The UK rapper Dizzee Rascal talks about beating the Americans at their own game.
Dizzee Rascal takes a break in Abu Dhabi
"I'm having a break at the moment, recharging my batteries a bit." Dizzee Rascal sounds surprisingly relaxed, speaking on a snowy London winter morning. But it can't be much of a break if you're headlining a festival in Abu Dhabi later in the week? He laughs. "Well I'm not doing too much else. When they said, 'Do you want to do Abu Dhabi?' I thought I have to, because I've never been out there, and I don't know when it's going to come up again."
Tonight's Creamfields festival at the Yas Arena aside, Dizzee, now 25, is clearly enjoying some time off, not touring or recording or doing promotional activities, after four albums and one of the most unlikely rises to stardom British music has seen. "This is my first long break in nine or 10 years or something" he says, slightly wearily. Having made his name via London's underground "grime" scene, he's pretty happy with his increasingly global success. "I've been all across Europe, South America, America, Australia, New Zealand, Japan. I've never been to Abu Dhabi, but I've been to Dubai before: I like the Arab world a lot."
The musical journey Dizzee has been on since his career began is as dramatic as his journey from council estates in east London to headlining global festivals.
In 2002 Dizzee was part of the explosion of new club music in some of London's poorer boroughs that came to be called grime: a fusion of Jamaican reggae influences, American hip-hop, and London's recent dance genres, most notably UK garage. Despite being only 16, his vocal talents - by turns volatile, poignant, and witty - quickly saw him rise to notoriety, and he became an underground superstar.
It was the success of his 2003 debut album, Boy in da Corner, that brought him to wider attention: an avant-garde masterpiece which won that year's Mercury Prize.
Since then Dizzee has managed the rare act of alchemy in managing to transform critical acclaim into genuine star-power, with a litany of number one singles, arena tours, and festival headline slots to his name.
The path he's forged in the charts is now being followed by other graduates of 2003's underground grime scene, such as Tinchy Stryder, Wiley and Tinie Tempah: the past two years have seen a wholly unexpected takeover of the British pop charts by home-grown stars making r&b and hip-hop.
"I think it's amazing" he says, sounding genuinely awestruck. "I never thought I'd see black British music dominate the charts in my whole life. You've got all these people in the charts at the same time, and they aren't American - that's the crucial thing. I grew up on American music, and I used to hope we could get success like that too, but…" He tails off, remembering the old days. "And it's cool that for the next generation under us, it'll be a normal thing."
With his drastic musical progression from the bleak sounds of grime to chirpy electro-pop collaborations with Lily Allen, Calvin Harris and most recently Shakira and Cheryl Cole, his older fans have inevitably found cause to cry "sell-out", something he finds tiresome, more than anything else. He explains that times have changed, that he's not the same moody kid he was in 2003 any more - and in any case, he's still making edgy dance music.
"I did Heavy with Chase and Status this year. People complain that I only do party music now, and then when I do actually make tracks like that, they just complain anyway." His populist instincts have clearly won through - and they're rather infectious: "I just want to make something really banging again, but not underground and hard to get into. I want to make a tune to get everyone excited, to get the whole world excited."
His critics are clearly no more than a minor annoyance - the child of the underground is topping festival bills across the world, and playing the songs he wants to play: namely, a cascade of his most instantly recognisable chant-along hits - from 2003's Fix Up Look Sharp, to 2007's Sirens, to the trio of number one singles off his most recent album: Holiday, Bonkers, and Dance Wiv Me.
Do these globe-trotting party sets vary at all, or do they follow a tight formula? "Sometimes we might have a little switch around, depending on the location, but what we have works so well: a back-to-back set of bangers. Festivals are my favourite thing to do, I love festival crowds: you pretty much know they're going to be jumping around, wherever they are in the world."
Fame and money have certainly led to a change in tone, as well as a change in musical style. His early lyrics carried a sense of how far removed the poorer parts of London are from the rich and powerful - of the divisions within British society. The changes he has seen in his short career have been substantial. Last year he was happily hobnobbing with Prince Harry backstage at a festival in London's Hyde Park, but only a few years earlier was rapping "Queen Elizabeth don't know me / so how can she control me." Isn't there a contradiction there?
"That record's so old, that when I met Harry I wasn't thinking 'oh no, I made that song about his gran'. I quite enjoyed his company actually, he was a laugh - Prince William too. It's refreshing to see a couple of people that high up in stature, that you think you could probably rave with. Some of the biggest ravers I know are the richest kids I know - they've got the resources."
He goes on to enthuse about martial arts ("it's my second love after music"), and the importance of keeping his mind and body focused. His shows are energetic to the point that they're often exhausting to watch. But this is vital to his appeal, Dizzee says. "It's what helps set me apart. I'm jumping about as much as I can, and rapping at a fast pace as well, because I know that the more energy I put in, the more I'm going to get back from the crowd. It's knackering."
He checks himself, as if he's worried I might think he's complaining. "But that's OK though, because I love it."
Creamfields Abu Dhabi takes place at Yas Arena tonight. www.creamfields.ae