Almost from the very start of his career, Dizraeli, real name Rowan Sawday, has found a way of capturing the essence of what it is to be human and wrapping it exquisitely within his music. Fans of the Bristol-born artist undoubtedly respect him as one who has always seemed to speak his truth, and viewed the world through a critically honest, playful, loving lens. Almost two decades on from the beginning of his musical career, he has reached a very exciting point. With an impressive depth of work behind him that is yet to find itself in the mainstream, he has transformed his approach to making music and is asserting himself as one of the most innovative, important (and at the time of writing, underrated) artists in the scene right now. Following an exciting tour for his theatre project, and with the release of his highly-anticipated album fast approaching, we take a look at Dizraeli’s artistic journey to date.
One of the first elements of Dizraeli’s musical career took shape as a club night in Bristol. Bad Science was a night, co-hosted by Dizraeli, Alex Crane, and another friend from his home town, incorporating a multi-genre mix of hip hop, drum and bass, jazz and reggae. The night began in Bristol and moved to Brighton where Bad Science developed into a band comprised of two essential elements: Dizraeli and Alex. Amongst a variety of genres, the Bad Science sound took influence from drum and bass, jazz and hip hop. Bad Science is demonstrative of the early days of the politically, spiritually and emotionally conscious lyricism that has developed into Dizraeli’s unique rawness that, for many, sets him apart as an artist. “For me hip hop was always about taking a philosophical stance and putting across certain ideas in a way that looking back on I find slightly cringe inducing”. Dizraeli refers to ‘Bare Bones’, the Bad Science track in which he reads out a classic Rumi poem, The Guest House. “I was a very preachy rapper at that time…I was an earnest young hippy making music, and pretty arrogant with it”. Bad Science released four EP’s in their time together. Ten years on from their first event, the end of an era was in sight. Dizraeli, who has taken influence from a multitude of sources, including the likes Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and The Roots, began to take an interest in folk music.
In 2008, Dizraeli went on a journey through Eastern Europe, India, Iran and Turkey with his girlfriend at the time, Laura. It was then, writing songs and experimenting with new instruments, that the landmark album for his folk-hop sound was born. Engurland (City Shanties) draws on traditional English folk, English and American sea shanties, the extensive variety of folk music he was exposed to on his travels, and hip hop. Of the music he heard while travelling, Dizraeli describes a consistent rawness that was tied together with percussion and vocal harmonies. It was this that he wanted to incorporate with what he loves about hip hop; the lyricism, the beat and samples (his almost always being homegrown). As within his musical career at large, Dizraeli’s closeness to hip hop ebbs and flows throughout the album. The opening track, ‘Homeward Bound (On the Overground)’, draws us in with the unmistakably sea shanties sound of washing waves and male voices in chorus with one another. In comes the intricate picking of an acoustic guitar and a hip hop beat that runs below layers of wind instruments, vocal samples and those seductive, body-bopping scratches. Engurland encompasses what Dizraeli describes as a “totally rag tag assortment of sounds”. From the stripped back, acoustic delicacy of tracks like ‘Take Me Dancing’ into which vocal harmonies of Cate Ferris (who went on to be a member of Dizraeli and the Small Gods) are sewn, to the single ‘Bomb Tesco’, which harbours a more evident hip hop influence, and is glorious in its hand-crafted, primal way of being.
Dizraeli’s next album came in 2012 in the form of White Man (Moves), a 10-track collaborative project with Tom Caruana on the beats. In one sense, White Man (Moves) is the musical documentation of the same four month journey that contributed to the formation of Engurland. In another, it’s a critical view of the history you carry as a white, western male travelling abroad. “[White Man (Moves)] was about the really powerful sense of being a middle class, white person from a colonising country, travelling through countries that my country had colonised”, it’s also a homage to the kindness and the courage of those he met along the way. From start to finish, the album is embedded with field recordings captured by himself as he and Laura travelled from southern India through to Pakistan, Iran, through Turkey, across Europe and, in time, back to the UK. More so than in Engurland, White Man (Moves) seems to incorporate music influenced by, and samples drawn from, the places he had travelled. Much like the album as a whole, the first single, ‘People Taking Pictures’, acts as a satirical commentary on Western tourism and his own experience as a pale-faced traveller.
Having formed in 2009 to tour Engurland, Dizraeli and the Small Gods released their first single in 2012. That first single, ‘Never Mind’, was lifted from Moving in the Dark; the groups debut project, which came in 2013. The album is a development of the evocative, nourishing, and simultaneously challenging style of Dizraeli’s; this time with the backing of an eight-strong team of musicians, vocalists and sound designers. Just short of two years on, following release of the Everyone’s a Winner mixtape (a powerful collaboration with Dj Downlow in which he arguably stretches his hand as firmly into hip hop as he has to date), came ‘The Depths’; a cryptic, frenzied response to the his internalised homophobia. ‘The Depths’ was written and released from inside of the closet, and contrary to what he had wished, the songs lyrically coded nature did not suffice for it to be understood beyond a broad criticism of homophobia, but as a message about himself. He explained, “Even though I was making a video, making a song that was critical of homophobia, I was still trapped by homophobia myself. I wasn’t saying the thing which was ‘I am actually bi-sexual’”, a challenge that seemed out of reach at that time.
It’s far from fresh news that homophobia within hip hop has been, and truthfully, still is, rife. Despite there being a small subsection of gay rappers in the UK, including names such as Q-Boy and RawZilla, generally speaking, it has felt that non-straight artists have stood somewhat separately from the bulk of the scene. With some of the most prolific rappers having been known to make homophobic remarks in their music, and with a sense of hyper-masculinity still running throughout hip hop, it’s unsurprising that for rappers within the LGBTQ community, there is a fear that to be open about their sexuality would be to categorise themselves away from the rest of their genre. For Dizraeli, coming out about his sexuality meant running the risk of losing some of his identity as an artist to being labelled the ‘bisexual rapper’. “In UK hip hop no one’s not straight” he explained, “It’s still a culture which is heavily macho. Although I’ve never really been in with the UK hip hop crowd in a sense, for some reason that really mattered to me. I didn’t want to be bracketed”.
Almost four years after he came out to a crowd of 4,000 people at Shambala, Dizraeli’s status is developing as a significant figure in starting conversations about masculinity, sexuality and mental health. After six years with the Small Gods, he left the group to make a solo album, and found himself in the midst of a mental collapse, unable to create. Reaching out from the dark place he was in, he started seeing a therapist, practising meditation, and speaking about what was really going on for him. As he began to come to terms with what he was experiencing, he started creating music again. After the course of a two year struggle, his work rate and creativity began to soar, and eventually he had written and recorded his biggest solo project to date.
While 2016 saw the release of his solo Eat My Camera EP, and the Leroy Merlin EP with Downlow and Nathan Feddo in 2017, The Unmaster is Dizraeli’s first solo album for ten years. It’s sister to a theatre project which shares the same title; a name that challenges the idea that we must be king of ourselves, or that we must know and be able to cope with things alone. It says that is okay to reach out, and that there is strength within truth and weakness. The album is set to take us through the artists mental collapse, almost from start to finish, beginning with the experience of being within a breakdown, through to the journey of getting out of one, all in a world that, in his words, is “the absolute perfect storm for mental illness”. Despite the rawness and honesty he seems to have conveyed within his previous work, Dizraeli described this project as the first album that feels truly his. “The Unmaster is the first record I’ve ever finished where I’m like, ‘This is it. This is the best I can do. This is actually me. This music is something I am proud of and can stand beside and behind. I can’t do any better than this’. I literally feel that as an artist I am just arriving”.
As well as being his biggest project yet, The Unmaster is the first album Dizraeli produced by himself. In his usual eclectic, innovative manner, it draws influence from garage, grime, jazz and west African percussion. It sees contributions from names such as Chango and Jakaboski from Strangelove, Bellatrix, and Danalogue. The mix-down was done by Dilip Harris, who has mixed albums for some of the greatest names in hip hop, including Gang Starr, The Roots and A Tribe Called Quest. Its sister project, The Unmaster theatre show, was born in the early days of the album writing process. In 2017, Dizraeli was asked by Boomtown to do a performance in their Speakers Corner, to which he came with pages of diary entries and other written pieces from throughout his breakdown. “The response [to the performance] was really overwhelming” Diz explained, “From men particularly…crying in my arms. Most men have almost never seen a man cry—almost never. I have almost never seen a man cry in my life, and so to me, having men come up to me and cry in my arms after reading this stuff is crazy.” From there, those readings, some of which are set to be found webbed within the album, became the base of The Unmaster theatre project. It was then contributed to by things people had said to him in response to a fundraising tour in the beginning of 2018, which found him performing in people’s living rooms, attics and basements. With the money from the tour, as well as an arts fundraising grant, The Unmaster developed into a full-scale theatre project. While it remains an entity of its own, the theatre project is closely entwined with the album. The show premiered in London late last year. It featured a live band, lots of dancing, and a definitive focus on speaking about suffering; dismantling the idea that we have to be masters of ourselves.
After crowdfunding over £20,000 to fully push the album and the project that surrounds it, the beginning of February saw the release of ‘Madness’, the first single taken from The Unmaster. ‘Madness’, in a sense, feels resonant with the sort of primal mayhem Dizraeli demonstrated in his early days with tracks such as ‘Bomb Tesco’, but with a substance entirely of its own. The track speaks of the ironic disconnection we’re experiencing within a supposedly connected modern world, and of being somewhere between observer and participant as it seems to be losing its mind. Frantic and impassioned, the accompanying video sees him losing it as he stares into his phone in a dark and empty room. Those same themes of technological intrusion and frenzied movement are carried forward in the second single from the album, ‘Oi Oi’. The track, and the video in which Dizraeli collaborates with dancer Maeva Berthelot, capture the chaos of the world in the 21st century as he asks the question we all have in our heads right now; “can anybody please explain what the f*ck is happening?”. Dizraeli’s reflections and his movement towards a glitch hop sound will surely resonate with anyone who’s been feeling desensitised by the state of the world right now.
So 2019 is the year of The Unmaster. While he prepares for this leg of his journey, he’s turning his focus inwards, remembering that whatever happens with this project doesn’t define his worth. His focus musically? In his words, “playing this really wicked music live, with other people … playing a whole pile of instruments on stage and getting to dance; seeing what it feels like to be out there performing as me rather than as this invention.”
Dizraeli will be celebrating the release of ‘Oi Oi’ with a launch party on Friday the 17th of May. It’ll be his first ever show with his full band and is set to be a banger, you can grab tickets for that here. Summer is set to be busy as he tours festivals with his band. You can catch him at the likes of Boomtown, Shambala and Larmer Tree to name a few. August will see the album’s highly anticipated release, with a UK tour to follow through September and October, and a European tour in the pipelines for the winter – keep an eye out for the official announcement coming soon.
Images by Fabrice Bourgelle