It’s almost unheard of before an artist has even announced their debut album that they win a BET Award, score a hit with a freestyle and begin hosting a radio show on the biggest digital radio station in the world Beats 1, but that’s exactly what UK rapper Stormzy has achieved in just a few short years on the scene.
Stormzy, born Michael Omari, is a 22 year-old English rapper and MC from London. He dropped his first mixtape 168: The Mixtape back in 2013 and has since then steadily grown his profile within the grime scene and more recently on the worldwide rap scene. While his online presence and international career was born from that mixtape, the grime scene is all about doing the groundwork and as such, he got his break by clashing at youth clubs in his hometown. That’s probably why he possesses one of the most potent freestyling capabilities in recent memory - skills that have helped him rack up over 35 million views on a freestyle video on YouTube.
Stormzy’s made a name for himself freestyling. In 2013, he started uploading freestyle raps on YouTube called Wicked Skengman. For each, he’d rap over a classic grime beat taking it in his own direction. The day one fans were lapping up those freestyles from day one, but even the casual UK music fan were made aware of the fourth part of the Wicked Skengman series. It became the first freestyle to break the top 20 of the UK charts and also snatched JME’s prior record of number 40 set with his cut 96 Fuckeries. As Stormzy noted when the record was set, he did it without a label and without radio airplay. Grime has always been about forming a family made up of both your peers and your fans and one of Stormzy’s greatest achievements has been crafting a community, one that’s expanded far outside the borders of the UK.
To understand Stormzy’s worldwide success, it’s important to look back at the genres breakout into international markets last year. Back in 2009, Dizzee Rascal and Wiley broke onto the international scene as grime rappers but in order to nab their biggest hits to date, they melded their style with electronic elements for a more appealing mainstream sound. The pair faded from mosts vision with Wiley recently going back to his grime roots. Journalists heralded the international invasion of grime but it wasn’t to be with nowhere outside the UK embracing the true, garage-inspired roots of grime music.
Last year, Kanye West performed at the Brit Awards backed by a crew made up of Stormzy, Skepta and Novelist. Drake continued the love by gushing over Skepta and his grime crew and label Boy Better Know on Instagram. Despite being arguably the most profitable rapper in the world right now, Drizzy has since linked with Boy Better Know becoming an honorary member.
There’s a difference with the International spread of grime now than back in 2009. This time around the international stars of hip-hop are coming to grime rather than the other way around. You only need to look at the success Skepta has nabbed with his most recent album Konnichiwa for proof. It’s taken him from America’s SXSW to Australia, driven by the success of one of last year’s strongest tracks Shutdown. This year, Skepta’s returning to Australia for his biggest tour to date.
If Skepta is grime’s leader, then Stormzy is its young blood. Skepta is Stormzy’s idol and while the pair share similarities, Stormzy is carving his own history seperate from the Boy Better Know crew. He’s a poignant, intelligent and ambitious rapper who wanted to be prime minister when he was growing up. Maybe that’s what drives his fire for the top. Grime has always manifested in the underground but Stormzy’s come into it with a desire to take it further.
While still impressing the genre’s purists, he’s nabbed two top 50 hits. Know Me From was his first coming fresh off the back of the BBC naming him one of the Sound of 2015 - their critics’ one to watch list put together at the start of each year. He did it without any big-name producers laying down the beat or any vocalists delivering a delectable hook. Nothing was watered down for the mainstream and yet audiences lapped him up.
Perhaps the biggest testament to his devoted fanbase was his campaign to send Shut Up to the coveted Christmas number one slot in the UK. While it didn’t quite nab the top spot, a viral campaign sent it to number eight.
On the release front, 2016 has been quieter for Stormzy. He’s been prepping the release of his debut and in April we got Scary complete with a dark, haunting visual. No word on whether the track is from his debut but the record is expected to drop some time throughout the UK’s summer and our winter.
According to an interview with Clash, Frank Ocean and Lauryn Hill are cited as major influences and he’s opted for including soul singers on the record.
“There’s some bits I can’t do myself. I want people to feel that sense of bereavement or pain or mourning from my record,” he said.
“We can pen it together, we can write it together, but I need a certain vocal range and tone. I want all the features to bring something to my record.”
He’s vowed to use his real name Michael for the record because he believe that he needs to get back to showing people who the real him is.
“I want you to understand who I am, what I love, what I hate, what I treasure, what has stunted my growth, helped my growth. I want everything to be in this record.”
Stormzy’s visited Australia a number of times in the past and he’s heading this way once again for Listen Out festival in October. He’s the only grime rapper representing on the bill but he stands alongside US hip-hop champions Travis Scott, A$AP Ferg and Anderson .Paak. Each time he comes his audiences expands and this is likely to be his biggest trip to date. He’s repping for grime but he’s also repping for Stormzy. By consistently believing he can break barriers and reach giddy heights, he’s done it. And yet the stories only just begun.
- Words and images by the interns' Sam Murphy & Bianca Bosso