It’s early days, but already everyone from Kanye West to Jools Holland has endorsed Stormzy’s sound. He’s been on Later, was named Best Grime Act at the MOBO Awards, landed bronze position on the BBC’s Sound of 2015 poll and appeared amid Kanye’s hooded army of grime royalty at the BRITs ceremony – all without signing a record deal.
“I’ve been playing catch-up with everything,” he tells me. “I was doing without for so long, not knowing the things that are normal for musicians. I was getting bookings regardless, people phoning or emailing me direct, and journalists were writing about me anyway.” He only hired his most sensible old friend as his manager late last year, and got himself a publicist a month or two ago. Before then, I would have had to arrange this interview by sending him a tweet and hoping he saw it. Now there are two big UK tours in the diary, with the London shows in particular selling out fast.
At his request, we meet in Bethnal Green Nando’s. But then he orders a salad – a bold decision for a man who is roughly the size of an electricity pylon. In person he’s perfectly charming, dripping self-assurance with a gold tooth glint. His booming voice makes me sound like Tweety Pie in comparison when I play back my tape. He’s aware that the early hype leaves him with a lot to prove – his last single only went to number 49, which is still decent for someone with no record label behind him – but he clearly believes he has what it takes. “I feel like the world is my oyster right now. I’ve got so much music recorded. I feel like I’ve got a loaded gun full of songs and videos and ideas and it’s time to just start firing.”
The Kanye thing, which saw the influential US rapper deliver his raw new song All Day flanked by dozens of black-clad grime acts and two giant flamethrowers, was the most dramatic moment of the BRITs until Madonna fell on her arse. Stormzy doesn’t think it will be replicated when West headlines at Glastonbury this summer (“I think that moment has passed.”) but this anointing from an American A-lister did suggest a new high watermark for this homegrown sound, with the man in front of me in the top spot. “Kanye’s one of the biggest artists of today, not only in music, across the whole culture full stop. For someone like that to come into your world and say ‘This is sick,’ that can never be a bad thing. When artists like him are recognising, it elevates the music.”
Billed initially as a London-flavoured take on US hip hop, grime first dented the popular consciousness back in 2003 when Dizzee Rascal won the Mercury Prize for his debut album, Boy in Da Corner. Since then Dizzee has gone pop and aside from the occasional hit for veteran figurehead Wiley, it has never achieved the dominance it might have. It’s so much faster and more aggressive than hip hop, often closer in its intimidating fury to another London export, punk, that it remains a hard sell to the mainstream. Stormzy hopes to change that. When he won his MOBO last October, Wiley tweeted calling him “the #1 grime don in this new era” and asking, “Please take it where we couldn’t my brother.”
“Grime is still quite new,” says Stormzy, although he’s been consuming it obsessively since he first became interested in music as a child. “You can’t expect national radio and national media to get it straight away. When [recent single] Know Me From was Track of the Day on Radio 1, someone tweeted some crazy abuse at me. At first I was thinking, what are they talking about? It’s a big tune! But to some people it is too hard-hitting, it is too aggressive. Hopefully when you hear enough of something you begin to understand it and your opinion gets changed.”
Although his first EP, last summer’s Dreamers Disease, is relatively calm and soulful, his singles Know Me From and Not That Deep show him at the height of his powers – spitting fire over tense, minimal beats, arguing loudly for his prowess both on the mic and with the ladies. It’s harsh and intimidating but not without humour. One key line on Know Me From might entertain Manchester United fans: “I come to your team and I fuck shit up: I’m David Moyes.”
He’s actually called Michael Omari, born 21 years ago in Norbury to Ghanaian parents, but also answers to Big Mike, The Problem, Stiff Chocolate (!) and Wicked Skengman. Search YouTube for his Wicked Skengman series of videos to see him at his edgiest, freestyling in an urban wasteland surrounded by leering, arm-waving mates.
He seems most comfortable as part of a gang – his DJ and his cameraman are also old friends – and he recognises that this is a good time for grime in general, not just him. He doesn’t want the burden of making this sound truly popular to fall on his shoulders alone. In any case, it’s a more supportive scene these days, he says. “Carrying the scene forward to a mainstream level needs more than one person. Dizzee couldn’t do it by himself, Tinie [Tempah] couldn’t, Wretch  couldn’t, and it wasn’t their fault. Yeah, I’m on the rise and whatnot, I’m the guy and whatever, but I’m not the man to say, ‘All right world, here’s grime.’ It’s gonna take me, Skepta, JME, Novelist, Lethal Bizzle, to say ‘I’m sick, he’s sick, he’s sick, he’s sick.’ Not one man can do it.”
Grime’s gain is engineering’s loss. Before he gave music his all, he studied for an apprenticeship in Leamington Spa and worked in quality assurance at an oil refinery in Southampton. It was a fairly impressive end to a chequered school career that saw him excluded many times from Year 8 onwards until he was finally kicked out in the sixth form. “I was bad. I was proper naughty,” he admits. “I was good up until secondary school. Then I was just a little shit.” He was mainly excluded for “play fighting”, according to him, but decent grades saved his skin for a long while and he got good GCSEs.
Two years living out of London left him hungry to get back to the thick of the music scene, however. “It was a mind and heart thing. Engineering was obviously the safe and sensible choice, but music was what I loved and wanted to do.”
Now things are moving fast, and there’s still no sign of that record deal. “For me it’s so secondary to making sure my music is of the highest quality. Whether or not I need a deal is at the bottom of my to do list. Right now I’m in a free space, growing and learning. At the end of the day I’m still gonna go to the studio tomorrow and spray my bars.” And increasingly, the wider world is going to listen.
April 17, O2 Academy Islington, N1 (0844 477 2000, o2academyislington.co.uk); Oct 29, Koko, NW1 (0870 432 5527, koko.uk.com)