Since he invented it in the early ’00s, Wiley has devoted his life to grime. He is the king of the genre. Now that it’s become a global phenomenon, he tells Alexi Duggins why he’s making new album ‘Godfather’ his last
Last year, Wiley’s career nearly ended on a family shopping trip in Greece. As the creator of the most hard-edged British musical genre in a generation led his smiling children through warm Athenian streets, he felt good. “I was having the best time of my life,” sighs Wiley. “We were just chilling, hanging around in Athens – it was a beautiful day.”
Then, out of the blue, a friend phoned, telling Wiley that he wasn’t sure he had what it took to make it in grime any more. Now that it had become the internationally renowned playground of megastars like Drake, perhaps Wiley should save his blushes by not releasing any more music. “It properly messed me up,” sighs the east London MC. “It made me think, ‘S**t, if one of my mates is saying this to my face, everyone else is probably thinking it behind my back’.” Thus, Wiley took to his phone, fired up Twitter and made an announcement about his upcoming ‘Godfather’ album: “I’m not dropping an album anymore. Pointless I reckon.” The internet responded with articles entitled: “Wiley cancels ‘pointless’ album Godfather” and that was that: album over.
And yet, today we’re in a photo studio on an industrial estate in Bow, east London, chatting to Wiley about the now-definitely-not-cancelled ‘Godfather’. “I just decided that I’m not gonna let what other people think stop me from doing anything,” he chuckles, tucking into a huge pile of Nando’s. He pauses while unwrapping a chicken pitta. “I know it’s a new day now. But this is grime. There will never be a time when I don’t know how to do it.”
Fair enough. After all, he did invent it. Born Richard Kylea Cowie, he’d initially thought his destiny was to be a child star. He’d spend his evenings trying to write new jack swing and reggae hits, watching Top Of The Pops, hoping for a break (“A few people came out, like Ultimate Kaos, Shola Ama – she was, like, 14. I wanted to be like that,” he smiles). When Simon Cowell failed to call offering a role in a boyband, he moved into DJing, took the name of DJ Wildchild, eventually changing it to Wiley Kat due to his love of ’80s cartoon ThunderCats. He picked up the mic, joined garage crew Pay As U Go Cartel and ended up appearing on Top Of The Pops in 2000 when their hit ‘Champagne Dance’ went Top 20 (“Top Of The Pops was sick,” he reminisces, “though the way they chopped up the performance like a radio edit was a bit dodgy”).
Then, when Pay As U Go Cartel disbanded, he struck off on a tangent, making darker, crystalline beats. He formed his own crew, Roll Deep, to put vocals over the top that focused – unlike most UK MCs of the time – not on sounding American, but on observational lyricism about London life, delivered in an English accent. When his track, ‘Eskimo’, became a huge hit on London’s urban underground, he found that he’d created a new genre and artists from all across the city flocked to the sound. This was in no small part due to Wiley showcasing it via his show on then pirate radio station Rinse FM: a high profile gig, if not always the most glam.
“We were broadcasting from all over the place – squats, people’s kitchens,” chuckles Wiley as he dismisses a range of clothes he’s been sent and decides to do the photoshoot in his own tracksuit. “Once, we had it at mine while my dad was away and I got arrested for weed. When the police came round, they were like, ‘What’s this massive aerial?’ We told them it was just how we listened to radio.”
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Music aside, he started pouring himself into grime, not just as a form of music, but as a community. So that grime artists had somewhere they could perform live, Wiley created a night called Eskimo Dance. He began dedicating himself to helping younger MCs break through. He formed a prolific partnership with a young Dizzee Rascal, introducing him to the manager who would land him the album deal for ‘Boy In Da Corner’ and eventually bag grime a Mercury Award. In later years, he even turned up to a Westwood 1Xtra session with the then unknown Chipmunk and another 14-year-old MC called Ice Kid, insisting that they also be given mic time (“Yeah, it weren’t exactly a good career move for me,” he laughs. “Was for them, though!”).
It’s during these years that Wiley became known as the Godfather of Grime. He wasn’t just an artist in his own right, signing to XL at the same time as Dizzee and releasing a genre-defining, if less feted, album, ‘Treddin’ On Thin Ice’. He didn’t just create a genre whose furious energy and DIY aesthetic was like punk for an urban inner city youth (“Punk rock is the root of everything we do: I honestly believe that without punk there’d be no grime”). He also imbued it with such an ethos of community spirit that a decade later its stars are able to top charts, bag awards and win international acclaim without the support of record labels: all down to its grassroots support. Reason to be proud, no?
Not as proud as you might think. As he settles down into a barber’s chair and thanks the hairdresser in advance for his pre-photoshoot trim (“I need this! I’ve had to do the last three videos with my baseball cap on!”), he’s strangely reticent to accepting plaudits for his cultural impact. “Nah, nah, nah. I didn’t change the country: people in the ’80s, like Smiley Culture, they changed the country,” he protests. But Smiley Culture didn’t inspire kids across the UK to spend their lunchtimes freestyling in playgrounds. That’s got to be down to grime? “Nah, kids always had bars. That’s thanks to rap.” But he must at least be proud of his music? “I like some of my tracks, but I don’t like none of my albums and I really don’t like ‘Treddin’ On Thin Ice’”, he grimaces. What? But it’s a classic! “Nah, I wasn’t ready to do it. Back then, I might have had my own sound, but I didn’t really have my own identity on the mic. I’ve got that now, though. One hundred percent.”
Listening to new album ‘Godfather’, the latter half of this claim is hard to dispute. His 11th proper studio album is his most impressive in years: a pop-free rampage through ‘Eskimo’-era beats (JME collaboration, ‘Speakerbox’), monstrous, gnarled bass (‘Pattern Up Properly’) and even the odd spot of smooth, loverman Rhythm N Grime (‘U Were Always’). At points there’s an astonishing energy to his flows: from the breathless bar trading of ‘Holy Grime’ to the frenetic lyricism of ‘Bait Face’, via the bassy menace of the Ice Kid and Chipmunk reunion that is ‘On This’. It’s also so packed with lyrical references to his grime heritage that you can’t help but wonder: is it called ‘Godfather’ because it’s Wiley’s attempt to let grime’s newer fans know that he’s the one who created it? “No – I’m not trying to force any kids to listen to me. They have their own heroes. I’m just making music,” he counters.
And then he drops a massive bombshell. “In fact, the real reason this is called ‘Godfather’, is because it’s probably the last Wiley album.” Sorry: WHAT? “I’m nearly 40. I can’t be jumping about like a 20-year-old anymore.” But plenty of artists continue making music after they’re 40. Look at The Rolling Stones! “The Rolling Stones are different. They sing; melody is the key in what they do. What we do is like punk rock – we’re shouting. You can’t shout for 20 years. You’ll go mad in the head.”
It’s not hard to see his point. The audiences for grime are getting younger. Skepta’s recent Alexandra Palace gig was 14+, as was Wiley’s Koko launch gig for ‘Godfather’ (“40-year-olds are just not meant to hang around with 14-year-olds”, he chuckles). It’s becoming routine for them to be packed with frenzied moshing and gigantic tween-filled circle pits. Grime gigs are beginning to feel like heavy metal concerts. “Exactly,” nods Wiley. “And I just want to start making music in a less aggressive vein.”
Funny, really. Because if there’s anyone who should be reaping the rewards of grime’s recent resurgence, it’s Wiley. From 2007 to 2013, grime entered a fallow period when the music industry was only interested in MCs if they could make them goof about over a pop-dance backing track. But at the same time as Wiley was scoring a No.2 hit with ‘Wearing My Rolex’ (“I had to do it for my daughter: I needed the money to buy her stuff”), he was ferociously recording underground grime hits, self-releasing seven mixtapes and three albums for free (not to mention the 203-track zip files he leaked for free in protest at his then record company’s attempt to influence his musical direction).
The two major label studio albums he released after the ‘Rolex’-featuring ‘See Clear Now’ were both entirely pop-free. And when he eventually released another chart-courting album, ‘The Ascent’, he followed it with ‘Steps 1-20’, 20 rugged, free-to-download freestyles, despite even his closest industry advisers’ lack of interest (“I played them to my manager, he just didn’t care”). For years after he’d seen chart success, he insisted on living in the same community he’d grown up as a mark of his loyalty to his scene (“I just didn’t want to leave. I was in the hood with half a million pounds in my bank account and people trying to rip the chain off my neck. I didn’t have a brain,” he laughs). While the likes of Dizzee Rascal gave up on making credible music to tit about on mobility scooters with Robbie Williams, Wiley showed that you could make a living by refusing to stray from your roots. It is his living, breathing example that showed the newer generation that grime was worth dedicating yourself to.
“Bro, I’m so happy grime’s come back round,” grins Wiley of the commercial and critical success that artists like Stormzy and Skepta have started to enjoy in the last couple of years. “Those guys are doing things we never did. Stormzy is having meetings with the people from The Brits. None of us ever did anything like that back in the day.” Is it even sweeter that they’ve managed to do it without a record label? That they’ve shown that grime doesn’t need the music industry to succeed? “Hah, music industry: what industry? The internet means no one pays for nothing no more. The whole thing is extinct,” he laughs. “That’s part of why I’m getting out. I’ve gotta get out before the day Adele drops an album and it only sells one copy.”
Then Wiley starts to pose for our photographer. Soon, he’s having the time of his life. Between shots, he leaps over equipment to look at the results being displayed on the snapper’s laptop, high fiving the photographer excitedly, yelling: “Yes, bro!” He’s having such a good time, it’s not easy to believe that this is a man on the verge of retirement. Particularly given that he notoriously claimed he was retiring 10 years ago, only to find music impossible to step away from. He even has a whole freestyle called ‘I Thought U Retired’.
“It will be hard for me to stop making music. But it won’t be hard for me to sit at home and watch [Streatham MC] Santan Dave and all these sick kids take grime to where I couldn’t take it,” he grins, between poses. Is this down to the phone call that nearly killed ‘Godfather’? “Nah, I got over that. Think of it this way: I did my first rave when I was 14. I’m 37 now; I don’t want to overstay my welcome.” So what’s he going to do? “A clothing label, maybe. I’ve got a project I’ll do with JME too. I’ll still release stuff, just under a different name.” The end of Wiley? Is he absolutely sure? “Yeah,” he insists. And with that, the photoshoot is over and everyone packs up. As we go to exit, we pause, waiting for him to head out of the door first. “Oh no, I’m not leaving. I’m going to shoot a video here. I’ve just decided.” Really? For which track on the album? “It’s not on the album. This is for a separate track I’m doing.” He’s not even put the album out and he’s already releasing new tracks? For the moment at least, stopping making grime isn’t on the agenda. Thank goodness.