Great Escape: Field Notes — Rapper Dizraeli shares what he's learned from a do it yourself career in hip hop.

As we roam the streets of a Brighton rapidly shutting up shop, trying to find a place for our interview, Rowan Sawday aka Dizraeli’s local knowledge comes in very handy. Eventually we end up in a cheesy Caribbean themed cocktail bar where, by chance, he used to put on nights with a group of local hip hop heads.

The Bristol-born rapper recently moved to London, but in the intervening years Brighton and its thriving underground music scene helped him establish himself as a solo artist after breaking with his previous group Bad Science. Just after the split, down the road in a squatted warehouse in sleepy Lewes he took a big leap into the unknown to self record his first solo album in 2009.

“I didn’t really have a name for myself whatsoever,” Rowan explains. “I had about a grand in savings and I wasn’t paying rent because I was just sofa surfing at the time. I rented out this room upstairs in this squat in Lewes for two weeks. I got a friend to bring down his computers and over the course of those two weeks I called up all my musician mates and got as many instruments into the room as I could. I assembled an album in the space of two weeks, completely on a wing and a prayer.”

He put the resulting LP, Engurland (City Shanties) up on Bandcamp and its success formed the the basis for his solo career. The musicians Dizraeli invited to play on the album eventually became The Small Gods, the band he continues to tour and collaborate with. Over the last five years Dizraeli and The Small Gods have become one of the UK’s most interesting progressive hip hop acts, blending rap, live instrumentation and folk influences. As his profile has grown, Dizraeli now has a label and management, but he still does the bulk of the work himself.

“Since then I’ve learned an infinite amount,” he explains. “I’ve learned how to own a stage and not force it, I’ve learned how to be myself on stage. I’ve learned not to expect too much from promises from the music industry. People like to talk up their abilities and the things they’ll do for you and it often doesn’t come through. So I’ve learned not to hold my breath and if you want something doing, just get on with it. Do it!”

UK hip hop is notoriously unreliable at providing a decent living for its artists. Even if there was another way, Dizraeli seems to be an artist who thrives by doing everything off his own back. So, is there a satisfaction that comes with doing it all for yourself?

“I think it adds and it takes away,” he muses, ambivalently. “I think one thing it adds is an appreciation for every moment of being on stage and that moment of delivering it all because I’ve worked so hard to be there. Aside from all the great romantic stuff of it sounding like a really grassroots thing to be doing, the nitty gritty of what it really means to be doing it yourself is that you have to learn how to use Excel. At the same time I have ultimate control over what I do and what I express, and I’m very grateful for that. I don’t have any kind of corporate agenda to bow to, it’s all what I want. So I’m not complaining.”

Get to know more about Dizraeli or catch him with The Small Gods at Scala, London Thursday, June 5.

Huck caught up with Dizraeli at The Great Escape, Europe’s biggest showcase for new music.

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