IF YOU WERE walking around Bow, East London this night a year ago you might have come across the bizarre sight of a small group of teenagers puzzling over an oddly shaped metal sculpture about a foot high. One of them would have been Dizzee Rascal, and the metal object was the most coveted sculpture in British music, the Mercury Prize. "I took it round to the estate to show people. A lot of them didn’t know what it was," says Dylan Mills, aka Dizzee Rascal.
Mills has broken the curse of the Mercury. As the only music prize that seems to be immune to accusations of industry fixing and record company pressure, the Mercury is the highest profile gong in Britain. In recent years, though, the prize has become something of a kiss of death.
Gomez, Roni Size and Talvin Singh’s careers all floundered dramatically after their Mercury wins, while the winner before Mills, Ms Dynamite, has not even followed up on her winning debut album. Mills looks to be the exception, with the excellent Showtime released yesterday, almost exactly a year after he won his prize. "I’ve got a big work ethic and I just want to keep making good music for the fans," says Mills. "It’s about focus and where your priorities lie."
The award brought Mills’s music to a whole new, affluent, white audience that it is unlikely he would have reached without at least the Mercury nomination. He made his debut, Boy In Da Corner, for exactly the same people for whom he honed his MC skills: pirate radio audiences in East London’s estates.
"It made a lot of people that might not have paid it any attention, because maybe where I was coming from in the first place, go out and give themselves a chance to listen to it and start enjoying it," says Mills in the part-Jamaican, part Cockney voice that graces his records. With the pride of youth, though, he is not willing to put all his success down to some music prize committee.
"That commercial success was down to the Mercury and a few other things as well, I’ve been doing a lot of press, I’ve pushed myself a lot, I’ve been working and haven’t stopped since," he says. "I think it would have come later on, like I said I wasn’t about to stop."
As if to avoid the Mercury’s curse, Mills made sure his follow up was recorded in double quick time. With Showtime, though, he knew his audience was not only larger but more diverse than any he had addressed before. If he felt the pressure, there is no sign of it: "I wanted to show progression more than anything else, my development as a rap artist full stop, you know, as a producer. [I wanted to] show the transition from underground to mainstream without compromising my sound," he says.
Lyrically, Mills straddles both his lives, his upbringing on the streets of East London’s estates and his new life as a star. He brings his trademark vulnerable and witty style to the absurdities of each life, avoiding the macho swagger of his UK Garage contemporaries. "Everybody want to be ghetto/But nobody want to be poor," he shouts, nailing in one phrase the contradiction at the cynical heart of the pop industry.
The winner of the 2004 Mercury Music Prize will be announced tonight.