An Oral History of SBTV, the Channel That Blew the Doors Open for UK Rap
Jamal Edwards, Devlin, Ghetts, and more discuss ten years of a platform that shifted the culture (and shone a light on Ed Sheeran in the process).
Image provided by PR
Okay look, 2017 is coming to a close. You know what grime is. You know that it started in east London and blossomed on pirate radio and that it wouldn’t exist without UK garage. But because it’s been through so many iterations and now embraced so warmly by your aunt who saw Stormzy on Jonathan Ross, it’s easy to forget about how quickly the genre cemented its place in pop culture online. And you can’t think about that without shouting out SBTV, the YouTube channel that became like a digital younger sibling to Rooney Keefe or Jammer’s respective Risky Roadz and Lord of the Mics DVDs.
It’s mad to think that it’s been ten years since a 16-year-old Jamal Edwards started up SBTV. In that time he's earned an MBE, won a shit ton of awards and helped kickstart enthusiasm for bigging up local talent in UK rap, grime, hip-hop and drill—ultimately leading to the current online landscape where channels like Link-UP TV and GRM Daily post videos with view counts stretching far into the millions. He's also to thank (blame?) for the never-ending ascent of Ed Sheeran, who had a massive leg-up in the UK when he featured on SBTV back in 2010 before going on to feature with some of the hardest MC’s in the grime scene, including JME, Stormzy and, erm, Nizlopi.
Before a documentary on SBTV drops on Saturday, we've decided back on the channel's ten-year anniversary (which was in February, yes we know). We spoke to some of the key players from the channel’s ascent about how it’s come to firmly stand its ground in the scene.
Featuring: Jamal Edwards MBE, SBTV CEO; Isaac Densu, SBTV’s CCO
Jamal: I got into grime from On the Block All Stars, Renegade Boys, old school tapes from places like like Freeze FM, Channel U, pirate radio. I couldn’t get Rinse FM in my area so I used to get the packs from my mates. I never used to do shows but I used to go on pirate radio, make tracks in the studio and send my tapes to Logan at KISS.
I felt like there weren’t a lot of platforms for me to get on, and I realised I was never going to make it on any mainstream platforms or any DVDs as an MC, so I saw a gap in the market and thought, ‘Where could people go that don’t have these platforms?’ Why don’t I start the platform?’.
The first video I did was a college trip to Birmingham, at the chocolate factory. It was proper basic production; amateur fade out, all that. At first word was slow. People used to watch YouTube just for funny videos then, so when they saw people spraying bars they were like ‘What?’ But the more we put it out the more people wanted it. Word-of-mouth in school, and later on MySpace and Bebo would get it out there.
Isaac: I first met Jamal on a BBC Two programme set when I was working on the development team. I started working with SBTV just at the point where things really started to take off. It was interesting to see a young man driven by raw ambition, breaking into boardrooms and rubbing shoulders with CEO while maintaining his grassroots connections with musicians.
Jamal: I had to go to all these clubs and hang outside the raves trying to get people to do little shout outs or freestyles, and it built organically from there. I used to know Renegade Boys from my area, who used to run with the big boys like Wiley and Bashy. And I was just a little kid from west London who didn’t know anyone, so I was trying to ask all these people to film and wasn’t getting anywhere. Now it’s more mutual, but back in the day it was just me hustling. The bigger artists had music videos and DVDs that they were on, so why would they need me?
Isaac: We were this small team who had to learn fast, dealing with the overload of opportunity and trying to manage it all while still growing a business and producing more content.
Jamal: The main reason for creating a business was that I needed to grow quicker than I was able to on my own. I didn’t leave my job at Topman until the revenue cheques were bigger than the Topman cheques. My first offices were coffee shops all over London, then my first proper offices was a co-working space in Camden for start-ups. Everything that I did when setting up the business wasn’t taught to me, it was learnt on the cuff, which meant I made a lot of mistakes. And I had to learn from them straight away.
On the Mic
Featuring: Devlin; Ghetts
Devlin: I first heard of SBTV years ago. I believe Jamal was coming to film something for me – I had some bars from Tale from the Crypt – so I was at a record shop in the west end. But he didn't turn up. I think he went off and done his thing and from there he just took off.
Ghetts: It was new and fresh and there was a lot of buzz and talk around this platform showcasing MCs and rappers. It felt like an exciting time.
Devlin: I thought it was good ’cos it focused on the lyrical element. You could put MC’s beside each other and it made everyone wanna step their game up, y’know? You had to come strong!
Ghetts: For me personally, whenever I've filmed any freestyle I'm going in with the mentality that mine is going to be the best. Naturally when you have a series like the Warm Up Sessions or F64 people will always compare the artists, so I was just excited to be a part of it. I didn't actually do my debut on SBTV until late 2011 for season 3 of Warm Up Sessions. By then I'd seen a lot of the other videos and knew that I had to bring the levels. I think my excitement about it came across in my bars.
Devlin: I usually specifically write for the SBTV freestyles, yeah. Personally if I'm doing any freestyle I will specifically write for it – I know it's gotta be good. I'm on a platform where everyone can see me and break me down. I think SBTV has given everyone a platform, especially a lot of young MCs. I think it may have increased the competition. If you do anything you want to be really good at it, so when you know you're going to be critiqued alongside some big names, it makes you wanna go that bit harder.
Ghetts: I think it's raised the awareness in the MC community of actually how many MCs are out there doing this music thing.
Making an Impact
Featuring: Coco Khan, journalist, grime critic and editor at Complex; Eduard Castello, Head of Music Content Partnerships, YouTube
Eduard: What YouTube enables – and SBTV is a perfect example of this – is a two-way conversation and an ability to find an audience all around the world without any gatekeepers. YouTube provides a platform for channels like SBTV to go beyond the music video to allow conversation on topics that matter to the artists and the community, deepening the relationship.
Coco: The DIY nature of it always really appealed to me, it had an authenticity that was sorely lacking, and still is to some extent. There was a passion-project touch to it, and that was infectious. SBTV is of course a lot glossier now, has a bigger team, is more commercially focused, but it still carries the culture-lover feel. It’s enthusiastic.
Eduard: Jamal brought grime to another level, using his entrepreneurial skill to bring the genre and culture to a mass audience. The gatekeeper-free environment of YouTube allowed SBTV a space where artists could create and collaborate on their own terms, separate from mainstream media.
Coco: The first time I saw Dave was on SBTV, and he was so fire, it was amazing to feel as a viewer you were part of the discovery of such talent. But the person who made the biggest impact is Ed Sheeran. He owes so much to grime, and SBTV is a core tenet of that.
Featuring: Isaac; Jamal; Ghetts
Isaac: I knew things were getting big the moment a young person on my council estate said to me that I was working with Jamal Edwards ‘the dream maker’. To hear a young person talk about Jamal in that light really inspired me and made me feel there was a lot SBTV can achieve.
Jamal: I’d get people coming in when I was on my Topman shifts, saying, “there’s Jamal from SBTV.” So it got bait when the channel started getting well-known, especially after the Google advert. People would want to take pictures of me in the street, which gave me more confidence in what I was doing at the time, cos I’m not the most confident person. I think I knew it was getting really big when I’d feature artists who would go on to become massive after being on my channel.
The biggest moments were my first ever 100 million views with the Boy Better Know video, then getting to half a billion views – just that number sounds mad. And being allowed to discuss mental health issues openly was also very important and even more so today, but so was getting on the Guardian’s ‘Who To Look Out For’ list in and in the Forbes 30 under 30 as well.
And then getting the MBE, meeting the Queen, taking the first first ever selfie in Buckingham Palace with the Royals and launching the first ever social media hub the Queen’s Young Leaders – that was definitely a moment.
Ghetts: I think just being introduced to a new audience was the main positive benefit. I've been doing this for a long time and already had a core following. But I remember off the back of SBTV getting involved with Ed Sheeran's No.5 Collaborations project, when I featured on “Drown Me Out”, that was a great experience. Once Ed started to get that momentum behind him I think more and more people that may not necessarily have known about me got introduced to my music.
Jamal: Yeah, mostly it’s been helping out people’s careers. That to me is the most important thing because that’s what I got into it for, being able to help get these artists get to the next level, and allowing these people to be able to follow music as a career. I’ve met Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Dr. Dre, Will.i.am, but to me working with people with an entrepreneurial spirit who have now gone on and smashed it as a result of being apart of SB’s alumni is the biggest thing. Everything else from that is just a by-product.
You can find Tom on Twitter.