Wednesday night wasn’t the first time in recent years that Dizzee Rascal has revisited his Mercury Prize-winning 2003 debut, Boy In Da Corner, in full on stage. There was the New York performance in 2016, as part of the fizzy drink-funded Red Bull Music Academy, following which a public petition helped him bring the show home to Stratford a few months later. Four years after the 2012 Olympics, and the millions spent on shifting the face (and populace) of East London, the area was unrecognisable from the environs that had shaped not just the album, but the Bow boy Dizzee himself.
Back then, watching him run through Boy In Da Corner’s 15 tracks inside the Copper Box Arena, it was hard to tell how much of his heart was truly in it. Like many artists whose debut swells to the point of cultural monolith and generational touchpoint, he’d been open about not wanting to be constantly tied back to and measured against a record he’d made a near lifetime ago – particularly when, by other more empirical measures, such as record sales and chart placements, his subsequent material has been much more widely successful. This time around, however, performing to mark the album’s 20th anniversary, there was no questioning where Dizzee wanted to be: he ripped through 90 minutes and more with all the energy of a kid who can’t sit still for excitement, barely missing a beat.
Dizzee, real name Dylan Mills, has largely been out of the public eye since his 2022 conviction for (and unsuccessful appeal against) assaulting his ex-partner. Recent headlines – such as February’s reports that his song Dance Wiv Me had been removed from the government’s Coronation Celebration Playlist on Spotify – have not been the sort he would want to make. He’s decidedly more comfortable headlining shows than he is news reports. Dressed down in a black Nike tracksuit and flat peak cap, he gathered easy cheers with shout outs to the “80s and 90s babies” and bounded through the staccato one-two punch of Stop Dat and I Luv U.
This music, with its in-your-face basslines, rhythms askew, and grab-bag approach to samples and sound effects – metal clangs for snares, gunshots for rimshots, and bent, metallic vocal snippets scattered like pigeon feed – sounded so futuristic when it landed 20 years ago that, two decades on, it still hasn’t aged a bit. (Some of the lyrics, meanwhile, require a reminder that they were written by a testy teenager.)
Jus’ a Rascal seemed to make the crowd grow a few inches en masse, as the crunch of the guitars and brittle, falsetto chorus sent a collective, adolescent shiver up thousands of spines. The album closer Do It! – with its chorus urging the listener, and presumably a young Dizzee himself, to “Just pray that you see it, strong you gotta be it/ If you want to get through it, stretch your mind to the limit/You can do it” – provided an unexpectedly moving moment, bolstered by a slideshow featuring photos of fellow MCs and peers, including Esco, Stormin, Skibadee, and DJ Scholar, who’ve died over the years.
Hearing these songs performed beneath the stretched ceiling of the O2 Arena, born the Millennium Dome – that enduring symbol of hubristic New Labour boosterism – retained a bittersweet tang: Boy In Da Corner is an album as indebted to Dizzee’s unique talents as to the teacher, Tim Smith, who gave him free reign of the music room when he’d been kicked out of other classes, and to the youth clubs he honed his skills in. When Dizzee won the Mercury Prize, Smith was among the first he thanked; half of the £20,000 prize packet was donated to youth clubs in need of music gear. It’s difficult not to reflect on what’s been lost in the time since BIDC arrived with all its disarming, juvenile bravado, and ponder where the Dizzee Rascals of tomorrow might cut their teeth today, without the same support and access to that space to grow.
A brief, slightly awkward interlude followed the album track-by-track before, lights back up, Dizzee returned to fist-pump through his post-BIDC tranche of terrace-chant chart bait, including Bassline Junkie, Dance Wiv Me, Holiday and, finally, Bonkers. The transition was as brief and as awkward as it was back in the late-noughties, when Dizzee stepped out of himself and the grime scene he’d made (and that made him), to pursue pop stardom. To judge by the number of Snapchat screens that suddenly hovered above the bouncing masses, this version of Dizzee is one that chimes with a new generation of fans too. “I’ll probably be doing this, probably for ever,” goes the verse on Fix Up, Look Sharp. Dizzee, please do.