Helden, before returning back to his grimier roots on 2016’s Raskit.
He launched a label (Dirtee Stank), had multiple award nods (he’s been nominated for the Mercury Prize three times) and vacated the UK for a while to live in Miami. A couple of weeks after we meet, he’s made an MBE for his services to music. Dizzee’s double decade career has been a whirlwind, making returning to the area where it began all the more impactful.
“Coming back to endz is like a time warp,” Dizzee says, as he points to various landmarks that defined his childhood. There’s the Crossways Estate – home to the iconic shot of Dizzee and Wiley in the early, friendlier days of their career – but the landscape has changed. It’s full of new builds. Still, many residents here know and treasure Dizzee. They greet, spud and wave to him as we move around the area, calling out and referring to him on a first name basis (‘Dyl’, for Dylan Mills).
Last November, Dizzee built a studio at home to work on E3 AF and ended up working there when lockdown began in March. While DJing is still very much his first love (earlier, in his chat with Reckless, Dizzee personally claims an unreleased dubplate he made with Stormin was one of the first grime tracks ever made), finishing the album at home reignited the producer in him.
“After Raskit, it just made me dig in more as a producer again and that’s what kicked off this album. By my third album I stopped making beats because I was getting them elsewhere but a big part of what made me in the beginning was my beats and me on top of them,” he says. “It’s nice to get back into that again, there’s a self discovery that comes with it when you dig deep.”
E3 AF is a ten-track conversation between Dizzee, his peers and what happens once you’ve made it. It’s strange to think that Chip and Dizzee are collaborating for the first time on this album, considering their very similar trajectories; in recent years both MCs have brought back an emphasis to lyricism and production over charting. If it’s home Dizzee is returning to, it’s not merely a physical space but sonic too, featuring Dizzee’s own production and a range of peers like Kano, Ghetts, P Money and Frisco.
“A big part of this album was the features, I wanted the best MCs to be on there. Everyone on there is somebody’s favourite MC,” he says. Camden MC Ocean Wisdom – who featured Dizzee on his Big Talk Vol.1 mixtape in 2019 – makes an appearance on E3 AF, as well as Smoke Boys, Alicai Harley and the aforementioned elder grime statesmen of Kano and co.
Though the album draws on the environment that birthed him (and very obviously being called E3 as fuck), Dizzee doesn’t seem phased by the idea of legacy. His legacy is shored up. He’s a national treasure. That’s no reason not to keep moving, but there’s a lot less to prove now. As he admits himself, there were things he had to get out of his system, like finding his place and experiencing life.
But building a legacy off a groundbreaking debut album is hard work. While all his releases have largely ranged from good to excellent, none will compare to Boy in Da Corner – but that’s no reason to stop. He tells me he feels there’s a better album than Boy In Da Corner in him and that E3 AF is signalling that he’s prepared for that challenge. The first single off the project “L.L.L.L” gives insight into his current mindset, with lyrics “Love life, live large / Work smart, play hard” pumping over booming production.
On Boy In Da Corner track “Sittin’ Here”, Dizzee couldn’t articulate why he was feeling depressed, even though he somewhat knew it was the environment around him. Fast forward to “Be Incredible”, the last track on E3 AF, which sees Dizzee express gratitude and content with the life he has now while also yearning for more.
After several hours of walking around Bow, we stop at Cafe East on Roman Road. Once the home of iconic grime record shop Rhythm Division, the cafe now doubles up as a museum of sorts for artists that’ve come from Bow and the surrounding area. This includes records from Rudimental, Skepta and Steel Banglez (who produced on E3 AF) as well as a book from BBC Radio 1Xtra’s DJ Target called Grime Kids. There’s a copy of Boy In Da Corner hanging on the wall, and of course, Dizzee obliges the owner’s request to sign it. You need several hands to count the amount of times he gives moments of his time to speak to locals.
“E3” is tagged on bus stop windows, walls, stairwells and pretty much anywhere you go in Bow. The pride isn’t in the bricks and mortar alone, but in those that give people a reminder to others where they are and where they’re from. Dizzee is one of the motivations. When he released Boy In Da Corner in 2003, he revealed a side to Britain that had largely been ignored in the throes of a Blair-led government that had offered so much promise and very little reward. The album served as a transmission from the underground, telling the stories of Bow and its community and solidifying the area to history.
“All you can do is project your own memories on the area but you come back to these places and it’s like the land that time forgot,” Dizzee says, before abruptly asking the driver to pull over: “Wait stop here, I haven’t seen this guy in so long,” he exclaims, as he’s distracted by someone he’s known since he was three.
Dizzee gets out of the car and embraces another longtime friend he hasn’t seen since secondary school. This is what it’s about. These are the moments that strengthen his east London legacy. The people and connections here are why this new album is about returning home.
“Your memories are your memories and everything’s in the past, even if it was yesterday,” Dizzee says. “I get love across London but there’s something about where you’re from. They’ve got the memories of you no one else has got.”