Wiley: where to start in his back catalogue

In Listener’s Digest, our writers help you explore the work of great musicians. Next up: the godfather of grime whose erratic genius has inspired successive generations

The album to start with

Godfather (CTA Records, 2017)

Wiley told the world: “Eskiboy’s the reason why everybody’s here” back in 2006, on the cult classic Roll Deep single When I’m Ere. In grime’s relatively short lifespan, the maverick genre has produced some of the finest albums and moments in contemporary British music: Mercury prizes and Glastonbury headliners. But there can only be one Godfather. A music career now in its fourth decade has produced 12 albums and a trove of singles, freestyles, radio sets, mixtapes and EPs. The man has more music than the Sahara has sand.

Wiley: Bring Them All/Holy Grime – video

As an in, his 2017 album Godfather offers a seamless trip through his sprawling back catalogue and legacy. Wiley’s 11th album arrived in the fires of last decade’s grime renaissance, a revival that saw the genre shatter music industry glass ceilings and swarm across the country. After landmark albums and single releases from Skepta and Stormzy, Wiley followed up with an album heralded as his crowning glory, a deserved victory lap to mark the success of a scene he had sacrificed himself to build: a showcase of the undisputed craftsmanship and erratic genius that has come to define his reign.

Wiley’s music is a distinct brand. Over these 17 songs, he swings flow as sharp as a guillotine, razing through high-pitched and adrenaline-fuelled instrumentals. Bring Them All/Holy Grime, a duet with Dagenham MC Devlin, shows Wiley at his most thrilling. The two fence over heady production that sounds like an orchestra on speed. The song carries the dizzying excitement of a skydive, the finesse of an F1 driver – and yet Wiley starts by mumbling: “Drink ‘nuff beers before the game, what d’ya call that? Georgie Best MC”, the kind of random cues that underpin his eccentric brilliance.

Godfather puts a bow on Wiley’s legacy and sees him connect with successive grime generations. On This is an engrossing, long-awaited reunion with MC prodigies Chip and Ice Kid, who Wiley first took under his wing and up to BBC Radio 1 for a now-legendary freestyle session when they were no more than 16. Joe Bloggs is a titanic collaboration with D Double E and Footsie. And the final track, P Money is a tribute to its namesake, arguably grime’s most consistent practitioner in recent times. On a remix for the album, P Money offers a verse of his own.

A marriage of the boyish hunger and seasoned wisdom Wiley has honed over decades, Godfather is the high watermark of a prodigious career.

The three to check out next

Treddin’ on Thin Ice (XL Recordings, 2004)

Wiley: Eskimo – video

In retrospect, Treddin’ on Thin Ice was less of an earth-shattering debut album proper, more the opening chapter teasing a thrilling catalogue to come. Still, the album features some of Wiley’s – and grime’s – most important records. Wot Do U Call It bullishly charts the splintering of UK garage and its winding devolution into what would eventually become grime. Perhaps most critically, the early grime instrumental Eskimo gets an official release. Originally produced around 2002, the arctic instrumental, inspired by Wiley’s fascination with bleak weather and winter, is a cultural artefact that showcases grime in its embryonic form.

Playtime Is Over (Big Dada, 2007)

Wiley: Slippin – video

Around 2007, Wiley was threatening to retire from life as an MC. After Playtime Is Over, he planned a retreat into the shadows, leaving a new breed of MCs to take hold of the scene. Thirteen years later, the album originally pitched as his swan song ranks as one of his finest studio albums. Over a skittish set of largely self-produced songs, we find Wiley surging with composed aggression as he reflects on his life growing up in east London: Nothing About Me and Slippin detail the fears, desires and ambitions that had riddled his life so far.

The Best of Tunnel Vision (Eskibeat Recordings, 2007)

Wiley: Nan, I Am London – video

For a certain generation, the lore that surrounds Wiley began with the Tunnel Vision series, a string of seminal mixtapes feverishly written and released between 2006 and 2008. The first five emerged in a nine-month period, the kind of divine spark from which miracles are born. Double-disc collection Best of Tunnel Vision contains the scattered jewels from the series. At times it unspools like a diary, sketching intricate portraits of a claustrophobic grime scene and a long-torn relationship with London, as Wiley’s live-wire flow darts around like a stray firecracker.

One for the heads

Wiley and DJ Score 5 radio set (Rinse FM, 2013)

Wiley and DJ Score 5: radio set – video

Wiley finds flow states in radio sets and freestyles, unshackled from the confines of choruses and 16-bar verses. During this half-hour display alongside DJ Score 5, we hear Wiley’s true essence, roving over transitioning synths and drum patterns. He has a history of this, with iconic freestyles on BBC Radio 1 with Tim Westwood and a string of classic early Rinse FM sets. But this is among his finest, playing out like an unrelenting stream of consciousness translated into sound.

The primer playlist

For Spotify users, listen below or click here; for Apple Music users, click here.

Further reading

Wiley, The Godfather: ‘I accept the title now, more than ever’, by Joe Walker
Wiley had been labelled elusive when it came to press and interviews. But one morning he abruptly changed his mind and let everybody know via Twitter that he was back in the country and looking to be interviewed that same morning. Joe Walker, then of RWD Magazine (now of Beats 1), took up the call. What followed was an enjoyable and lengthy two-part Q&A between two individuals well informed on the complexities of grime, British music and Wiley’s place within it.

Wiley: The Eski Boy, by Emma Warren
A long read illuminating Wiley’s life outside of music, filling in the blanks on his family, upbringing and early years.

Wiley: Godfather of Grime, Dizzee Rascal, BBK, New Film and more, by Not For The Radio

This introspective interview released prior to Godfather gave us the long Wiley video interview that fans had longed for. The hosts of NFTR are respected pillars of Britain’s black music scene, and so Wiley was comfortable, breaking down his career from his early garage days to his relationship with Dizzee Rascal and his personal battles with self-image and street violence. A must-see that puts the character of this erratic genius in context.

Contributor

Aniefiok Ekpoudom

The GuardianTramp

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