The rise of Big Mike
“I think the humour comes naturally,” drawls Stormzy. “A lot of grime lyrics are just funny. When people talk about how dark and aggressive the culture is, yeah, they’re right. But there’s also this very lovely, comical side to it. I couldn’t name you an MC that doesn’t have a funny lyric, something that tickles a bit. Street culture is dark, but it’s always been a bit jokes, you know?”
Grime’s occasionally overlooked sense of humour is something Stormzy (real name Michael Omari) has been exercising fully these last few months, whether it’s getting his mum involved in the Know Me From video, name dropping Shirley Carter, or promoting his UK tour with a spoof recording of his apparent 8-year-old self spitting bars on dodging homework and getting Nando’s (“Nah, that’s not real,” he says. “I think that’s the first time I’ve admitted that actually.”)
The humour is tied up in an unpolished realness that’s helped grime make some of its strongest statements to date, an obvious example being That’s Not Me’s low budget green-screen video. In fact, says Stormzy, the original video for Know Me From was shot on HD cameras and cut to a professional standard, with no passing vans fucking up the shot halfway through. Concerned that it lacked the same vitality as Not That Deep, Stormzy scrapped it, opting instead to get someone with a handheld cam to shoot him and his boys trooping through the ends with a ton of props. “I like having my friends in the videos, that’s more what I represent right now,” he says. “You can see it all fall apart at the end, with the mandem just running out and having fun.”
"My goal is to be the greatest"
They’ve certainly got reason to celebrate – Stormzy has had a mental year. The MC singles out his inclusion on BBC Music’s Sound of 2015 shortlist, in which he reached the number three slot, as a highlight. Just a year previously he’d been in the middle of an engineering apprenticeship. Then there’s things like the MOBO award, the sell-out UK tour, the Jools Holland appearance, the trip to Ghana with Twin B…
And then there’s the one he’s tired of talking about – the Brits performance.The one he dismisses as “a quick experience” that barely involved him, but one that prompted one of the more important conversations grime’s had with itself in recent years. The questions bear repeating, because they’re ones that have accompanied Stormzy’s rise: why did it take one of the biggest names in music full stop to get some of the UK underground’s finest on stage at the Brits? Does grime owe Kanye West a single thing?
“Of course it doesn’t,” comes the instant response. “I’m a strong believer that nothing like that means anything. Grime doesn’t need a co-sign. It was sick before Kanye West, it’ll be sick after Kanye West. It’d be sick if Kanye West had turned around and said he hated grime. Obviously it doesn’t harm having one of the biggest artists of our generation talk about it, but yeah, people have been looking way too deep into that man.”
The performance itself was responsible for 126 OFCOM complaints, and Skepta would go on to satirise the negative reception with a skit on Shutdown which may or may not have been a genuine caller complaint. Grime may be in various stages of transition, but whilst some discuss the genre making a breakthrough in the States, and others like Mumdance or Visionist preoccupy themselves with the outer-limits, there’s still uncomfortable questions around what some people’s problem with UK urban is – is it a matter of taste? Or is there something darker going on?
Stormzy agrees it’s a problem. “It’s like, what about Plan B’s performance?” he asks, referencing the rapper’s riot-themed Brits appearance in 2011. “There’s alarm bells there because that was just as dark, but didn’t have nearly the same media backlash Kanye had. For me that raises questions.” These are seriously big questions though, ones that are bigger than the individual artists involved, and in any case, Stormzy’s got more than enough on his plate right now. Life on the road as a full time artist has given the 21-year-old a whole different mess of things to stress about (haters, touring schedules, mobile contracts), but helping him hold it together is a suitably modest end-goal.
“My goal is to be the greatest, and that’s something I don’t even know how I’m gonna measure,” he declares. “A number one wouldn’t do it, because then I’d be thinking I need a hundred number ones. A sell out tour in the UK wouldn’t do it, because then I’d be thinking I need a sell-out arena world tour. So I don’t really know how I’ll measure it, but when it happens, when that greatness comes, I’ll just know.”
Stormzy appears at Love Saves The Day, Eastville Park, Bristol, 24 May