Stormzy Grew Up On Grime, Now He's Eclipsing His Heroes

"Mobb Deep? Biggie? I ain't got a clue about none of that. I just know Lethal B and Kano Vs Wiley."

|
Nov 18 2014, 2:33pm

Until earlier this year, it was widely believed that grime had all but carked it. There were numerous problems, including with the Metropolitan Police, but the key was a dearth of notable new talent. Grime hadn’t produced a newcomer of note since 2006 when Chip and Ice Kid came through.

Why did grime come to a standstill? In 2008, Giggs dropped “Talking The Hardest” and all of a sudden no one wanted to spaz out over 140 anymore. Kids didn’t want to MC – they wanted to rap. Combine that with the fact that Tinchy and Chip were busy making Dappy-assisted chart bangerz and all of a sudden grime seemed to be losing its cache.

“I was doing grime back then but even I started rapping,” remembers South Londoner Stormzy. “We all did. I saw everyone rapping, so I thought, ‘Okay I guess this is what is going on.’” Names like Giggs, Sneakbo, Fekky and Krept and Konan overtook their grime peers, leaving MCs eating their road rap dust. Until that is, earlier this year when Meridian Dan extolled the virtues of German engineering, Skepta and JME rejected the art of acting like a wasteman, Lethal B reformed gymnastics with his “Rari Workout”, and Kano proved he still had one of the best flows in the UK. Like the 242 bus, you wait eight years for a decent grime tune to come along and all of a sudden…

“I think people have started looking at grime again and saw there’s something going on over here,” says Stormzy. “You know, I was rapping for a bit but I still wanted to do grime. I couldn’t neglect it. I couldn’t stay away from it. I’m a proper grime kid. When you’re a grime kid, you’re a grime kid for life.”

Last November Stormzy dropped “Where You Been”; when the “#wickedskengman” series (watch below) followed in January, people really started to take note of the newcomer dropping bars over ice-cold eski beats. The video gave grime an adrenalin shot right through its weed-choked heart.

In June, he released the Dreamers Disease EP which spawned the anthem “Not That Deep” with reload worthy bars like: “Your postcode don’t make you a gangsta/ You’re not bad, your area is”. In September, he walked away with the unofficial award for ‘Best Bars’ at Charlie Sloth’s Fire In The Booth Cypher, calmly taking out Ghetts, Akala, No Lay and P Money. In October, he won a MOBO for Best Grime Act, and earlier this month he was the first unsigned rapper to play Jools Holland; which he did in grey adidas trackies and a goggle hat.

“I just went as I was. Jump Off TV did a debate on whether I should have gone in a tracksuit. But I thought, this ain’t the time for me to adjust. This is the time I need to rep, not tone it down. I wanted to show everyone what we’re about point blank; DJ, bars, aggression. This is our culture.”

Stormzy now has the full co-sign of the scene. Check the videos for Wiley’s “On A Level” and Skepta’s “It Ain’t Safe” and you’ll see Stormzy’s face alongside stalwarts Skepta, Will, JME, Giggs and Krept and Konan. “It’s all a bit surreal,” he admits, “cos I’ve been a fan for so long and now I’m on the other end. I’m meeting people that I’m actually a fan of and they want to talk to me. I’ve been a fan of Boy Better Know for so long and now I’m working with them. When I did the 'On A Level' video, I’m trying to act normally and professionally but I’m like, ’Arghhhh that’s Wiley’,” he laughs waving his hands out excitedly. “In a blink of an eye you go from being a fan and admiring someone, to working with them.”

Stormzy’s part of the first generation of MCs to grow up on a purely British influence. “I used to hate American rap. A lot of people say they grew up on Mobb Deep, Tupac and Biggie,” he frowns. "I ain’t got a clue about none of that. I wouldn’t be able to tell you a single song. I just know Lethal B and Kano Vs Wiley. I think sometimes they don’t realise that, the grime scene. I was talking to Wiley the other day, saying, ‘you lot are our Tupac and our Biggie.’ ”

Brought up in South London’s Thornton Heath, Stormzy grew up a few years below local heroes Krept and Konan, and became obsessed by MCing at the age of 11. He would go to local Youth Club, Rap Academy, and clash anyone in his path. “Everyone else was older than us but I’d go on the mic and clash whole crews. I’d be talking about their mums and all that. I remember people saying ‘This little yout’s hard!’ Any opportunity to spit, I’d spit. I’ve always had that hunger.”

Stormzy at Culture Clash. Photo by Quann from Wot Do You Call It

He was, by his own admission, a clever kid. School was a breeze and he sailed through his GCSEs, but college stopped him in his tracks. “Anyone who sees this, A-Levels are not a joke,” he warns mock-seriously. “I didn’t turn up to school, but I’d go to the exams and smash it. I tried to do that in college and it didn’t work. It was quite a life lesson cos it showed that you get to a time in life where it’s not just about your raw talent and your raw ability. If you don’t work hard and focus, it won’t pay off.”

He dropped out to apply for a number of apprenticeships, and was offered one at an engineering firm where he worked for a year and a half until quitting in April of this year. “I was doing quality control but my head was never really in it,” he explains. “I just weren’t enjoying it. I’d be at work writing bars on loads of little Post-It’s. I’d be on YouTube watching a Skepta Westwood freestyle trying to hide it from my manager. It got to the stage where I was trying to balance the two and then I’d have to call in sick ‘cos I wanted to go on radio. It became one or the other so I put 100% into music, quit my job and started applying pressure.”

A whirlwind six months later and it’s paid off; Stormzy is without doubt the No.1 newcomer in grime. He’s proved himself to be a serious MC, whose baritone gobbles up beats like Pacman on crack, but he’s not afraid to show others sides too. For instance, there’s the awesomely cheesy cover of Justin Bieber’s “All That Matters” (above), while one of the Dreamers Disease EP standouts is “Stormtrooper”, in which he talks about domestic abuse.

Not exactly your usual grime chat fodder is it mate? “Just know one thing; I can spit. But I can be versatile too. I’m singing on my new song but then I’m back to the bars and the aggression. I get amazing responses from both.”

It’s this that makes Stormzy an interesting proposition; he’s grimy as fuck but also funny. The Skengman series shows off his spitting abilities but also his silly side. “I’m a big kid, honestly,” he agrees with a grin. “That’s been part of why people like me I think. There’s not a distance between me and the people that listen to me. I’m a fan of Rick Ross, yeah, but I don’t sell drugs, do you know what I mean? I go to Morley’s for £2 chicken and chips.”

Grime may have been in the trough for a bit, but it looks like it’s about to peak again. Consider hip-hop’s first ten years and that it took until 1988 for the ‘golden years’ of Rakim, N.W.A and Public Enemy, then we could be about to see grime go through the same transformation. Stormzy recalls a recent tweet from Wiley. “He said to me ’You’re the one. Please take this to a place where we wasn’t able to take it ourselves’. He told me I’m carrying the torch.”

Does he think he can do it? “Yeah, yeah,” he nods slowly. “I’m up for the challenge. And I’m coming at a time where everyone’s opened these doors for me to run through, take the torch and try to run with a little bit more stamina.” So is he grime’s savior? A big laugh. “Oh I don’t know, that’s up for debate I’m just playing my part,” he insists. “I’m going to keep flying the flag and doing what I do. Rap took over but people are looking at grime again and seeing there’s something going on over here. It’s not time to slow down - it’s time to go even harder.”

Follow Hattie on Twitter: @HattieCollins

Stormzy and Action Bronson will be at this year's Fresh Island festival. Get tickets here!