Ahead of the MTV Gibraltar Calling Music Festival, we delve into the background of one of the headlining acts, Michael Omari Jr – AKA ‘Stormzy’.
“I was meant to go to Oxford University,” laughs Stormzy, AKA ‘The Problem’, AKA ‘Big Mike’, AKA ‘Stiff Chocolate’. “I got the best grades at A-level, and the owner of my school was a governor at Oxford. He wanted me to go and it looked like it was going to happen. My mum thought I was going, my friends thought I was going. Then I started making videos and going on YouTube and stuff and…” his voice trails off, and then he grins and winks.
Stormzy might have traded off a first-class education for a life on the music grind, but it’s not working out so bad. Since releasing his debut EP, Dreamers Disease, only two years ago, the 22 year old South London artist has scooped up two MOBOs, toured the world, won Best International Artist at the BET Awards, performed on Jools Holland, become the first unsigned rapper to feature on the BBC Sound Of… list, sold almost a million records, and made history by sending two grime freestyles into the UK chart top 20 for the first time in history. You only need to wind the clock back to March 2014, to find Stormzy tweeting a freestyle at Wiley and asking if he’d watch it – so how did young Michael Omari go from spitting bars in the schoolyard, to packing out venues from Camden to Japan, in just eighteen months?
“As a kid, my mum used to play Ghanaian hiplife, gospel and afrobeats,” says Stormzy, who grew up in Croydon, and while he insists he didn’t come from a ‘musicians’ household’, there were still tunes blaring out on the regular. “My sister used to play proper R&B slow jams, and that shaped my tastes quite a bit. They made me appreciate soulful sounds and song writing. But the main music effect on me was external.”
Stormzy had his own little crew, named DDB, and his first experiences of clashing came thick and fast. It was in these adolescent years that the themes, styles and swagger of the Stormzy you hear today were forged, the all-out attack bars that mix cheeky, cocky and fiery in a formidable MC concoction. “…I got that style from an older MC called Charms. He was like my mentor and he used to spit like that. I clashed him once outside a youth club, and he schooled me.”
Music at this point was just a hobby though, something he did with his mates. He was a one-man band, doing his own promotion and taking his own bookings (“I would reply in the third person”). But, aged 20, he decided to make the leap, and do music for real. He launched a YouTube freestyle series titled “Wicked Skengman” in late 2013, in which he would spit over classic grime beats and put the videos online. A debut EP, Dreamers Disease, soon followed in 2014, showcasing a range of styles that epitomised his artistic open mind. The EP also contained “Stormtrooper”, one of his most conscious tracks to date, the lyrics of which trace a tale of salvation via the harsh realities of domestic abuse. “I wanted to show I could do big R&B records, big afrobeat records, and deep ones too,” says Stormzy. “I wanted to get all those sounds out of me and show I’m not just grime.”
The promise on Dreamers Disease was enough to win him a shock invite onto the British music television institution that is Later with Jools Holland. “That was the most nerve-wracking thing I’ve ever done,” explains Stormzy. “We had rehearsals. We did four. I messed up every single one. Then came the live bit, and I had to get it right. I was thinking in my head, ‘Get it right, or you’re f****d.’ And we did it. The adrenaline got us through. Once I’m spitting, I’m gunning.”, and beamed the downright nastiness of “Not That Deep” into an unsuspecting nation’s living rooms.
Stormzy’s rise in 2014 might not have been an exclusively grime flavoured one, but when placed alongside his freestyles and remixes, it was enough to win him Best Grime Act at the 2014 MOBOs just a week after his Jools performance. That same week, Wiley, the godfather of the UK scene, labelled Stormzy “the #1 grime don”, concluding, “Please take it where we couldn’t my brother.”
Going into 2015, Stormzy was sitting pretty as one of the most hyped MCs of the past decade, raking in plaudits with no label support, no radio support and a team made up of his close friends and family. 2015 started exactly how 2014 had finished, as he became the first ever unsigned rapper to make the BBC Sound of… shortlist. And that was quickly followed by an invite from Kanye to join him onstage at the Brit Awards.
“By this point,” begins Stormzy, “it was overwhelming. Now I’m standing next to all these major label acts. I thought, ‘Rah, this is mad.’ These people had become my peers but also my competition.”After hearing the Z.Dot instrumental on Wiley’s “BMO Field”, and realising he needed to put a track out with all this new buzz, Stormzy went into the studio and recorded a frenetic grime number what would become “Know Me From”, a song jammed with lyrics that had appeared in a few freestyles previous, most notably: “Peng tings on my Whatsapp and my iPhone too”. The track hit BBC Radio Xtra hard, and Stormzy’s team, by this point known as Team #Merky, decided to make a video.
“I thought I should make a proper glossy studio video. But it wasn’t me. We decided, let’s just hit the road and shoot a video and make it as fun and stupid as possible. We acted out each line, got my mum in it, got the Adidas creps in it.” It’s a DIV aesthetic that has informed almost all of Stormzy’s visuals since, from the subsequent “Wicked Skengman” freestyles to the video for “Shut Up”. The only notable difference is that the crowd around him keeps growing and growing, to almost a carpark full in “Wicked Skengman 4”.
Despite their DIV feel, both “Shut Up” and “Wicked Skengman 4” both went on to chart in the UK top twenty – the former beating that year’s X Factor Christmas single – breaking records as they went and transforming Stormzy from a rising star to the young king. He finished 2015 with his own show on Apple Radio, aptly titled #Merky, making him the youngest presenter on the roster, alongside names like Pharrell Williams, Dr Dre, Ezra Koenig and more.
Whilst Stormzy was working on his critically acclaimed debut album, “Gang Signs & Prayer”, which topped the chart on week one, it didn’t stop him from dropping a few surprise tracks here and there, like “Standard”, “One Take” and a verse on Chipmunk1s “Hear Dis”.
For many who only know Stormzy as the six-foot MC who spits fire on YouTube, the debut album may come as something of a pleasant eye-opener.
“I’m not always going to draw the emotions, soul, feelings and sounds that I want to convey, exclusively via grime,” explains Stormzy. “As a human, I feel a lot of different emotions. Yeah, I want to make a record that my mandem can play in the car and get gassed to. But I also want to make a record for the quieter times, when you’re alone with your thoughts. To make a record like that, you need different sounds and styles.”
In just two years, the cocksure Croydon MC has defied all expectations, not only of what a grime artist can achieve but of what a completely independent artist from the streets of South London can achieve. In addition, he made his big screen debut in 2016, starring in Brotherhood, the final instalment of Noel Clarke’s movie trilogy. His mum might still think about what could have happened if he’d gone to Oxford, but when he’s getting invited back there to give talks about his DIV music career, like Stormzy was on March 7th, then who needs first class education dreams?
“For some people where I come from, what I’ve done is already unbelievable,” says Stormzy. “But we can all do it if we focus and cut out all the bullshit. You can go on the be something when all odds are against you. You can do it quick, and effectively. Just make your mark and step in the game.”