On the track "Pussy'ole (Old Skool)," UK MC/producer Dizzee Rascal samples the classic break from Lyn Collins' "Think (About It)," made most famous by Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock''s 1988 club hit "It Takes Two." But for Rascal, who brought the Grime genre to international attention with 2003's Boy in Da Corner, it's now actually taken three—albums, that is—as his latest, Maths + English, is the East London MC''s most accessible and Americanized (even if it had a hard time getting Transatlantic). Originally released on XL Recordings in the UK during Summer 2007, and now domestically with three US bonus tracks on Definitive Jux. Maths + English is part densely bundled bangers and part abstract atmospheres. Calling from his hotel room prior to a performance at the 2008 SXSW showcase in Austin, Texas, the former rave and pirate radio MC offers a glimpse into his creative process with production partner Cage.
What was your main production goal going into Maths + English?
I wanted this album to be punchy, to stand out sonically bigger. As well as buying new compressors for the vocals, I spent longer on the tracks. There are tracks that took months to make—going back, going back.
To get that weight, how did you flip things up?
We started out buying a new studio, put a lot more in it. With this album, I wanted to work more on the takes, building the beats.
Did any particular gear shape the sound?
We used an Apple Mac G5 running Logic 7, RME Fireface 800 audio interface, TL Audio VTC 32-channel console and Neuman TLM 103 and Sony C800G mics. And we went to this place in North London where the compressor was the same as on the Eminem album. American hip-hop compared to anywhere around the world has the vocals above the music; it sounds bigger.
Why''d you go for bigger dynamics?
I wanted it for rolling around in your car, something you could bang the arse out of. The first two [albums], there are down moments, but the new one you could have a party, too. [Maths + English] started as a bunch of songs, to be fair, very down and reflective, but then I had to let go and come again, make it more exciting. If I hadn''t it would have been more like Showtime 2. Three songs were pretty similar, so I knew I needed a change. Between me and Cage, we knew there was nothing you could jam to; you could listen, but nothing that made you get ignorant. Then 'Sirens' hit us first, that was where we knew it was raw.
You worked with Texas duo UGK on the track "Where's da G's." Were you feeling Southern hip-hop before that because of that same realness?
Yeah, but not all of it. You have the crunk, snap thing and it ain't much to it, cute isn't it. But UGK it's quite mature with organ, guitar, old black folk music for hip-hop, really spiritual.
Did you plan the track differently because you planned to put UGK on it?
No, by the time I thought of putting them on there the track was almost done, but I just fuckin' knew I heard Bun B could be on it, because it could be done double time, bounce. And he''s versatile.
Did you switch up the mix once you had Bun B's verses lined up?
With 'Where's da G's,' I did it on Logic in my bedroom before anything. Then it went to the proper studio, we fucked around with it, put my vocals on it, then sent it to Bun. Then when it came to later on closer to the album, we gave it the proper mixdown.
Do you start with a specific sound set when you're producing?
If I'm in the big studio, I just get the engineer to call up a load of sounds. Me, I start with drums. I'm not a person too fussed about how I make it or what I use to make it.
What were you going for with the old-school jungle soul of "Da Feelin'?"
I didn't produce that track [Shy FX did]. I just knew it had spirit, with the Peabo Bryson vibe, the Kanye West chipmunk sample thing, too. A lot of elements.
Do you spend a lot of time adapting a track?
There are some tracks that are really good, but my voice might not suit it, so if I can't get the vibe, I have to let it go.
What type of track suits you best?
I need tracks that aren't too polluted; I like to skip in between tracks so I like minimal stuff, stuff with space.
When do you like to put your part down?
Normally, when the beats is done, but the hook they might need to add a bit for the thing. When I'm laying a vocal on a track I like it when it's pretty much finished. But sometimes a track might need more, I can hear the vision and do the rest later or get a producer.
When you work with outside producers what do you look for in a track?
I want other producers to come up with something I couldn't, but I have to feel it like my own; I have to wish I made it, so that I'll say, 'Oh shit, I want to do something on it.'
What are some examples of those 'oh shit' moments?
Sometimes it's drums; sometimes it's clever stuff people did with the music. On ['Pussy'ole (Old Skool)'], I tried to do that first, using a Lynn Collins break with 'Popcorn' samples, but I didn't know what to do. I had lyrics, but it wasn't cutting it. I left Cage with that one and he picked it up and made it come together. That was months before Cage did his thing, but then he added the synths and the [Galactic Force Band] 'Space Dust' sample; then I was really on it.
When you feel a beat, do you lay down your thing right in the studio?
If there's been a beat made there, I will take it away and rap on it. I don't like working in the studio unless it's a third verse I might. But I like to do it on my own.
Is there anything you do prefer in the studio?
I don't like a crowded studio. Most of the time it's me and the engineer, or me and Cage. It's not a bunch of people drinking and smoking weed.
Do you ask for anyone else's opinion on whether a track is finished?
Sometimes I might perform it, to get a real perspective from the crowd, as there's no more honest answer.
Do you do any production on the road?
When I'm traveling the laptop is a big fuckin' iPod. I don't lug the keyboard. I've got one of those USB MIDI ones. But when traveling, I'm more likely to write lyrics than music.
What's your dynamic like producing with Cage?
He's someone who's slow and refined and has attention to detail, while me I like to just catch the moment, keep the flow in the studio. So we complement each other.
And if you could work with anyone else in the future, who would it be?
Timbaland, Dr. Dre, [Three 6 Mafia's] DJ Paul and Juicy J—they inspire me the most with the production and the double time.
Photo by TONE