If you have the ambition to make it as a musician, you may look at your favourite artists and wonder just how – and when – they got famous.
He made history headlining at Glastonbury, has collaborated with some of the biggest names in the industry and is arguably the UK’s leading rapper. But how did the bestselling recording artist Stormzy get discovered and break into music?
Find out everything you ever wanted to know about Stormzy’s humble beginnings, his incredible talent and how he rose to achieve such dizzying success.
How did Stormzy get discovered?
Stormzy is one of the most celebrated artists in the country and the first to win the MOBO’s ‘Best Grime Act’ award. Not only is his music widely and internationally popular, but he’s also known for his academic ability, Christian faith, political activism and for campaigning black equality.
Known as ‘The Stormzy Effect’ his influence (and the provision of university scholarships funded from his own pocket) has resulted in a huge increase of black students going on to higher education. The musician grew up in a deprived area, went to a tough school and had to overcome many challenges. Here’s how his journey began.
Stormzy’s real name
The rapper was born on 26th July 1993 and given the name Michael Ebenazer Kwadjo Omari Owuo Jr. But like many grime artists and rappers, he goes by a pseudonym – Stormzy.
He’s also known as Big Mike, The Problem, Stiff Chocolate and Wicked Skengman. Stormzy grew up in Norbury in southwest London, raised by his church-going single mother Abigail – of whom he sings and raps in the track Momma’s Prayers. His dad, a South London taxi driver was almost completely absent during his childhood.
What school did Stormzy go to?
He attended the notoriously rough Stanley Tech school (now Harris Academy) – an establishment he described as ‘the kind of place people go on to become convicted murderers’.
Always intelligent and hardworking, he excelled and achieved 6 A* GCSEs, with teachers encouraging him to try for a place at the lauded Oxford University. He told Time Magazine:
“People are always a bit shocked that there’s academic brilliance in a young black South London brother with a street background. If you saw a group of lads outside the chicken shop on push-bikes, I’m sure a lot of them are academically brilliant. Little did you know!”
But apart from his academic talent, Michael didn’t love school and was expelled in the sixth form for a string of offences – the final straw being when he piled stools on top of a classmate during a science class. However, it was during this time, that his journey as an artist began.
How did Stormzy get into music?
He began experimenting with rapping over beats when he was 11 – mostly after school with friends and at his local youth club, Rap Academy. Using instrumentals ripped from LimeWire, they sent material to the TV grime platform ChannelU (a now obsolete British satellite channel dedicated to U.K. hip-hop and grime). In the mid-noughties, this was the only place that urban musicians could send DIY music videos.
After being expelled from school, he spent some time working at the DIY store Screwfix before securing a place on two-year engineering placement. But he was deeply unhappy and gradually started skipping work, instead, heading along to hang out at his local pirate radio station – when he was at work he was often to be found noting down lyric ideas.
In 2014 he made the decision to quit his job and pursue music full-time, moving back to live with his mother in the capital. At 19 he made a conscious decision to walk away from the behaviours he’d displayed while at school – something he often says felt inevitable in that environment.
When did Stormzy start his career?
Back at home with time and space to work on his passion, he created and self-released an EP entitled Dreamers Disease. Remarkably, this won a Mobo award despite the young rapper being unsigned and without any management.
But he worked hard at his publicity and promotion. With a knack for marketing, and in the absence of a professional publicist, he would send his own emails pretending to be a PR. He campaigned hard on social media, to highlight his work and spread the word about his music.
What genre is Stormzy?
Stormzy was initially a road rap MC – the UK’s version of America Gangsta rap, a style that sprung out of the grime movement in Londo in the noughties. At this time he was more hip hop than grime in style. He told Capital Xtra:
“When I started, everyone was a grime spitter… Everyone was just spitting grime, and then this UK rap scene came about. For a long time, though, I didn’t get the whole road rap thing. I thought it was too slow, and sounded too American. But I felt like I needed to adapt to it and I needed to jump on it because that’s what was happening.”
Wicken Skengman YouTube
He was smart with his use of video too, making videos on his YouTube channel from 2011 – long before trying to start a full-time music career. but it was when he started sharing his Wicked Skengman grime freestyles – something he said he did for his own enjoyment, rather than to get followers – that the industry began sitting up and taking notice.
When did Stormzy release his first song?
His first two EPs were released independently in 2014: Not That Deep with The HeavyTrackerz and his first solo EP Dreamers Disease. But it was when he released Shut Up! for digital download on 11 September 2015 that his fortunes were really made. This was the B-side to his WickedSkengMan 4 single. The instrumental was worked on by grime producer XTC. He also made a freestyle video of the song, shot by a fan in a car park, which has since gained over 100 million views.
Since then he’s released 14 singles and two studio albums. Following on from the huge success of Shut Up! were his best-known hits: Big for Your Boots, Vossi Bop and Blinded By Your Grace.
When self-releasing and producing his music, Stormzy used several recording studios, including Gin Factory Studios and Powerstudio (for songwriting as well as production). Now he has a recording deal, he has access to Warner’s upscale facilities and produced much of Heavy is the Head at Fraser T Smith’s own studio (Smith is a Grammy-winning producer known for his work with Adele).
Who is Stormzy signed to?
Stormzy’s 2017 debut album, Gang Signs & Prayer, was released independently without him having signed to a label. However, it was distributed via industry heavyweight Warner Music’s label services. Eventually, in January 2018, he signed to Atlantic Records (the UK branch of Warner Music).
But #Merky, Stormzy’s own independent label under which he released all music prior to being signed, remains the umbrella for his and his team’s work and he retains strong artistic and practical control.
In this video, he talks about setting up his own sub-label and how he intends to use it for more than music.
When did Stormzy get really famous?
It was YouTube that helped secure Stormzy’s fame. By uploading videos he gained recognition and followers. But after that, several appearances sealed the deal on his status as a household name. On 22 October 2014, Stormzy won Best Grime Act at the MOBO Awards. Later that month he became the very first unsigned artist to ever appear on Later… with Jools Holland performing Not That Deep.
What song made Stormzy famous?
British boxer Anthony Joshua asked Stormzy to give a ringside performance of Shut Up for his fight against Dillian Whyte at the end of 2015. With 20000 fans watching live at the O2 Arena and lots more at home, he gained massive exposure. Straight after this, the hashtag #ShutUpForXmasNo1 went viral.
— MOBO (@MOBOAwards) December 14, 2015
Who has Stormzy collaborated with?
For many aspiring musicians, collabs can be massively useful to get noticed. Solo artists have a harder time plugging their music alone, so by working with others, you can access double the publicity and followers. As Stormzy was always very savvy about his career and had a passion for working his genre, he made important connections early on.
He released his first piece of work with writers and producers: The_HeavyTrackerz in 2014. And had significant early collabs with MNEK and Labrinth.
In November 2014, Stormzy collaborated with rapper Chip and Shalo on the track I’m Fine, also appearing in the video. Other well-known artists, he’s worked with include:
- Ed Sheeran
- P Money
- Newham Generals
- Solo 45
- Little Mix
- Linkin Park
- Jon Bellion
Is Nadia Rose Stormzys cousin?
Yes and she’s the same age as him. The female rapper studied Music and Music Management at university and released her first EP in 2017. She’s managed by Relentless Records, a subsidiary of Sony Music.
Stormzy has a brother with whom he shared a room until he was 18 and two older sisters. One of his sisters is responsible for first introducing him to this genre of music. He cites Dizzee Rascal’s Boy in da Corner as being an influential game-changer for him and he later got into Wiley, Kano and Lethal B.
Grime music is now one of the biggest UK exports, thanks in part to this star. But success was the result of a lot of hard work, determination and commitment from the South London rapper. And he believes in defying the odds to achieve something incredible. He told The Guardian:
“I find it strange and uncomfortable to aim for anything less than the greatest. That doesn’t even make sense for me, that. If I was going to be an engineer or I was going to be a baker or I was going to be a fireman, why would I not aim to eventually be the greatest at my job?
“I’ve never understood why I should just try and be the best rapper in London, or even the best rapper in the UK. I don’t want to be the best rapper in the UK. I want to be the best artist in the UK. That takes my competitors from 20 people to 100 people, because now they’re indie bands, female singers, soul singers, legends, rock icons that I’m competing with. In my head, I’m like, ‘Why can’t I compete with them? Why can’t Stormzy from south London do that as well?’”
Are you an aspirational rap, grime or hip-hop artist? If so, it’s well worth taking a leaf out of Stormzy’s book and his rise to fame. You don’t need to wait for a label to sign you. Get out there and make your own tracks at local recording studios, upload videos shot by your friends and plug away on social media until the world takes notice.
- How many albums has Stormzy released?
Stormzy has released two studio albums, a mixtape, two EPs and fourteen singles as a lead artist. But he has also featured on others as part of collaborations, including with Ed Sheeran, Linkin Park and Jon Bellion.
- Where does Stormzy live?
He has stayed in his native London since becoming a household name but moved to the upscale borough of Chelsea, where he bought a chic two-storey townhouse. He has a study, garden gym, minibar and huge trophy cabinet for his many awards.
- Has Stormzy played Glastonbury?
Yes. He received international praise from musical and political communities, for being the first headline show by a black solo British artist at the festival in 2019. The set on the iconic Pyramid Stage was a hit, despite Stormzy experiencing major technical problems.
Are you a grime artist or rapper who’s been inspired by Stormzy? If so, we’d love to see links to your music and writing in the comments below.