Jamal Edwards: YouTube’s grime reaper
As a child Edwards spent his early years in Luton and then moved to Acton, west London, where he lived with his mum, Brenda, stepfather, Patrick, and younger sister, Tanisha.
A lot has changed for Jamal Edwards in the decade since he began his YouTube music channel, SBTV. He started it when he was still at school and within four years he was a celebrity – one of the faces of the YouTube generation, a new breed of do-it-yourself broadcasters who had built huge global audiences seemingly out of thin air.
I first met him around the time he became famous, in 2011 – he and his fledgling team were squished into a modest shared workspace scattered with brightly coloured beanbags in Camden. Today we meet in the pristine white boardroom of a swanky Fitzrovia office, which SBTV shares with a private equity firm. The contrast between then and now could not be more telling. Edwards is no longer the new kid on the block, he’s a mogul, a veteran, the CEO. He is 26 years old.
His look is still more high street than Bond Street. He sports his signature baseball cap, but is otherwise dressed casually all in black, with silver skull rings on his fingers (another Edwards trademark). In person he is an intriguing mix of laser-sharp digital pioneer and endlessly distracted millennial with a constantly buzzing iPhone. “Mate, two seconds…” he says, checking its screen and I plead with him to turn it off, which he does. When he engages, his mien is businesslike and direct – like many time-poor CEOs he doesn’t tend to regale or embellish unless coaxed; though he rarely ducks a question.
When we met in 2011, Edwards had recently shot to fame after starring in a buzzy TV ad for Google Chrome, which brought him to the attention of the wider public. The ad showed how he had set up SBTV with just a camcorder and a laptop (though he actually started it “on a £20 phone” when he was still at school) to create an internet channel dedicated mostly to grime music – though its scope expanded to include hip-hop, R&B, pop and singer-songwriters. The ad co-starred Ed Sheeran, who was a huge hit on SBTV before he had even signed a record deal: “We’re good friends, but we were also good for each other’s careers,” Edwards says. “Viewers loved him, they didn’t care where he was from. They could just see he had talent.”
SBTV became the place for grime acts to be seen online thanks to some clever formats which pushed the music beyond its self-imposed boundaries. After growing tired of “hearing the same MCs repeat the same bars over and over again”, from pirate radio to raves and then on their tracks, Edwards devised a format in 2009 called F64 – the F stood for “fresh”, meaning that MCs had to spit new and original lyrics, in precisely 64 bars: everyone wanted to compete, from scene leaders, such as Wiley, Chipmunk, Lady Leshurr and Wretch 32, to complete unknowns, whom Jamal would film acapella on their estates all over the UK, transmitting some of the most raw and viscerally compelling invective since punk rock became a mouthpiece for Broken Britain in the 1970s. “I always looked on grime like the punk movement, in terms of lyrics and rebellious attitude,” says Edwards, his eyes glinting.
“How do you feel about grime’s revival…” I begin, but he interrupts. “I don’t think it ever went anywhere,” he says sharply. This is true. But it might also be fair to say, with Skepta winning the Mercury Prize in 2016 and getting props at this year’s Brit Awards alongside Kano and Stormzy (after no grime artists were even nominated last time around), that the music is receiving more mainstream recognition than it has for years?
“And for better reasons as well,” he says. “People always used to look at grime and say… I don’t even want to go into this, really, but it felt like the media tried to damage its reputation a little bit. It was never really celebrating how grime actually is. It does now, though.”
So what’s changed? “I don’t think the people making the music have changed. There’s just been an acceptance… People are waking up to it at last. It probably did have some teething problems in the early days because it’s such a young genre compared to, say, R&B or rock. Anyway, I don’t want to dwell on the past, I’d rather look to the future.”
You get the impression there is more he could say on the subject, and that his feelings run deep, but Edwards is a positive person by nature – it says a lot about his generous spirit that when I ask what his personal highlights have been from the past decade, he says he is proud his staff have extended their careers beyond SBTV as well as inside it. “A lot of people get overlooked [by employers], but I always gave people a chance regardless of their grades,” he says. “It was all about their passion.” He later emails me a list of former employees who have gone on to work for organisations including ITN, Apple, Save the Children, Vice, Channel 5, Vevo and Al Jazeera.
There have been plenty more career highlights to choose from. The past decade has been a bucket-list of achievements for Edwards. He hosted the first ever social media event at Buckingham Palace in 2014 – and posted the first royal selfie with Princes William and Harry, which of course went viral. He has received £8m of backing from Miroma, the private equity firm whose office SBTV now shares, partnered with Apple Music to curate playlists, programmed stages at music festivals from Bestival to SXSW, given Ted Talks, campaigned for charities including Teenage Cancer Trust and Calm, collaborated on a range of snapback and bucket hats at Topman, opened a yogurt and health-food chain, UGOT, and signed a deal with Sony RCA to run a record label, Just Jam (it didn’t work out. Even Edwards can’t win them all). He counts Richard Branson as a mentor. He has even had a marketing phenomenon named after him – “the Jamal Edwards effect” – meaning that anything is possible for anyone in the digital era. And this is by no means an exhaustive list.
To cap it all, he was awarded an MBE in 2014, which he found “surreal. For me it was like, this is for all the self-believers. Most kids who come from where I come from would never believe they could go to Buckingham Palace in a million years. Maybe seeing me do that will give them more self-belief.”
As a child Edwards spent his early years in Luton and then moved to Acton, west London, where he lived with his mum, Brenda, stepfather, Patrick, and younger sister, Tanisha. He is estranged from his father, and says he considers Patrick, an IT worker, to be “my real dad”. He says he has always been a “local boy with a global voice” who will “never forget” where he came from, but has also hinted that there were “distractions” there that could have led him down “the wrong path”. He credits his beloved mum, Brenda – who has forged a successful career as a singer and West End actress after appearing on the X Factor in 2005 – for being strict enough to keep him out of trouble when he was growing up. “She always said: stay on the straight and narrow. Don’t get lost. Don’t go off track,” he says. “And she was right.”
Last year Brenda was diagnosed with breast cancer, and Edwards moved back into the family home to help her through the ordeal of treatment and recuperation. “I wanted to provide as much support as I could,” he says. This is why we haven’t heard much from him recently. “People knew about the cancer because I posted about it,” he says, “and a lot of people said I should take time off, and at first I said: ‘I can’t – I’ve got to make the business work, so I can look after my family.’ That’s what I do, I provide… But I always think I don’t spend enough time with my family, I’m so into the business, but I know they understand.”
In the end family came first, and Brenda is now cancer-free. The stress at the time must have been hard. “It threw me off course,” Edwards concedes, before telling me proudly that Brenda has recently landed a part in a new West End production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel.
He clearly inherited his work ethic from Brenda – although you wonder if he ever manages to switch off. I ask how he likes to relax and he says he only really slows down on holiday, before admitting, in the next breath, that “I haven’t really had a proper holiday for, like, 10 years!” He says that this year he wants to finally get around to passing his driving test so he can see his friends more. Has he got a girlfriend? He’d prefer not to say. It’s hard to imagine he’d have the time, but perhaps he’s just being protective.
When Brenda was diagnosed, Edwards had just launched a new channel, SBTV News, in partnership with the Press Association. The channel, which supplies short stories to a young audience that reads them mostly on smartphones, has survived its first year and now accounts for 50% of SBTV’s traffic.
What line did they take on the two big news stories of the past year, Brexit and Trump? “We didn’t take a side. We didn’t say what was right or wrong. We just gave both sides of the story and let people make up their own minds, which I think was the most important thing we could have done,” he says. “There’s always been that mentality that young people don’t care about the news. They do care, I’ve known that all along, and now I can prove it.”
Now that he is fully focused on his work again, he plans to expand the news channel “aggressively”; and the same goes for SBTV, which currently has 800,000 YouTube subscribers and 470m views. He wants to reach half a billion views “within six to 12 months”.
This month he is relaunching SBTV to mark its 10th anniversary with videos featuring Rag’n’Bone Man, Eliza Doolittle, the grime MCs SafOne and Big Dotti, and of course Ed Sheeran. He is bringing back and “remixing” the much-loved F64 and A64 formats – the latter being for acoustic sessions – with higher-quality production values. SBTV is making TV documentaries for Sky Atlantic, BBC3 and Channel 4 – which screened its first, Pirate Mentality, a two-parter about the role of pirate radio in grime, last December. He is “exec-producing a couple of movies – the director I’m working with also does Hollywood stuff, and the idea going forward is to have a big production house within the SBTV umbrella. It’s really exciting!” He will also renew his efforts to establish SBTV in the US.
“It’s not always easy keeping one step ahead, but the bottom line is it’s all about ideas,” he says. “I’ve got so many ideas at the moment – and you’re only as good as your last one. We want to do big, big, big campaigns now – that’s the next level.”
Brace yourself, world. Jamal Edwards is back. Not that he ever really went anywhere.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010