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“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 school yard, 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 songwriting. But the main music effect on me was external.”
Channel U launched on British TV in 2003, opening a window into the life and times of the growing UK urban scene, letting artists like Sway, Lethal Bizzle, Lady Sovereign and more beam into British living rooms. From secondary school onwards, aged eleven, it became an obsession of Stormzy’s and his mates. “We would download instrumentals off Limewire, and play them off our phones. We’d MC over them for fun. There was no dream of becoming a superstar. But you’d hope that one day you’d get on Channel U. The MCs on there, they were the stars for us.”
Stormzy had his own little crew, named DDB, and his first experiences of...(read more)