“Where You’re From is Massive in How You Turn Out as an MC” — Dialect
BY Jennifer Lee O'Brien
A few times a month the artist known as Dialect will find one of his favourite spots along the warm side of Briggate, plug an old mic into his amp and perform.
Briggate is one of those streets that defies the work week; on any given day it is saturated with buskers. A walk up the Headrow can become an auditory pileup if you’re not careful, so it’s important that you leave the briskness on Boar Lane and take a stroll and stretch the time; Briggate is a great place to stretch the time.
Seriously, take it slow! Stop and smell the sweet corn, and those small sugary donuts from the van on Kirkgate, and the poisonous bouquet of perfume samples that plague the street from Harvey Nichols.
Buskers on Briggate do not share the road, and are charmingly incompatible with one another. Each act demands their own audience and every one deserves some kind of attention. Some are strange, or novel; some expected, others remarkable. Even amateur acts have their place on Briggate. It’s everyone’s shared stage, and you get a front row seat to all of it, if you just slow the eff down.
People slow down for Dialect. People stop and listen, nodding heads, crossing arms. Not sure whether to clap between songs. Whispering one to the other and pointing. Peeking around the corner at the Headrow.
Sometimes they’ll just stand and stare for a whole set. Often they’ll drop a few coins in his bag, or notes, or whatever questionable currency they see fit. A few have waited until he’s finished to chat; to find out why this 26 year old is rapping, at 140bpm, on Briggate.
It’s January 2015, and Dialect has been flown to Toronto for two days to perform at King Of The Dot, Canada’s premier rap battle league. Leeds to Manchester, Manchester to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Toronto; it’s a long journey for less than seventeen minutes on stage.
Dialect is to battle Boston-rapper Chilla Jones in front of an audience that is three and a half thousand miles away from a Leeds accent. The home of Drake, the Maple Leafs, and Rob Ford isn’t overflowing with grime MCs, so the KOTD organisers aren’t sure how the battle is going to be received.
The crowd would get Chilla Jones. He’s notorious for his schemes and associative wordplay, twisting words and names into disses. In UK battles Dialect has become known for his aggressive energy, booming voice, a rapid, tight flow. But a Canadian audience isn’t there for a grime rap battle, and Dialect has been preparing for a slower pace.
“There’s been a change,” announces Chilla, getting three feet into Dialect’s face. “Do you know the shit you’re facing?”
Dialect doesn’t move. He doesn’t flinch. While Chilla plays to the crowd, Dialect focuses on the the man in front of him, the man talking about him. Dialect has done his research.
“The situation is dire, fam,” explains Chilla, as if there is nothing he can do. “Dia, fam,” he says, landing the first blow to the name. The next blow is to the diaphragm. “That’s the diet plan.”
Chilla steps back, regards Dialect a moment. “You sure you really wanna try your hand?” Through all three minutes of the first round, Dialect stays composed — almost still — with his hands crossed in front of him. He needs to accept whatever comes his way; in rap battles you have to wait your turn. Chilla is now shouting his disrespect for Dialect to the crowd.
“I checked him out and thought, man his rounds is lame,” he declaims, “And ironic, because every Di-verse sounds the same.”
Face to face, the feet between them are now inches. Still Dialect doesn’t move, doesn’t show any emotion. “You might have battled dudes who sound like me, but you ain’t never stood in front of three rounds like these.” Chilla turns away. The crowd goes crazy. “Toronto, please keep it down,” shouts the host on the mic, wanting Dialect to be heard. “He travelled half way across the world.”
Three and a half thousand miles away from Leeds, from DUBWHY, from Bow in East London, from grime. Three and a half thousand miles for three rounds.
Dialect unclasps his hands, and nods his head to the crowd. He’s here to make them understand.
“The biggest hype over there is because of my accent, innit?”
We’re sitting in Sociable Folk cafe on a warm day in August, over a year after Chilla vs Dialect at KOTD. Dialect has agreed to meet up with us in newly built 10 Wellington Place to talk about grime, the music scene in Leeds, and his upcoming mixtape, Lost for Words. And so the first thing we did was ask him about Canada.
“YOU’LL WRITE THINGS DOWN, YOU’LL SCRIBBLE OUT, YOU’LL KEEP PRACTICING”
“Well, I travelled to Toronto and back in a weekend,” he says, with one of those charmingly deep laughs that can fill up a room.
“I got invited by Organik, who runs KOTD; he wanted to get me over there. I wanted to make sure people understood what I was saying, but still bring the style that I’ve got — that Northern grime style. It was a mixture of trying to please the crowd and still be myself. And yeah, I think it worked well.”
It’s been thirteen years since Wiley released Eskimo, the metallic, weighty instrumental that evolved as Eskibeat and helped define grime as a genre. Conceived in the musical underground of East London, grime was informed by the UK garage and jungle scene with Caribbean, drum & bass, and American hip-hop influences and a DIY, punk attitude.
Innovative, cathartic, and aggressive, the tempo set at 140bpm, grime demanded to be heard and refused to ask politely. “Grime started in London, back when I was 15 or 16,” Dialect says. “I used to have a really bad stutter when I was younger — I never thought rapping would be something I would do. And then grime happened; it was kind of the ‘in’ thing at our age. When I was a teen, it felt like everyone was listening to grime.”
Dialect grew up in Leeds, attending the former St. Michael’s College in Woodhouse, two hundred miles away from pirate radio station Rinse FM, Lord of the Mics clashes, and the first (and some of the only) grime MCs in the world.
“Back then I was listening to people like Wiley and Dizzee Rascal and they were so good,” he says. “When you really like something, you need to start imitating it to properly learn it. At the time, I figured, if I don’t sound anything like these other artists, then I can’t be good. So I just kept writing and writing. I used to go to Chapeltown every weekend and do poetry. I’d just chill with friends, practicing free- styling in the park and stuff. Eventually it just builds up your confidence.
“And you know, I still get nerves before a battle. I’m not scared of the whole idea of it — I know exactly what I’m doing, I’ve been on stage hundreds of times. But it’s the whole atmosphere. There’s this whole vibe around it, and it can make you feel nervous. But once I get into the flow of it, once I get into the first lyrics, I just feed off the energy.”
Grime has made a bit of a media comeback lately. Helped by our darling ‘Drizzy’ Drake’s wine and YouTube induced Instagram posts showing love to Skepta and Lord of the Mics, and Kanye’s All Day homage to grime at the 2015 Brits (backed on stage by the likes of JME, Krept and Konan, Jammer, and Novelist), the widely uncommercial genre is being revitalised, and those bloody naysayers from ten years ago are finally starting to listen.
“I think that grime did die down for a bit,” Dialect says. “Grime was good when it first started — all of us were into it — and then it started bringing trouble. You put on POW by Lethal Bizzle, and people were getting stabbed, simple as that. It became associated with violence in clubs, and some people just didn’t want to hear it; they saw it as bad music.
“But there were people like me who were doing it still, and so when I first started battling on Don’t Flop I brought my grime style with me. At the time it felt like everyone was hip-hop, everyone wanted to rap, but I wanted to show that grime is still here. It’s taken a big increase in the last couple of years because Wiley, Ghetts — some of the artists from back in the day that I used to listen to — are keeping it alive. Yeah, they’re a bit commercial, but they still represent where they came from.”
Don’t Flop is the UK’s largest rap battle league, hosting MC events, live performances, and freestyle battles all across the country. A Leeds grime MC has a lot to prove, but after years of making himself heard, at 140bpm no less, Dialect has built his way up to become one of Don’t Flop’s favourite competitors on the channel.
“I personally think that your accent, and where you’re from, is a massive factor in how you end up turning out as an MC,” Dialect says. “I’ve always wanted to show the people where I’m from that we’re not limited just because we don’t have as much. Literally just my hunger for wanting to get out there and make something of myself and make something of my city has got my name among a lot of others in Leeds; anywhere I go I’m constantly on about Leeds — DUBWHY, West Yorkshire. I’m constantly just banging on where I’m from because I want to show what talent we have here. Londoners will always say that grime is their style, but we can come down there and do just as well and show them different things.”
2014 was a good year for Dialect. After years of writing, recording, and battling, taking on the likes of Natrill, Double L, Daylyt, and Cortez, he started to feel like he’s moving towards something bigger, and bringing Leeds with him.
“That year was extreme,” he says. “I was battling pretty much every couple of months, ended up doing Lord of the Mics, flew out to KOTD that year — there was just so much that happened in one space of time that I’d been working on, for years on end, and that year I felt like I was just on the rise. This year has been a bit more quiet; I’ve got a lot of my real life to deal with, but it’s having a good effect on the music I’m making. I feel like I’m progressing where I need to be.
“I’VE BEEN LOST FOR WORDS FOR A WHILE NOW”
“I’ve been probably battling for about three years now and I haven’t brought out any mixtapes or big music projects during that time because I’ve been so caught up in battling, and that takes time. Battling’s a lot more restrictive and performance based…” he pauses, before adding, “And you know what it is? You spend all this time drilling all these lyrics into your head. You’ll write things down, you’ll scribble out, you’ll keep practicing; it takes me a good three to four weeks to have three rounds of maybe a two minute round, so for six minutes of material it can take almost a month to fully write it and learn it. Then you do it, and get it all off your chest, and after your battle you just end up forgetting it because you never go back to the lyrics again. It was just for that one person, in that one battle. And you don’t really have much to show for it.
“Making tracks feels like a lot more of an authentic process; you can develop songs on your own time. So I’ve taken a bit of a break from battling, maybe til October or the end of the year or something. I feel like I’ve matured a bit since my last mixtape – that’s what I’m working on now. Before I still had a lot of different kinds of tracks, and a lot of grimey ones. I can talk about everything from a love song to gang warfare style. I can bounce from one to another.
“But now I want to talk more about striving to become something. I feel like my style has matured. Even though I’m still griming, I’m really talking from my life experience. I’ve decided to call the new mixtape Lost for Words. I’ve been lost for words for a while now — I’ve been going through life — and now it feels like I can pour it all out into my music.”
“I ain’t understood a word he just said.” Chilla spends most of Dialect’s first round looking bored and making exaggerated faces to his crew, crowded round him on the stage. When he opens his second round, the crowd laughs at his taunting remark; it seems too obvious to be funny, but they’re entertained all the same. Chilla is being a bit of a jerk, but this is a rap battle, and Dialect knows how to handle it.
Again, he remains still. His hands are clasped in front of him. His turn will come again, so he’ll wait until he hears this again: “You might have battled dudes who sound like me, but you ain’t never stood in front of three rounds like these”; Chilla’s sign off. That’s another round.
A tech-guy fixes Dialect’s mic. “Yeah yeah, let’s fix this up, let’s fix this,” he says. He isn’t only talking about the glitchy mic. Dialect begins again, round two, but this time it feels different.
“Since Chilla’s schemes are the illest, we’ll see whose speech is the slickest when I hit your jaw with 140 beats per a minute”; Dialect brings a closed fist inches into Chilla’s face, then takes a step back.
All of a sudden those three thousand, five hundred miles don’t seem so far. Dialect speeds his lyrics up, his rhythm bounces, his hands twirl and unfurl with his rhymes. Chilla shakes his head; “I don’t know what he’s saying,” he mouths at the camera, but no one’s watching Chilla right now. Because everyone is listening to Dialect.
They might not have picked up on all the lyrics; they might have misheard the references to Beeston and Aldi. But they got the message. The crowd cheered for this Leeds MC, bringing Northern grime like they never heard, to a Canadian stage.
“There’s been a change,” Chilla had said at the start. Dialect didn’t have to say it to change it. He just had to make them listen.
We’re about to leave Sociable Folk and Dialect is packing up his things. He’s back up to Briggate to test out his mixtape for a crowd of shoppers, CEOs, baristas, and anyone else who might passing by.
Time stretches out on Briggate. So take it slow, hang around a while. Listen.
Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds, issue 27