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Home > Media

The New Black? Part One

“I’ve heard the gossip from the street to the slammer,
They’re tryin to see if Dizzee stays true to his grammar”


–Dizzee Rascal, from Fix Up, Look Sharp

Blazin Squad

Young Mr Rascal won this year's Mercury Music Prize for his debut album Boy in da Corner – a record which, according to the artist himself, “really reflects urban London life.” The key word here is ‘really’: Dizzee is laying claim to an authentic urban voice. He is explicitly not doing a Vanilla Ice, and putting on an urban panto act.

But does Dizzee's claim stand up to scrutiny? And what about that other urban act du jour, Blazin' Squad? They claim, in their song Dirty, to have "the tunes and the beats from the street." But how genuinely 'urban' are they?

Dr Keely Fisher investigates...

4 December 2003

Blazin' Squad constitutes ten male teenagers, the majority of whom are white. The boys have come a long way since their debut single Standard Flow was released on their own label (Weighty Plates): they now have a big record deal, and a well-groomed look to make (pre-)teenage girls swoon. Nonetheless, much of Blazin' Squad's pop success has to do with their identity as a multi-racial urban crew. They would undoubtedly claim that their music has an urban voice. But let's listen to that voice a little more closely…

The emergence of Urban English (UE) as a pervasive form of speech is an example of the breaking down of racial boundaries in modern Britain. UE speech communities are notably multi-racial (e.g. six schoolkids on the bus: one black, two mixed-race, one white, one Turkish, and one Asian – all conversing in UE). In their song Bounce, the racial spread of Blazin' Squad's intended urban audience is succinctly catalogued: Black White Asian / Turkish Jamaican / Bajan Caucasian. However, an examination of UE usage in five of their songs reveals that Blazin' Squad's 'urban' identity is signalled by the most basic of modifications to their native, London English speech patterns.

One marked feature of UE that is consistently deployed in Blazin' Squad's lyrics is the pronunciation of th as d, as evident in the forms da, dis, den and dat (for the, this, then and that) and, for example, in Easy Come Easy Go where they use the phrase depon da decks [there upon the record turntables]. Beyond this singular change in pronunciation, the only marked feature of Blazin' Squad's Urban English style is vocabulary. A number of common UE words are evident: crew, yo, blood, manor [but US hood also occurs],'bout, coz, ting, cho, bling bling, reminisce, back in the day, chillin', you get me?, 5-0, hate, dark, heavy, and bunnin' it up [smoking weed].

Plenty of UE words, but are Blazin' Squad being “true to their grammar”? Upon analysis, there seems to be scant evidence of the distinctive grammatical features of Urban English regarding personal pronouns and verbs: Bounce has dem blind [for they're blind]; while We Dreamin' uses a verb form that could just as well be US usage: we jus' be dreamin'… girls jus' be screamin'.

The Squad's most marked use of a UE verb form occurs in their love song Reminisce, where wha gwaan is used as a means of starting up a conversation with a beautiful girl. But although the shorthand urban identity of wha gwaan conveys so much more cultural baggage than a simple “Hello” as a first impression, this impression is short-lived. UE's Caribbean verb forms are not continued in Reminisce's teenage tale of holiday romance, and the marked use of wha gwaan turns out be a cosmetic, aspirational flourish.

By contrast, analysis of four songs by Dizzee Rascal reveals a different level of linguistic capability in his use of UE. As in Blazin' Squad's lyrics, Dizzee uses the common UE vocabulary: posse, crew, blood, hate, buff ting, yo, coz, dark, the fed (police), blaze, vex, and fix up [sort yourself out]; and there is the expected pronunciation of th as d or t: da and ting, for example. But importantly, Dizzee uses the distinctive Caribbean verb forms of UE.

In Fix Up, Look Sharp he utters: I'm a done accept it; in Jezebel is the phrase: as she try to escape; and in his debut single I Luv U (written when he was 16 years' old), are the following: she keep calling, she don't leave, she just moan, she just keep ringin', and rascal come down like snow. So while Blazin' Squad's UE usage is on the whole limited to lexical items and an easy sound change, Dizzee Rascal's UE demonstrates the distinctive Caribbean grammatical features of UE too.

Dizzee's musical output to date has been an 'underground' sound; that is, his music is authentically his own creation, and he has not been re-fashioned by the styling and management teams of corporate pop music. This authenticity, as we have seen, is reflected in his lyrics: there is no sense that his use of Urban English is a marketing gloss.


Part Two >



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