Wiley, perhaps the most influential musician working in Britain today, has a habit of self-sabotage. In 2010, a few weeks before the release of his new album, he fell out with his record label and decided to upload more than 200 songs from the recording sessions: finished singles, experimental demos, even unreleased work by other artists he was about to collaborate with. His fans were delighted, but his relationship with the label collapsed and the album was never formally released. Three years later, not long after he finally secured his first No 1 hit, Heatwave, he once again leaked his new album ahead of release, this time because of a trivial dispute over the tracklisting.
Since he first began releasing music as Wiley in 2001, Richard Cowie Jnr has frequently disowned his creations, quit his record labels, dismissed the entire music industry, flaked on gigs and festivals, and announced his retirement from music altogether. He has publicly denounced and sacked his manager John Woolf several times, before rehiring him a few days later. Even long after you might think he would know better, Wiley has spent days arguing with teenage fans on web forums (“both ur parents are experiencing the credit crunch i aint”), and on Twitter (“im not 40 u dusty tramp go tell ya mum i said your house smells of mash potato”). He has been stabbed on at least three separate occasions, chased with samurai swords and shotguns, had gangsters after him (“proper, heavy old-school English gangsters”, he said last year), sold crack and heroin, been deported from Canada, banned from driving, banned from radio stations and had lyrical beefs with countless other MCs, the innocuous pop duo Rizzle Kicks and the Guardian. In 2013 he launched a Twitter tirade against Glastonbury festival, having already arrived on site to perform, because he didn’t like the rain. The rant culminated in the famous declaration “fuck them and their farm”.
And yet, as the godfather of grime, the most thrilling genre to emerge from the UK in decades, Wiley is not only a captivatingly strange pop star, but a peerless musical innovator as both vocalist and producer. In a series of ground-breaking instrumental tracks made on a cheap home PC in the early 2000s, he created a sound that seemed to have leaked out of a crash-landed spaceship – all zappy synths, ground-shaking bass lines and abrupt, avant garde rhythms. He called this sound “eskibeat” or “eskimo”, producing instrumental tracks with names like Ice Rink, Igloo, Frostbite, Snowman and Blizzard. The music itself had a cold feel, with icy sonics and lonely, sparse arrangements that partly reflected his mindset. (“Sometimes I just feel cold hearted,” he once told an interviewer. “I felt cold at that time, towards my family, towards everyone.”)
Wiley’s new sound owed something to its glitzier chart-friendly predecessor, UK garage, but it was darker, stranger, and harder to dance to. As UK garage’s star waned, other pioneering young artists joined Wiley on the dark side, and this new sound quickly evolved on the thriving pirate radio stations of inner London. The genre was defined by local “crews” of friends, usually containing a DJ or two, a few producers, and a host of MCs passing the mic. In 2003, the world beyond the range of the pirate stations’ transmitters started to catch on. That summer, Wiley’s protege Dizzee Rascal released his debut album Boy in da Corner, which went on to win the Mercury prize and drew attention to this new scene.
But this initial flurry of mainstream excitement turned out to be short-lived. Few of the artists signed in Dizzee’s wake were able to achieve the same kind of success. As interest in grime faded, the received wisdom came to be that it had been an exhilarating flash in the pan – a rebellious yelp from those excluded from New Labour’s millennial optimism, and one of the last truly organic music scenes to emerge before web 2.0 arrived and complicated everything. Almost no one dared to suggest that the genre – an abrasive kind of outsider art deemed too challenging for the charts – would even survive, let alone come to dominate British pop culture.
Yet over the past few years, emboldened by a new generation of teenage artists and a cohort of veterans suffused with a renewed self-confidence, the genre has made a comeback. After more than a decade of being alternately patronised, criticised, fetishised and written off, grime is more popular than at any point in its history. In March last year, Chris Price, the head of BBC Radio 1, suggested that grime could become the UK’s next “big cultural export ... our hip hop”. The previous month, Drake had become an honorary member of grime’s most successful crews, BBK, and marked the occasion with a tattoo. A few months later, Beyoncé was dancing to grime tracks at Wembley as part of her world tour. And in September, one of Wiley’s many proteges, Skepta, won the Mercury prize for his fourth album, Konnichiwa. The news prompted Tory culture minister Matt Hancock to claim that he and his team listened to grime in their ministerial car (though he was unable to name a single track). In an unlikely piece of spin, Hancock claimed Skepta’s success as a triumph of both British and Conservative values: “Grime represents modern Britain … the entrepreneurial, go-getting nature. It speaks that wherever you come from, you can make it.”
During grime’s years in the wilderness, Wiley was one of the few who never lost faith. He has somehow managed to be grime’s Johnny Rotten, its Sid Vicious, and its Malcolm McLaren, all at once: musically pioneering, publicly self-destructive, and yet always looking at the bigger picture, trying to find ways to carry a whole scene on his shoulders and to push peers and newcomers he admires. He has, for varying amounts of time, run record labels, a music management company, a clothing line, an online record shop and created his own seminal club night, Eskimo Dance. He has supported – through advice, free studio time or career breaks – numerous artists who went on to become household names, including Dizzee Rascal, Tinchy Stryder, Chip, Kano, Skepta and JME. “He built a scene,” says fellow grime MC Bashy on the song Black Boys, “among us young black boys, he built a dream.”
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Securing an interview with Wiley always seems impossible, until, suddenly, it isn’t. In 2007, I went to visit him in the council flat he was living in with his two young daughters and their mother, in the Isle of Dogs. “Get something done with him ASAP, while he’s in the mood,” advised his label boss at the time, “bear in mind that nothing is ever 100% (or even close) with Wiley.” One Monday morning last August I chanced my arm, and got lucky: sure, he said, come to Hackney right now. When I arrived, Wiley was looking at flats on a property website. It was time to move back to the UK permanently, he said, after several years based in Cyprus with his daughters. In person, Wiley has a childlike quality – effervescent and curious, quick to laughter, eyes darting, he is an attentive listener when someone else is speaking, but less so when he is talking himself. His sentences have a tendency to wander off of their own accord.
The flat in Hackney where we met was just a mile from grime’s ground zero, Roman Road. While grime thrived in other parts of the capital, and eventually, in cities beyond, its heartland has always been east London. From the age of 11, Wiley lived with his father in a council flat in Clare House, a pink, 22-storey tower block in Bow that once formed part of the substantial Monteith Estate. For the year before he moved in with his father, Wiley lived with his grandmother in Chatham in Kent, but he could hardly bear it. “I was crying my eyes out,” he recalled. “I just wanted to go and live with my dad. I felt abandoned, like ‘where have youse lot gone?’ I remember one day finally my dad rang, and he was like ‘I’m going to come and get you’.”
Wiley’s father, Richard Cowie Senior, was a musician involved in London’s thriving 1980s reggae sound systems, and had studio equipment at home, a drum machine, keyboards, sequencers, a bass guitar and record decks. Growing up, Wiley occasionally heard his dad listening to early hip-hop such as the Sugar Hill Gang, “But it was minimal compared to all the reggae,” he said. At home, Wiley would watch famous Jamaican reggae sound clashes on VHS, while tuning into local pirate radio stations to soak himself in jungle, the frenetic, breakbeat-driven hybrid of hardcore techno and reggae that dominated London’s rave scene in the mid-1990s.
Over time, Wiley and his friends got into DJing, which in turn led many of them to embrace the art of MCing. “The root of all this grime business was house parties,” he told me, “proper house parties, with a proper system, all across Bow and Newham when we were teenagers. We’d go and jump on the mic, and clash each other.” Sometimes they’d bring the decks along too. “In our area, anyone who was having a house party, we would be the guys who came and DJed,” recalled Wiley’s childhood friend Darren “Target” Joseph, now a BBC 1Xtra DJ. “We really couldn’t believe the thrill of it. At that stage, we didn’t even think we could make a living out of it: it was literally just, ‘I fancy that girl from that estate, and she’s going to be at the party on Saturday.’”
As local pirate radio began to grow, Wiley began to take his music more seriously. Rinse FM, which was set up in 1994 by Wiley’s schoolmate Dean “Slimzee” Fullman and another friend from the area, Gordon “Geeneus” Warren, was pivotal. Until Rinse, Wiley and his friends were only known to a handful of enthusiastic people in their neighbourhood. Now, suddenly, they could reach a wider audience. “Going on Rinse and having a text from Stacey in East Ham was like, ‘Oh my God!’ It was like going international,” recalled Target.
Throughout the 1990s, London’s rave scene was driven by a restless desire for progression. Wiley’s musical peers prized innovation above all, always looking for a newer, more futuristic sound. This journey ran from reggae to hardcore and, at the turn of the millennium, from jungle to UK garage. Inspired by the sound systems of his father’s era, Wiley became convinced that a collective approach was the best way to create music. He began by producing jungle as part of the SS (Silver Storm) Crew, then became a member of the UK garage crew Pay As U Go Cartel, even appearing on Top of the Pops to perform their single Champagne Dance.
But Wiley was always relatively peripheral to the UK garage scene. Somewhat excluded by the aspirational tendencies of UK garage’s older gatekeepers (a “no trainers” rule was common in the clubs), he and his young peers felt it was time to create their own genre. “It’s dark garage really,” Wiley said, somewhat confessionally, of his early work. “It’s music that was trying to be garage that didn’t really fit in, so therefore became its own thing.”
Instead of focusing on the DJ, this new sound pushed the role of MC front and centre. Rather than acting simply as hype men for a DJ, they were now the stars of the show, complete with intricate rhymes – or bars – and signature vocal styles. In 2002, Wiley founded his own crew, Roll Deep, who would quickly become the leading lights of the new scene as it morphed into what would become known as grime. They began as a core of friends from Bow, but with a revolving cast of members that at points included Dizzee Rascal, Skepta and Tinchy Stryder. Over the years, at least 25 people have been in Roll Deep, but always with Wiley as its paterfamilias. “I used to always treat it like a youth club: it’s about a crew of members,” Wiley told me. “I thought, ‘Shit man, I don’t want just a three-man team, I want to build an 11 man team’. I wanted to have a squad, like Alex Ferguson.”
Wiley and fellow producers started visiting vinyl pressing plants and cutting the beats they were making on clunky home PCs onto 12” white labels – so-called because they didn’t have any sleeve art, just the title of the record inscribed on the centre label in marker pen. Wiley was one of many young producers who quickly realised that with a profit of about £3 on each unit, shipping the white labels around to record shops could be a better way to make instant cash than the small-time drug dealing some of them had become involved in. “When the first batches started making money, I bought a car, and became like, a geezer with a van, selling them straight from the boxes,” he recalled. “I think I’ve covered more miles than any MC.”
It helped that Wiley was prolific: his peers would have at most two or three records available in the shops; at the peak of his eskibeat period, in 2002 and 2003, Wiley’s music would often cover an entire shop wall. His seminal instrumental track, Eskimo, released in 2002, sold more than 10,000 vinyl copies alone – with no record deal, no manager, no PR, no artwork, no adverts. All sold from the boot of his car.
* * *
Grime, like its American cousin hip-hop, is usually associated with male braggadocio, but while many of its protagonists operated on the fringes of a world beset by petty crime and violence, it is a scene that thrived off mutual support and appreciation, even conviviality.
The sound has been driven from the outset by an idea that Brian Eno termed “scenius”: collective intelligence and inspiration carrying everyone forward together, in spite of clashing egos. And since the beginning, Wiley has been there, presiding over it all. “I’ve realised recently,” Wiley told me, “that that’s why I’m the godfather. Because I think about all of us. In a way, your ideal priority would be just yourself, your manager and your team. I can’t think that way.”
In its first flush of youth, grime was an outsider sound with its own slang, its own logic, its own rules. Created by young men, or really boys (with some notable exceptions, grime is overwhelmingly male) on London council estates, it soundtracked the lives of a generation of people ignored by the music business. At the time, an endless stream of indie rock bands called The Somethings dominated the mainstream, and while BBC Radio 1Xtra was created in late 2002 to attract a young black audience, in its early years much of the airtime was dominated by US hip-hop and R&B. Grime kids were marginalised even on the platform created specifically for them.
This same generation had also recently become the focus of attention and often condemnation for media and politicians. Grime emerged at a time when New Labour was rolling out policy after policy aimed at “regenerating” Britain’s inner cities. From the turn of the century onwards, the government began the process of estate demolition and gentrification that would, over the following decade, dramatically transform areas like Bow.
At the same time, Tony Blair’s government massively expanded CCTV in urban areas and made widespread use of controversial new anti-social behaviour orders (Asbos), to deal with minor incidents or perceived delinquent behaviour that did not warrant criminal prosecution. (Wiley’s collaborator DJ Slimzee was given an Asbo after being caught on camera putting up the Rinse FM pirate radio aerial on the roof of a 24-storey towerblock in Shadwell: the Asbo prohibited him from entering a building of more than four storeys, for the next five years.) “Hoodies” became the folk devils of a mid-decade moral panic over “feral youth”. “Ban hooded thugs from our streets,” demanded a typical Daily Express front page in 2005; Bluewater shopping centre in Kent did exactly that, to the approval of the tabloids and the prime minister. Accompanied by JME and Skepta, the grime MC Lady Sovereign released a single, Hoodie, in defence of her persecuted demographic.
Grime is often playful, hedonistic or romantic. Wiley’s lyrics are filled with ear-catching non-sequiturs and oddball imagery, incorporating Cockney rhyming slang and Jamaican patois, hyper-local east London stories, hilarious insults and profound self-knowledge. “I’m a street star, there’s no set time I have my tea at,” is one of the stranger boasts in rap history. Grime has always been a voice for young people claiming propriety over, and affection for, their domain. On Nan, I Am London, Wiley addressed his grandmother with the grand personification of the title: “Ask anybody, any time, anywhere, if Eskiboy represents London? I am London.”
* * *
By early 2003, the underground buzz around grime was intensifying and the crews had better radio transmitters, capable of reaching out to new parts of east London. Wiley reinvested profits from vinyl sales into time in better recording studios, while he and Dizzee Rascal both signed solo record deals. Channel U, a new music TV station launched in February 2003, provided a visual platform for the scene, featuring cheaply produced videos, usually shot on handheld cameras. By that summer, the crackling energy coming out of the pirates grew louder, peaking with the arrival of Dizzee Rascal’s album Boy in da Corner. When it won the Mercury that autumn, A&R men descended on east London.
Wiley felt the moment had arrived for Roll Deep to capitalise on the growing mainstream interest by making a crew album, using his earnings from the white labels. In the summer of 2004, he paid for the rent on a residential studio in Bermondsey and invited not just his crew, but pretty much the entire grime scene. “I’d be in college and get a call from Wiley and he’d be like: ‘Come to the studio right now,’” said Rapid, one of the members of another crew local to Bow, Ruff Sqwad.
The whole east London scene lived in that studio during the summer, 40-odd MCs and producers hanging out from 9am each morning, eating, drinking, smoking weed, and using the on-site games room. Making Roll Deep’s debut album, In At the Deep End, was a collaborative process, but Wiley was at the helm. “He’d always start with an A4 piece of paper,” explained Target, “and a brainstorming session, and that piece of paper would then turn into the holy tablet for the album. We’d start writing down song titles, concepts, who’s going to feature on which song – and by the end of the project, this one bit of paper is just like filled with writing from all different people, stuff scribbled out and changed. Obviously the others would chip in with ideas, but it always stemmed from a Wiley vision.”
Even by that point, there was little agreement on what to call the sound that would become known as grime. One of Wiley’s first label-released singles, Wot Do U Call It? had addressed the question at length. “Garage? Urban? 2-step?” he speculated derisively, without providing a definitive answer. “I’m not very happy with the name ‘grime’, but that’s what a lot of people seem to call it,” said John Peel, introducing a special grime set on his Radio 1 show in 2004, only a few months before his death. Whatever the genre was called, it seemed by that point to be within touching distance of mainstream acceptance.
* * *
Over the next couple of years, Kano, Shystie, Durrty Goodz, Lady Sovereign and Lethal Bizzle all signed record deals. Wiley released his first album and Dizzee his second, while Roll Deep’s debut sold over 60,000 copies and landed the group on Top of the Pops. As a measure of their growing influence, Roll Deep were courted by the Metropolitan police and tasked with making an anti-gun song and music video, Badman. Meanwhile, the DIY scene flourished, buoyed by the emergence of the DVD magazine cottage industry. Entrepreneurs from the scene would put together scrappy compilations of low-budget music videos, interviews with MCs, recordings of live shows, and most importantly of all, crew freestyles, MCs passing the mic and spitting their best bars, usually on their local estate. It was like YouTube before YouTube existed.
But after a while, the music industry’s enthusiasm cooled. The artists who had been signed were promoted without much urgency, by people who didn’t know what to do with a largely unfamiliar sound. Few would ever dent the singles chart top 20. “When grime first came out,” Peter Todd of the independent grime label Dirty Canvas once told me, “no one got it: ‘Is it hip-hop? Is it dance? What do we call it?’ For me that’s what makes grime so exciting, but it makes it really hard in terms of marketing.”
Within a few years, much of the scene’s infrastructure was swept away by prevailing winds: vinyl sales were declining, illegal downloads were becoming more common, pirate radio began prioritising less confrontational sounds such as dubstep and house music, and the Met kept shutting down club nights before they had even happened, often on spurious grounds. And there was the usual attrition that eventually takes its toll on any new music scene: what was once cutting-edge becomes familiar, and young wannabes get bored, grow up, and move on with their lives.
But Wiley was unfazed. He kept making grime when most of his peers had gone quiet, releasing albums himself, or on the independent hip-hop label Big Dada – not for street cred, not because he thought there was any money in it, but because he couldn’t help it. In 2007, when I went to interview him for the first time, the media consensus held that after the major label flops and the unfulfilled potential of the first wave, grime was over. “Nah,” Wiley said, relaxed. “It takes time! It takes 10, 15, 20 years to build a scene. Don’t worry, grime ain’t dead.”
* * *
In 2008, with grime to all intents and purposes no longer a scene, Wiley chanced his arm on a bubbly electro beat. The result was Wearing My Rolex, a landmark track that would become a new template for MCs such as Tinchy Stryder, Skepta and Chip, who began scoring hit singles with similarly accessible dance-pop songs that called to mind Ibiza, rather than Bow.
Wearing My Rolex became Wiley’s first big hit, reaching No 2 in the charts, and transforming him into a pop star, rather than just a cult hero – but there was an anomaly. He wasn’t in the music video, which instead featured a group of female dancers dressed as foxes. The Sun, not citing a specific source, reported that Wiley’s absence from the video was due to a fear of foxes. In response, Wiley called BBC 1Xtra, to great general merriment, to protest that he would happily stand outside at night and feed foxes chicken bones, or go to the desert and take on lions and tigers.
The real reason for his absence was altogether more unpleasant: he had been attacked by an older man and stabbed in the face, and was in hiding. “A lot of people maybe don’t realise the effect an incident like that might have on a person psychologically,” John Woolf told me. “People sometimes ask why does he live in Cyprus, or why does he miss shows? Well if you had people in certain areas that have done things like that to you in the past, why would you want to be around?”
Underlying Wiley’s erratic, self-destructive behaviour is a hyper-sensitivity to the fact that he might always be on the cusp of success, or disaster. “I’ve made history like the Spanish Armada,” runs an old lyric, “stage name’s Wiley, my second name’s Drama.”
It is hard to discern the motives behind Wiley’s prolific output. Since his debut in 2004, he has made 11 official albums, along with somewhere between 14 and 29 mixtapes, depending on how you count them. There have also been several albums with Roll Deep. He is, in his own words, a studio addict. “That’s where I make my product, like a baker goes to his warehouse to make his pastries.” His back catalogue not only exceeds that of any of his peers, but most of them combined.
Fame, money and recognition are important to him – but at a deeper level, you feel he couldn’t stop even if he wanted to; his need to keep making music, and to keep communicating with his public, is compulsive. He often works in the studio all day, then goes to do a show, then returns to the studio at 4 or 5am. Once, he called an industry contact on Christmas morning, to ask if she was available to give feedback on the new tracks he’d just finished. “Wiley, you do realise it’s Christmas don’t you?” she said in surprise, while her family opened presents in the background. “Aren’t you going to take a day off?” He hadn’t really noticed; he apologised, and hung up.
Skepta believes that Wiley’s inability to work in America – after a weed possession charge more than a decade ago – has held him back and frustrated him. “I think Wiley sometimes feels like he’s in jail or something; this country’s depressing man – depressing, oppressing. For a young black musician in England, you are going to hit that wall if you can’t get out of the country.”
In 2010, when Wiley made music press headlines by leaking what is now known as the Zip Files collection of more than 200 songs, he seemed motivated by a desire for acceptance on his own terms. “I need people to embrace me,” he told me at the time, “otherwise I’m just in my own little world going mad. And people who I want to hear me can’t hear me. I’ve got all this music sitting on hard drives, and in the end it started to make me feel sick.”
On 7 July that year, as Wiley began uploading hundreds of songs for free, he announced that he was cutting ties with his manager, tweeting: “john woolf you are sacked forever”. By 10 July he had changed his mind, tweeting “John woolf is a good hearted person don’t worry”. By 18 July he changed his mind again: “John woolf is a tramp all he does is steal money from artist and live off of wiley’s name”. I interviewed Wiley in the middle of that period. “I might not be the easiest person to manage in the world,” he conceded. Woolf, who is clearly a patient man, has a great deal of affection for his client. “He will tell you exactly how he feels about you,” he laughed. “That’s what I love about him. Those first two years were crazy, and very trying. He’s very hard on himself, he doubts himself a lot, he’s always questioning himself. But his love of music is pure.”
* * *
Wiley has never been able to confine his passion to his own work. He has been a mentor, confidant, A&R and cheerleader for countless peers. When Tinchy Stryder, who now has six top 10 singles to his name, was a teenage hopeful, Wiley paid £10,000 for him to have some serious studio time. He stood to make no financial gain: he just wanted him to succeed. When Chip (five top 10 singles, two top 10 albums) was just 16, Wiley gave him his big break, taking him along to perform on Tim Westwood’s Radio 1 show. “I didn’t even know what Radio 1 was at the time,” Chip has said since, “but that was the beginning.” For his first tour of Australia, Wiley took Skepta along. “He just wanted Skepta to experience what he was experiencing, and get him some shine,” Woolf told me. “So he thought, I’ll buy him a £5,000 plane ticket, because I want people to know who Skepta is.”
Wiley’s most famous protege, though, is Dizzee Rascal. When they first met in Bow, at Target’s parents’ council flat, Dizzee was just a school kid. “I’d been bothering Wiley for ages,” Dizzee told the Observer a few years later – and Wiley was the first to see his talent, bringing him along to raves, pirate radio sets and recording sessions, ushering him into Roll Deep as the junior member. They became a kind of double act. When Dizzee was invited back to give a talk at his old secondary school in Bow, he brought Wiley with him.
Soon, Wiley’s then-manager, Nick Denton, was also representing Dizzee. But after the two MCs were both signed to the high-profile independent label XL, Wiley began to grow anxious. “I was in Dizzee’s shadow. I was naturally jealous of him,” he told me in 2007. Wiley, determined to do things his own way, parted ways with Denton, feeling that his old friend was being prioritised. Wiley has been examining, and often regretting, his decision ever since. “Dizzee’s vision was further than mine at the time. And [Denton] had to take Dizzee to where he was going, but he left us all behind, if you like.”
The relationship between the two MCs has been frosty, at best, since 2003. That summer, Dizzee was stabbed in Ayia Napa, and according to Wiley, it was him that the assailants had been after. The details of the incident are murky – Dizzee has denied Wiley’s version of events – but Wiley told Time Out last year that he has always felt partly responsible for letting his friend get stabbed. “I know you hate me,” Wiley rapped on a 2004 track titled Reasons, telling Dizzee to let it go. Two years later, Dizzee produced Pussyole, a scathing account of his betrayal by “an older in my ends” with whom he had once been friends. Wiley responded in 2007 with Letter 2 Dizzee: “It don’t matter, I’m still your big brother. We ain’t in beef so pick up the phone and ring me, I’m still rollin’... Still strolling the Roman [Road].”
When Dizzee returned to east London last October for a one-off performance of Boy in da Corner, in front of 7,500 people, Wiley was not invited to join him to perform 2 Far, the track he had appeared on on the album. Instead, the next morning, he posted a picture of the venue on his Instagram account, with the forlorn caption “Must of been sick”. Though it is hard to imagine, in an alternate universe, had Wiley stuck with Denton in those formative years, perhaps it would have been him, not Dizzee, performing at the Olympic opening ceremony, or recording the (appalling) 2006 England World Cup song with James Corden, or playing triumphant homecoming gigs in front of huge audiences.
The fixation with making up is one-sided, and Wiley’s feeling of abandonment is always mixed with admiration. He is reverent, even jealous, of Dizzee’s quality control. “I’ve made more music than Bob Marley,” he said. “Not more legendary, but more music. That is crazy.
“That’s what pisses me off about myself. Sometimes I look and I think, ‘Right, if you didn’t panic at crucial times, that would have been 500 songs that they didn’t need to hear, just one album, and you could have not made music ever again.’” He sighed. “But then I wouldn’t be Wiley. When I think back now, my boy Dizzee, my brother has killed the game absolutely to shreds in five albums, and it’s fucking taking me a million songs. There’s a button in me, that I always push – PANIC – that is not in him.”
* * *
Even though he has threatened it repeatedly in the past, at 38, retirement seems like a distant prospect. “Wiley’s dream has always been that grime would be taken seriously, that grime artists could just come through and do as well as any artist from any other genre,” said Target. “And because he now can see it’s actually happening, there’s no way he’s not going to be involved in that happening.”
For his new album, The Godfather, Wiley analysed everything he’s produced over the years, and everything that’s succeeded from the grime scene, to figure out what made it work. For all that he may doubt himself, his confidence on The Godfather, buoyed by grime’s recent successes, seems to have reached a late peak. This record achieves the impressive and symbolic feat of hosting almost 20 other grime MCs as guests, but still only ever sounding like a Wiley album. “London’s changed a bit,” he spits on Name Brand, surveying the scene, “but I can still hit the booth, start spraying and give the crowd fire.”
After he has finished promoting the Godfather, which entered the album charts at No 9 last weekend, Wiley and his manager are planning a documentary about his life (“like Senna or Amy, but less sad,” was John Woolf’s pitch), aiming for a Cannes 2018 premiere. There is an autobiography in the works, too, which will be published by Hodder and Stoughton. He has recently raised the prospect of retirement again, and says The Godfather may be his last solo album. He says a lot of things.
The last time I saw Wiley, I asked him whether he feels vindicated. He was still releasing grime albums in 2012 when almost everyone else had given up. “It’s not a fad, obviously,” he said, “and it will get taken more seriously this time around, because it’s persevered. When I think about quitting, my reason usually is ‘I’ve done too much – I’m tired.’ I don’t think I’m washed up, it’s just, I’m not 19 any more, you know? But the godfather legacy is good for me. Because in that position, you no longer have to do those same things you were doing when you were 19.” Wiley compared himself to the legendary French footballer Zinedine Zidane at the end of his career: commanding, but relaxed about his advancing the years, “letting the ball do the work”.
A couple of years ago, I interviewed him about how east London was changing, how the bustling market street he described as “the nurturer” of grime, Roman Road, was becoming gentrified. Rhythm Division, the legendary grime record shop, where Wiley’s Wot Do U Call It? music video was shot, has been replaced by an artisan coffee shop. I asked about a petition that had emerged the previous year, calling for a statue of Wiley to be erected in Bow. It had received 5,000 signatures and a great deal of press attention.
“I would rather people treat it like a shrine to grime,” he said, and rewound to an iconic image taken in front of the (now refurbished) Crossways Estate in Bow, known to locals as “the three flats”. “You know that picture of me and Dizzee sitting outside the three flats? That should be the statue. I don’t want to sit here and say I single-handedly carried hundreds of kids on to the moon. I worked with everyone – and some of us blew, and some of us never.”
Main picture: Spencer Murphy