As Ed Sheeran releases an album that will unite fans of grime, afrobeat, country and rock for the first time in pop history, Eleanor Halls examines how he did it
This article has an estimated read time of 10 minutes
In December 2010, an 18-year-old Ed Sheeran played an I Luv Live music event in London to a small crowd that had, for the most part, never heard of him. He performed material from his four self-released EPs with his guitar, two mics and a loop pedal, singing, rapping and beatboxing intermittently. Watching him was 19-year-old Jamal Edwards, a West Londoner respected in the music industry for having founded YouTube channel SB.TV to platform burgeoning rap and grime artists four years previously.
“I’d never seen anyone perform like that,” says Edwards, who, now a multimillionaire entrepreneur endorsed by Richard Banson, was awarded an MBE for his services to UK music in 2014. “I wanted to put him on our channel, but we were underground music; we’d never put a singer on it before. It was a risk.”
Edwards took the risk, and two months later, filmed Sheeran singing I Need You, You Don’t Need Me on a handheld camera, in a dark room with a ripped mattress stacked against the wall. Sheeran, dressed in a grey hoodie and jeans, a guitar around his shoulder and a loop pedal beneath his feet, begins the video with pacey, swaggering lyrics puffed with confidence way beyond his unknown status, before launching into a breathless sample of 50 Cent’s Come Give Me a Hug and niche Bristol reggae collective Laid Blak’s Red Eyes. He finished off with a bizarrely captivating rap about smoking a blunt in a mock Jamaican accent.
The video went viral, effectively “breaking” Sheeran – a scruffy, ginger kid who’d moved from his middle-class family home in Suffolk to London aged 16 – overnight. Beneath the video, now with over 10 million views, there is a public, most-liked comment: “This is where history was made.”
But many Sheeran fans have no idea such a video even exists. Daily newcomers to the video are stunned that the singer is even able to rap. This performance not only launched his career, which now spans 150 million record sales, six number ones, four Grammys, and a net worth of £160 million, but it is instrumental in understanding his most significant career move yet: No.6 Collaborations Project, released today.
Featuring artists across genres, countries and generations, from rap titans Cardi B and Eminem to UK rising UK stars J Hus to Dave via American vocalists Yebba, Camila Cabelo and Bruno Mars, No.6 will unite, for perhaps the very first time in music history, fans of grime, hip-hop, trap, afrobeat, pop, soul, country and rock, in just 15 songs. When Sheeran released the full list of collaborations on Instagram last month, you could practically hear the pings of screenshots whistling through the ether and into WhatsApp group chats across the globe.
Fans were stunned, as were haters. Was Sheeran – renown for obsessively checking his sales figures every morning – just greedy, cashing in on every trending genre in the charts? Was he after fanbases and cultures he didn’t yet have under his thumb? Or was he, by creating a rare bridge between US rap titans and UK homegrown talent, mixing sounds like cake batter, making a big, fat industry statement?
Whether the project will either be the best, or the worst decision of Sheeran’s career remains unseen, but one thing, however, is certain: Sheeran’s contact book has serious weight. So how did a goofy teenager with a guitar become the most connected man in pop?
“Ed has always been interested in collaborations; he’s always enjoyed different music. This is no surprise,” says Edwards of No.6. “He is the real deal. He built his name in our scene. No one could deny his talent. After that SB.TV video, everyone wanted to know who this guy was.”
Once the video took off, Edwards linked Sheeran to the who’s who of grime, prompting studio time with everyone from JME to Wiley via Ghetts and P Money. It was on a 2010 demo with MC Scorcher, in fact, that Ben Cook, now President of Atlantic Records – to which Sheeran signed in 2011 – first heard Sheeran. A year later, the singer’s fifth EP, No.5 Collaborations, was packed with grime, and, while fiercely anti-commercial, without promo or a label, it peaked at number 48 in the charts and sold 7,000 copies in a week. This was the quiet before the storm.
“It was around that time that Ed uploaded his music and his bio to the newly launched BBC Introducing Uploader,” says Jason Carter, founder of BBC Introducing, who then booked Sheeran for the BBC Introducing stage at Glastonbury, 2011, where he performed an afternoon set on the festival’s smallest stage.
“He didn’t look like your traditional pop star pin-up. He was working with urban artists. He was doing all sorts of weird loops on his pedals which we hadn’t really seen before. It was eight weeks after he’d released his breakthrough single The A Team, so there was an incredible buzz about him. The tent was rammed, and the crowd knew every word to the music, which is extremely unusual for that stage.”
Watch the YouTube video of his set, and the building blocks of Sheeran’s now infamously dedicated female fanbase are clearly in place: women are screaming and cameras are recording his every move. It’s this audience that led to him rubbing shoulders with Princess Beatrice in Windsor Castle (the scar on his face is from the Princess drunkenly swiping him with a sword) and touring with squeaky clean country girl Taylor Swift, but it’s a very different fanbase to the core listenership Sheeran had built in London’s grime scene. Was this dichotomy an issue for Edwards?
“It doesn’t matter where Ed was from. His love for the grime scene was genuine. He knows grime better than a lot of guys in grime. I remember when we were together he’d play out old school Flirta D, old school Mr Wong.
“The other day, he told me he was listening to an MC called Splinter, who is so underground he’s only got 46,000 social media followers. Recently, he introduced me to Yebba, too. Ed is always watching videos of new artists.”
And can he actually rap? “Yes, he’s sick! Ed has bars! You’ll see on Take Me Back to London, his collab with Stormzy.”
In fact, so tied to grime was Sheeran during his ascent that in 2014, that BBC1Xtra included him in their “power list” of the most influential people in black and urban music. Similarly, when Sheeran was spotted by Jamie Foxx in Los Angeles in the summer of 2010, after playing at the actor’s Foxxhole club and subsequently hosting Sheeran for six weeks on his sofa, Foxx later decided to test Sheeran by bringing him to perform at an all-black music night.
“And he pulls out the ukulele in front of all these black musicians, and he got a standing ovation,” said Foxx incredulously in a radio interview at the time.
“Ed told me someone had described him as the lovechild of Damien Rice and Jay-Z, and that really stuck,” adds Cook when I ask him how Atlantic managed to market Sheeran’s unusual style. “So for everything super singer-songwriter such as the performance of Wayfaring Stranger we shot and uploaded, there was a counterpoint that referenced his love of rap and the early fans he had found in the UK grime scene – such as the video for You Need Me featuring a sign language rapper or the Wretch 32 and Devlin remix of that song.”
He might have focussed on making radio-friendly pop hits in recent years, but Sheeran’s ability to hop between genres and cultures without causing offence – carrying authority and credibility effortlessly along the way, all the while maintaining his core sound and brand – is unique. When Drake – who stands shoulder to shoulder with Sheeran in terms of sales and success – put a bunch of UK musicians on his More Life playlist in 2017, many American fans were confused by his choice, while British fans accused him on trying to make money from a culture that wasn’t his.
Yet Sheeran widely escapes any such cynicism. Even his 2010 Rastaman impersonation, or his Nandos Skank with Example (google it), barely raised an eyebrow. He is universally loved, just as at home having dinner with Sir Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger and Elton John as partying with the entire cast of Game of Thrones (after he bagged a surprise cameo in series six) and sharing haggis with Breakfast Club talk show Charlamagne tha God at his Suffolk mansion. It’s almost impossible to imagine an artist that is as adored, as easily forgiven, as ardently defended, as Ed Sheeran.
When I speak to the Director of Promotions at Atlantic Records Damian Christian, who plugged Sheeran’s music to radio stations from 2011, he talks about how rare it is for a pop star as famous as Sheeran to be this nice. “There are plenty of stars knocking around who can turn on the Hollywood smile as soon as the camera rolls, trust me. But Ed is exactly the same on and off camera. Even now, he’ll still text me to congratulate me on his airplay. And the other week he came and talked us through his whole album for an hour and a half at a London pub, sitting on a tiny stage,” says Christian.
“Ed is exactly the same as the Ed I met 10 years ago,” agrees Edwards, who still meets the star for Caribbean food in West London in-between tours, while Carter recalls how Sheeran came and said hello to him years after they met at BBC Introducing.
In an industry rife with backstabbing, keeping up appearances and fake friends, Sheeran – who still dresses almost exactly the same as in that SB.TV video, no matter where he’s performing, and whose first conversation with Cardi B was about his favourite London chicken shop – is a breath of fresh air. Turning down a collaboration with Sheeran would be like kicking a puppy in the face, or flushing money down the toilet. It just wouldn’t be right.
Artists are also keen to work with singer out of simple respect for his talent. Composer Jimmy Jewell, who taught a 16-year-old Sheeran how to compose music for a production of Frankenstein as part of the British Youth Music Theatre in 2007, says “There is a lot of jealousy among songwriters, but I don’t know a single one that doesn’t hold him in the highest regard as a songwriter. There’s always someone saying something about someone somewhere, but in my entire career I’ve never heard anyone professionally speaking about him with anything other than respect.” Little wonder, then, that Sheeran has written for everyone from the Weeknd and Justin Beiber to Taylor Swift and One Direction.
Jewell recalls the moment Sheeran first performed one of his own songs at the youth group’s residential trip in Plymouth. “There was a deathly silence, and then a lot of screams. We hadn’t even realised he had his own guitar until he brought it out that night.”
What was his musical style at that time? “The way he was playing his guitar and singing was not a conventional pop writer. It definitely had a syncopation from the world of hip-hop. It explains now his ability to write something astonishingly commercial, yet somehow keep it cool. You don’t really get songwriters who can do both.”
Sheeran is also renowned for his work ethic. “The word on the street at the time was not that this guy had just emerged,” says Carter, “but that he had been working really hard. He had been gigging and gigging and doing anything and everything to perform and get seen. His was a story of hard graft.”
Sheeran was performing up to 300 gigs a year, many of them unpaid, while couch surfing among his friends or spending the night kipping on the tube. “I was always out searching for a gig to do or a session to be in or a sofa to sleep on. So I ended up mixing with a lot of people in a short space of time. There’s no drive to go out and do something if you have a home to go to,” Sheeran said in an interview with GQ.
Edwards recalls Sheeran travelling all the way to Wales, for instance, for an unpaid gig after which he had nowhere to stay. Sheeran told the Financial Times in 2014 how competitive he was with the effort he put into his career. “At Atlantic everyone said James Blunt was the hardest-working guy in the music industry. So I asked my manager to get James Blunt’s diary from 2005.”
He studied Blunt’s diary of shows and told his team: “We’re doing all of that — times two. And that’s exactly what we did. Because he was the hardest-working guy, I wanted to work twice as hard as him.” Similarly, when Sheeran decided he wanted to bag the Number One album for Christmas 2011, two months after releasing his debut album +, he would stop at nothing to get it. “I’m going to do it. I’m going to make sure it happens. I’ve done everything. I’ve even gone into the HMV offices and played to their people so they give us better positioning in their stores,” he said. + duly went to Number One.
Accompanying Sheeran’s new release on Friday will be an audio recording breaking down exactly how, and why, Sheeran’s collaborations came about. This explainer speaks volumes of the care and consideration with which Sheeran has always, and will always, approach music. In last month’s interview with The Breakfast Club, Sheeran explained he had handpicked every single collaboration.
“It was all very natural. The last thing I want to do is be an artist that the label says like, you need to work with this person and this person. So my rule for it is, if I have it and play them in my car, then I’m working with them. There are loads of huge artists I could have worked with but it didn’t make sense to me,” he said. "I don’t see genres; I see heart…I work with any music that makes you feel something.”