Read Time Out's new interview with N-Dubz
Dappy from N-Dubz
Controversy ain’t what it used to be. Back in the day, Britain’s chattering classes were running screaming from all manner of pop bogeymen. A new threat to the fabric of society entered the charts seemingly every week – whether it was the greasepaint and mini-mohicans of that scary Keith from Prodigy or Snoop Dogg, last seen merrily motherfucking his way through Live8, getting all up in Rod Hull’s grill on ‘The Word’ (Rod got Emu to attack Snoop; Snoop was not amused). These days, though, it seems the focus for media panic has shifted towards the fans themselves, with a generation of peace-loving hoodie-wearers damned to notoriety by the actions of an ASBOrational minority.
Which makes it even stranger, yet simultaneously more likely, that N-Dubz should have found themselves on the receiving end of an atypically scornful Independent editorial. The Camdenite three-piece were accused of glorifying thuggery and inciting violence against the well-brought-up. The evidence against them? A self-confessed ‘£3 video’ the band made for their track ‘Love For My Slums’, in which Dappy is seen rapping ‘with jealousy and anger’ before assaulting a slumming rich kid, in much the same way Daffy Duck rapped with jealousy and anger before he tried to blow up Bugs Bunny with dynamite.
In person, N-Dubz are, without doubt, one of the least threatening bands you could ever hope to meet. Unashamed to describe themselves as a pop act, N-Dubz comprise three highly individual characters: Dappy, the goat herder hat-wearing producer and rapper, his cousin Tulisa, a belting singer with undeniable ‘something for the dads’ appeal, and the resolutely pleasant rapper-producer Fazer. They’re open, friendly, funny, talkative and thoughtful. The only reason you wouldn’t want to bump into them down a dark alleyway is because you’d feel bad if you spilled their Pepsi.
‘I know people that have got a good background,’ says Dappy, explaining the concept of ‘…Slums’. ‘A very good background, and they listen to our type of music, and it’s like they hate the fact that everything’s turned out well for them, and life’s nice and dandy. Like, “Yeah, I wanna get a hostel in Manor House, forget my house in Harley Street.” ’
‘…Slums’ is a wryly considered song about the increasing numbers of ‘ghetto’ wannabes. It’s not especially representative of the majority of N-Dubz tracks and was written as a gift to the local fans who wanted ‘something grittier and grimey’, but its pleas to appreciate good fortune are a long way from being gangsta.
‘If you listen to the song, it’s saying that kids out there that have everything are trying to get influenced by this whole grime scene and throw what they have away to get where he [the narrator] is – when he’s worked his whole life to get where they are,’ Dappy explains. ‘They should appreciate what they’ve got, and we should try to work hard and get to that stage and stay there. It’s not ghetto and it’s not fabulous, it’s something we were born in and we’re trying to get out of. Don’t sit there and think it’s great. The guy who wrote that piece [in the Indy] about it was obviously an idiot that didn’t know anything about hip hop and took the easy way out, to stereotype it. But all publicity is good publicity and now everybody’s talking about it, so thanks mate!’
If you’re over 25 and don’t have children, you may not have heard of N-Dubz, but they won the Mobo for Best UK Newcomer last month – without a permanent record deal or any significant exposure outside Channel U, the UK satellite station best described as MTV Base on a QVC budget. Despite their youth (average age 20) the band have been ‘struggling and striving’ for around eight years, having been indoctrinated into music by their respective families. Both Tulisa and Dappy’s fathers played with Mungo Jerry, and taught the group how to produce and engineer tracks at an early age. Dappy’s father also managed the band until April this year, when he died suddenly. N-Dubz are proudly self-sufficient, having set up their own studio, where they spend much of their time. They also have a work ethic and self-awareness that sets them apart.
‘We have to make sure it’s perfect,’ says Dappy, ‘because to compete with all the other big artists out there such as Amy Winehouse, Kanye West, Robin Thicke, Pharrell, 50, you have to come out with something original. If there’s already been a 50 Cent, don’t bother putting a bandana over your head and a cap and trying to rap like him – it’s been done. Put a thong on your head or something. That’s why you see me with these crazy hats. Gets me recognised all the time, up and down the UK. And we got slang, we do things like our “Na-a-niis” and “ha-has” – you have to set trends, and therefore, we’s original.’
Although they frequently describe themselves as ‘the people’s band’, opinion as to the quality of their genre-devouring sound, which takes in everything from rap and R&B to garage and deep house, is divided among the capital’s hip hop hardcore. Some see their generally personable lyrics and pop sensibility as evidence of sell-outism, something N-Dubz do little to counter by cheerfully maintaining their greatest sonic inspiration is ’80s AOR museum Magic 105.4FM. On the other hand, the likes of scene mainstays Kano, Sway and Trevor Nelson (not to mention the original bad boy himself, Tim Westwood) have given them ‘mad props’. They’re the kind of band that make you really wish Smash Hits was still around, because they’d be perfect recurring cover stars. Not that any of this matters to the kids – during the course of this interview, a large crowd of schoolpersons gathers outside the shop in which it took place, patiently waiting for the band to come outside and chat. The band, who are just about to embark on a tour of 60 schools in a week, are obviously happy about this, and talk proudly about how many parents dig their tunes as well.
This week, we’ll see how this local success translates nationally, as N-Dubz release their first proper chart-eligible single, ‘You Better Not Waste My Time’. It’s already been a hit on Channel U, and is now being re-released for the mass market by major label Polydor. Although the band are obviously happy to have the backing of a big company, they’re scathing about the majors’ treatment of London’s urban scene in general.
‘I think the problem is that there’s a lot of good UK acts out there, and there’s a lot of crap as well,’ says Tulisa with typical reserve. ‘What’s happening is the crap is not being filtered. The industry is actually letting the crap music be heard because they want to put down UK music. It’s very easy to let all the bad stuff through and say: “Well this is what UK music is about, it’s terrible, they’re crap, you don’t wanna listen to it.”
That’s much easier than saying: “Well, listen, there’s these individual UK acts that actually have potential to go mainstream and be something that everyone wants to listen to.” That’s too much of a risk for the music industry, I think they feel very safe with their pop acts, they can say: “Well, I’m not gonna lose any money. Oh look, there’s three girls that can sing and dance and shake their arse, I’ll put my money into that.” Rather than taking a risk that will make you either loads of money, or very little – which is what the music industry used to be about – they’re too scared to do it.’
Their big potential crossover moment finally came at the Mobos where they beat competition such as Unklejam and former Sugababe Mutya Buena. What made this especially significant is that this is the only Mobo award voted for by the public, and N-Dubz won by a record margin.
‘To be up in that position against such amazing artists is an honour anyway,’ says Dappy. ‘So that was my win, even if I lost, you know what I mean?’
‘We think we deserved it this year,’ says Tulisa, ‘because we worked so hard to get where we are. But we didn’t think we was gonna get it.’
The Mobo victory was as much an award for N-Dubz’s fan mobilisation as their music, but they maintain that this is itself a reflection of their audience-centric commitment.‘We’re always in touch with them, always,’ says Fazer. ‘Through MySpace, at the shows, we always get them involved. Because at the end of the day, we are the people’s band. What the people say goes. If there’s no fanbase, there’s no one to like N-Dubz, then they’re nothing. They could still make good music, but to give to who? So after the interview, we’ll probably go outside and start mixing with the fans, and getting them to text in for the single pre-orders – it’s all about getting them involved, because they like being involved.’
N-Dubz, Bashy and Chipmunk play the IndigO2 on Nov 22.
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