Dappy: "Tulisa? She's the boss. Kate Middleton? She's fit!"
Dappy talks Tulisa, his love of eighties pop, and why metaphors are where it's at
When you hear the name Dappy, what do you think of? Urban jester? Small man in wonky hat and unfeasibly baggy jeans singing earnest songs about the ‘slum’ he comes from? Perhaps you think ‘real-life Ali G’ – this is, after all, the guy who, when he was frontman of the million-selling pop-grime outfit N-Dubz, frequently appeared on our TV screens speaking in ghetto slang and bandying about words like ‘bruv’.
The reality couldn’t be more different, at least in 2012. “These days, in my genre of music, it’s still all hoods, hats, and they’re all afraid to expand their degrees of knowledge about music,” says the serious, seemingly intelligent man sitting in front of me.
“There are too many people getting away with songs that are just being written with ‘Yes’, ‘No’, ‘I love you’. You can’t be doing that. There has to be a double meaning. There has to be something metaphorically explained.”
I meet Dappy just hours after he puts the finishing touches to his first solo album, Bad Intentions. And listening to him describe it, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s a mash-up of John Betjeman and Eazy-E, an explosion of erudite poetics and rap pyrotechnics. “I do metaphors and double meaning,” he says, proudly – but he also does “rap stuff”, he says, “to keep the hoodlums happy”.
He treats me to an impromptu version of Intro (Me), the opening track: “When I see Cameron, I should grab him by his neck… How can these greedy bastards put our tax in their pockets? Forget an MP, to me that just stands for ‘maximum profits’.”
He seems pleased with himself. “I go in, I go crazy,” he says of the album. “It’s controversial and it’s a bit rude, but it’s facts, to me.”
Is this really Dappy? The man whose name, in the N-Dubz days of the late 2000s, became synonymous with a certain caste of OTT urban young men who show us their underpants, walk with a limp and speak in ‘blackney’ (a mix of black-speak and Cockney)?
The same Dappy who became a national laughing stock, at least among middle-class SMJs (Serious Music Journalists), when he appeared on BBC Two’s Never Mind the Buzzcocks in 2007 and was mercilessly mocked by twee ironist Simon Amstell?
Back then, Dappy seemed almost to have been invented for the amusement of decidedly non-urban commentators and for the benefit of tabloid hacks who love being outraged by the wayward antics of pop stars. He was ridiculed for the way he dressed, spoke, for those bobble hats, for the drugs he took, for recording a song called Love for my Slum (2007), the video for which featured him punching a posh man in the face.
But today he is hatless, revealing a closely cropped helmet of dark hair, and his jeans are normal-sized (though they still look baggy because the man inhabiting them is so alarmingly slight – he says he’s been too busy working on his album to eat properly).
And he’s talking about the need for “diversity” and “poetry” in modern British hip hop and about his desire to “mix street and politics” in his new solo career. This is a “new Dappy”, he says, and he’s about to relaunch himself to the British public. “I’m ready to go to Greece, see my mum, get fat, come back, bleach my teeth, and then do some T-T-T-TV, you know what I mean?”
Born Costadinos Contostavlos, into a Greek immigrant family in Camden in 1987, the boy who would become Dappy was surrounded by music. His father was Byron Contostavlos, bassist for Mungo Jerry, the 1970s rock outfit whose biggest hit, In the Summertime, was a really big hit, staying at No. 1 in Britain for seven weeks.
Dappy says his dad, who died in 2007, opened his eyes to music: “Magic 105 FM was always on.” He has an unusual list of musical influences for someone involved in the urban scene. “My favourite music is Phil Collins, Duran Duran, The Police, Freddie Mercury, Celine Dion...”
Celine Dion? “Yeah!” He describes himself as “retro”. He says he loves power ballads, telling me his new album doesn’t only feature rap and Cameron-bashing ditties, but also “me getting my Tina Turner on with some big ballads”.
In 2000, the then 13-year-old Dappy set up N-Dubz (which is slang for NW, or North West, the bit of London he grew up in), with his friend Fazer (real name Richard Rawson) and his cousin Tula Contostavlos – better known as Tulisa, now a judge on The X Factor and, in Dappy’s words, “the boss, the queen bitch, the new Cheryl Cole”.
He says there’s no truth in the rumours that he’s jealous of Tulisa’s televisual success. “I’m proud of her, man.” After selling two million records, N-Dubz split in 2011, and since then Dappy’s been working on solo stuff.
Yet for all the post-bobble-hat seriousness, for all his claims that “I can breathe now”, Dappy seems curiously cautious at times, concerned about making the wrong kind of headlines. He self-censors throughout the interview (there’s no PR person present, just him), frequently saying: “I don’t wanna say nothing wrong!”
So when we chat about current affairs and I ask him if he supports gay marriage, he looks pained. “I want to say no,” he says, clearly having some moral opposition to gay marriage. “But… I get so much stick already. So say ‘yes’. Definitely say ‘yes’!” How revealing that a celebrity who has the ‘wrong’ views on gay marriage should feel the need to silence himself, even fib about his feelings.
On other issues, he’s momentarily unguarded. Should those naked pics of Kate Middleton have been published, I ask him. “Nah, because she’s fronting [the royal family]: don’t fucking publish it. You can publish it to me. I’ll look at it… I think I might knock one out. She’s fucking fit.”
It’s not as erudite as The Queen Is Dead, yet still, the thought of Dappy masturbating over pictures of the future Queen does have a touch of raucous rebelliousness to it. He looks regretful after saying it.
It isn’t surprising New Dappy sometimes censors himself, considering Old Dappy was frequently slated by both tabloids and broadsheets for saying or doing or just being the wrong thing. When, in 2010, he bombarded a woman, who slagged him off on a radio show, with abusive text messages, he was branded a bully and dumped as the celeb spokesman for an anti-bullying charity.
He says he regrets that now but also points out, in the manner of a schoolboy explaining himself to a headmaster, that the woman “sent a text to me about my mum!”
Sometimes Old Dappy was publicly mauled for doing the sort of thing that other pop people are praised for. His 2007 ghetto-praising, rich-boy-bashing tune and video, Love for my Slum, was condemned by the commentariat, with Dappy accused of ‘idolising thuggery’ and ‘encouraging viewers to indulge in criminality’.
Yet when Plan B, earlier this year, did a very similar thing – recording a song called Ill Manors, which included lines like ‘What you lookin’ at, you little rich boy!’ – he was lauded by everyone from The Observer to the squares at Radio 1 as the ‘spokesman for his generation’.
It isn’t hard to see why Dappy seems to feel stung, sometimes defensive, occasionally gagging his true views. But he’s nonetheless intent on burying Old Dappy.
“People said, ‘Who’s this joke guy with a hat on?’ Fine, I took the hat off and here I am, talented as hell and smart as hell.”
Dappy’s new solo album, Bad Intentions (Island), is out now