The music world is reeling at the news of Jamal Edwards’ death, aged 31. His mother, Loose Women star Brenda Edwards, said he died after a “sudden illness”.
Born in Luton in 1990 and raised in Acton, west London, Edwards studied for a BTec in Media Moving Image at Ealing College.
As a rapper under the name SmokeyBarz, the teenage Edwards found himself increasingly frustrated at being unable to find clips of local MCs online. He decided to film people himself – buying a £20 phone while still at school and uploading videos to his YouTube channel, SBTV (SmokeyBarz TV), which he created in 2006.
“You can say my videos had mixed reviews to begin with, some people didn’t get them, but others thought they were sick,” he told the BBC in 2013. “So I started to put them up on YouTube so everyone could see them, and it just grew from there.”
SBTV launched at a pivotal time for the UK music industry, with the emergence of grime but also the persecution of live performances by mostly Black artists, due to the controversial risk-assessment Form 696. The form, issued to shut down MC events, was scrapped in 2017.
Edwards provided an essential platform for grime, subsequently helping to propel it into the mainstream.
“For me, SBTV was about creating as much exposure for the genre as possible, and that in turn helps be a part of the story – in terms of SBTV being a part of the UK music story, with grime, rap and hip-hop,” he told culture blog WhyNow in 2020.
“Back in the day, the 696 used to stop events happening and it was an underground scene. But grime’s now in the mainstream, it’s in the charts, grime artists are now winning awards; so you had to overcome those barriers, but if anything it made it more rewarding when we reached a certain success.”
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Edwards was a reluctant frontman, viewing himself more as a Banksy-type figure working behind the scenes. An advert for Google Chrome featuring Edwards changed all that in 2011, yet he put this newfound public image to good use, by raising awareness of issues including mental health and helping to create opportunities for other young people.
Aged 24, he was awarded an MBE for services to music in 2014, having already helped to launch the careers of musicians including Ed Sheeran, Dave, Stormzy, Krept & Konan, Bugzy Malone and Rita Ora.
Many of the clips, such as a young Sheeran’s 2010 live recording of early track “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You” using loop pedals, went viral. Sheeran even ad-libbed a shout-out for the platform at the beginning of his performance: “Now I’m in town/ Break it down/ Thinking of making a new sound/ Playing for SBTV, for the new crowd, that’s you now.”
Fans can see what appears to be a single mattress propped against the wall of the small studio during Sheeran’s performance, demonstrating the DIY ethos and humble beginnings Edwards launched his channel from.
“I always looked on grime like the punk movement, in terms of lyrics and rebellious attitude,” he told The Guardian in a 2017 interview.
Among the other most popular performances posted to the channel are by rappers such as Mist, Abra Cadabra, Nines and Kano. A 2015 clip for the channel’s “Warm-Up Sessions” shows future Mercury Prize-winning artist Dave shouting out Edwards, promising he was “just getting started”.
“When I first heard Dave, I had to get him on SB to spray some fire as the realness he delivers is on point and he’s only just turned 17,” Edwards wrote in the caption. “Definitely one of the new youngers to watch out for in the future!”
A 2012 video shows a young Stormzy in another Warm-Up session, prompting one viewer to comment: “This guy is actually good I wanna see more of him.”
To date, SBTV has more than 1.2 million subscribers and has achieved a billion views.
“Thank you for everything,” Dave wrote on Twitter following the news of Edwards’ death. “Words can’t explain.”
See more tributes to Edwards here.