Painting by Reuben Dangoor
This post originally appeared on VICE UK.
Crazy Titch was one of the originators of grime, his unstable, centrifugal style as responsible for shaping the genre as Dizzee Rascal's spittly wisecracks. If things had played out differently, it could be him being praised as a genius in broadsheet features, headlining festivals on some Spanish archipelago. But, in 2005, Titch was found guilty of murder and sentenced to 30 years. Despite attempts at appeal, he has been in prison ever since.
There's a track on the new Stormzy album that is just a phone call. On one end of the line, it's Stormzy, the most talked about man in the UK right now. On the other is Titch, maybe on a prison payphone or a smuggled cellphone.
Their conversation is, at times, heartbreaking. Titch has been locked up for so long he doesn't really understand what a hashtag is and is still dropping references about The Matrix. But prison also acts as a filter; you don't hear about every Tom, Dick, and Harry when you're inside, so what makes it through matters.
He talks about the certified [legit, hard] guys he's met in prison from all over the country.
I'm certi', my name's Crazy Titch, I'm definitely one million percent certified
I know certi' guys from all over
Brum, Manchester, Notts, Sheffield, Leeds, Manny, Liverpool
These people all say the same thing, "We don't really even know what grime is but we know who Stormzy is"
From behind bars, cut off from culture and with limited access to the internet, Titch is able to put the phenomenon of Stormzy's success better than anyone.
Yes, Stormzy has got the best-selling album in the UK, likely to be number one on Friday, apparently outselling numbers three to 20 combined (we'll talk about what's at number two later). Yes, it got four or five star write-ups from pretty much everyone who's reviewed it. But his real success can't be measured in record sales and critical acclaim. His real success is that, in just a couple of years, he has already found his way into that rare club of British artists—Adele, Oasis—who are loved for their music but also bigger than it. His real success is him beating the X Factor in a Christmas number one battle, lobbying for his own success by dressing up as Santa, and changing his verses to have a festive feel ("The Easter Bunny used to cuss me / Now the tooth fairies they love me / Word to Ms. Claus she's lovely / She makes a sick turkey curry"). It's about Manchester United, the biggest soccer team in the world, thinking he's as good an ambassador for it as its actual players. It's about him being racially profiled by his neighbors, who thought he was breaking into his own home in Chelsea, with the story appearing on the front page of the Evening Standard, and then him going on Channel 4 chat show The Last Leg to talk about it.
In 2017, Stormzy isn't just a flag bearer for grime or the latest boy-done-good story in British music; he basically is British youth culture. Of course he is just the most prominent of a slew of grime stars who have recently found or regained the limelight, and there are other subcultures with their own leading lights, but there is no other young person who unites everyone—the chest-beating lads, the internet natives, the Friday-night town-center nightclub and kebab crew, and the huge swathes of British youth who aren't really that interested in any of that, who never go out, who spend most of their time on the phone.
What makes Stormzy's achievement all the more impressive is that he's done it without an inch of outside interference. He has shunned a record label and many other trappings of the music industry. His video for "Shut Up," shown at the Brits, was filmed live in a single take in a park. He's yet to release a single that isn't faultless 140BPM grime. He's already the most successful unsigned artist in UK history.
Stormzy's success is not some happy accident. If this was 2007, not 2017, and Stormzy made the same music, and had taken the same risks, we would not be talking about him in the same way now. He is about a moment in the music industry, in youth culture, in the very fabric of the UK. Stormzy has triumphed where others have stumbled because he has a savant-like quality for understanding trends and changes, and then having the confidence to take risks, to bet against the house. By doing so, he has helped to shape youth culture in his image.
The boring story of grime basically goes like this: It was really cool until 2004, then all its biggest stars made crap-pop with Calvin Harris and the Chuckle Brothers, and it seemed like grime was dead. Then, suddenly, Meridian Dan released "German Whip," Skepta went back to wearing tracksuits, and grime was saved. This is a false tale (many of the biggest songs in the genre—"Murkle Man," "Next Hype," "I Spy"—all came out in this supposed fallow period), but it's certainly true that stars like Dizzee, Tinchy, Tinie, Skepta, and Chipmunk all, at various points, had a go at making pop music. Some of those attempts are now viewed as embarrassing not because these stars sold out, but because they attempted to sell out and failed. Chipmunk and Ironik's Elton John sampling "Tiny Dancer," Skepta's eurotrance single "Bad Boy," Dizzee's duet with Robbie Williams, "Goin' Crazy": These songs didn't just suck, they also failed to achieve the more mainstream success they were aiming for.
This music wasn't necessarily their first choice, but many artists' hands were forced by a conservative music industry that was only able to apply a white rock 'n' roll logic, even when they were supporting underground black music. Take BBC 1Xtra, the radio station launched as a home for black music. It played all the grime artists but preferred their pop hits to the grime ones. As Skepta told Time Out: "'1Xtra took the power away from us... Our pirate shows used to influence what records grime fans would buy. But suddenly it was in [the BBC's] hands, and they went 'Bang! We've got you now! Make pop, or we won't play you.'"
The problem isn't that the industry was distrustful of black talent, but that it only understood rock 'n' pop ways of making music. I was on the deliberations panel for a 1Xtra "power list" in 2014, just as grime was having a resurgence. Everyone was fighting over who should be number one: Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith, Rita Ora, or Disclosure. It was so weird. Pretty much everyone in that room was a 1Xtra DJ—experts in new British urban music—but artists like Skepta, JME, Wiley, none of them had a look in at the top five. Instead, the panelists talked about Rita Ora having a fashion line. It was like they had internalized the music industry measures of success. To them, music like grime could never be number one, not even on an urban music station.
Stormzy realized that it didn't have to be that way. Instead, he looked to the success of people who'd found ways to circumvent traditional industry methods. He found a way to take back control.
He looked at the success of Dizzee—not the embarrassing phase when he was making duets with Robbie Williams, but at the height of his festival success, when he was playing "Fix Up, Look Sharp" and "Bonkers" to crowds who just wanted to bounce, who didn't care about where the music came from, just that it banged. He looked at Lethal Bizzle, an artist who had also attempted to make his name piggybacking on other genres, but found that greater success came when he just started to let it rip on his own YouTube channel. Bizzle broke through into lad Britain and went on Match of the Day. In doing so, he set something of a template: What is #Merky if not the natural successor to #Dench?
Both Bizzle and Dizzee had let the quality of music slide as they tried to reach out beyond their scene. Stormzy wanted to find a way to do what they did, but without compromising, without having to get on the phone with Calvin Harris. So he took three big risks.
The first risk was financial. Refusing a label gave him freedom but left a monetary hole. He replaced the income that comes from a record label advance by doing loads of sponsorship and branded content deals, with Adidas, Nando's, Subway, Spotify, and Google. Had, 15 years earlier, the first generation of grime stars taken on quite so much sponsorship, they'd have been accused of becoming corporate shills, but Stormzy rightly gambled that today's fans see self-determination, rather than anti-commercialism as the biggest sign of authenticity. Teenagers who grew up with heavy product placement don't care about branded deals. What they care about is people they admire being manipulated by 45-year-old white guys who once signed the Kooks and now think they understand how you make a star. And besides, Adidas is cool.
The next risk was cultural. When he first started making music Stormzy was making UK rap, but around 2012, he moved into grime—the music he'd loved as a kid. The popularity of grime has always been underestimated, but something different was happening around that time. Boy Better Know were playing sold-out shows to audiences in mid-size towns who adored them; hipsters saw grime as something authentic at a time when music was starting to feel managed and calculated. Most artists thought this could only go so far—that grime will always be "underground"—but Stormzy realized the whole country was finally ready for it. He was looking at US acts like Kanye, Kendrick, Chance, Drake, and even Beyoncé, who were making more challenging records, being celebrated critically and not suffering any commercial blowback.
Back in 2014, he told Noisey, "I just went as I was. Jump Off TV did a debate on whether I should have gone in a tracksuit. But I thought that this ain't the time for me to adjust. This is the time I need to rep, not tone it down. I wanted to show everyone what we're about point blank: DJ, bars, aggression. This is our culture." That kind of attitude has carried across into his album, which combines grime with gospel and vocal tracks, and tackles his faith and periods of grief. It's honest, unlikely music created out of a sense of conviction that every side of himself should be on show.
Perhaps the biggest risk was political. Grime is often called a music of protest, but that sense of resistance has to be inferred by the listener; as a genre, it's tended to shy away from traditional party politics. Stormzy changed that. He's publicly stated his support for Jeremy Corbyn, called Zac Goldsmith a "pussyole" for his race-baiting mayoral campaign, talked about solutions to the housing crisis, and come out with full-frontal challenges to anyone who wants demonize him based on prejudice. He called out the Brits when he felt grime and underground artists hadn't been represented, something that saw changes to the awards this year and ended up on BBC News. The opening track of his record settles two scores: one with LBC—"LBC's tryna' black ball me / And tryna' blame your boy for knife crime"—and another with central London nightclubs with racist door policies—"Fuck DSTRKT and fuck all these nightclubs / And fuck giving money to people that don't like us / There's riots in the city just tell me where I sign up."
This is what I think will be Stormzy's greatest legacy. He's not a political artist by any stretch; he doesn't make protest music necessarily, but he never shies away from representing what he believes or the groups that see him as a torch bearer. The way a generation of boring old people see Noel Gallagher as their voice in a confusing world—that will be us talking about Stormzy.
All of that has come together in the past week, a week in which Stormzy has performed with Ed Sheeran at the Brits; performed three surprise concerts in public places and hung out with teenagers afterwards; cooked chicken and made smalltalk with Tim Lovejoy on Sunday Brunch; flipped pancakes with Raymond Blanc for GQ; retweeted endorsements from Adele, Rio Ferdinand, and Ed Sheeran; and made an impassioned plea to young black men in the Observer.
So that's Stormzy. But now it's time to look at the man who is currently just 120 sales behind him in the album charts—a man who might prevent him from getting a number one, a man made of rags and bones. A man called Rag'n'Bone Man.
Rag'n'Bone Man, who already beat Stormzy to the best newcomer at the Brits, is the antithesis of what Stormzy represents. He is the old music scene, the cynical, computer-based calculation of soul music that sounds just modern enough to be played on Radio 1 but just classic enough to be played on Radio 2, the same formula that let British music be overrun with giant bores like Sam Smith, John Newman, Emeli Sande, Ella Henderson, Jess Glynne, etc., etc, etc. He is a man with so little to say about himself, about his music, about Britain, that given two opportunities to make a speech at the Brits he was left entirely speechless. If you search him on Google News, it's impossible to find any actual news, just meaningless epithets like: "Rag'n'Bone Man 'never expected it to go this far'" and "This Footage Shows What a Fine Voice Rag 'N' Bone Man Has". The closest thing to a story is from this week's Star; the headline reads, "Rag'n'Bone Man reveals he prefers cuddles with his cat than sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll."
So we're at a crossroads. Britain has to decide: Do we want more people like Stormzy—people who are going to represent Britain's youth, who aren't going to be cowed by the old forces that aimed to make everything boring and meaningless? Or do we want more people like Rag'n'Bone Man, a man so boring and meaningless that, on one site's "5 Things You Need to Know About Rag'n'Bone Man," thing 4 was "he is signed to Columbia Records"?
I don't know what the answer is going to be, but I know this: Last year, I spoke to a group of 16-year-olds from Leyton in east London. What they told me about their day-to-day lives seemed entirely alien. They had never been to a house party, most had never drank, and they mostly spent Saturday nights on their phones. They didn't talk about music in the same way my generation did, either: They mostly watched YouTube videos. When I asked them if there was any one artist they really liked, there was only one artist any of them mentioned, enthused about, and made jokes about. It wasn't Rag'n'Bone Man.
From the inmates of Crazy Titch's high-security prison, to the school kids of Leyton, to the moms sitting down to watch Sunday Brunch, to the many, many peng tings on his WhatsApp: Britain is Stormzy's for the taking.
Follow Sam Wolfson on Twitter.