“It’s like a battle,” reflects grime superstar Stormzy in “Gang Signs & Prayer,” the just-released companion film to his 2017 album of the same name. “You’ve got two demons inside you. Am I going to make the right decision? Am I going to make the wrong decision? Back then, often, you never made the right decision.”
Directed by acclaimed documentary and filmmaker Rollo Jackson with support from YouTube, “Gang Signs & Prayer” chronicles Stormzy’s inner battles and temptations as he becomes master of his own destiny. The film beautifully visualizes the themes of the record, and serves as yet another milestone for Stormzy in a year full of them: In addition to becoming the first independent grime artist to notch a No. 1 album on the British charts, the MC has crossed 190 million views on his YouTube channel, received a Mercury Prize nomination, and won a BET Award for Best International Act: Europe.
Stormzy joins a growing list of U.K. rap and grime artists who have found an audience on YouTube. In addition to established voices like Skepta, Kano, and Wiley, newcomers like AJ Tracey, London-based MC Little Simz, Drake-approved rapper Dave , and recent Mercury Prize nominee J Hus have all connected with millions of viewers on the platform in 2017 alone. U.K. rap and grime-focused channels like SB.TV, Link Up TV, and GRM Daily have also flourished on the platform and connected with fans, combining for over 2 million subscribers.
“YouTube channels run things now,” Caroline Simionescu-Marin of XL Recordings recently told FACT Magazine. “The kids are all subscribed to the YouTube channels. That’s where they see everything first, and the kids are the champions.”
“If you're a grime-head, you know where to go,” explains Alex Hoffman, VICE Head of Music, U.K., who helped launch Noisey’s YouTube Channel. “You've got your places for music video exclusives, for freestyles. There's also more comedy-type stuff that's linked to grime and U.K. rap culture. YouTube is the main place you go to for all of that.”
First developed in the early 2000s, grime was initially the sound of London's East End. A frenzied hybrid of rap, Caribbean soundsystem culture, and U.K. garage, it initially spread across the city by underground pirate radio stations and DVDs like Risky Roadz, but quickly moved online. Initially viewed as a niche genre, it’s since exploded into a worldwide phenomenon, thanks in large part to the accessibility of YouTube.
“From the time you put your content online, wherever you are your local voice becomes global straight-away,” SB.TV founder Jamal Edwards tells YouTube. “It's reaching other areas of the world via YouTube.”
Edwards started SB.TV 11 years ago for a simple reason: "There wasn't anything online." Today, SB.TV boasts more than 900,000 subscribers. Its five most-watched uploads — music videos by artists like Nines and YXNG BANE — all top 10 million views.
“I had a lot of mates that couldn't get played on mainstream platforms,” explains Edwards of his channel’s origins. “So I thought I'd create something where I can film my friends and upload it to YouTube." He knew he'd made it when artists outside his circle requested to be featured too. A decade later, SB.TV has organized events at Buckingham Palace. Edwards has even been appointed MBE.
But YouTube offers more than just distribution. The format has helped shape the sound, look, and attitude of the genre's biggest stars. One such artist is Lady Leshurr, a 28-year-old MC best known for her “Queen’s Speech” freestyles. Already an established voice in grime, Leshurr got the idea for the series watching videos online.
“I used to watch a lot of battle rap,” she explains. “And I always used to think [the MCs are] amazing but why are they not known? Then I thought that the reason they are probably not known is because they’re not making songs, so if they did battle rapper verses and a catchy little chorus it would probably be better. And I said, maybe I could do battle rap lyrics in the verse and then do a catchy chorus and see what happens.”
What happened was the “Queen's Speech” series, a collection of sharp, funny freestyles that quickly went viral, helped along by videos that were as confident, challenging, and playful as the music. To date, the series has over 100 million views, with Leshurr’s channel netting over 750,000 subscribers.
“YouTube is an amazing platform for any type of music,” notes Leshurr. “It's something where everyone can access it. You share things for the public to see. It's been a really good platform for me, just getting my music out there. You see visuals and you can leave comments and subscribe.”
“[YouTube] could influence how you want to take the next video,” says Edwards. “Or it could influence how you even do videos, or who to feature. I look at the comments to gain feedback, and also as a good thing for the artist as well, which I think is important.”
The community that’s sprung up on YouTube around the grime scene in the last decade has created this kind of positive feedback loop that Edwards describes. The platform has helped local artists gain worldwide exposure, and has helped fans to discover new music, as well as each other. These in turn feed back into the scene, leading to new songs, new images, new channels, and ultimately new ideas, such as the Stormzy and Jackson’s “Gang Signs & Prayer.”
“Grime is one of the most exciting genres in the world and I’m ecstatic that trailblazers like Stormzy are garnering the success and recognition they deserve. The rise of grime is a perfect example of how YouTube is a place for artists to express themselves creatively and a democratic platform to access a global fanbase,” explains Lyor Cohen, YouTube’s Global Head of Music. “We want to help both artists and the industry make the most of technology, and this project is an ideal symbol of that: a groundbreaking film that blends music, art and story in new way and it’s accessible to all on YouTube.”
“YouTube is a modern-day, universal jukebox,” adds the film’s director, Rollo Jackson. “It’s a platform without filter or prejudice. This film won’t just live on a particular website, or within a particular circle of friends. People anywhere in the world will have access to it. That’s a rare opportunity, to be able to make something this ambitious with almost no limitations.”