Britain’s most high‑profile rapper has made his most ambitious album yet — with a little help from his friends.
“Studios are a funny one for me,” grins Stormzy, as he considers what makes him decide to choose a particular recording space. More than equipment, or even location, the key factor is usually whether or not the rapper feels instinctively comfortable in the room. “It’s just a spirit, man,” he adds. “Like, even walking in here, for whatever reason, I feel like I could record here.”
Here being The Bridge Studio in London SE1, where Stormzy and his team are putting the finishing touches to a couple of mixes for his third album, This Is What I Mean. It’s the first time they’ve used this particular studio, the latest in a line of London facilities they’ve hired that has included Metropolis, West Point and Studio 13, the studio owned by Damon Albarn which is not typically available for commercial use. “People don’t really use Studio 13,” Stormzy says. “I used to record next door in The Bunker [writing room owned by producer Stephen Street]. I just had a couple of good experiences there. So yeah, we ended up in Studio 13 and just stayed there.”
However, at the heart of the sessions for This Is What I Mean was a month spent in a remote and unusual location: Osea Island, situated in the River Blackwater in Essex. There, in April 2021, Stormzy holed up with executive producers Kassa Alexander aka PRGRSHN and Tendai Senyange, engineers Joel Peters and Calum Landau and featured collaborators including Jacob Collier and Debbie Ehirim, cutting themselves off from the world in an intensive writing and production camp.
“I always wanted to do a camp,” the rapper says. “Wake up every day, and we’re on music.” In this way, the making of the new album contrasted with that of its predecessor, 2019’s Heavy Is The Head, which was written with a legion of different producers in multiple studios. “Especially off the back of Heavy Is The Head,” Stormzy stresses, “where I was all over the gaff, I always thought, ‘If I make a concentrated, conscious effort in one place, with all the best musicians and producers and artists, I’ll thrive there.’”
This Is What I Mean retains the original grime spirit that propelled the 29‑year‑old South London rapper from the streets of Croydon to the cover of Time magazine and his headline slot at Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage in 2019. At the same time, it finds him venturing into new sonic territory, where distinct echoes of classic ’70s soul can be heard alongside the thumping beats. As he raps on the album’s title track, “I think I’m Kanye mixed with Donny Hathaway.”
But Stormzy’s plan wasn’t always to make a soul album. “Nah, I didn’t have that in mind at all,” he says. “I wanted to make kind of like a hard rap album, if I’m being honest. We went to LA just before the pandemic and then we had to come back. Lo and behold, a couple of years later, we’ve got this album. Nothing about it was planned.”
Stormzy — real name Michael Ebenezer Kwadjo Omari Owuo Jr — was only 12 years old when he first recorded one of his raps, using a desktop PC and Acoustica’s Mixcraft software. “It would have been a £1 mic from Poundland,” he laughs. “Literally, we used to get one pound mics. Then just record, press bounce, and you was good to go.”
Through his appearances with Walthamstow collective the HeavyTrackerz, his own self‑released mixtapes and collaborations with Chip and Lethal Bizzle, Stormzy soon gained experience of professional recording setups. He says he didn’t feel intimidated whatsoever when he first set foot into a studio environment. “No, cause it wouldn’t have been like a solo recording process. It would have been loads of us. And it would have been a beat and then everyone goes in and does their bit, and then we might do a couple of ad libs. I think maybe when I went by myself the first time, that might have been more intimidating than everyone just in the studio smoking weed, having fun.”
Following independent hits ‘Know Me From’ and ‘Shut Up’ in 2015, he began licensing his own #Merky Records releases through Warner Music, including his debut solo album, 2017’s Gang Signs & Prayer, made at Matrix Studios in Fulham with producer Fraser T Smith. “That worked really well,” Stormzy says, “’cause firstly Fraser is incredible at what he does. Secondly, we recorded it in one studio. It was like a hub. I would go there, we’d have a whiteboard there. Especially for my first album, it was just good to know that I was going to one place to create my album. And I’ve got this phenomenal producer, this phenomenal engineer, Manon [Grandjean]. That was the great thing about working with Fraser. If I wanted to make some soul, if I wanted to make some grime, he would be able to facilitate everything.
“Then the second album was just the total opposite. That was kind of going out into the big wide world and, like, different producers, different studios, different files, different engineers. When I look back on it, I think that’s what needed to happen at that time. Because I was doing Glastonbury and all that, which was extremely overwhelming.”
But Stormzy decided to change his operation again for This Is What I Mean, and assemble a single, dedicated team. “One thing about me is my spirit always tells me what I need to do,” he says. “So, I knew that I needed to just get my bearings straight.”
“Two years ago,” says executive producer Kassa Alexander, “Stormzy sent me a song that he’d started writing with a pianist called Dion [Wardle]. And he was just asking what I thought. Then we kind of talked about different things we could do to progress the song.”
Alexander sent Stormzy what he calls a “soundboard playlist” of songs he felt could be used as reference points for the album, including tracks by Kanye West, Frank Ocean, Drake and Kendrick Lamar. “It’s a bunch of songs, I think, that could have been Stormzy songs,” Alexander says. “He texted me back and he was like, ‘Aw, it’s like you’re in my head. You want to executive produce my album?’”
Work began in late 2020 at Studio 13 where, encouragingly, the foundations of the album’s opening track, ‘Fire + Water’, were very quickly laid down. “It just set the tone,” says Alexander. “In the sense that, like, this album is going to be based on truth, it’s going to be vulnerable, it’s going to be honest. And it’s going to be soulful. That was, I guess, the flag in the sand.”
Alexander had recently switched over from Logic to Ableton Live. “I went to LA, and I did this camp,” he explains, “and everybody was making music faster than me. I was like, ‘How?’ I’ve been using Logic since Logic 4, so I was fast on it. But everybody was able to make these records just quick, quick, quick. I spoke to a producer, and he was like, ‘You need to use Ableton. It’s a lot more intuitive and it always takes tempo and pitch into consideration.’ Obviously, because people use it for live shows and for DJ’ing, it’s really good for that.”
Co‑produced by PRGRSHN and KZ, ‘Fire + Water’ is an eight‑minute‑long epic on the finished album. But it didn’t start life that way. “That track never felt difficult to make,” Stormzy stresses, “because it was never like, ‘We are making this fucking stonker of an intro.’ Me and PRGRSHN made the first bit, just very naturally. He started playing the chords. I just grabbed the [Shure] SM7. The vocal you hear on the hook is the original vocal I sang on that day, sat down on the sofa.”
Engineer Joel Peters, who was trained at SARM Studios by Trevor Horn, was brought into the project by Alexander. “There was a period when we were all kind of learning what the record might be,” says Joel. “There were lots of conversations. A few tracks had kind of started to take form. But it was really only that period at Osea Island when we really got a sense of what the album was going to be and the songs kind of materialised. We did a few sessions in Metropolis, a few sessions in West Point, late 2020. But then Osea was just the explosion of having all the minds under one roof.”
When Stormzy and the rest of the team arrived at the manor house, they soon built various programming and recording set‑ups in different rooms, away from the control room, so that work on tracks could progress continually. “Tendai would be top floor,” Stormzy recalls. “There was a little weird living room in the middle that Jacob [Collier] or Owen [Cutts] sometimes would be in. Then my room, P2J [Beyoncé, Wizkid] has got a setup there, and then you’ve got the main studio downstairs. There was also a living room that anyone could set up in.”
On day one at Osea Island, inspiration immediately struck. As filmed and later posted by Stormzy to Instagram, the track that is now ‘Hide & Seek’ was almost automatically written. “That was the first 10 minutes, the first day we got there,” he remembers. “Kassa started playing these chords. Y’know how a session goes... he plays some other chords and then we’re on a different idea and the day’s gone, another day’s gone, three days have gone.
“So, I was sat in the studio with Joel, and I said, ‘What did we do on the first day?’ Joel’s gone to the very first thing. I was like, ‘I remember there was some chord that resonated with me,’ and then he found it, and I started singing to it. That was ‘Hide & Seek’. Then P2J, he’s heard it and he’s like, ‘Yo, let me fuck with this.’ Took it upstairs and he’s put the drums over it. But then it went on such a fucking insane journey.”
“P2J uses a combination of FL Studio and Logic,” says Peters. “Everything’s coming from in the box, really.” As with a lot of grime and R&B, there’s an emphasis on rimshots over snares in the rhythm tracks. “I guess it must have come from a time of people using snares, and then thinking, ‘What’s louder than the snare?’” Peters reckons. “‘Hit the rim, that’s got more impact.’ So, I guess it’s just like the arms race of transient attack.”
Beats for the album tended to come from all directions. “Kassa does a lot of programming, along with Tendai on this record,” says Peters. “Scribz Riley as well, and P2J. Sometimes someone will send us something. Sometimes we’ll work on it in the room with them, and kind of sculpt as we go.”
Kassa Alexander’s go‑to drum programming resource is Splice, “along with loads of samples out of banks that I’ve built over the years,” he says. “There was a lot of live percussion as well. So, for instance, in the second section of ‘Fire + Water’ when the drums come in, I played a lot of actual live percussion as well, just to give it that human feel too.”
Bass on Stormzy tracks tends to be heavy and minimal. “A lot of the bass is programmed,” says Peters. “Stormzy isn’t a big fan of complicated bass parts. Especially when the drums are hitting quite hard and they’re fairly busy. We’ve tried on this album to keep the bass really quite simple and not distracting. So, the vocal can kind of shine and take priority.
“I think there’s a real trend at the moment for simple kick patterns. Some of the kick patterns on the record might just hit on the one and then maybe there’s not a kick for two bars. And if the bass is doing too much, it almost feels a bit weird. So, save that impact for just that hit.
“There’s a lot of tuned 808s from Kontakt. And some kind of sine Moogs. Just really smooth and full. And then on ‘This Is What I Mean’, there’s quite a loud, distorted bass. But apart from that, we kept the bass quite simple.”
Miking the Feurich piano at East Point, Peters used a pair of Neumann KM 184s. At the suggestion of Owen Cutts, though, he also experimented with putting a Shure SM57, in a shoe, close to the soundboard. “Owen, who produced ‘Please’, had this mad idea about putting a mic in a shoe, for some reason. It sounded extremely dull, but that gave us a bit of clout in the bottom end. I think if you got a nice setup, try one weird thing, and just see if you get anything.”
When it comes to capturing Stormzy’s vocals, the engineering team’s task is often like bottling lightning. On this new album in particular, the rapper wanted to avoid the vocal booth, preferring to perform in the control room, using one of two different mic setups: a Shure SM7B handheld, or a Sony C‑800G hanging over the console, which were individually routed through the two‑channel Neve 1073DPX preamp/EQ unit and into a Tube‑Tech CL1B compressor.
“When we’re kind of in writing mode,” says Peters, “I’ll probably just have the SM7 recording the whole time, even if nothing’s going on. Just in case someone says something in the room or has an idea. Jordan [Boza], the videographer, is always recording. So sometimes when we’d stopped and there was no track playing, someone might do something, and then it’d be like, ‘What was that?’, and then we could get it off the camera.
“But we like laying stuff down initially on the SM7. Stormzy’s a big fan. He uses the warmth of it. We’re all on headphones and the Pro Tools rig’s usually on the trolley, so I can get fairly close to Stormzy in a place where he can see the screen as well. He might point at some region, or whatever. If he’s in the booth, it’s a bit harder to communicate, so we both like to be by the screen.”
Their desired recording method is: the fewer takes, the better. “For a rap verse, it’s very few takes. He will write it in his head. And we’ll have the track on loop for a bit and when we come to lay it down, there will be few comps in it as well. He’s pretty amazing like that. But yeah, it’s just a case of having everything there and just being ready. Because you don’t know what magic’s gonna appear really.”
Stormzy: I really dislike getting into the booth, because I’m so particular with my vocal and how I want things to sound.
Stormzy is clearly happier with this new, freewheeling way of recording vocals than with the more traditional methods he’s tried in the past. “I used to be a booth guy once upon a time, but yeah, I’m not any more,” he laughs. “What happened to me was, basically, over the period of Heavy Is The Head, I didn’t have the best experiences recording in the booth, and then coming out and hearing what I’ve done and having to comp it.
“I really dislike getting into the booth, because I’m so particular with my vocal and how I want things to sound. When we started working on this album, I got my spark for recording back. If I go in [the control room], and I do 64 bars, and I listen back, and I don’t like the 12th bar, Joel can just cut me in and then I get it. It’s a seamless vocal.”
“We’re favouring not using the booth for vocals,” agrees Peters. “Just from the point of ease, where he can stand up and deliver the vocal. He doesn’t have red light phobia in any way, but some of the vocals on the record are really quite intimate, and we were quite conscious of him not delivering them in the booth with us staring at him. For some of the vocals, we cleared everyone out apart from me and him. Like ‘Please’, for example. It was such an intimate, emotional vocal that it was just me and him in the room.”
On the new album, Stormzy sings just as much as he raps, revealing a melodic confidence that he admits he’s had to strive to achieve. “I’ve been rapping for 20‑odd years now,” he points out. “I’m very comfortable doing that. Whereas singing is something that I’ve had to work on for the past seven years. I wasn’t very good at it. I was bad at it, and I’ve gone on this journey of training myself and learning. So, if I go in with Joel and Calum and we’re going to nail a vocal like ‘Firebabe’, line by line we are trying to deliver the best vocal. Because I’m still gradually improving. I’m improving with rap, but I’m fucking incredible at that [laughs]. With singing, I’m still really working at it.”
As one of the executive producers, Kassa Alexander was instrumental in encouraging Stormzy to sing more on his third album. “One hundred percent,” Alexander nods. “I’ve always known that he has a love for melody and lyric, and he loves singing. But I guess sometimes, as a rapper, it’s a confidence thing. Because it takes time. I was able to work with him and really push to get the best vocals out. And he’s singing with conviction. I think that that’s proper important in his growth and the evolution of him as an artist, being able to express himself in whichever way he feels he needs to, to get the message across.”
When it comes to the mix, Stormzy’s vocals are usually left almost entirely dry, especially the raps. “I do like a dry vocal!” says Joel Peters. “There might be a tiny bit of room, probably no plate. Maybe a really short delay. We use a lot of Valhalla and Altiverb. The standard Pro Tools delays are all good. Sometimes we’ll have a tape delay for a little warmth or making it a little bit more saturated. The CL1B is doing the most sculpting in the vocal chain, compressing on the way in. We try and keep the vocal as natural‑sounding as possible.”
When it comes to the mix, Stormzy’s vocals are usually left almost entirely dry, especially the raps.
The atmosphere at the Osea Island studio was a creatively vibrant one, and Stormzy and the team found that they made major songwriting and production breakthroughs in their month together there. One day, the others overheard Debbie Ehirim working on a song named ‘Pour Me Water’, which Stormzy instantly felt could work for the ending of the opening track, ‘Fire + Water’. “We were all in the next room,” he says, “and we could hear it and we came in and it was like, ‘This is fucking cold.’ There was an idea to put them together. I went on tour, and I was listening to the album a lot. I was listening to the intro, and I would listen to ‘Pour Me Water’, and I was like, ‘This can work.’ And we were trying to merge them together. But obviously ‘Pour Me Water’ is quite a lot slower.”
In the end, Joel Peters had to work on a gradual tempo slowdown of the ‘Fire’ part of the song to match it to the closing ‘Water’ section. “I can’t remember how many bpm it is,” he says. “Maybe 15 bpm between the two. We were kind of taking inspiration from those Timberland/Timberlake records where, quite often, you have a tight radio edit of the song, and then when you listen to the album version, they’ve found some nice segue into some mad jam at the end.”
Engineer Calum Landau thinks that the ending of ‘Fire + Water’ captures on record the spirit of the Osea Island sessions. “It was late night in the living room, everyone was chilling. It sounds like a party. You can feel it. You can hear Debbie’s vocal in the guitar [channel]. It’s part of an open room with people playing.”
Jermaine Agyako, A&R manager at #Merky Records, credits Stormzy himself for maintaining a breezy and artful atmosphere at Osea Island. “There were a lot of incredible musicians there. But I think what Stormzy was very, very good at was making sure that the ego in the room was six foot deep. The culture wasn’t, ‘Yo guys, we’ve come here to make a hit album for Stormzy.’ So, everybody felt free in their own way to throw their paint at the canvas.”
After Osea Island, the sessions returned to Studio 13 in West London, with its Neve VR60 console and huge array of hardware keyboards and synths. “One thing about Studio 13,” says Tendai Senyange, “is because there’s so many instruments, there’s so much — in my head — freedom.”
“They have a really good‑sized control room,” Peters says. “The old Neve V in there. And it’s like, hidden away, so we can be in there and work and no‑one knows we’re there. We were kind of left to our own devices.”
“Exactly,” Alexander says. “So, in some ways, it has a similar vibe to Osea in the sense that when you get inside there, you’re almost shut off from the world in a similar way. You’re in this cocoon. Thirteen was equally as prominent to the process as Osea was. It was the post process.”
One memorable highlight for all involved came when Sampha arrived and improvised his contribution to an alternate version of ‘Please’, titled ‘Sampha’s Plea’. “He’s a hard man to get a hold of,” says Peters. “We had the session in the calendar for a while. And I thought, ‘Yeah, he might not come.’ He came, but I thought, ‘We’re not going to get him in the booth. We’ve only got him for a few hours. We’ve just got to get a mic in front of him and whatever he does, that will be it.’ We put up a [Neumann] U47 really quickly in front of him, and just hit Record.”
“What’s so funny is with that demo, I was so ready to say, ‘That’s fine,’” Stormzy says. “There was no lyric in it, he was just humming it out. And I was like, ‘Yo, if you don’t come back, I’ll use this.’ But then he went and put a lyric to it and came back.”
For the mixing stage, different tracks were farmed out to different mixers, including Leandro Hidalgo (see elsewhere in this issue) and Mark ‘Spike’ Stent. “We’re always trying to make the roughs as good as they can be,” says Joel Peters. “We don’t ever want to send anything out that’s too quiet or doesn’t sound good. We’re always really focused on making a set of roughs that sound amazing. Because you’re always kind of mixing in a way now.
“Our rough mixes are so detailed, we’d kind of laid out the path for the next people to work on. There wasn’t anything where when we sent it to mix, really, we were going to get something radically different back. Sometimes, someone’s got a better perspective than us, and they’re like, ‘That does need to come up. Despite what you lot feel.’ But it’s a fine line, man.”
All agree that the toughest mix part to nail was the dynamic moment in ‘Fire + Water’ when the drums kick in. “I spent days and days and days in the early part of the project trying to get those drums hitting right,” Peters says. “Because I knew they wanted to come in with a real bang and knock you back. There was a period where we’d do a session and Stormzy would leave at, like, 4 or 5 pm, and I’d just spend four or five hours on those drums. Just really trying to wring the most out of them.”
“For a long time, for about four months, I hated the drums,” Stormzy says. “They never moved me. ‘Fire + Water’ goes on such a journey, and I love the journey, and then the drums dropped, and I said, ‘Nah, you’ve lost me.’ It’s probably been a two‑year journey to where it was literally last week where we finally got the drums, and I was like, ‘Yeah, we’re slapping that.’”
Much like his instinctual feelings about recording studios, Stormzy tends to focus on the emotional effect that a finished mix has upon him, along with a simple desire for sonic clarity. “Sometimes my initial emotional reaction is, ‘This don’t feel right,’” he says, as the others chuckle knowingly around him. “But I just know there’s a feeling I’m meant to feel. And there’s meant to be a warmth. There’s synergy I want between the volume of the vocal, and the volume of the music, and the richness. If I’m rapping, I need it to be present and clear and concise.
“A mix is meant to be a perfect marriage,” he concludes. “I’m hearing my voice and I’m getting all the music and it’s nice in my ear.”
Mission accomplished, then. This Is What I Mean is punchy, and tough‑sounding in parts. But, due to its soul and R&B crossover appeal, it’s also very likely to end up being Stormzy’s biggest album yet. Ultimately, though, the process of making his third record has taught him one important lesson.
“I don’t think I’ll ever go in the booth again!” he laughs.
Engineer Joel Peters was initially a touch nervous about the logistics of the album sessions that were planned for Spring 2021 in a 10‑bedroom manor house situated on Osea Island. “Going into it, I was a bit skeptical,” he admits. “I’m going to turn up in a new place and I don’t know what channels are crackly, how’s the monitoring. All they had was a pair of NS10s.”
The control room at Osea Island is based around an SSL 4064 E Series console, but Peters felt that bigger monitors were required for the Stormzy project. Getting in touch with his friends at Quested, he hired a pair of their Q212s, which sit neatly on top of matching QSB118 sub units. Having the gear delivered to the island was a challenge, however.
“To get to Osea Island,” Peters explains, “there’s a causeway you have to drive across, and you can only drive across it at low tide. You can get a boat at high tide, but that’s not really going to work when you’ve got huge flightcases! So, we arrived a couple of days before everyone and Ollie [Shortland] from Quested was a little bit ahead of schedule. When we go over the brow of the hill, we can just see this Quested van halfway across the causeway, and he’s going for it... the tide isn’t fully out, the causeway isn’t fully exposed. We were like, ‘Is it gonna be all right?’
“We had a van behind us with a piano in. Luckily, we all made it across the causeway. But it’s really a nice entrance and a unique experience. So, we set up these Questeds in the house. I like speakers that kind of give the artist confidence when they see them. I think that’s an important part of a big set of speakers. Because we don’t listen that loud that often, but we want to play back at the end of the day, to vibe out, to get excited about what we’re doing. The piano was a Feurich 122 that we’d heard at West Point. It was just a really good‑sounding upright. It was kind of tight, poppy.”
A whirlwind presence during the sessions for This Is What I Mean was Jacob Collier, whose stacked harmonies, recorded alone in a room at Osea Island using Logic and a laptop, are a recurring sonic feature throughout the record.
“When we were working on something else,” remembers Joel Peters, “we could hear him upstairs singing all these different notes that out of context sounded bizarre. And then he brought his laptop downstairs, plugged in and played us this huge vocal arrangement of ‘Firebabe’. We were like, ‘Woah, that’s amazing.’ The chord choices and the voicings are just so tasteful. But yeah, he typically layers it all up himself, because he knows exactly what he wants, and it’d be a lot slower if I was pushing the buttons for him. He goes away and 10 or 15 minutes later, you’ve got a masterpiece.”
“There were so many things I learned from Jacob,” says Kassa Alexander. “And there were so many things he learned from us in the way that we work. So, for instance, I was giving him 808 samples, 'cause he’d never used them. I just watched him to stack harmony, harmony, harmony, harmony. Then you have all of these other little countermelodies. To see how quickly his brain is making all this happen is mind‑blowing.”
Collier also played the Feurich piano on ‘Please’. His performance was recorded in one take only 10 minutes before he left Osea Island, and required much in the way of audio clean‑up later since he was wearing a massive coat that made unwanted noises every time he moved. “The performance was amazing,” Peters recalls. “But as soon as he played the last chord, he was out in the car. He just didn’t have time for another take. And we spent days with [iZotope] RX trying to get the coat out of this recording.”