Dot Rotten, The Unsung Hero Of UK Music.

Words: Yemi Abiade
Photography: Hyperfrank

Though thriving in the present day as an enterprising producer, rapper, and singer, the aura of Zeph Ellis aka The Spirit aka Dot Rotten in 2019 should not be limited simply to his amazing beats. For, before he became the man behind a number of modern grime classics, particularly the rampant “XCXD BXMB” used by the likes of Kano and AJ Tracey, Dot Rotten was, and remains, a lyrical prodigy, relentless in style and delivery, mind bending with his words. South London may not stand as tall as East or North London when it comes to grime, but Rotten—along with P Money, Big Narstie and others—made sure the South always had something to say, even stretching back to his early days as Young Dot.

Through countless albums, mixtapes, EPs and freestyles, starting with 2007’s This Is The Beginning to 2017’s No L’s, Rotten has laid his soul bare on wax and never looked back, balancing his daily life battles with depression and mental health issues with expert lyrical precision. A tale relative to a generation and beyond. Truly one of the most versatile artists of his era, Dot has been prolific from day dot, approaching his music with the flair of an evil genius—calculating, carefully pinpointing his moment to strike—all while maintaining an enigmatic presence in the game. Almost like a South London version of the late Heath Ledger’s Joker from The Dark Knight, Rotten constantly finds new ground as an artist.

Though a grime MC, to pin him to that label would do an injustice to the constant experimentation across rap, R&B and other genres that his discography has travelled through. Not to mention his constant hunger to reinvent himself, hence the several name changes, signifying new stages of his musical life. Even as recently as August 2019, latest single “Big Issues” sees Rotten—operating under new moniker ‘The Spirit’—crooning in Auto-Tune, the next natural step for a man of his talents after a period in the background flexing his production muscles once more. His Rotten Riddims instrumental mixtape series already proved his production chops to grime heads, but in a new climate where UK music is on the up, Rotten has been a go-to beatsmith for the likes of Nines, Mist and more premier names in the UK rap scene.

To new audiences, Rotten may be best known for his 2017 lyrical war with P Money, a battle in which he more than held his own. To audiences who have grown with him, this was nothing more than a reminder of his powers. Even on war dubs, you get a sense of the methodical nature that infiltrates his bars at every point—he was really talking to P Money’s psyche throughout the beef, and it can be argued that either man took the W. Seemingly re-energised by being drawn out by a former friend, Rotten was hungry and resolute in one of the best wars of the decade. Not one to back away from beef, Wiley was also a worthy opponent over a decade ago, but it speaks to Dot’s ability that he’s spent his career rubbing lyrical shoulders with some of grime’s greatest.

When grime MCs made the transition to more electro-fused pop anthems by the end of the ‘00s and beginning of the 2010s, Dot Rotten was front and centre. Not many black artists would be so brazen as to touch Robert Miles’ immortal trance classic “Children”, but on 2012 single “Overload”, Rotten did just that, injecting a gloss and shimmer that was typical of the time and commercially viable (it hit the Top 20 upon release). Not to mention collaborations with the likes of Ed Sheeran, Cher Lloyd and a slot on the 2011 Children In Need single, “Teardrop”—all of which earned him a nomination for BBC’s Sound Of 2012 class. Rotten had done with ease what many of his generation and before found so hard: transcending his humble beginnings, evolving into a go-to for mainstream commercial superstars and a darling of the scene, if only for a brief period. That this achievement was attained is testament to his talent and constant strive for musical balance—he never aimed to be just a grime artist, but an artist at large.

On a technical tip, there are few MCs that come close to Dot Rotten’s venom and ability to fit into practically every sonic pocket. Spitting like his life depended on it at every point of his life, you very much get the fight-or-flight, endorphin-releasing element of his lyrical game. A particular highlight is his 2009 onslaught on Tim Westwood’s then BBC Radio 1 show, constantly stopping and starting his bars so as to really soak in the gravity of his own lyrics. He means everything he says, and the poignancy of the moment is overwhelming.

Pure heart and grit is what Dot has always injected into his music, regardless of who’s noticed. It speaks to his meticulous approach that he’s been able to maintain his name, both in his work and in the work of others, in UK music. He holds an interesting position in the scene, in that he’s actively sought out to reinvent himself in subtle ways that have maintained and strengthened his position, taking sonic risks without fear. This is a tough ask for someone who, outside of music, hasn’t always been able to hold it together, who has been down in the dumps but gotten back up every time. Almost like a loner, Dot Rotten has quietly gone about his business, evolving in real time as an emcee, producer, and overall artist. Let’s give him his flowers while we still can.

Posted on August 28, 2019