Stormzy is draped in the Ghanaian flag, hood up, studio lights glaring in his face, when his publicist casually mentions to me that ‘Shut Up’ might soon be the most-viewed freestyle on YouTube, ever. Stormzy looks up: “What?” There’s a Tim Westwood TV one by Eminem that’s been viewed 24 million times over six years, but ‘Shut Up’ is on 22 million, and looking set to smash that within a matter of days (Ed – that was at the time of print, it's now on 28 million). It’s barely hyperbole to say that the world is watching him right now.
It’s difficult to talk about the 22-year- old MC from Thornton Heath without reeling off various bullet points of his success: the first ever freestyle to chart in the top 10, first unsigned rapper to appear on Later… with Jools Holland, three MOBOs, joining Kanye on stage at the BRITs… It’s a neat coincidence that he’s just been asked to give a talk at Oxford university straight after Yeezy did the same, while it’s another neat coincidence that Omari is both Ye’s middle name and Stormzy’s surname.
This invite has special significance for the rapper, who was tipped to study at the uni by his parents and teachers after getting good grades at school. “I was meant to become some corporate person, you know. But now that I’ve chosen my career and said, ‘Guys, I’m not going to Oxford,’ that has led to Oxford saying, ‘Yo, can you come in and talk to us?’ It’s like, shit – I was meant to go here, now I’m talking to the students?!”
He’s just returned from Tokyo, where he filmed a video for his ‘One Take’ freestyle. The clip sees him flex in front of neon signage and vending machines, ferociously commanding Rude Kid’s prolific instrumental while firing shots at boxer Dillian Whyte. “I was a big black guy in Japan so I stood out,” he laughs. He wasn’t feeling the sushi (“I don’t like cold food, man”) or some of their flavour combinations (“they have pizza with berries on it, chocolate flavoured Doritos – mad shit, chocolate on chips in McDonalds”) but had the opportunity to chill with A Bathing Ape founder Nigo, who he’d formerly collaborated with for AW15. “He’s a legend”, Stormzy stresses. “We were shooting for his new adidas Originals campaign. I’m the face of that, which is a little mad.”
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Any person from my area, or any young kid, now knows they can do it…
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For the interview, we’ve come somewhere where the 6ft 3” MC is least likely to get mobbed by gassed schoolkids – a cocktail bar in Bethnal Green, where he sips juice and tries to avoid looking at the steady flicker of notifications on his (adidas-covered, naturally) phone. Though he looks visibly uncomfortable about sitting next to a taxidermy badger wearing a hat: “What the fuck is that?”
Michael Omari grew up in a God-fearing household, something that left a permanent impression on him. “It was very difficult for my mum, her providing for us,” he says. “But she was always kind-hearted, and remained cool through it all. That inspired me to be more religious and closer to God.” He does admit, though, that as a kid he was a “proper little shit. On the streets, excluded from school every week, stealing from shops. But all those things shaped me for who I am today. Looking back, I was so focused on being a little menace that I didn’t really think about anything else. At the time, I wasn’t trying to be some superstar rapper or some shit. I was just trying to survive.”
Spitting at his local youth club, Rap Academy, from the age of 10, Stormzy had a natural flair for the mic. He’d clash entire crews in one go. “I was a proper little warmonger back then, like, anyone who wants it, I’ll be on it. You know, that young, cocky little attitude…” Asked to remember some of his bars from back then, he racks his brain. ““Bullets will cover man / If I don’t drop ’em with the first one I’ll give ’em another bang / I’ll leave a breh pissed off like seeing his wifey lipsing another man…” Yeah, that was my trademark lyric,” he laughs.
A diet of grime and an active dislike of American rap informed his musical taste back then, and he accessed the generation of BBK, Dizzee and Ruff Sqwad before him via Limewire and in the playground on Bluetooth over teardrop Nokia phones, while local heroes Krept & Konan, Roadside Gs and Southside Allstars filled the screens of Channel U. Knowing he was naturally clever imbued him with a confidence that, at 16, gave him “quite an arrogant attitude. I was getting nicked, getting arrested and I’d be sitting in court going, ‘Nah, I’ll come out and get a good job.’ I was this smart kid who was a little shit but the teachers didn’t wanna kick me out because I was smart. I would push my luck. Eventually I realised that in life people don’t care whether you’re smart, you can’t be running around being a prick. I grew up.”
Leaving school at 17, he joined an engineering firm, where he spent most of his time scribbling bars on Post-it notes and watching Westwood freestyles behind his manager’s back, before realising he wasn’t ready to say goodbye to the rap game.
A whirlwind of hype took him from the days of emceeing with his mates on the bus to South Norwood’s Harris Academy to award ceremonies – and now, his first magazine cover. It’s largely been down to the power of instant-share platforms and his infamous ‘#WickedSkengMan’ freestyles. Capturing the DIY spirit of the early days of grime, the ‘Know Me From’ video was shot on a shoestring budget of £40, featuring his now-legendary mum (“she does get recognised, yeah,” he laughs) and an Eastenders skit. “‘Shut Up’ is the perfect example,” he nods. “I could’ve done that in a fancy studio with an HD camera and all the mandem in suits, know what I mean? But clearly it didn’t need that. It just needed me to hit the park in an adidas tracksuit, as I normally do, with my bredrins, and spit.”
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Grime is now one of those pillars, it's a foundation of British music…
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Selecting classic grime instrumentals such as XTC’s ‘Functions On The Low’, S-X’s ‘Woo Riddim’ and Jme’s ‘Serious’ to spit over, he’s joined the dots between the old and new, getting the co-sign from the whole scene in the process. It’s that impenetrable confidence in what he’s doing that’s seen him remain unsigned, though he admits that offers have landed on the table. “I’m too focused on making music right now,” he explains. “It’s such a big deal to everyone though. If I don’t ever wanna sign that’s cool. If I wanna stay independent for the rest of my life that’s cool. If I sign tomorrow, great. But I’m not even thinking about it.”
On set at his Clash shoot, Stormzy gives the impression of being incredibly comfortable in his own skin, ad-libbing to Drake and Future’s ‘Jumpman’ while sinking naturally into poses, eyes locked on the lens. But he later admits that he finds photo shoots “awkward. I hate ’em. You know when it’s like, ‘Oooh, look at me, I’m Stormzy.’ Musically, all day, big guns; I’ll fucking go for it. But anywhere else… For example, I’ll be in a club – I’ll bring my friends, we’ll be in the VIP just chilling. They’ll come over with sparklers on the bottles, and the DJ’s like, ‘Yeah, big up Stormzy inside!’ I’m like, ‘Please, no, don’t do that.’ I’m a bit weird with that.”
But bravado is intrinsic to grime, and while Big Mike (AKA Stiff Chocolate, AKA The Problem) is ready to shower bars in an instant, Michael Omari seems to want to shy away from the spotlight. “Now that I’m more in the limelight I don’t enjoy eyes on me as much,” he admits. Contrarily, though, he’s a confident presenter on his #MERKY show for Apple Music’s Beats 1, and has also nabbed a role in Noel Clarke’s upcoming BrOTHERHOOD film, something that made him “proper nervous,” despite loving acting at school. “I was always a class clown, a joker. But this was so different. Noel was really good, he proper helped me.” Stepping into the shoes of a character called Yardz, Stormzy found he could identify with his laid-back, serious, and at times menacing presence. “In a weird way it was similar to my story – I got it a lot. It was way easier than playing someone I can’t relate to. Cos then I would’ve had to do some method acting, Leonardo DiCaprio shit!”
It’s just one of many surreal happenings that have marked Mike’s rise, including hanging with his hero Idris Elba and performing over in Australia and Lagos, but particularly Iceland (“I’m in Iceland – why do you lot know me?!”). “I don’t wanna stop having those moments, know what I mean?” he says. “Like, I don’t reckon Adele has many WTF moments anymore. She’s seen it all, innit.”
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Now that I’m more in the limelight I don’t enjoy eyes on me as much…
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Many know the South Londoner for his ‘fire in the park’ style of lyrical aggression (in his words, “how I’m the best MC and I’ll clash all of you lot”) and pun-laden bars, yet on ‘Dreamers Disease’ EP cut ‘Storm Trooper’ he showcased a softer side, singing about domestic abuse. He’s cited Frank Ocean and Lauryn Hill as major influences, and explains he’s decided to include soul singers on his debut album, due in the summer. “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. 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.”
The LP is being produced by Messers Mo and Mikey Samuels, the duo behind Wretch 32’s ‘6 Words’, but what’s it going to sound like? “Like Michael personified,” he states. “And I’m using Michael not Stormzy, because I feel like I need to get back to who I am. There’s been glimpses of people seeing who I am but I’m talking on a musical level. You’re getting the freestyles, you’re getting the records here and there, but you’re not getting who Stormzy 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.”
For him it’s been a steep ascent, but that’s not to say it’s only been love on the way up. “Death threats, so many death threats,” he raps on ‘One Take’. Recently he came under fire in the comments section of a Lad Bible video featuring him in New York with Ice Cube and Kevin Hart. With the Hollywood comedian dropping lyrics from thin air, Stormzy took to the classic grime approach of spitting pre-formed bars in freestyle mode, drawing accusations of not being able to rap off the top of his head. “I hate having to explain things online,” he sighs. “But at least I can talk about it in an interview… Americans look at it like, this ain’t a freestyle. But I can’t spit off the top. It was so weird introducing myself to Ice Cube, though! I wasn’t no one; I had to prove myself again."
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I want you to understand who I am, what I love, what I hate, what I treasure…
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His fan-base has come under attack, too, with some branding it largely ‘rich middle class white kids’ with no understanding of grime’s history or struggle – something he calls a “dickhead argument.” He continues: “I couldn’t give a shit where you’re from. It don’t matter. I don’t care if it’s a white millionaire kid from Oxfordshire who comes to my show, buys my record, supports me and rates me. It’s cool. I like flipping Coldplay. And I like Jessie Ware. But I’m sure how we grew up was totally different. I don’t know the history of Coldplay’s catalogue, and I don’t know the history of indie rock, but I fucking think they’re sick. I respect what they do. I love their music.”
Having just been in Tokyo on stage with Pakin, one of Japan’s most respected grime MCs and part of a burgeoning scene out there, Stormzy evidently feels excited about the genre’s global potential. “As humans we have ideas, and 95% of the time we want them to blossom out to the world. Eventually, you want it to be international. You want your business in Australia, Asia, Africa. Ain’t that the same for grime? Weren’t that the plan? For it to be a black street thing, and then the whole world likes it, and eventually in Tokyo we’ve got grime MCs and there’s an African grime MC. But now that the plan’s coming into motion, everyone’s getting scared and saying, ‘Oh, no no.’ Let it work. We’re meant to be better than shunning people. Same way that we’ve been shunned all these years. I don’t care who you are. White, black, gold; it don’t matter. People chat shit.”
Grime is in the rudest health it’s enjoyed for some time, but there’s still a section of the industry refusing to acknowledge its importance. “None of my Gs nominated for BRITs? Are you taking the piss? Embarrassing,” he spits on ‘One Take’. Stormzy repeats this last word, kissing his teeth when we ask him to expand on his take on the awards show. “I feel like they embarrassed themselves very badly to the point where it’s like, bruv, all the kids in Britain are listening to the likes of Skepta, Jme, Lethal Bizzle, Section Boyz… These are young British kids. They’re coming to the shows, buying the records. In British music you have indie, rock… Grime is now one of those pillars. It’s a foundation of British music.”
He can now fully appreciate the point Kanye was making by bringing the entire grime scene out on stage last year. “At the time I didn’t quite realise what he was saying. I respect him so much for that. He said, ‘Oh, these guys never want you to get awards. Come, just come – let’s fuck up the place for one day.’” He considers for a moment: “But I didn’t want [the lyric] to come across angry, like I’m outraged. This time, we’re politely telling you, you embarrassed yourself. That’s it. Onto the next one.”
Achieving for himself – and for his family – is one thing, but Stormzy is clear that he wants his story to inspire the generation below him. “When people tell you you’re not able to do something, it’s self- empowering. Any person from my area or any young kid now knows they can do it. If there’s a kid from Thornton Heath growing up now in school and he’s telling the teachers, ‘I’m gonna get to the charts with rap music,’ and they say no, he can say, ‘No, look, Stormzy done it!’ When the teachers, the corporations wanna tell you you can’t do it, of course you can. Stormzy’s in the Top 10. You can’t tell me nothing.”
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Words: Felicity Martin
Videography: Sharna Osborne
Fashion: Madeleine Østlie
Catch Stormzy at Outlook festival this summer.
This article originally appeared in the 100th issue of Clash in print. To purchase a copy click here: http://clashmagazine.tictail.com/.