As the godfather of grime, Wiley still occupies a strange position in his own universe. Could his final album cement his legacy?
Later this week, a few days before his 38th birthday, Wiley will release his eleventh solo album. Throw in the standalone singles, thirteen mixtapes, six full lengths with Roll Deep, and eleven zip files of music he gave away in 2010 and it's an intimidating discography, even for the most die hard eski fans.
But his legacy isn't really about his expansive output as impressive as it is; it's more about what he started and where it's ended up. As a self-appointed canary down the coal mine, Wiley conceived the raw mechanics of grime – choppy, icy strings, hollow basslines, 2-step beats, punchy bars – before stretching the genre to its creative and commercial limits in the time it took most MCs to get a record out. Always one to start trends rather than follow them, he was releasing full blown pop tracks before Dizzee, Tinchy and Chip in the mid-00s, and he was going back to basics way before Skepta. Make no mistake: if the last few years of grime have taught us anything, it's that Wiley's original formula never lost its potency.
Yet rather than sitting at the top of the food chain celebrating the world catching up, the 'Godfather of Grime' appears to occupy an awkward position in his own universe. Not one to bask in reflected glory, he can seem like an outsider in a scene he helped create; suspicious of the world he's so often carried on his own shoulders like the Birdman of Bow, the Atlas of E3. His flow remains as effortless and irreverent as ever, but he rarely looks like he's having that much fun on stage, and he often skips appearances altogether, preferring to dodge the limelight.
That said, he's far from secretive. He's spoken candidly about the knock to his self esteem after a vicious knife attack in 2008 that left his face permanently scarred. His terse relationship with former protege Dizzee Rascal has been discussed to death, yet still seems to haunt him like something from a Lucasfilm script. And despite Skepta's eagerness to always honour him, Wiley seems oddly distant from his post-Konnichiwa career.
He claims The Godfather will be his last solo album, but he also said that about The Ascent in 2013, and that was three years after announcing his retirement in 2010. In a way, he grapples with his position and reputation like Sinatra did, tormented but duty-bound to finish what he started. In terms of prolificacy and originality, he rivals every great icon, with an epic amalgamation of history, comedy and tragedy all rolled into one journey we're just lucky to bear witness to.
After five attempts to get Wiley to speak to me, I finally manage to get hold of him the week before Christmas, just as he's leaving a bustling TGI Fridays.
Hi Wiley. What's TGI Fridays like at midday on a Wednesday?
I eat here all the time, bro. I love it. It's hard to get a decent batch of buffalos in the UK. You know what it is, I think they're fried or baked, but they can't be soggy. They can't have skin hanging off.
Isn't your doctor worried about your health if you eat at TGI Fridays the whole time?
I ain't been to the doctors for a minute, bruv, but I'm sure he wouldn't mind me eating some chicken.
I was hoping to see you at Skepta's show at Ally Pally last month. It was weird hearing your verse on the backing track.
Don't do that, man, don't do that. You're killing me. You know it's really funny because look, I wanted to be at Skepta's show but I didn't make it there, and the mad thing is when we talk about these things like, "Why wasn't he there?" or "Why wasn't you there?" – as much as it's a fair question – it can sometimes cause hassle. I wanted to be there too, and - you know what it is - I just wasn't there because I've got older and, you know, I'm a parent. When I was young I used to go and do whatever I needed to do. As I've got older I've slowed down a bit, and sometimes just not gone out there – that's all.
"I don't think it's my choice to be happy. Once you've made something it's for other people to comment on."
Do you ever worry about how it makes friends feel when you're not at a show or video shoot you were meant to be at?
Yeah, of course. We both feel the same way, but we understand. Back in the day, when no one had no kids or nothing like that, then we was all there. I was there first, weren't I? But things change.
Did you watch Skepta's Ally Pally performance online?
I saw parts of it, yeah. Very good show.
Would you like to take the Wiley stage show up a scale?
I need to think about that, as it goes. The thing is: what is upscale? Does that mean doing a show with Apple? Or like fire? You know what it is - when you go and watch Lady Gaga or Rihanna, you're gonna have the proper show, aren't you? Because it's in the O2 and obviously the money is bigger and ra-ra-ra. I don't want it to look dead, but at the same time, I'm not gonna spend a hundred grand on fire, no I'm not. I think what I need to do, bro, is get into a live performance position that benefits me in terms of respect and where I deserve to be. I think I just need to keep going until a batch of people who like it decide to say, "You know what, there's 4,000 over there who like it, there's 5,000 over there, and another 6,000 there, so let's just get down the O2." I need to climb, I need hits, I need music, I need an illusion to create to make people think, "Oh my god, that's him, he does that!" I know what I've gotta do.
The Godfather's finally out next week. Are you happy with it?
I don't think it's my choice to be happy. Once you've made something it's for other people to comment on. Artists are always gonna be biased. They're always gonna say, "This is good." Anything they do next they think is good. But in England, no one really knows. It's all a gamble. You don't know if Newcastle are gonna beat Sunderland or not. You just don't know, do you? It just turns out that on the day it happens, you know what I mean?
Does it feel good to be releasing the album through your own label (Chasing The Art)? You've probably had more record deals than any other MC…
As an artist, yeah. But I think it's just 'cos I've been the one who's ready to turn up at the label's office and quickly do what they want me to do so they can quickly earn half a million. I think I'm the best at that. I think I'm the best at helping the label earn a quick likkle million round the back.
Are there any deals you've been happy with?
Nah. But the thing is, back in the day I don't feel like I was even ready for a record deal anyway. Like, when Dizzee got his and I got mine? I don't think I should have [been given one], I wasn't ready.
What's your favourite Wiley album?
I haven't got any.
I haven't got any. I like the stuff that didn't really do shit.
I guess looking back on the Tunnel Vision series, or the zip files, maybe some of your best music was on the releases a lot of people might not know?
Exactly. Exactly how I feel, bro, you're right. But it's all out there if people wanna find it. They can go and look for it and sample it if they want. There's loads of music that hasn't even been heard by anyone. Thousands of songs. That day when I did the zip files, my other computer wasn't even with me.
Do you ever worry you've made too much music?
Definitely. That was my next point. I told someone this the other day: don't overdo it. No matter what.
What do you think of the big grime albums of last year? Are you a fan of Konnichiwa and Made in the Manor?
Listen, I think Konnichiwa is the right album for what this guy [Skepta] was trying to do and where he was trying to sell it. That's what I've learned from listening to that record. I think Made in the Manor was the wrong album to be made by him [Kano] at a time when grime was in fashion. It was a good Damon Albarn album in the first place, to be fair. Why do I know that? I like Damon Albarn. You know what I'm saying? I'm happy for him and all the success, but that was the wrong album to be made in this time by that artist. If grime is in and it's popping, and you can see Stormzy and anyone else bringing it back, and you're so good at it, you could have just given a fifteen track grime classic to follow up Home Sweet Home.
"In every lyrical war I've had, I've enjoyed or realised how good someone else was. I've never walked away and wanted to jump off Tower Bridge."
Is The Godfather a grime album then?
It could only be. I can't call myself the 'Godfather of grime' and then make an album that's got two grime tracks and the rest is Damon Albarn. They're going to say I'm not. The thing is, if you listen to what's going on at the moment there isn't actually a barrage of grime out there. There's a lot of stuff that's between grime, trap, whatever it is, which I'm not dissing – I love it. So, yeah, no disrespect. Made in the Manor is actually sick, sonically and all the rest of it. It was just the wrong record to be made by that artist at this time.
Has anyone ever really pissed you off?
Never, never, never. You know why? In every lyrical war I've had, I've enjoyed or realised how good someone else was. I've never walked away and wanted to jump off Tower Bridge.
Who do you think came at you the best, then?
Live in the flesh, face to face: Kano. War wise: Crazy Titch and Doogz versus me and Dizzee. They were the strongest.
Did anyone ever really wind you up? Yours and Trim's sends got pretty dark at times.
Nah, he's not dark. He's just like my mum. My mum, yeah, will walk into your house and if it smelled like poo she would say it out loud. That's what he's like. So that's all that is. I respect him. I think he's a sick MC, especially in war. But you know the deeper ones are me standing in front of another MC; no MC has stood up in front of me and given me a harder time than Kano. And no MC's have been on the night and day dubplate war with me more than Doogz and Titch.
Do you miss that time a bit?
I think that era has happened. I miss it, but there's nothing I can do if I believe in evolution or believe in time going on. There's nothing I can bring back from the past.
Is that why you called your album The Godfather? As a way to recognise your role as someone who's been there, done that, sold the t shirt?
I'm nearly 40 years old, bro. This is the thing. The other day my best friend said to me, "Listen man, I don't know if you should do this because you're not a new artist. You're not young; you're not Skepta and Stormzy. I know you can see them and it looks like they're doing good but you can't just come back and do that because this and that…" That's my best friend telling me that, so if I listen to other people I won't do shit. I don't think I'm pressuring myself, because who else is the Godfather? Who else can contend with me, even? There are some – like your Heartless crews back in the day or whatever – but in my actual scene right now? Nah. I understand if someone I've brought into the game might have doubts in me as I approach 40, but as long as I don't doubt myself, we're all good.
Does it hurt when close friends doubt you?
Well, no. It doesn't hurt. I'll tell you what hurts: if you're my best friend and you say, "Listen, man, they're different because they can do this and that and we don't think that you can do this. Stick to that." You're my best friend and you come and tell me that? What happened to remembering how everyone got here in the first place? Can't you remember the hard work I've put in before them - don't you know that I put them there? That's the only thing that hurts. But I'm not hurt by people saying I'm not Skepta, because that's my brother. He does music and he believes in his ability; and I do music and I believe in mine. So I'm not upset by that. I want all artists to meet each other and do whatever they can together. It's all about creating an illusion, bro, but the bigger the scale the bigger the illusion has to be. I understand it. I know how to reinvent.
Do you have an age in mind where you think you'll stop?
This is my last album, in theory. You know, Wiley the brand, you're not going to see me trying to cane the arse out of tens of Wileys, you will not. I'll always use my money to do other, smart things. Like, I'm never going to just be like trying to squeeze money out of stuff. I'm always gonna be trying to do different things and properties and more properties. Shit like that can keep you and your family and brothers and sisters going when you're older.
How do you feel about the artists who make more money from sportswear contracts or TV shows or other businesses than music? Like J2K and his stake in Crep Protect?
Nah, well I'm happy. All due respect to anyone from the urban background or council estate earning money in any field. In any field, whether it's the spray or whatever – big up J2K, all day long. Rita Ora and Tinie Tempah made more money from fashion than they have music, but I'm not gonna sit there and be like, "Oh my god, I need to get on the catwalk." I'm not gonna do that. What I'll do is I'll just respect them for what that is and what they have done. I'll seek opportunities for myself.
In some ways you're the most puritanical in keeping it solely about the music for the longest time.
I was thinking about that. I saw Kano do Topboy and it's not that I wanna do films either, I like music and shit. But I saw Kano do Topboy and there's loads of people who have done more than one thing. Skepta's done a movie. Some people do fashion, and if someone's famous, and they're wearing a Gucci suit and Gucci loafers, I look at that, I respect it, I know what it's for and and I know why and how, blah blah blah. I don't always say to myself, "Okay, I've gotta go do that!" I look away and say, "Right, what suits me?" That's the best thing. Otherwise you'll just be following people you see around in circles.
Do you ever feel a little disconnected from the scene?
Never. To feel disconnected from the scene you have to be shit on the mic and shit at making beats; that's the only way I'd ever feel disconnected. I think that having the ability to go to the studio is the only thing that keeps you alive anyway.
Are you more inspired by younger MC's these days?
I'm inspired by Stormzy, AJ Tracey, Uncle Mez, Blakey, all the youths. I can listen to them and hear how good they are, but can also hear what improvements they might need. The thing is, most people can hear but it doesn't mean they're really listening.
Are you still involved with developing younger MC's?
Of course. That's my main thing. That's something I do for free a lot of the time, and have done for the last sixteen years. It's something that I don't actually want money for, but it's something that other people get paid to do. I just want to give back.
"You know, the only person I know who can say 'I am a don' in England because of what they do musically is Adele."
How do you see the next five years panning out after this album?
I'm definitely going to concentrate on Scratchy and my artists that I work with. J2K, working with him. You know, I'm gonna make sure that my label's popping. I've got my project with JME. I'm just trying to get to 40. You know, the only person I know who can say "You know what, I am a don" in England because of what they do musically is Adele. She really does get paid from music, do you understand?
Do you feel like a don?
Yeah, but not for the same reasons she does. I wake up feeling like a don because I've been part of a genre. Some people wake up in England and it's so grey they just go back to sleep. It's just one of those things. But for me when it's cold and it's not sunny I can do a lot of work. Not everyone's that active, but I'm up early zipping about and getting shit done. I work better out of the sun, I suppose.
Is that why you came back from Cyprus?
I get work done in England, that's what it is. I don't always like living here though.
You mentioned Scratchy's new music which you're pretty involved in. It's been great seeing him at your recent shows and on Jools Holland with you. Why has his solo stuff taken so long?
I think that he was very loyal to Roll Deep and he didn't want to step away from the crew. Now he's done it. I'm really happy and he's gonna do great things as well because he's very smart. He's someone who could give you a lot of old English sayings throughout his music; you know what I'm trying to say, proper common English. That's what I like about him. It just flows out of him. Like a proper Artful Dodger type of guy with all the slick East End talk.
Do you ever worry that he was too loyal? Are you still on good terms with the rest of Roll Deep?
He was too loyal. Well maybe not too loyal, we're all friends at the end of the day. But when you've been with your mates for that long, you get scared to step out on your own. Some of us got used to going out doing stuff by ourselves. I've conditioned my brain to be able to do that so I try and teach that to all the people I work with, really. The thing is, it's 2017 and I'm not going to jump back out and be all, "Roll Deep, Roll Deep!" What I will say is "Listen, friends, before we done Roll Deep we were just individuals doing music and that's what we can do forever if you wanna". We don't need to use names to keep ourselves existent. Not crew names anyway. After sixteen years, can't we expand, can't one of us go into publishing, can't one of us… you know what I'm trying to say?
So the crew lives on, even when you're not MC'ing together?
Exactly. It's like I'm part of BBK, but again BBK's not actually a crew anymore. It is, but it's more like a record label.
Will there ever be a BBK album?
I think you gotta ask Skepta that question. He's like the Wiley of BBK, what Wiley was in Roll Deep, isn't he. So he's got to lead the way.
Did you talk about putting The Godfather out on BBK?
I could have, but the thing is that I'm Wiley and I started this thing. So it wouldn't make any sense doing it anywhere except my own bank or my own belly, you know? It's grime, remember. If I don't know how to sell grime, what the hell have I learned?
It's come a long way from selling vinyl direct, or even CD's…
I still know how to sell it. Today is different, selling. We got Spotify, we got Apple, we got all the other stuff. Streaming, little bit of physical, little bit of iTunes. You know.
Now artists are doing deals with streaming companies directly. Have you gone in and spoken to Apple or Spotify?
Listen. My manager keeps lying to me. He's always in there and he's lying saying he's in there helping us, but he's in there trying to get a backdoor job, the geezer.
I don't think I've ever heard an artist publicly criticise their manager as much as you do. It's kind of amazing you still put up with each other.
Nah, I love him, I do. I respect him so highly, bro. You know what it is, John Woolf is a wrangler. Just like Wrangler jeans. Just one of us is from the council estate trying to get out… Sometimes when two people are wranglers they're gonna bash heads and you're gonna get upset. But life's all about wrangling and hustling, and business as well.
There's been so many different chapters to your career. What's been your favourite part of the Wiley story?
I think my favourite era was just when it was nothing to do with this, it was just jungle. Jungle was the beginning of it and I love jungle more than any other thing. I was nothing to do with it, I was just a fan as a kid. Trying to buy records from the record shop, you know what I mean?
When you're involved in something is it harder to enjoy?
It's horrible. To be involved is horrible. Everyone is just waiting to say if they like it or if they don't like it, everyone is waiting to see if you're good or not, whether you'll last two years or not, whether you're a one-hit wonder or not. There's too much expectation.
Do you feel the pressure of that expectation on The Godfather?
You press play on it, listen to it, and when you get to track 17 it finishes. Obviously, some tracks you'll like more than others if you're a normal human. But when you walk away, I hope you say to yourself, "You know what, he really is the Godfather… He's not trying to say he's the king or the prince or the librarian, he's not trying to say he's the guru, he's not trying to say he's the guy doing 25 to 30 years in jail for it. He's saying he is the Godfather. He is the guy who treated this scene like a youth club and gave us all paths." If you can walk away saying that then I'm happy. That was my only goal.
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Header illustration by Dan Evans.