On the (un)official ten year anniversary of SBTV, the channel that let the UK play judges to the rising rap scene, the entrepreneur remembers his humble beginnings
Cast your mind back to 2006. Urban music fans were glued to Channel U, and tuning in to catch songs like I Swear by N-Dubz on 1Xtra. Grime is still riding its first wave and YouTube is in its infancy, known for viral hitters like ‘Fat rollercoaster kid’ and ‘Charlie bit my finger’ rather than musical insurgents. But, this new corner of the Internet was not yet tapping into the growing music scene emerging in the UK.
That all changed on November 2nd when 15-year-old West Londoner Jamal Edwards started filming videos on a Handycam his mother had bought him for Christmas. He started SBTV – SB standing for Smokey Barz, his personal MC name – and went from there. “There was a gap in the market,” he tells Dazed knowingly on the ten year anniversary of the venture that has bestowed him with enviable, MBE-honoured business acumen and earned him millions. “I remember on YouTube there were loads of videos that went viral, a lot of comedy, and I used to spend my time on there watching bare videos, and there were music videos, but they were not original,” he observes.
With no original content on YouTube to reflect the burgeoning grime and UK rap scene, and grime DVDs by the likes of Lord of the Mic's, Risky roadz were impossible to find online, Edwards started filming his friends. His work slowly started getting positive feedback and then he coined a new way of discovering new music with his F64 format: a 64-bar rap challenge to spit your best bars and prove your talent to the viewers. Eventually spawned A64 acoustic sessions which famously featured a young Ed Sheeran. On the hallowed SBTV's anniversary, we speak to Edwards about how he went from a youthful videographer to the owner of one the UK’s biggest youth media outlets:
When you were first starting out, how did you find those emerging artists and get them agree to be on SBTV?
Jamal Edwards: In the beginning, the channel really only featured my friends, and then my friend's network. Eventually, I started approaching random people, for example, I remember I went to Egg Nightclub and I started filming Shortie, Little Dee, Griminal, and there were quite a few people. I just went up to them and asked: “Can I film you for my YouTube channel?” I told them I was building my own channel and was hoping to get a few views so would love to include some freestyle videos.
Did you then use that as a launch pad to take the channel beyond your own mates?
Once I had a few known names I started randomly getting in touch with people, travelling further and further to places in north and east London, and then I went outside of the UK, and I just went all these different places I'd never been. A lot of the times I would just jump on the train, and if I didn't have money for trains I would just bump it. After I did that a few times my friends would drive me around too. We did long journeys at that time to places that couldn’t seem further apart like Rayners lane to Walthamstow, it felt mad.
“I never thought in a million years I would go from filming on the streets to accepting an MBE at the palace” – Jamal Edwards
At any point did it ever dawn on you that your handycam project could potentially earn you an MBE one day?
Jamal Edwards: Nah man, never. The rappers, producers and singers, that I filmed contributed to the platform as much as I did. We worked as a partnership to make it what it is today. I never thought in a million years I would go from filming on the streets to accepting an MBE at the palace. When I first started I never thought “yeah, I want to get an MBE”, but now I have that anything is possible.
What do you think the difference is now with starting up an online channel, or even an online empire?
Jamal Edwards: I think there is a lot of competition now, but you have to remember you need to make your stuff stand out. Even though there is a lot of competition, it is exciting to be able to think of new ideas, formats, and artists. That is what excited me every day. If you stay in your lane and have a clear vision of what you want to do then you shouldn't be distracted from wanting to make a channel just because of other people in the same field. Do stuff that people are not doing, and if they are doing it, then you have to think, “how can I make this better?”
What do you think resonated with urban music fans to make it so successful?
Jamal Edwards: Thank you. I mean, I don't think I'm successful yet.
Are you joking?
Jamal Edwards: I am always trying to top what I've done. I just want to keep on growing, and I think what helped in the early days was there were people who wanted to watch grime and couldn't really get to it because they were outside of London, so they would watch SBTV, and still watch it now. That is where my roots are, and it still sits well with a lot of people. I’m still inspired to put up original things you don’t see on TV.
What have been some of the biggest moments where you've realised people really admired you as an entrepreneur?
Jamal Edwards: There are so many different marketing adverts I have done over the years. I have done some Google Chrome adverts, been on the front cover of Intelligent Life, Wired and so everything grew organically. I never said “I want to be on the cover” – it just kind of happened. The only time it hasn't been organic is when I have had PR, and we have sat down and said, ‘Okay, we will target these people’. But that has only happened more recently.
“There were people who wanted to watch grime and couldn't really get to it because they were outside of London so they would watch SBTV, and still watch it now. That is where my roots are” – Jamal Edwards
What is next for SBTV? You have conquered YouTube, you have your own site and music label. What else do you have coming up?
Jamal Edwards: I plan to keep growing and to keep on unearthing new artists, whilst supporting them, and really boosting up the original content side, things that are not just spitting bars for the camera. I am going to really focus on that. I am also doing some good partnerships and collaborations so it's just amping things up to the next level. Next year will make it the official 10 years when the channel properly launched because I deleted all the videos from 2006. I am quite excited because this year has been quite up and down for me, due to the fact of my mum being diagnosed with breast cancer which really threw me off a bit, but she has the all clear now so it's just all about hitting the road running really.
Watch Jamal’s top picks for videos and freestyles that came to define SBTV below:
LITTLE DEE’S F64
“This was the first ever F64 which has been our big marketable niche. When we thought of that it was the first time I had seen a structured format. For me it is one of the best formats I have ever come up with, and it was just nuts what that did for SBTV. Obviously anyone can say Devlin’s, Bashy’s, Akala’s, Wretch’s, I filmed all those ones but this one sticks out. If anyone knew what F64 would turn out to be – I don’t think even Little Dee knew what it could eventually become. It was a mad phenomenon. Once I saw it work, I started being consistent with it. Trial and error. Looking at people’s feedback and then act on it straight away.”
GERMAN WHIP – MERIDIAN DAN, BIG H, JME
“We shot it and I remember Meridian Dan was like ‘ah i'm not sure about this’ and Big H wanted to reshoot some bits of the video. In the end Dan was like ‘I don't know man, it's just long man let's just leave’. Luckily I persuaded him and I uploaded it and it obviously ended up being a massive tune and blew up. I was so adamant I was just going to upload without his blessing because I just loved it which is funny to him now.”
LADY LESHURR’S FIRST F64
“This was just sick.”
BIG ZUU’S WARM UP SESSIONS
“I think before this point, we didn’t know that Big Zuu could spit conscious lyrics and it was just after that that everyone was just like ‘woah’. That is mad. The way he spits, the way he’s done that is crazy. He was still animalistic but he spat it with real conviction. I really like that one.”
EMELI SANDE’S A64
“Emeli Sandé, which was one of her first ever acoustic performances just being herself. This was about six years ago and that was a time when she was doing stuff with Chipmunk but no-one ever knew it was her. So that video was the first time a lot of people could see who she was.”