In April, XL Recordings boss Richard Russell released a book called Liberation Through Hearing. Charting the life of the label that released the likes of Wiley, Jai Paul, Basement Jaxx, Tyler, the Creator, M.I.A – and, honestly a whole load more huge names, including Adele – it's a must have for any music fan. There are countless first-hand stories of working with everyone from the White Stripes to Dizzee Rascal. Ideal for slurping up while sitting at home in COVID-19 lockdown.
Below, we've published an extract from the Dizzee Rascal chapter, where Richard recounts how he came across the UK music legend, as well as the initial meetings the two had together, as well as shelved plans for a Roll Deep collaboration album. Check it out below, and find the pre-order link here.
However much energy and enthusiasm there had been in the first-generation eighties UK hip-hop scene, it was impossible at this stage to escape from the shadow of US rap. This wasn’t down to any intrinsic UK weakness, although some artists betrayed a lack of confidence by employing American accents. If the UK rap scene of the eighties was considered in isolation, it was as vibrant as any other local musical scene. The problem was of context and comparison.
US rap of this period was impossible to creatively compete with, by any other type of music, coming from anywhere. It was inevitable that UK rap would be directly compared to its more evolved US counterpart, and be found lacking. Even London Posse, considered by most to be the
leading exponents of the genre at that time, did not make a second album. In 1992 Nick Halkes and I had recorded a song with London Posse called Pass The Rizla for a compilation EP of UK artists I put together called British Underground on what was intended to be an XL hip-hop sub-label called Ruffness.
The EP was an attempt to maintain the interest that still existed in UK rap. I continued to be excited by homegrown efforts and considered the scene to have tremendous potential. Although I have never been particularly specific about any of my ambitions, nothing would have excited me more than to be involved with a really great and successful UK rap act.
There was a problem with my concept, though, and it was signposted in the name I gave the EP. No one in the UK rap scene wanted to be "underground". Most other musical scenes contain individuals who are happy with some sort of under-the-radar, sub-cultural existence. But in rap music almost everyone is hungry and ambitious, wants to be successful, and will readily admit it. (The indie rock scene grew increasingly disingenuous about money and success over the years, so whereas John Lennon happily drove around in a psychedelic painted Rolls-Royce, outward signs of materialism became gradually less and less acceptable for rockers, who in reality tended to be just as materialistic as rappers.) There didn’t seem to be a way of competing with the ever-growing US rap scene, now no less creative but also increasingly commercially successful, juggernaut releases from the likes of Dr Dre starting to become the world’s pop music. The gap between UK and US was wider than ever.
As the nineties progressed UK rap entered its trickiest phase, the hope and naivety of the eighties scene having dissipated, the mainstream doors not open. But UK rap never completely disappeared (though I allowed my Ruffness imprint to quietly die, RIP) and, as other wholly UK subgenres like drum and bass and garage blossomed and developed, new seeds were being planted. MCs in the jungle and garage scenes were there to hype the party and promote the DJ rather than show lyrical complexity, exactly like the first wave of New York MCs in the early eighties.
The natural terrain of these MCs was in the club, not the studio, and this was a new beginning. The raving audience loved hearing jungle MCs like Skibadee and the late, great Stevie Hyper D. Subsequently, the MCs who ruled the garage scene transitioned with some success into record-
making, most notably Pay As U Go, So Solid Crew, and Heartless Crew.
These artists were also inspiring another, more musically abrasive wave. Grime was garage’s snotty little brother. Garage was a little embarrassed by its bratty sibling. Garage was aspirational, and people dressed to impress when attending events like Sunday-nighter Twice As Nice. Young hopefuls like Ruff Skwad and Wiley’s Roll Deep Crew, emerging from pirates like Rinse and Deja Vu, were not dressed smartly in designer togs and shiny shoes. Something was stirring. Grime instrumentals like Wiley’s "Eskimo", "Ice Rink" and "Igloo", Cage and Weed’s "Creeper" and Jon E Cash’s "War" and "Hoods Up" were being pressed on white labels and introducing something new to the British bass ecosystem. While it was clearly influenced by garage, it was also a reaction to the smoother, slightly older sound, and the MCs who were about to emerge had something to say.
Dizzee’s beats sounded unmistakably DIY. Rude. That was a big part of their appeal. And while they echoed garage, they also had something of the soulful quality of the Southern hip-hop sounds of artists like UGK, from Houston, Texas. But there was way more going on here than instrumental grime, as great as a lot of that was. Other MCs were loud, big and bassy, but Dizzee’s vocals were higher, subtler and more expressive. He had the kind of voice that comes along rarely and sounded to me like an instrument he would be able to build a career on. It was that memorable and distinctive. Dizzee himself hated his own voice, considering it squeaky. Those possessed of a truly special gift always doubt it.
It’s hard to recall a first listen to any song having quite as dramatic an impact on me as this. "I Luv U" was clearly a product of someone’s gut instinct, and of their frustrations, and yet I knew that it had taken the UK more than 20 years to get to this moment. The icing on the cake was that Dizzee seemed to have included a girl’s voice on the record and, wait a minute ... did she just call him a prick? We were hearing realistic boy–girl dialogue, a window into a human relationship, in a way that I hadn’t quite heard prior to this. Dizzee was creating what could clearly be an entirely new day for British music. The start of something.
In my first meeting with Dizzee he turned up wearing Nike ski gloves and accompanied by man-mountain manager Nick Denton, aka Cage, who was not only an excellent producer in his own right but someone who could make sure his artists got paid by dodgy and potentially dangerous rave promoters. Cage asked smart questions. Dizzee hardly spoke. He listened to my answers and it was clear to me that his bullshit detector was switched on to high. Dizzee was not a gangster but he was from the streets of Bow E3, and he was alert to lies and deception. He seemed to want to see if I was on the level. I felt like he was peering into my soul, and that was fine, because my belief in him was real and I was with him as soon as I heard "I Luv U".
He wasn’t alone on his journey. Apart from Cage, Dizzee’s spiritual big brother Wiley had been preparing him for this moment. Wiley was a second-generation soundman, his dad having owned a reggae system, and another producer of exceptional originality. Wiley and Riddles’ sets on Deja Vu, when they started to veer away from standard garage lyrics and speak more about their lives, had provided boyhood inspiration to Dizzee. Wiley was the founder and ringleader of the Roll Deep crew and a magnet for all the talent that was just about to emerge from east London.
There was some heat building around Dizzee and Wiley, but the record industry as a whole had not quite cottoned on to the potential of what they were doing. They were performing in clubs and raves such as the infamously lively Sidewinder and had also managed to get booked to perform together as a support act for Jay-Z at Wembley Arena. Nick Huggett and I went to see that performance and show our support. Afterwards we saw them in the backstage parking area. As Dizzee got into his Fiat Punto to leave after their slightly tentative performance, he flashed me an irresistible grin and said, "Let’s do some business."
When I got home from Wembley that evening to find Esta tucked up in bed with the telly on and a pack of Revels on the go, I said that I was hopeful that we were going to sign Dizzee and Wiley, and how excited I was about that prospect. Perhaps sensing that I was setting myself up for disappointment if this didn’t pan out, she said that presumably these things were unpredictable and I would have to be able to deal with it if they ended up signing to someone else. The maturity of her response puzzled me. I remember thinking that no part of me would be all right with that. It was going to prove crucial for my own development as a person that I began to see things in the more accepting way that Esta did. I was going to have to realise that I was not in control of situations like this, and that things would unfold as was intended. But I was not there yet. For now, I just wanted to work with this exceptionally talented crew, and nothing else would do. Happily, they were up for that too.
XL unusually committed to not one but three albums initially, a "three firm" deal: a Dizzee album, a Wiley album, and a Roll Deep compilation. I recently mentioned to DJ Target, now one of the leading figures in British urban music as a DJ and A&R man, and at that time a member of Roll Deep himself, that it’s a shame that this compilation album never came to exist. He said it was the first he’d ever heard of it. There was an element of chaos in the proceedings which contributed to the energy. The first two fruits of the deal, Wiley’s Treddin’ On Thin Ice and Dizzee’s Boy In Da Corner, were both classics. The potential of these two artists was obvious to those in the know, but on a wider level anything perceived as UK rap carried a lot of baggage, so there was more resistance to both and far less support from the wider music industry than I had imagined. No matter. We were all on a mission. We wanted the world, or at the very least the whole UK, to experience this music and take it to their hearts.