“I don’t really care about infiltrating.”
It’s a Wednesday night backstage at the Echo, and I'm sitting with U.K. grime star Stormzy half an hour before his first-ever show in Los Angeles. He’s made his New York debut a couple nights ago, and people are starting to wonder whether he will be the one who will finally bring the good word of grime to the United States.
But he insists that he’s not doing this for the glitz or the glamor.
Still, he looks a little nervous. Reviews from his New York gig are positive, but there’s no guarantee that he’ll repeat his success tonight. He asks me how the crowd is looking. I tell him it’s packed, because it is.
“Good sign, right? I hope it’s good tonight.” He smiles, and his gold tooth glimmers.
The grime scene has had more than a decade to mature in the U.K. But even at home, it doesn’t get the respect it deserves, and grime is routinely looked down upon as a lesser version of hip-hop. The scene certainly has roots in hip-hop but is also a uniquely British mix of pirate radio, reggae and electronic music cultures. Grime couldn’t have happened anywhere else. Actually, its negative reputation may be one of its closest points of similarity with its overseas cousin: Grime events are monitored (and sometimes blocked) by police, and grime was the most obvious snub when no black artists were nominated for major U.K. categories in the Brit Awards last year, despite their obvious popularity.
(Warning: The following video contains vulgarities.)
So is Stormzy happy to be here? Of course he is. But he’s looking at his set tonight as something of a mission.
“I know some people here tonight, they may be seeing their first London artist, or their first grime artist,” he says, putting his mobile phone down for the first time since we started talking.
“I know I have a duty to make it as sick as possible. For my genre, my country, my peers. So that’s the part I play. So that the world knows that we’re to be taken seriously, you know what I mean?”
I push him a little: So being on stage with Kanye wasn’t that big a deal? Getting a co-sign from a famous U.S. rapper isn’t on his bucket list?
“Nah, all of that stuff don’t really faze me. That’s like things on the side, you know what I mean? That’s just little bonuses that happen along the way.”
And as honored as he was to rap in front of Ice Cube, he’d much rather get Little Simz, another London MC, on his next record.Stormzy near the beginning of his set. (Dexter Thomas / Los Angeles Times)
Beyond his obvious lyrical talent, Stormzy has the approachability and comedic sense of a YouTube celebrity — which is appropriate, because he’s the only one able to turn a casual freestyle in the park into a 28-million view phenomenon. His lyrics get as serious as any other MC's, but then he makes music videos of himself goofing off in a housing complex with his mom, sparking endless jokes in social media. He knows how to give it back, too: When people started comparing him to a Belgian soccer star, he referenced it in a freestyle. He’s also made an unintended entrance into the famous Tate Museum, via his appearance in a series of paintings of grime legends by artist Reuben Dangoor. At 22, he’s the youngest of the “legends,” most of whom are veterans in their late 30s.
A few weeks before the show, he even gave a lecture at Oxford. When I ask whether he’d ever want to visit a college campus in the U.S., he shrugs.
“I’m not gonna do any more talks for the time being,” he says. “I think I need to live a little first, so I have more wisdom.”
Then he repeats something that he said during his Oxford session: that he wants to stop using the “n-word” in his songs. “I’m gonna try to stop, man,” he says, frowning. “I don’t think it’s something that needs promoting, you know what I mean?”
I’m impressed but less so when the show starts. He shows no signs of slowing down with the word, performing his tracks as they were written, all curse words intact. Maybe he’ll apply his new policy in his upcoming songs.Stormzy during his performance at the Echo on March 23, 2016. (Dexter Thomas / Los Angeles Times)
For the first few minutes of the show, Stormzy’s set had the awkwardness of a first date. He had good reason to think the crowd would like him, but he wasn’t quite sure if he could trust us yet. He spent the initial minutes feeling the audience out, even going as far as to shout, “Put your hands in the air if you know grime music.”
A few dozen hands shot up, and Stormzy looked relieved. Every chance he got, he shouted out other grime artists and talked about why they inspired him. Tonight wasn’t just about him; this was about the culture, and he was cool with that.
Even so, Stormzy performed a “safe” track that he probably imagined would appeal to U.S. listeners: his version of Game and Drake’s “100” (which, to be fair, might be a little better than the original).
But the crowd hadn’t come to hear an overseas MC run over some familiar West Coast beats. They wanted grime, as unfiltered as he was willing to give it. They wanted Stormzy.
So when he loosened up, letting go with more London slang and teasing them with instrumentals from his most popular songs, the crowd gave him the energy he was looking for.Stormzy during his performance at the Echo on March 23, 2016. (Dexter Thomas / Los Angeles Times)
Still, he tested them: Did they know the words to “Shut Up”? Yes.
Did they know the hook from “Know Me From”? Yes. In fact, all he had to do was shout a few words, and a dozen fans shouted the rest of the chorus.
Stormzy seemed a little surprised at the response. And to be honest, so was I. People have been predicting that grime would cross the pond for almost as long as the genre’s been around, but it has never quite panned out. But being in a room full of people who hungered for a new sound made the possibility seem a little more tangible.
After the show, I asked a bunch of people what they thought of the concert, and half of them told me that they were already making plans to see another grime artist soon bound for L.A.: Skepta, who recently brought Drake onboard with the U.K. label Boy Better Know. One group even offered to give me a ride to the show if I needed one.
I got home and googled the show. Sure enough, Skepta is playing an all-ages show at the Roxy on the 18th. It’s already sold out.
Maybe, this time, we are ready.Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times