Back to boom and bust

On Dizzee Rascal's "Dirtee Cash".

Most of the music around us is designed not to be listened to. It's meant to be heard, certainly, but by and large it wafts around our daily lives like a kind of aural perfume, oozing from mobile phones on the bus, TV screens at the gym, websites you click through during slow days at the office.

Pop songs, to maximise their chance of radio airplay, are put through an audio compression process that drastically narrows the music's dynamic range. Shops and bars, meanwhile, play certain forms of thumping dance beats they believe will stimulate customers to buy more. If you've ever stopped and noticed a song while you're riffling through the clothes racks at a high-street chain store, then the soundtrack has failed its intended purpose.

What happens, though, when we do listen closely? This column is intended to be, not a set of rules, but an investigation into the potential of doing just that.

Filthy rich

Our subject today is Dizzee Rascal. The London-born rapper, who won the Mercury Prize in 2003, has now become a major pop star, thanks to a string of hits over the summer. How did he do it? Let's look to his latest single, "Dirtee Cash", for clues. As you might guess from the title, this is a song about money, specifically about people up to their eyeballs in debt. Over a wash of melancholy synths and a vocal line by a sultry female soul singer, Dizzee raps fast rhymes in a broad London accent about people who "spend money that they ain't made yet" and end up with "bad credit/ Livin' on direct debit/In debt . . ."

Such is life, as Dizzee puts it, "in the days of the credit crunch". It's fitting, then, that where the music is concerned, he trades in derivatives: "Dirtee Cash" liberally samples the 1990 dance hit "Dirty Cash (Money Talks)" by the Adventures of Stevie V, itself a watered-down version of the acid house sound of the late-Eighties club scene. Propelled by a version of the amen break - the funk drumbeat that underpins most hip-hop - the original hook has been altered very little by Dizzee's producers. In fact, their main innovation is to add a dose of reverb to the bass drumbeat that falls on the first beat of every bar. (The lyrics may be about boom and bust; the bass drum just goes BOOM.) This ensures that the song's pulse will filter through even the muddiest of student disco sound systems and festival PAs. All of Dizzee's hits this year have relied on this basic appeal: the (often beer-enhanced) stomp, as perfected by pop acts from Bavarian oompah bands to the Seventies Brummie glam-rockers Slade.

The other feature retained from the original is the chorus. "Money talks," sings the vocalist. "Dirty cash I want you/Dirty cash I need you more." If the connection between sex and cash wasn't implied strongly enough, it's made clear towards the end of the track, when she sings: "I've got no taboos/I'll make a trade with you." In the gaps between her words, Dizzee tries to keep his rap going by interjecting every now and then a stock phrase (example: "It don't stop! . . . It don't stoooop!"). Plenty of pop songs have used male-female vocals to great effect; Dizzee himself unleashed a chilling vignette of teenage (non-)romance on his debut single, "I Luv U". But this time, trying to interact with a voice recorded almost two decades ago, it's like he's trying to hold a conversation with an answerphone.

Crisis point

So, what does it mean when one of the liveliest hits of the year involves a 24-year-old man (Dizzee, real name Dylan Mills, was born in 1985) attempting to converse with a sample that's nearly as old as he is? For one thing, it neatly sums up pop's current crisis. As the critic Mark Fisher noted in the 30 April 2009 issue of the NS, technology has made it easier than ever to access and reuse the cultural resources of the past, but makes it harder to come up with fresh ideas. "Dirtee Cash" has this conflict written into its DNA.

What's more, the subject matter - our whole precarious financial system, no less - suggests the crisis might not be confined to pop music. "Dirtee Cash" is riven with the demands of consumer capitalism, in both the lyrics and the music itself: more spending, more goods, more catchy tunes. Dizzee's breathless delivery suggests it could dissolve into chaos at any moment. He's not quite in control of his own story - and perhaps neither are we in control of ours.

The Art of Listening will run fortnightly from January