The sudden death of Jamal Edwards, at the age of just 31, has sent shockwaves through the world of music. And that hasn’t just been because of his professional achievements, though they in themselves are beyond remarkable. He started his music channel SBTV when he was only 15, filming grime and rap videos on a camera he got for Christmas and uploading them to the then brand new platform YouTube. Very quickly thereafter, he rose to become one of the most influential figures in the UK music industry – a vital enabler of the careers of megastars from Stormzy to Ed Sheeran, and a philanthropist and campaigner of note to boot.
All of that was, in a very real sense, revolutionary. Edwards started out at a time when grime’s initial explosion was faltering. The industry was struggling to understand how to make mainstream stars out of the generation of explosive talent that had created the first truly vernacular British rap form, racist policing was preventing the growth of any kind of live scene, and big television channels were starting to all but abandon popular music of all sorts.
SBTV, more than any other enterprise, created a “for us, by us” DIY infrastructure within London’s Black and multicultural music scenes. It helped artists ride out a bumpy early 2010s, when rappers were expected to make dubious pop-dance records. It also set the tone for the modern landscape where drill, afrobeats and other forms are creating stars who cross over on their own terms daily. Artists and fans from the most mainstream through to the underground owe him a debt of gratitude.
And it’s the way that gratitude has been expressed, even though the circumstances are tragic, that brings us to the other side of Edwards’s mighty achievement: his personal conduct. The tributes that flooded social media from the moment the news broke were unique, in that every one of them was very different. Every single one had a personal story, whether it was from a musician or DJ that Edwards had helped or simply a fan who had been inspired by what they saw.
It's worth reading the BBC report on his death, just to get a sense of the volume and tone of those tributes. Rapper Youngs Teflon says: “His thing with me was never stop, never get disheartened…he made me feel I had a purpose. It meant a lot and it went a long way.” Or actor and director Adam Deacon: “He always gave me time even when no one else would.”
Perhaps the perfect summation of Edwards’s character came from foundational grime/dubstep producer Plastician on Instagram: “He had a knack for making me feel welcome and putting me on everyone’s level. I’ve never been big on industry events, but seeing Jamal at them would often put me at ease. He’d always take time to have a chat with me and introduce his friends to me. You were suddenly not on your own at a party when you spotted him.”
Even I – a middle aged, white music journalist miles right out on the periphery of the scenes Edwards worked in – experienced this. After I interviewed him in 2013, when he was already a big shot, he made sure to stay in touch – always ready to answer questions, make introductions, or just pop up on Facebook messenger enthusing about a new tune (and it’s worth mentioning that his tastes were diverse and open minded; his love of rap and grime was second to none, but he was just as likely to get hyped over a techno record or DJ set.)
It was this quality of having time for people, an undimmed love for human cultural production no matter how much success Edwards achieved, that radiates from those tributes. It’s notable that his death came just a couple of days after the second anniversary of that of Andrew Weatherall, which itself had prompted some very similar outpourings of admiration.
In some ways the two were very different: Weatherall was of the acid house generation and made his way on the bohemian fringes of rave culture and rock music. But both were working-class autodidacts, culturally voracious, and possessed that quality of having unending time for people who wanted to talk to them, regardless of any perceived status or coolness levels.
And both built networks based on this direct one-to-one contact, support, and trust that will outlive them for a long time to come. Both had a very punk simplicity and directness to what they did, something rooted in locality and immediacy, but without bounds in its ambition.
Just as punk and alternative musicians in the 70s used photocopy fanzines and junkshop guitars to build something of their own that would change the world, just as Weatherall and his friends did the same with a little magazine and DJ parties in barns and halls, Edwards with a phone and cheap camera turned the ragtag rap scene around him into a global force.
The word that shines out again and again from the tributes is “love”; even sternly macho rappers have been unabashed in letting that emotion show when they talk about Edwards. And the reason for that, is that what he built was built with love. He loved his region of London, he loved the music that his peers produced, he loved the social aspect of the scene around it, and he continually showed love to people no matter who they were, if they were just willing to engage with him and the music in similar good faith.
Edwards had mighty intellect and a barely comprehensible work ethic, but neither of those things would have been any good without this underpinning of the very basic thing that creates relationships, cultivates communities, and gives them strength and resilience long after any short-lived hype has died away. We may never see his like again, but he leaves a powerful legacy – not merely in what he achieved materially, but maybe even more in this demonstration of fundamental values.
Cover Credit: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at http://tinyletter.com/joemuggs.