As a fan of UK grime and rap music I’ve always wanted to build a data visualisation covering these genres. I have built multiple music vizzes in the past but never anything focused purely on music originating from the UK. As there was (and still is) a lot of hype surrounding the release of Stormzy’s second studio album “Heavy is the Head” in December, I thought Stormzy would be the perfect candidate for my latest data viz!
I’m conscious that 99% of people reading this post will have no idea who Stormzy is, nor will they have ever heard of grime music so I’ll start with a brief history lesson.
DISCLAIMER: If you know all about Stormzy and grime music already, feel free to scroll to the end. This post is designed to accompany the data visualisation, focusing in on the history of grime and the significance of Stormzy’s career, rather than the data visualisation side of things per se.
What is Grime Music?
Grime is a sub-genre of hip-hop; essentially the British version of American rap mixed with influences from UK Garage, 2-Step, Drum & Bass, and Jungle. Grime typically involves MC’s (rappers) spitting bars over a tempo of 140 BPM, with grungy basslines, melodies and hard-hitting sounds. Grime lyrics often involve MC’s recalling stories of struggle; whether that be growing up in the city, hussling for money, their lifestyle or stories of friends / lovers / families / enemies, etc
The History of Grime
Grime emerged in London (Bow, East London to be precise) in the early 2000’s from UK Garage, Drum & Bass and Jungle. I grew up around the time that UK garage was at it’s peak. I was fortunate enough to go to garage raves in London or even Ayia Napa in Cyprus at the height of the scene. Major UK garage acts including So Solid Crew, Heartless Crew, Pay As You Go Crew, Roll Deep and others would perform live at these raves with MC’s spitting bars over distinctive Garage, Drum & Bass and Jungle basslines spun by famous DJ’s.
Wiley is considered “The Godfather of Grime” and in the early 2000’s he independently released a series of influential “Eskibeat” instrumentals on vinyl, eventually rising to fame as a grime MC both for his solo work and for material released with his crew, Roll Deep. In 2002, Wiley founded “Eskimo Dance”, the biggest live grime club night in the country. It was a chaotic rave, with MC’s and DJ’s competing to get to the stage and perform.
This is an example of early grime; a promo set by (MC’s) Wiley and Dizzee Rascal and (DJ) Slimzee:
Grime was originally popularised on pirate radio stations such as “Rinse FM” and music video channel “Channel U” (or “Channel AKA” as it was later renamed). Mainstream channels did not play grime in the early days. It was purely an underground scene. Founded in 2003 (before YouTube), the TV music channel “Channel U” was often the first place fans would go to hear new music from their favourite MC’s. Failing that, fans could purchase cassette ‘tape packs’ featuring live recordings from major garage rave events such as “Sidewinder”.
Wiley and (then) fellow Roll Deep member Dizzee Rascal, as well as other artists including Kano and Lethal Bizzle helped to bring grime out of the pirate radio stations and into the mainstream charts. They collectively achieved commercial success in the mid-2000’s but grime began to decline in popularity by the end of the decade. The public and the record labels were still sceptical of grime and everything it represented and therefore didn’t really know how to market it. As a result, many grime MC’s chose to adopt a more electronic-dance rap sound to achieve the commercial success they were looking for.
Grime was supposed to be rebellious and not easy to listen to. At its heart, grime represented a marginalised demographic; kids growing up on inner-city council estates wearing street clothing, dismissed as ‘uneducated’ for using slang, pushed out of popular music and forced to use pirate radio stations because their sound wasn’t accessible enough or ‘American’ enough. If the record labels didn’t understand grime, how could they represent their artists? This made it difficult for grime to truly breakthrough into the mainstream.
The “New Wave” of Independent Artists
By 2013, a lot had changed since grime’s early days. Smartphones were now commonplace, YouTube and social media platforms were fully established, as were music streaming sites such as Spotify. Nobody listened to cassettes anymore! This completely changed the way grime artists operated and marketed themselves.
In 2014, Skepta reached number 21 in the UK Singles Chart with his single “That’s Not Me” featuring his brother JME:
Unlike his predecessors, Skepta released his music as an independent artist under his own record label, “Boy Better Know”. Two months later, Lethal Bizzle released the single “Rari WorkOut” featuring JME and Tempa T on his own label (“Stay Dench Records)”, peaking at number 11 in the UK Singles Charts.
Skepta and others like him proved that rappers could have successful careers without the backing of a major record label. Social media, YouTube and streaming services made it easier for grime artists to self-promote and distribute their work without relying on record label support. This is something that Stormzy did better than anyone.
Who is Stormzy?
Born in 1993, Michael Omari (better know as “Stormzy”) grew up Norwood, South London. Stormzy was just child when Dizzee Rascal and Wiley shot to fame in the early 2000’s. However, Stormzy started rapping at a young age and began sharing his “WickedSkengMan” videos; rap freestyles recorded over classic grime riddims, to YouTube in 2013. They quickly gained him attention and in October 2014 despite being an unsigned artist with no mainstream PR, radio or marketing support, Stormzy became the first unsigned artist and first grime artist to appear on the popular “Later…with Jools Holland” show on BBC2.
Stormzy was slowly bringing grime to the mainstream like no artist had done before. His relentless attitude and YouTube success forced people to notice him and he was determined to ensure that black British musical talent finally got the wider recognition it deserved.
In November 2014, Stormzy became the first ever artist to win the coveted award for “Best Grime” at the MOBO’s (Music of Black Origin). Since then, Stormzy has released two studio albums and multiple awards. In 2018, his debut album “Gang Signs & Prayer” became the first rap album to win the BRIT Award for “British Album of the Year”. He also took home the BRIT Award for “British Male Solo Artist” the very same evening.
To this day, Stormy remains independent and releases music on his own label, #Merky Records. Stormzy is free from music label constraints and utilises an internet-enabled model, pushing his music through his own channels. Stormzy recently entered into a joint-partnership with Atlantic Records but he predominately uses label service deals to bring his music to market. His manager is a childhood friend and he is surrounded by a close-knit, hardworking team who have full control of everything; the music, the marketing, the financials, tour planning, etc. This enables him to remain true to his values and only engage in work which he truly wants to do.
The Stormy Sound
While Stormzy is child of grime, his studio albums aren’t grime albums per se. Stormzy’s music is typically loud, high-energy, high-tempo and his lyrics unapologetic. However, his studio albums also feature more acoustic ballads and gospel influences, encompassing R&B, gospel, pop, and UK hip-hop styles.
Stormzy’s live performance of “Blinded by Your Grace” and “Big For Your Boots” at the 2018 BRIT Awards was iconic and gives a sense of the diversity in Stormzy’s musical style:
Stormzy the Activist
Stormzy is vocal about his political views and frequently uses his voice to address the questionable actions of the UK Government, especially those actions that impact under-represented groups.
Stormzy is an active support of Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and actively encouraged young people to vote for him in the December 2019 UK general election. His posts on social media reminding people to register to vote resulted in a surge of young people registering before the November 2019 deadline; a testament to Stormzy’s influence on society.
At the 2018 BRIT Awards (see video above), Stormzy added a freestyle to his live performance (delivered topless whilst standing under pouring rain), attacking (then) PM Theresa May and her Government for their handling of the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy:
“Like, “Yo, Theresa May, where’s that money for Grenfell?
What, you thought we just forgot about Grenfell?”
You’re criminals and you got the cheek to call us savages
You should do some jail time, you should pay some damages
We should burn your house down and see if you can manage this
MPs sniff coke, we just smoke a bit of cannabis”
Following his iconic performance, he launched an online petition to “call on PM to take action to build public trust in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry”. The petition resulted in over 150,000 signatures, forcing the Government to discuss the matter in parliament.
Even when he headlined Glastonbury in 2019, thousands of people in the crowd were broadcast shouting “Fuck the government and fuck Boris” (aimed at Boris Johnson, UK Prime Minister) during his performance of “Vossi Bop”.
His set also featured a sample from a speech by Tottenham MP David Lammy which highlighted the high reoffending rates of black men in the UK. It stated:
“The system isn’t working. If recidivism rates are 46% for black men then something isn’t working.”
Lammy openly thanked Stormzy for using his platform to draw attention to the issue.
Speaking of Glastonbury, Stormzy’s headline set on the Pyramid Stage was an iconic celebration of black British culture. As the first black British solo headliner in Glastonbury history, Stormzy wasn’t prepared to deliver anything less than a spectacular performance. He arrived on stage wearing a stab-proof vest decorated with a union jack flag designed by none other than street artist, Banksy (a reference to the wave of knife crime currently sweeping Britain). Highlights of the show included a performance by black ballet dancers from the group “Ballet Black”, guest appearances by rappers Dave and Fredo (to celebrate their song “Funky Friday” becoming the first British rap single to reach number one in the UK charts (Stormzy’s hit “Vossi Bop” quickly followed suit)) and a duet with Coldplay’s Chris Martin. At the end of his performance, Stormzy stopped the music and named a staggering 65 British rap artists who have either impacted his career or those he views as up and coming stars.
Stormzy vs. Wiley
Wiley has openly showed his respect for Stormzy in the past (Stormzy has also returned the favour, dedicating the song “Wiley Flow” to him). Wiley recognises Stormzy for taking grime to new heights, further than the first wave of grime artists ever achieved and for that, previously described him as “an inspiration”. However, Stormzy and Wiley are currently involved in a bitter Twitter feud.
Wiley has become well-known for his frequent outbursts on social media so this should come as no surprise. This particular drama follows on from Wiley branding Canadian rapper “Drake” and British musician “Ed Sheeran” as “culture vultures” and “pagans” (aka backstabbers) for adopting elements of grime and its community to gain “clout”.
During his 2019 UK tour, Drake brought grime artists including J Hus, Afro B and Dave onstage during his performances. Drake also famously signed to “Boy Better Know” in 2016, the London label and crew responsible for some of grime’s biggest early hits (including Skepta’s “Doin’ It Again”). As for Sheeran, he collaborated with Wiley himself back in 2011 and has since worked on multiple projects with Stormzy and other grime and afrobeat artists. Wiley believes Drake and Sheeran are using grime to “look good” and is quoted as saying:
“Anyone who uses us and our sounds are culture vultures”
After Sheeran and Stormzy collaborated on a track called ‘Take Me Back to London’ in 2019, Wiley tweeted that he was:
“sick of people using grime to look good for two minutes”
He critised Sheeran for capitalising on grime (and grime artists) for his own personal gain. Sheeran and Stormzy are good friends and have collaborated multiple times. Needless to say this didn’t go down well with Stormzy, who natually jumped to Sheeran’s defence.
Since December 2019, Wiley and Stormzy have been arguing on Twitter. In January 2020, Wiley recorded a diss track critising Stormzy, to which Stormzy responded a few days later.
The drama continues……
In 2018, to improve black British representation in leading universities, Stormzy launched a scholarship program offering two fully-funded scholarships to black British students joining the University of Cambridge in 2018, worth £18,000 each. Stormzy offered a further two scholarships in 2019 and intends to fund a further two scholarships this year. The proportion of black undergraduate students studying at Cambridge now stands at 3%, an all-time high.
To address the underrepresentation of minorities in the publishing industry, Stormzy launched “#Merky Books”, a publishing imprint in conjunction with Penguin Random House that’s dedicated to showcasing underrepresented voices. So far #Merky Books have published three titles.
“I know too many talented writers that don’t always have an outlet or a means to get their work seen and hopefully #Merky Books can now be a reference point for them to say “I can be an author” and for that to be a realistic and achievable goal”.
Stormzy speaking about #Merky Books
The Data Viz
As a fan of Stormzy and his music I was keen to find a way of bringing his successes to life in Tableau. Before beginning this project I immersed myself in all things Stormzy. I listened this back-catalogue, watched his videos on YouTube and read multiple interviews. This helped me to get a sense of what I should include in my viz.
- The viz includes a section on “The Stormzy Sound” which utilises the Spotify API to pull the musical characteristics of Stormzy’s studio albums. Perhaps unsurprisingly Stormzy’s sound is loud, high-tempo, high-energy and danceable!
- I sourced data from the UK Official Charts to visualise the chart success of a few of Stormzy’s notable songs and albums. This enabled me to visualise the impact of the Anthony Joshua fight and his Christmas number one attempt. I even had to go back and update my data since Stormzy scored himself his third UK number one single while I was putting this viz together.
- I incorporated a section on YouTube to highlight his successes on the platform and showcase his most popular music videos. Using dashboard and parameter actions I was able to include a URL action which switches which video is being played in the view.
- I found an artist on Fivver to draw some illustrations of Stormzy to include in my viz. This was to prevent me from breaching any copyright rules by featuring protected images. I’m really happy with how they turned out.
Here is the final viz:
Finally, I want to thank Hesham Eissa for his help with the Spotify API, Alteryx and for his incredibly helpful feedback on this project. It made a huge difference! Thank you.
Thanks for reading.