Teenager Dylan Mills, aka Dizzee Rascal, captured the headlines this year by winning the UK's Mercury Music Prize with one of the most uncompromising albums of recent times. Dizzee and engineer/manager Cage describe how they made Boy In Da Corner.
The story of Dizzee Rascal's recent rise to fame sounds a bit like the plot for a Hollywood movie. As an almost unknown 18-year-old (he's now 19), he won the coveted Mercury Music Prize, beating off competition from internationally successful acts like Coldplay and Radiohead. What's more, it turns out that the award-winning album, Boy In Da Corner, is a self-produced work — made, by major label standards, on a budget of virtually nothing.
Most of the programming and recording on Boy In Da Corner took place at his engineer/manager Cage's Belly Of The Beast Studios in London, but the album was mixed at Kenwood residential studio in a leafy suburb of Sheffield, where I met Dizzee and Cage. Despite being acutely camera-shy (which is why he doesn't appear in these photos!), Cage has been a guiding force in Dizzee's career for many years. Cage himself is modest about his role: "I just engineer his stuff really," he says. Dizzee is a little more specific: "He's in charge of all the Pro Tools programming and he sorts out all the new sounds on the computer — he keeps everything in check." Slightly more revealing are the credits for the Boy In Da Corner album, which declare Cage as "Da best manager an artist could dream of havin."
In his joint role as engineer and manager, Cage has been able to help Dizzee preserve the most raw and honest aspects of his music, by shielding him from the meddling influences of unsympathetic A&R reps. "There are a lot of major labels out there who work to templates and formulas," insists Cage, "and that's worth avoiding unless you are happy and willing to slot straight into that role. When 'I Luv U' was originally released some time ago, a lot of label people told us that it was a great track, but then they asked if we could take this or that bit out. If they knew what this kind of music is about and they knew what they were doing then they would know to just leave it, and they would probably have a factory producing this kind of thing!
"It takes a while to get what you want in this business, but it is worth waiting. We talked to a lot of label people, and spent a lot of time with them: It's not just a matter of having a short meeting where they are telling you how great it all is and how much money they are going to give you you have to look past that."
By the time XL Recordings decided to sign Dizzee, he and Cage were already in a position to release Boy In Da Corner on their own Dirtee Stank Productions label. "If people were not willing to take it just as it is then we would have forgotten them and just put it out ourselves," reveals Cage. Fortunately, XL had the foresight to leave Dizzee's music untouched, and they came up with an attractive sub-licensing deal to boot. Cage: "Just as it is with Badly Drawn Boy, and most of the people on the XL label, we have a licensing deal, although it's a long-term one. The basic plus point with XL is that we retain artistic control, and everything defaults to the artist in the event of a dispute, which is almost unheard of! We wouldn't have got that kind of deal with a major label.
"There are a whole load of demands made of an artist besides writing tunes, such as the making of videos and promotion, but you have to do what comes naturally, and if you've gained your reputation through the underground, why change? You've got to build a solid base from the underground, and you have got to keep that, otherwise you'll have burnt your bridges. Then you'd better hope the pop thing works out, although it probably won't because on a large-scale project you have to sell about 750,000 albums to make it financially viable!"
The Mercury Prize was undoubtedly a huge boost to Dizzee's career, and it has offered him the chance to break into the mainstream music market, but Dizzee has been building a reputation on the UK underground urban music scene for several years. In fact, an early version of the third track on the album, 'I Luv U', had previously been a massive hit on the underground. "That track was made a long, long time ago," says Cage, "but only a couple of DJs had it on dub plate. It took a while for people to get used to it. There are a lot ideas in there and the beat alone was a fresh thing for the scene, but on top of that, the whole song was very different."
"DJ Slimzee from Rinse FM was the one who made it big," adds Dizzee. "He totally broke the tune," agrees Cage, "and then people realised it was an excellent tune to MC over. But it was a long time before it grabbed the attention of the next level of journalists, and spread beyond the scene. That was really a calling card, and lots of labels started to come forward after hearing it."
Although he is now recognised for his rapping (or spitting) skills, Dizzee started out as a DJ as much as anything else, providing the backing for practising MCs to rap over. "I must have started mixing jungle records when I was around 13 or 14," he explains. "The people around me were doing the MC'ing, but all the time I was learning about how rap music fitted together: I was having to keep track of the sounds, I was learning to bring things in after 16 or 32 bars or whatever, and all the time I was hearing how the vocals were fitting in with the rhythm.
"I was about 15 years old when I started spitting, and by that time the knowledge of how to do it was already in me. I knew it was important to come with my own style, so at first I broke things down into simple rhymes, but I was still spitting fast because of the garage influence — so I learnt to do the hard thing first!"
By the time Dizzee met Cage, he had already recorded a couple of tracks in another studio, and those were doing the rounds on the London's urban music scene. "I didn't have a manager then," explains Dizzee, "I was doing my own thing, but my MC friend Wylie introduced me to a guy called Danny S, who had a studio in Greenwich. I didn't know how to use a sampler back then, and I didn't have one, I just used whatever was in the studio. I wasn't too fussed about the technical side, but I knew what I wanted to hear, so I would bring in CDs with bass lines and drum loops that I wanted to use, and I'd let the studio engineers load it all into the computer. The whole time I was recording there, Cage had his studio around the corner, although I didn't know him at the time."
It wasn't long before Dizzee found himself visiting Cage's studio to provide some vocal work for a new track. "Cage had made the beat for this track already," says Dizzee, "but I had a vocal hook and a lyric for it. It went from there, and I just moved studios. I was 16 at the time."
Cage provides some more detail. "I had a programming suite called Belly Of The Beast in a commercial block of studios. Back then it was in Bermondsey, in South London, and Dizzee was building beats two doors away, but on that occasion he was pulled in especially for this tune. From my perspective it was immediately obvious that, unlike a lot of people, he was really switched on, and knew what he wanted to do straight away. He was also really interested in everything. A lot of people come into the studio, sit in the corner, do their vocal and then leave, but Diz was up and about, asking questions, and grabbing controls on the desk."
Another aspect of Dizzee's character which immediately impressed Cage was his ear for an original sound. "Normally, kids come in and ask for the sound on this or that artist's record, or they want this week's bass or drum sound, which is obviously boring, but for some reason Diz always wanted something different, whatever horrible, distorted, industrial 909 kick-drum sound it was at the time."
In the aftermath of Dizzee's Mercury Music Prize victory, many press reports focussed their attention on the mentoring role of Dizzee's Langdon Park School music teacher, Mr Smith, who received a credit in the Boy In Da Corner sleeve notes.
"He didn't really have a lot to do with my music," explains Dizzee, "he just gave me time. I had moved from another school to that school, and, by then, I could use a computer, but the music department allowed me to use a recording setup which included a little mixer and Cubase software, and that made it possible to record my ideas to Minidisc. I just started using the sounds that were already in Cubase, or whatever came off the PC soundcards.
"A few times I used a lovely little studio across the road, which the school sent me to. That was the first time I was in a proper studio, but I never really got to touch the equipment. I had already built the beats on the computer at school so it was just a matter of taking them over to the studio to add the vocals."
One thing that makes Boy In Da Corner particularly unusual is the way that Dizzee has used very raw and unprocessed synth sounds to form the body of his compositions. Dizzee explains how he makes his extreme selections. "The reason I use those kind of sounds is because I've always liked jungle. When people moved onto the garage thing I thought it was all too nice-sounding, and I didn't really get into it. I was still into jungle, and even now I still have a bit of that in me, as you can hear from the bass line in 'Wot U On'."
"The 'Wot U On' pounding bass was done with the most horrible bass sounds known to man," laughs Cage, "straight out of a Studio Electronics ATC1. Diz just said 'Give me that sound,' the minute he heard it. I noticed that he wanted to use the really nasty drum kit sounds too!"
Dizzee remains adamant that using uncompromising sounds is a vital aspect of his music: "I think it's really important that you shouldn't be afraid to use something if you like it, no matter how f**ked the sound, because it might be just the thing the tune needs. I just instinctively know that certain drums will sound good together with certain bass sounds or synths, but it all depends on what else you have chosen.
"Some people process sounds too much, but to me, that defeats the object. For example, a lot of people would have got rid of the oriental-sounding shamisen part which goes on all the way through 'Brand New Day', but I felt that it was a really interesting sound, which didn't remind me of anything else. So I like using the sounds that are about as 'out there' as they come."
When asked, Cage is reluctant to say exactly where the sounds came from on Boy In Da Corner, although he does offer some clues. "In terms of the sounds on that record, it's a mixture of all sorts, but it's not really samples. We have used samples for certain sounds, although was usually just for the odd beat. A lot of the sounds we used are easily found out there in popular sound modules. We've used Emu modules, and there is an MPC60 MkII in the studio, but people should just try stuff out and see what happens. There is no substitute for a good idea!"
It becomes evident from speaking to Dizzee for just a short period of time that he is quite obsessed with the idea of getting the tune done and dusted in the most immediate and direct way possible. When, for example, Cage explains that some tunes can be done with just one bit of kit, Dizzee quickly adds "That's it! Most of the tunes are done that way!" Dizzee is equally keen to point out how little time he spends arranging the drum and bass parts of his tracks. "I'm good with drum patterns, and I find it very easy to make or lay down a beat. Once I hear a sound that I like, that's it. When it's quite a minimal track, I can do the beat in a matter of seconds. There might still be a bit more work to be done, and I might try one or two ideas, but why spend a day on one tune when you can do four?"
"Some people spend a day on one beat," adds Cage, "but 'I Luv U' was made in about half an hour. You can program things to death, but, I can't say it enough, there is no substitute for having a good idea in the first place."
Cage explains how the basis of the tracks were created: "Dizzee played the drums straight into Logic Audio's MIDI sequencer. He usually plays the kick, hi-hat and snare all in one go, to create the main beat. Those elements are the minimum requirements for one of Dizzee's main beats. In any one pass he likes to play in a four-bar part, a little fill, or an eight straight away. Obviously, we can add little bits at any time, but in terms of programming after that, it is just a matter of quantising the playing. We don't really start looking into editing because as far as we're concerned, it's played, done and it works.
"Before recording the lyrics, we work out where this and that element of the composition needs to be added, so by the time we start recording vocals, everything else is done, and we don't need to add anything. It's important to get the bed of the track done properly so that Dizzee can get the right feeling on the vocal."
On many of the tracks on Boy In Da Corner there are dual vocal parts, sometimes tracked by Dizzee, and elsewhere by guest MCs. In many places, the vocal interplay is quite complicated and impressive. Cage offers his thoughts on Dizzee's vocal arrangement talents. "The first thing that impressed me when I met Diz was that he knew exactly how he wanted to produce his vocals the minute he went into the studio. I've never met a vocalist who has been able to say 'I want to do this bit to here, come off the back of that beat or vocal there, then have a gap of two bars here.' He then gets on with it and fills it all in."
Dizzee offers us some insight into his approach to vocal arrangement. "When I am building a track I try to view it from an MC's perspective, so I bear in mind what I will be doing when I am MC'ing over the top. Basically, I keep the track a minimal as I can. Similarly, when I'm writing or working out the lyrics I always have the beat in mind, so I think it's fair to say that I perfect my writing at the same time as I perfect my beats, and because I am thinking about everything at the same time, it all fits together. It's logical, like maths really. I've heard that you use the same part of your brain for maths as you do for music.
"Sometimes I work out the vocals by performing the rap to some other beat while I'm sitting at home. I'll be spacing out the patterns, saying it all to myself, over and over again until I know where I am in each part of the track, so I am rehearsing it before I get on the mic. Even if it is just for 10 minutes, I make sure that by the time I get in the studio, I have it all implanted in my mind, and I know that this bit needs to go there, and this bit needs to go here. There might be a 16- or 32-bar intro before I come in, then I'll spit 16 bars, followed by an eight-bar chorus, and then another 16-bar verse; so I space it out like that. I can't say where I get that inspiration from, though — who knows? I just love mucking around with vocals."
According to Cage, to ensure that the tracks on Boy In Da Corner had the most unconsciously direct vocal performance, the takes that were eventually used were quite often the very first ones. Dizzee explains how he managed to get such complicated vocal parts right in the first pass. "I'm used to MC'ing on pirate radio, where I'm spitting and shouting my mouth off for two hours, so working in the studio is not a long thing for me. I can just go in there and do it straight off."
To record the vocals, a Neumann TLM103 large-diaphragm condenser mic was fed into a Drawmer 1960 mic preamp/compressor. "On the way in I used heavy compression, but nothing else," explains Cage. "I had the compressor set with a fast attack, a short release, and I just tweaked the ratio and threshold depending on how open the track needed to be."
Like all the other elements of his music, Dizzee's lyrics are direct and unapologetic. "Basically, I don't give a shit what I should or shouldn't say," he explains. "I rap what needs to be said, although I know that can be a problem to some people. I might come across as being ignorant on one track, or understanding on another, but it is good to have a variation of personalities between songs. I won't go back and mess with it once it's done, it is in its purest form. The music is uncompromising in itself so there is no point trying to edit anything out. Sometimes a track's just about being clever with the rhythms and beats, but there is always a fusion between the beat and the lyrics, so if I feel angry it will have an angry beat and background. Sometimes it's just a subconscious process."
One of the strongest features of Dizzee's music is his very English pronunciation, which is refreshing to hear when so many UK artists Americanise their vocals to ape the style of their peers. Dizzee: "I thought it would be heavy to sound English. I listen to a lot of US hip-hop, and I know that is how they talk in real life, but a lot of UK hip-hop doesn't do that. My influence are from jungle, and many of those artists still keep their English accent, and I respected that. I always wanted to sound like me on a track. I think it is good to sound like yourself: sometimes I am doing a bit of role play, like in 'Jezebel' I am telling a story, but I am still coming across as me. I think the best artists keep their personality. Also, doing everything that surrounds the music business is hard enough, without having to keep up an act."
By the time XL signed Dizzee, most of the material for Boy In Da Corner was written, but many songs still needed to be finished or recorded properly. A fairly tight completion deadline was then set by XL, so Dizzee and Cage immediately headed up to Sheffield to finish things off at Kenwood Studios. "From the time we signed the deal with XL it was a total frenzy to finish the album," explains Cage. "The studio that we were in was chaotic because people were always walking in and out. That sort of environment is a good thing when you are writing, but it is not what you need when you need to mix a record down in two weeks! Another problem was that we'd been listening to everything on big subs, which sounded really nice, but at Kenwood they have reference monitors and a really neutral room, so we also came here to make sure it was all clear at the sub-bass level."
The first thing that the team needed to do before they got started at Kenwood was gather all the relevant materials necessary to put the album together. Some of the songs, like the aforementioned 'I Luv U', had already been released, either as white label discs, or on Dizzee's own Dirtee Stank label. Other material, however, hadn't made it past the MIDI stage, and needed to be recorded pretty quickly. Cage: "A lot of this stuff wasn't recorded as audio when it was originally done because we didn't have the equipment, so just before coming here we were still having to bounce the parts in off the synths. These days, as soon as we decide something is done, we just bounce it in straight away."
Apart from the MIDI problems, there were also a few tracks that still required vocal recording, including 'Do It!', 'Jus' A Rascal' and certain parts of 'Jezebel'. The Kenwood vocal booth was used for those parts.
All the mixing was done by Dizzee and Cage, although both were keen to point out that it was judged by ear, rather than using any formal studio techniques. "The only thing I went by was how it should sound," explains Dizzee. "I'm sure techno or electro people have their techniques for how to make this or that sound, but this sort of thing comes from inside me, and if it is natural then you don't have to be too technical. Cage knows how things should sound as well."
"We're both on the same wavelength," adds Cage, "and I know how he will want something to sound because that is how I will want it to sound. But we were always trying to create atmosphere, space and feeling in the tracks. If, for example, a song has a certain feel because of the lyrical theme, then it might just be a case of putting an effect on the voice to create the right feeling. It's a matter of getting the production to match the song, so if it's an angry song, we might make it sound harder and dryer, and give it a little more distortion, but we weren't working to any formula."
The one thing that both Dizzee and Cage were specific about is the impact that the sub-bass should have. "It's very important," states Dizzee, and Cage agrees: "In my opinion, the basic rule for any dance music or rhythmic music worth its salt is that the drums and bass need to be as big as you can make them, because they are key."
In terms of equipment, very few of the Kenwood facilities were needed. An Apple G4 running Logic Audio, and fitted with a Mackie UAD1 PCI card, provided 16 digital outputs which fed the Yamaha 02R desk. Nevertheless, the Yamaha was used for monitoring and submixing duties. "All I was doing was using its digital inputs for submixing to DAT," explains Cage. "All the mixing was done on the G4, basically. The main effects we used were from a TC Powercore."
Boy In Da Corner is such a raw and honest record that it stands out from much of the competition which is, all too often, watered down to appeal to global markets. Whether Dizzee will continue making similarly uncompromising records, now that he has more time, money and artistic clout, remains to be seen, but his follow-up will certainly be eagerly awaited. At the time of our interview, Dizzee and Cage were already well into the production of the new project, and Dizzee was very happy to explain some of his ideas. "There are some tracks that didn't make it onto the first album, and I've been thinking about some things I didn't get a chance to say, so the next one will be carrying on the momentum from Boy In Da Corner. But a lot of the stuff is new and I may be coming back with some music you wouldn't expect me to be making, like ragga. It will definitely be larger-sounding because I am more advanced, vocally and lyrically, and I'm making some bigger beats which are more out-there.
"I've got my own little Pro Tools system now alongside the main computer, so now I have a bit more time to do this second album, I'm getting more involved in the computer side of things. Pro Tools is like another little world — there is so much in there! It's a bit like the first time I went from using a little mixer and Cubase to a proper studio. And now I am working with Pro Tools, and a lot of people my age don't even get to see that. I love mucking around with new sounds, new equipment, new ways of spitting, and new ideas. Making music is almost therapy."