Catching Up With Stormzy, Grime's Golden Child
10 years into the game, Big Mike sat down with Hypebeast to discuss his position as a gatekeeper in British music, grime’s authenticity, and much more.
“I have no idea how I’ve gotten here.”
This is the typically grounded response that Stormzy, real name Michael Ebenazer Kwadjo Omari Owuo Jr, gave Hypebeast when questioned on how he’s achieved his stratospheric level of success.
The rapper – who is currently settling down after releasing his third studio album, This Is What I Mean – has become a mainstay in British music, using his grime roots and passion for writing to articulate the environment he grew up in, his relationship with God, and his tricky (and sometimes public) experiences with love.
When Stormzy came into the rap game, he offered something new. 2013 was a year packed with competitiveness in the grime scene following its fresh rebirth and Big Mike’s Wicked Skengman series made the rapper become the new kid on the block.
He used his robust rhymes to set the bar with a new approach to the genre, while still paying homage to the ones that came before him, spitting over classic grime instrumentals, from JME’s “Serious” to Dot Rotten’s “Rowdy Riddim.”
Stormzy’s clear and immediate flow, coupled with nostalgic visuals reminiscent of ‘00s clash culture, was what the scene needed at the time of his inception, with debates arguing that the genre could be “dead” following the crash of pirate radio in 2005. However, Stormzy’s 2015-released hit single, “Shut Up,” was proof that the genre was alive and well, and in more than capable hands to take it to a new level of popularity.
The single was originally filmed as a freestyle; one that intended to hit back at the online hate from “bitter” emcees that wanted to take the light away from Stormzy’s success. It revitalized the classic “Functions On The Low” instrumental from legendary British producers Ruff Sqwad and soon turned into a viral clip that went on to fight for the Christmas No. 1 spot in the UK charts.
Paying respects to the ones that came before him is the reason why Stormzy is now held in such high regard – and knows it. “When I first entered the game in 2013, I feel like every single point, every interview that I’ve had the opportunity to pay homage, show my respect, and give them their flowers, I’ve always done it because I am very much aware that no matter how far I’ve come, no matter what I’ve achieved, I’m standing on the shoulders of many people,” Stormzy told Hypebeast.
However, alongside the mountain of musical accolades he’s built over his career so far, Stormzy is also passionate about his community, along with a commitment to help those around him achieve greatness. From his widely respected initiatives with Black students at Cambridge University to the #Merky Foundation, Big Mike has also hosted festive parties in his hometown of South London to give back to the place that has made him what he is today.
Now, three studio albums deep – which all consecutively landed in the number one spot in the UK charts – Big Mike is in a good place. He often looks back at his headline performance at Glastonbury, and admits that he is only making music for himself now. He’s earned his selfishness, and now he’s working on his latest project: a new partnership with Rockstar Energy that will welcome a virtual performance, one Stormzy is excited about as he attempts to switch from “work to play.”
With this in mind, Hypebeast caught up with Grime’s national treasure to talk about his position as a figurehead of British music, his new work with Rockstar, and the people that made it possible for Stormzy to become the legend he is today.
How does it feel to be a gatekeeper in the UK music scene?
It’s a beautiful feeling that you can inspire, encourage, motivate, and exemplify what someone else can be. I’ve learned recently that the best way to do it is by being myself, my truest and most authentic self. There are things I can do to actively encourage others; whether that’s reaching out to artists or laying foundations.
But, what I’ve learned most recently, especially after releasing my newest album, is that the braver and freer I am in my own identity and character, it should inspire people. I’m just happy that who I am and the most authentic version of me is something that can encourage people to be theirs. It’s a beautiful feeling that I can inspire, while also being myself.
“The foundations that the OG’s laid are integral, and I couldn’t have gone to where I am without them.”
On the flip side, how important are the people that came before you, that laid the foundations for you to achieve your success?
They’re everything. From when I first entered the game in 2013, I feel like every single point, every interview that I’ve had the opportunity to pay homage, show my respect, and give them their flowers, I’ve always done it because I am very much aware that no matter how far I’ve come, no matter what I’ve achieved, I’m standing on the shoulders of many people.
That’s from Jazzie B, all the way to D Double E. They’re super integral, the same way as when I’m 70 years old, I’ll be in the kitchen with the boys and we’ll see some kid who has done it bigger and greater than anything we’ve ever seen – it will be unfathomable. We will look at it at see that he’s done something that we could have never imagined, I think that’s just how it’s meant to go. It’s meant to carry on, those before me have done that for me. Now, I’m going to do something that allows them to do so.
It always reminds me of a Jay-Z lyric: “Young Carter, go further, go farther,” he’s basically telling Lil Wayne that he’s meant to go further than me, and I’m meant to pass the baton to you and you’re meant to take it to a new level. So, the foundations that the OG’s laid are integral, and I couldn’t have gone to where I am without them.
“I have been very balanced with every facet of myself. That’s allowed people to connect with different parts of it.”
Do you think grime music holds the same level of authenticity as it once had?
I’m a strong believer that nostalgia makes us think that whatever era we’re in, makes us think that we’re missing something from before. I feel that in 10 years, I’m going to look back at this time and think it’s so authentic and real. Then, 10 years on from that, I’m going to look back and think the same. I think it’s a vicious cycle. I think the music and the culture are just where it’s meant to be and are a reflection of the time. I think it’s a different time of authenticity. If we look back at Channel U and even today, all the new UK rap, that is undeniably authentic – it’s because we’re in the moment.
It’s the same with football. Everyone says, “Oh the golden era,” but I’m going to look back at this treble-winning [Manchester] City team and think this is a great time for football. So, when you’re in the time, it’s hard to see the time. I like to think whatever time we’re in, is a good time, and we’re moving at a decent rate.
When you look at hip-hop, there was a time when rap was out that people didn’t like and they were critical. But, I always say that this is the same era as Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and J Cole – it’s amazing! Even though there’s stuff out there that people don’t like, I’m not too worried.
Talk to us about your new partnership with Rockstar.
My new partnership with Rockstar has been really fun. It’s been a breath of fresh air in comparison to what I’m normally doing. As artists, there are things that we do every time we release music, there’s a normal pattern. So when I got together with Rockstar, it was a really fun and dynamic thing to do.
The partnership also comes with a virtual performance, right?
I’ve been really excited to work with Rockstar on this, it’s super exciting. I think the whole concept is about switching from work to play. Everyone that knows me knows that I’m very much about having work and play – I’m either a big kid or an uncle. I think this campaign really encapsulates that – I’m switching from working to having fun.
That’s been a big part of my character throughout my career, the balance of taking the job extremely seriously and not taking it seriously at all. I think that’s the epitome of me. I’m the same person that’s going to be in the studio fussing and fighting over the smallest thing, but I’m also the kind of person that’s going to grab the mic, freestyle, and have a laugh. I think this new campaign really encapsulated that.
“All I’ve done throughout my career is make music that I like, be myself, and I’ve been confident enough to make whatever musical decisions feel good to my spirit.”
How and why do you think you have created such a varied and loyal fan base?
I don’t know! I think sometimes, we like to think we have it all figured out. I just thank God. When I get asked questions like this, I have no idea how I’ve gotten here. All I’ve done throughout my career is make music that I like, be myself, and I’ve been confident enough to make whatever musical decisions feel good to my spirit.
What that’s left me with is this catalog that stretches from “Big For Your Boots,” to “Blinded By Your Grace,” to “Wiley Flow,” to “Audacity,” to the song with Little Mix, all of these songs and moments are my different characteristics, traits, feelings, and emotions. I’ve always been true when I’ve expressed them. I haven’t gone super heavy with one emotion or side of me and neglected the other. I have been very balanced with every facet of myself. That’s allowed people to connect with different parts of it.
There might be one freestyle – that might not be music to your mum’s ears – but she might connect with “Blinded By Your Grace.” I’ve just been my authentic self and it’s allowed people to connect with that.
But, if I’m being honest, I still don’t know. I’m in the studio now making music and I’m in there and not considering who it’s going to connect with, I’m just making whatever feels good and praying to God that it feels good. I don’t know how I got here, I just thank God.