The lyrical trailblazer talks rectifying regrets, reclaiming his sound and the process behind No Reign, No Flowers: his most remedial project to date.
D Double E is your favourite emcee’s favourite emcee. It’s a cliché that’s been used tirelessly to describe the legacy of – real name – Darren Dixon, whose chameleonic contribution to music shouldn’t be taken lightly. Representing the modern lineage of British soundsystem culture, the rapper grew up in Forest Gate surrounded by reggae, ragga, dancehall, lover’s rock and any other Jamaican subgenre in his parent’s record collection. So, when jungle and DnB took off in the ‘90s, he was armed with an arsenal of flows and vocal idiosyncrasies that could lock off raves across the capital. UKG followed, closely by grime, before UK funky, and then dubstep laid the foundations for a 140 renaissance; D Double E was there through it all, his bars ageing like a fine wine, the adlibs proving timeless and his music always omnipresent. It’s why Skepta counts him as the greatest MC of all time, and why Dizzee Rascal traded the decks for the mic before becoming grime’s poster boy in the early ’00s.
Stumbling across pirate radio before the term ‘grime’ had even been coined, D Double E was one of many figures who quickly rose through the cream and into a crop of artists garnering hype around their battle-ready rap style. Even in its early stages, the ‘Bluke Bluku’ wordsmith was gaining notoriety as a new generation tuned into the likes of Rinse FM to study his exemplary freestyles. Iconic sets as part of N.A.S.T.Y Crew, and later Newham Generals, continue to live in grime’s folklore, but cosigning him to the scene tells merely half the story.
In 2018, D Double E dropped Jackuum! – his first studio album after a glut of lauded singles and features. Released independently, on Bluku Music, the record signified a change in energy. People no longer came to him for legendary grime one-liners and punchlines; it allowed the lyrical pioneer to take control of himself as an artist and make the music he always wanted. Those beloved adlibs are there in abundance but the beat selection is more expansive, as is the wordplay.
Fast-forward to 2023, and after a slew of successful projects, the self-confessed Newham General is back with a new EP, titled No Reign, No Flowers. His most remedial work to date, the seven tracks chronicle D Double E’s highs and lows over the decades he’s spent at the top of his game. On the standout cut ‘Afterthought’, featuring Detroit hip-hop provocateur Danny Brown, the rapper reflects on his legacy with profound honesty, bodying a jumpy beat that’s both spookish and stirring. TenBillion Dreams holds down production duties across the EP, proving a fitting accomplice to D Double E’s alluring flows and unconventional charm.
To celebrate its release, and his impact both past and present, the lyrical trailblazer talks rectifying regrets, reclaiming his sound and the process behind No Reign, No Flowers.
Let’s start in the present, with your new EP, No Reign, No Flowers, what does the title mean to you personally?
Everyone’s trying to get to a place and everyone thinks everyone’s happy, but not everyone is happy and not everyone’s where they want to be. You have to keep striving and making changes in your life because you won’t get where you need to be without them.
I’ve been on a long journey. Even now, as D Double E after being in N.A.S.T.Y Crew and Newham Generals, I’m back to where I was before those times. I’ve got a chance to be the solo artist I always wanted to be. I was still on radio, doing sets, mingling and not thinking so much about myself – being a community guy. I didn’t have that older around me who said, “We need to see what we can do for you”. I needed someone smart to tell me what I was capable of.
The project chronicles the highs and lows you’ve experienced throughout life. Why is it important for you to instil your wisdom on listeners and the next generation of artists coming through?
I’m more wise now. I’ve realised that not everybody has love for you and there are all sorts of funny people on your journey. I know how to avoid them. My introduction on No Reign, No Flowers is ‘Huddle Up’ and on there, I’m spitting about being wise and having people around you who can make things happen. I wanna mingle with people who are real, because I also bring realness to the table.
This is how you get your flowers, by getting smarter, otherwise, you get sucked into a dark world. I know what I’m doing and how I wanna sound. It’s just about continuing that journey. I want my independence, my own label and to be the front guy. I want to achieve more than I’ve ever achieved before. Life’s not about getting comfortable. You’ve got to expand the dream. This is what I’m trying to do.
Sonically, it sounds like the project you’ve always wanted to make: an amalgamation of the music you’ve been producing recently. Across the seven songs, you work with the producer TenBillion Dreams. How did his process bring out the best in you?
I’m someone who’s good at adapting to music and doing different things. Working with TenBillion was me in my element and how I really love to make music. Some of my favourite tracks that I’ve made are ‘Lyrical Hypnosis’ and ‘Lemon Trees’; they bring out a different musical element from me. It’s best for me to sample music and I think TenBillion’s sound is so unique. It brings out the real D Double. It’s more relaxed and calm because it’s more me speaking.
When did your collaborative friendship start and what do you think he brought to the EP sonically?
We linked up on the set of a Ghetts video. It turned out he knew a lot of my family. From there, we hooked up a few times and his production was so great at that point. I was like, ‘Boy we should do a project’. TenBillion is a wizard, man.
Your link-up with Danny Brown feels long overdue. How did ‘Afterthought’ come about?
We’d been talking online for years and always said that we would do something. We were in the studio and listening to ‘Afterthought’ and his name came to me. I grabbed my phone and messaged him straight away. It took him a day to get back to me and then boom, he was on it. A week or two goes by and then I thought, ‘Man needs to chase him up for this verse, you get me?’ And then he was like [playfully impersonating Danny Brown], ‘I’m gonna get onto it, I’m loving it man’. A couple of days later we got the link. He’s coming to London in December, we’re gonna link up when he lands and have a proper session.
What did you learn about yourself throughout the process, did you approach the project differently or was it business as usual?
It’s the feeling of togetherness. To sit down and listen to it all the way through, feeling like I was a part of this world, that was one of the best feelings. It just flowed. I like it because it feels musical.
Returning to your roots, you featured on Bou’s ‘Swerve It’ alongside P Money earlier this month. How do you write bars and verses for DnB compared to other genres?
Jungle’s definitely a different approach. I find that you have to think about it more. There needs to be more vibes. I can go fast on jungle but when it’s time to do it live, sometimes it isn’t the same. The projection is different, it’s crazy. You’ve got to react to the pitch changing, it can get quite techy.
You’re probably the only emcee I can think of who can be on the bill of any UK-focused club night and comfortably lock it off. Why has it been important for you, throughout your career, to test yourself on so many different sounds?
I’ve lived my life in those genres. I lived in jungle when I was 16, I went to all the raves; I lived the life of garage, and when it started going commercial; I lived through grime; I lived dubstep; I lived funky house when everyone was screaming, “Party Hard”; and I lived house music, with Black Coffee and everyone. I can go on the mic and merk all of it. I can’t be pulled into one corner because I love too much [music]. I’m just doing what I love.
Later this month, you’ll play at KOKO with jazz collective Steam Down. Why do you think there’s such an appetite for seeing grime with a live band? This isn’t the first time that you’ve performed with them…
I’m not sure if the actual grime fans like it, they would prefer the decks. With this project, which is what I’m mainly going to perform, it works. I could imagine re-doing certain songs live; I’m trying to make tracks work for that night. I feel like the EP deserves that experience but then the decks will come out at some point, so we can get the reloads. Doing a show was always on the bucket list. I’ve done Royal Albert Hall with David Rodigan, coming out with Footsie for ‘Hard’ and then for Kano on the song ‘Class of Deja’, with Ghetts. I wanted to sample that feeling for myself.
You showed up to both the MAINS and Burberry shows at LFW this year. How is it seeing yourself and the wider grime scene going from high fashion appreciators to being fully part of the culture?
I’ve always thought that I was a fashion icon in what I do. There might not be many grime guys who look special, but I’ve always tried to flex different. It’s gliding now and hopefully I can be involved more, so I can show them my swag. I’d like to have my hand in modelling and designing.
How have you been able to maintain your legacy, do you think, with so few album releases?
I’m still trying to achieve and leave this world with me. I come from a part of the game where we weren’t really making money and it wasn’t ever about that. The promoters knew what they were doing, they were robbing us but we still appreciated them. Now, we’re in an age when people are making more money off music than ever. It wouldn’t be smart to stop now. My engines are oiled up, it’s not a rusty ‘ting; I know how to do it, so I’m going to keep going and hopefully have more hits. If I told Flowdan to give up five years ago, he would have been stupid as well. We wanna get more from life; if there’s no rain, there’s no flowers. The flowers are starting to appear but we’ve still got to work and then we can be secure in life.
What do you want to be remembered for outside of music?
I just wanna be known as one of the greatest UK pioneers, man. I want the acknowledgement and I wanna work for it. I want to feel more proud for myself. People assume certain things but you’ve got to work hard for it. What we do is a gamble, it’s far from a safe business.
What’s next for D Double E? Beyond this EP, is there anything you’d like to achieve before the year’s up? And what are you manifesting for 2024?
2024 is about to get hit with a lot of bangers. I’m looking forward to it, man, I’m letting things digest and making my mark on 2023 with this EP and then boom shakalaka.
Tickets to D DOuble E’s show at KOKO with Steam Down can be found here.
Tickets to D Double E’s KOKO show with Steam Down can be found here.