If grime's dead then how am I here? asks 21-year-old MC Stormzy on his new single "Know Me From." It's a fair question: if grime's dead, how did he join Kanye West on stage at the BRITs two weeks ago? How did "Know Me From" just enter the UK charts in the Top 50 in its first week of release? How did he take the third spot on the BBC Sound of 2015? How was he the first unsigned MC to ever appear on British late night TV show Later...With Jools Holland? Ice-cool as ever, Stormzy follows up his question on "Know Me From" with the Skepta-referencing line, talk about me, you better hashtag #problem.
Stormzy's a problem for anyone who still thinks grime is a movement that's seen its best days already. He's a south west London kid who grew up on strictly London sounds: he idolized the likes of Boy Better Know, The Movement, Wiley, Dizzee, and Wretch 32. "They were just so similar to me," he says over the phone. "It was like, I can understand this. They're talking like me, they dress like me, they look like me." By the age of 11, Stormzy—known to his mum as Mike Omari—was MC-ing himself, getting into lyrical battles with other kids at his local youth club. After leaving school at 17, he worked for an engineering firm that saw him move around the UK for a couple of years; at 19, he came back to the city of his roots to focus on music full-time.
You can see his dedication in the grin-inducing and hard-hitting videos that are all over YouTube: as well as the visual-pun-stuffed "Know Me From," which, incidentally, features a guest appearance from his mum, there's the BMX-prowling "Not That Deep," the emotional tale of domestic abuse woven through slow-burner "Storm Trooper," the unlikely Justin Bieber cover "All That Matters," and reels of #WickedSkengMan freestyles. Two years on, he's still making DIY videos with his partner Jaiden Ramgeet but now he's getting co-signs from the likes of Wiley and Kanye. Here he chats about sharing the BRITs stage with the latter, carrying the grime torch, and taking his culture to the world.
It's only been a couple of weeks since you joined Kanye onstage at the BRITs. How did that happen? Skepta just phoned me actually, saying 'what you doing?' I was shooting something with MOBO TV in north London. He was like, 'if you can get down in time, we're going to the BRITs with Kanye.' And I was like, 'cool.' It all happened quite quickly. I just got briefed quickly by the stage manager, then within 20 minutes we were on stage, and in the next 20 minutes we were out of the building.
How did you feel when Skepta called you—did you think it would be as big a deal as it has been? For me it was just like, firstly, I got a phone call from one of my favorite MCs in the game. Like, my actual favorite in the game. Plus, he's saying we're going to the BRITs, which is even more exciting for me, and then he's saying we're going on stage with Kanye, which is a bonus. So for me, it was just a sick experience. People thought it was some revolution or something—for me, it weren't nothing like that. It was just a sick experience.
"It only makes sense for the next generation to be better."
Do have a close relationship with veteran MCs like Skepta? Yeah, yeah, Skepta's like my big brother. Lethal's like my big brother. Wretch 32. All these veterans, like Wiley, they've all embraced me and made me feel welcome.
A few people have talked about you carrying a torch, including Wiley, who said he wants you to take grime where it hasn't been before. What do you think it'll take to make that happen? I think it's just all natural, man. All these people before me have done great things and made mistakes, but they've broken these doors open for me...it's because Wiley broke that door down for me, or Skepta broke that door down for me. It's just about reworking it, understanding why they went wrong or why they did well and doing it again, so that the people who come after me, whenever they do come, they'll say, 'okay, Stormzy did this, but he fucked up there, and he shouldn't have done that, so we're going to do this instead.' It only makes sense for the next generation to be better.
You've developed a huge following from your hilarious videos as well as your bars. Are there any artists whose big presence or character you admire? Wretch 32. The way he's done it, he's done it in such an authentic way. In the sense that the music hasn't been compromised. Because I think people find it difficult to translate our music on a mainstream level. You sort of have to go left and be very pop, and change everything, or you have to keep it so real that the mainstream are never gonna get it, if we're being totally honest.
Is that where you see yourself going—do you want to tread the line between those two worlds? Yeah, I think that's the best way. That's the most authentic way to do it. Because...how do I explain this—I want everyone to understand the music. Of course, at first, only our people, our culture are gonna get it. But I think in order for me to make the whole world get it, I just need to do it in a sicker way, a more elevated way, for them to understand. Maybe they don't even understand, but they just respect it. They might not think it's sick themselves, but they can see why our culture thinks it's sick. Like, people like Coldplay and Arctic Monkeys—I've got friends that never listen to them, but they know that Coldplay are dons, they know that Arctic Monkeys are dons in their world. My friends might not like the music, but they know that [those bands] are the dons, and they can understand that and respect that. The whole movement is universal, you know what I'm saying? That's what I'm trying to do, get it to where you understand it. Whether you like it or not is a whole different story, but you can understand why people like it.
So what's next for you? I'm just gonna carry on merking.