Eye on the Prize 

British rapper—and Harvard topic—Dizzee Rascal takes on America with Showtime.

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In the real world, awards don’t rate that high—somewhere between finding money in the laundry and a really good nap. The Sally Field “You really like me!” ego-stroke is nice, and there’s usually an open bar at the ceremony. But outside of a small circle of people, awards have as much merit as Dubya’s Social Security pyramid scheme. If Julia Roberts suddenly decided to quit acting and apply for a corporate job, do you think “Oscar winner” would even show up on her résumé? And there are probably thousands of once-famous guys working at insurance companies that have a Grammy sitting on the mantel back home.

Even young phenoms like British rapper and 2003 Mercury Prize winner Dizzee Rascal know that awards don’t really mean much. Sure, at the time, being singled out as that year’s most innovative musician in England was a huge moment for the then 19-year-old. Every critic on the planet had already gushed over his debut disc, Boy In Da Corner, and he’d racked up a couple hits in his homeland. So the high-profile award was like Rascal’s official seal of success. Yet he also knew that, a decade later, only real music geeks—the kind who would rather dump their girlfriends than give up their iPods—would even remember it.

But the fact that one of his songs, “I Luv U,” is now required listening for a music class at Harvard, specifically, The History and Aesthetics of Popular Music Since the 1960s: Well, that’s special.

“Oh, that’s big, now, innit?” Rascal says, his heavy East London brogue covering his words like gravy. “I don’t really know what to say. Wow, that’s big.”

Even bigger than winning the Mercury Prize?

“Winning the Mercury Prize was a big moment for me. A real big moment. But I really didn’t even know what it was three years previous. Everybody knows Harvard.”

And maybe now everyone will take British hip-hop a little more seriously. For years English rappers have had about as much street cred as a squirt gun—and maybe rightfully so. When shoved up against their American counterparts, most sounded like cheap Xeroxes with funny accents and twitch-inducing beats. Mike Skinner changed all that. The Streets’ mastermind not only proved that the English have a superior mastery of the mother tongue, interlocking rhymes like Shakespeare at a poetry slam, but he also showed that the British didn’t have to play by America’s rules. Skinner doesn’t rap endlessly about guns and bravado. He’s all about PlayStation, pot, pints and playing football. He’s the drunk at a pub-crawl, not a playa on the prowl. And that alone was enough to give the English their dignity back.

Rascal obliterated any remaining doubters. Jay-Z to Skinner’s Eminem, he’s more urban poet than emcee. With a flow like a tweaker with a deviated septum, he renders his surroundings in shockingly vivid detail. On Boy In Da Corner, he captured the side of England the Queen never sees. “Emcee’s better start chatting about what’s really happening,” he warned on “Brand New Day,” before going through the normal laundry list of drugs, guns, girls and the bleak life of the streets, while also tackling more thought-provoking meditations on teen pregnancy and political failures.

On his sophomore disc, last year’s Showtime (XL), Rascal had a more-worldly take on things. He spent some time answering all the backlash naysayers that inevitably sprung up—see the mind-decimating “Respect Me”—but he also dropped songs like “Dream.” A motivational lullaby, it’s the kind of song most U.S. rappers wouldn’t even understand. Beats chirp and jingle like a computerized version of A Charlie Brown Christmas. A kiddie choir handles the chorus. And Rascal oozes eternal optimism and shockingly simple platitudes—he literally says, “You can go far if you put your mind to it”—inside his complex rhymes.

“With a song like ‘Dream,’ I wanted to show my range,” Rascal says. “I didn’t want to make the same sort of songs as I did with Boy In Da Corner. I’ve seen a bit of the world. I’ve had some success. I’m not the same person that I was even a year ago, and I wanted to say something different.”

Yet Rascal knows that—at least outside of Harvard—different for him still means foreign to most Americans. His grimy production can put off some hip-hop diehards looking for truck bumps. And his thick Cockney really should come with a decoder ring. All that makes him a tough sell here in the States—something he understands all too well.

“I can step outside of my artist role and producer role and see what other people see,” he says. “And if people are comfortable with one thing, you can’t force them to switch over. … But breaking America, and really the world over, is something that’s worth doing. My music is universal. It touches someone from everywhere. White, black, Asian, different cultures, different economic classes—I’ve got something for everyone.”

DIZZEE RASCAL Lo-Fi Café, 127 S. West Temple, Friday April 8, 7:30 p.m. 800-888-8499

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Jeff Inman

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