To mark its 17th anniversary, we revisit an essential blueprint of grime.
It was the 21st of May, 2001. The Brixton garage crew DJ Pied Piper And The Masters Of Ceremonies had just delivered their new single, Do You Really Like It? It was a hit. Six days after its release, the single had sold 148,000 units, placing DJ Pied Piper And The Masters Of Ceremonies at number one on the UK singles chart.
The success of "Do You Really Like It?" was just one of many victories for garage in the early 2000s. Dominating the dance charts and nightclubs with their champagne lyrics, Avirex jackets and Moschino jeans, garage artists had made it clear to Britain that they were not leaving our airwaves any time soon.
As fun and bubbly as it was, though, UK garage failed to capture feelings of frustration and angst amongst inner-city youth, serving more as a form of escapism than a reflection of reality. That may be why, five months after the release of "Do You Really Like It?," a young Black teenager from Bow would take it upon himself to record one of the most important albums in the history of British music.
Before discussing Boy In Da Corner, it's important to acknowledge this sound that was brewing in the London underground scene from late 2001 to 2003. Garage had taken a darker turn in production style and lyrical content. Across the road from all the flashy raves, there was a new club making a little bit of noise, one less about Moschino peace signs and more about what was happening in the streets of London. MCs were putting down their fresh leather jackets for Akademiks' tracksuits and swapping their comical cadence for a ghastlier one. This wasn't the garage the UK had fallen in love with. What had happened? Well, garage was morphing into what we now call grime.
"Grimey garage," or what Wiley had dubbed "eskibeat," had settled itself in the East London, home to four of the city's most deprived boroughs, and some of the scenes most important MCs. One of those MCs was Dizzee Rascal.
It's easy to call Boy In Da Corner a grime album. It didn't fit the criteria of garage, nor was it like any kind of hip-hop that had been released until that point. By the time Boy In Da Corner dropped in 2003, Dizzee had already established himself as an MC through pirate radio stations that played a lot of grime. Still, it wouldn't be fair to frame Boy In Da Corner purely as a grime album. None hit the genre's standard tempo of 140 BPM—one of the things that made it distinctly separate from garage. Instead, Boy In Da Corner borrows sounds from all over the musical spectrum. Tracks like "Brand New Day" are Dizzee's attempt at mimicking the melodies heard on the soundtracks of Kung Fu films he had grown up on. "Jus' a Rascal" feels like his response to Eminem's "Cleanin' Out My Closet," only more intense, with the high-pitched vocals on the chorus feeling almost operatic.
As well as being one of the more innovative hits from the grime scene, "I Luv U" is a great example of Dizzee using his production skills to give a track more life. It begins with Jeanine Jaques stuttering "I Love You," implying the phrase holds weight. As the track progresses, though, we hear the word repeated over and over again, slowly losing its meaning in the process. This reflects the point Dizzee is making about young men who fail to understand the depth of the phrase, leading them into situations they're not prepared for. "Hold Ya Mouf" goes for a more comic effect, with God's Gift rhyming his entire verse to the sound of somebody cocking a gun alongside Raskit's irony-filled chorus. Dizzee doesn't hesitate to use sound to enhance his storytelling, something that can be seen throughout Boy In Da Corner and his future projects.
One of the things that had separated Boy In Da Corner from a lot of early grime records was its thematically intricate structure. As the album progresses, we see a clear growth in character from the Dizzee we meet in the first track. The bleak opener, "Sittin' Here," makes subtle references to multiple songs that appear later in the album. For instance, in the second verse, where Dizzee recalls a time when "girls were innocent," a topic he explores more in depth on "Jezebel," a tale about a young truant "born offtrack" who slowly sees herself become more promiscuous, consequently leading her to birth two fatherless children, a similar introduction to life that Jezebel herself had received. This is an example of a motif that runs throughout the Boy In Da Corner: circles. Dizzee explores the cyclical nature of his world on "Round We Go." The line "ain't no love round here, it's just one big cycle here" feels relevant across the album.
The first half of Boy In Da Corner sees Dizzee explore a number of issues he faces in his community, but it's not until the final track, "Do It!," that he presents any solutions. Here Dizzee shows clear signs of emotional intelligence, acknowledging how he feels in more depth than he does in the album's first half. The song begins with the same neurotic tone as "Sittin Here": "Life's pressures often get me down / Sometimes I feel there's not a lot to smile about so I frown." This echoes the lines on the second verse of "Stop Dat": "Got a screwface all night, all day." But this time we see a Dizzee go from explaining what he feels to why. We also see Dizzee begin to introduce ideas of hope in the chorus: "If you wanna get through it, stretch your mind to the limit, you can do it." By now he's dropped the pessimistic attitude of "Sittin' Here" ("There's no sign of positive change") and replaced it with a healthier way of thinking.
The emotional vulnerability on Boy In Da Corner revolutionised grime, making it more thematically versatile. It showed the young, hyper-masculine MCs that they didn't have to make music only for raves and pirate radio—they could use their music to critique their reality and acknowledge their traumas, something that, in Dizzee's words, made MCs "start chatting about what's really happening." Unsurprisingly, it was a huge success, selling 250,000 copies and making Dizzee Rascal the youngest artist to win the Mercury Prize, and tipping off record industry heads to what was happening in the underground. 17 years on, Boy In Da Corner exists as a blueprint for grime.
Tue / 21 Jul 2020
02. Stop Dat
03. I Luv U
04. Brand New Day
05. 2 Far
06. Fix Up, Look Sharp
07. Cut 'Em Off
08. Hold Ya Mouf
09. Round We Go
10. Jus A Rascal
11. Wot U On
13. Seems 2 Be
14. Live O
15. Do It