Re-visiting Dylan Mills' astonishing debut album...
'Boy In Da Corner'

Perhaps the most vital record of the early 21st century, the remarkable story of the making of Dizzee Rascal’s shocking, dissonant debut ‘Boy In Da Corner’ is one that, in the pantheon of British music, continues to stand out as a tale of near mythic achievement. Dylan Mills, at age 15 already excluded from multiple schools, was the ultimate outsider figure; a teenager whose singular focus allowed him to overcome the stark circumstances he was born into, and deliver one of the most devastating, potent and striking visions of East London under New Labour, a world where violence and decay were apparently ubiquitous.

Having burst onto the underground circuit with ‘I Luv U’, a track which challenged perceived wisdoms about the nature of a successful garage record, Mills’ rise was rapid and, at times, chaotic (the summer following the album would see him hospitalised following an altercation in an Ayia Nappa nightclub). Despite having been made in less than an hour, the beat gained huge currency among pirate radio MCs, in part thanks to the efforts of Rinse FM’s DJ Slimzee who championed it from the outset, and was the artist’s first commercial hit. Released as the lead single, Dizzee stormed into the top 40, and when the album dropped later that month it was received with critical acclaim. Journalists who had previously confessed antipathy to the garage scene were now captivated by the strange and unapologetic, bastardised jungle that the teenage Mills had crafted in classrooms and local friends’ bedrooms.

It is important to note that the audacity, in fact the pure venom, with which Mills constructed the beats on the album was no mere fluke. In this 2004 interview his engineer, manager and mentor, Cage, describes how the youngster would actively seek out the most unique and, in his words, “horrible bass sounds” possible, a trait which immediately marked him out from the mass of aspiring musicians using the studio. In doing so, he created a sound that was both futuristic, in terms of its dislocation from the music of the time, and often intensely nostalgic, an aspect that is most clearly encapsulated in the cloying instrumentation of ‘Brand New Day’, as well as its bittersweet lyrics, that lament a rapidly dissipating childhood.

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Vocally, the album is a street level document of the, often harsh, milieu Mills had been raised in; and it stands as a crucial counterpoint to the shrill hysteria and moral panic of the tabloid press at the time. While it deals with many of the same topics – delinquent youth, absent fathers and teen pregnancies – its examination of the phenomena is underpinned with a nuanced, caustic and cynical wit that was almost entirely absent from the debate taking place in the distant outposts of middle England.

But not only was the album’s impact on mainstream culture essential, tracks such as ‘Jezebel’ demonstrated the potential of this new style of garage to support the kind of detailed, narrative-driven lyricism that had hitherto been more closely associated with US hip-hop, paving the way for the arguably more saccharine, though equally seminal, ‘Home Sweet Home’. With ‘Boy In Da Corner’, Dizzee transported the music from the clubs and pirate radio stations where he had honed his skills, and showed that this hybrid variant of 2-step, jungle and drum ‘n’ bass could sustain a lyrical depth and range equal to his American contemporaries.

Furthermore, in its cascading presentation of the digital ephemera that cluttered his surroundings – snatched videogame samples, ringtone blips and distorted growls – the album is comparable to the work of another, similarly celebrated, producer to emerge during this period: Burial. The release, however, that most directly echoes its tone, both sonically and lyrically, is that of Brixton MC and producer Dot Rotten, ‘This Is The Beginning’. This 2007 mixtape (astonishingly, a free download) remains one of the most intriguing albums to have materialised from the scene, lurching from energetic and triumphant aggression on ‘Dirty South Salute’ to the mournful despair of ‘Ride Or Die’.

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The common thread, intrinsic to both, is their experimentation and scope, and while Dizzee’s latest forays into a grimier sound owe more to the relatively polished, mature style of his second album, ‘Showtime’, the video released for ‘Couple Of Stacks’, his Halloween single, demonstrates the MC’s residual willingness to tease at the elastic boundaries of good taste. Having declared Footsie one of his “favourite producers in the world,” recent collaborations with the Newham General beatsmith signal a significant return to form for the now world-famous Mills.

Nonetheless, hopes that he might recapture the sheer reckless abandon of his first album, given the thirteen years that have passed, seem wilfully stubborn, but the album remains the accomplishment that will secure his place at the top table of British music for decades to come, and, like the green light of ‘The Great Gatsby’, continues to be a guiding beacon to young MCs, even as it recedes into the past.

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Dizzee Rascal is set to play 'Boy In Da Corner' in full at RBMA New York on May 6th.

Words: Alex McFadyen

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