British rapper Wiley is a founding member of the Roll Deep crew and the Godfather of Grime, the bastard musical concoction composed of elements of UK Garage, two-step, hip-hop and R&B. Despite his revered status, he’s pulling a page from Jay-Z’s career and announced his retirement on the eve of the release of his third album at the ripe old age of 28.
“It’s like Harlem, it’s a district in a major city, you know. It’s the kind of area where, you’re just born into it. The music. People spit on street corners, there’s people with beats, you know, it’s there.’
The Godfather of Grime scene is talking about his hometown of Bow, a district in London that gave birth to the genre. His second album, Playtime Is Over, references the area several times, including the second track, aptly named “Bow E3.” Just after the turn of the millennium the UK music industry started to take notice of a scene that was spawning a new kind of sound. Taking its roots from UK garage with tougher, faster beats and aggressive rapping, East London’s council estates were shaking to their foundations with the inception of acts like Wiley’s Roll Deep. It was this same collective that would encourage a teenage Dizzee Rascal to create the tracks that would eventually win him a Mercury prize for his debut album, Boy In Da Corner.
However, despite the heaps of critical praise and a fair amount of commercial success (Roll Deep’s debut In At The Deep End sold over 85,000 units, nearly gold in the UK) Wiley announced in January that he was finished with recording.
“It’s a young scene, right. Kids need it more than I do now. It needs a new top MC and a new top producer. I wanted to step aside and let them in. I’m too old for that now. I’m taking what I do to the next level.”
Wiley, aka Eskiboy, a name taken from his track Eskimo, which is credited for bringing grime music outside of the pirate stations and into the mainstream, explains his reason for announcing his retirement in early 2007. “Everyone is like 14 to 20, and I’m 28 now. I’m thinking I need to go out in the world a bit more, away from the scene, and spread the word of grime. With my age and the work I have done, I’m a much more powerful person [out in the world] than just staying in London.”
This new attitude has drawn the rapper born as Richard Kylea Cowie into an ambitious new place. Coincidentally, Playtime Is Over was released in the UK on the same day as his former partner in grime Dizzee Rascal’s latest effort, Maths And English. Yet Wiley is focused on the bigger musical picture for his music. He will spend some time in America catching up with old contacts, spreading the word and making new associations. “Someone of my calibre who has done a lot of work and has a history can talk to people on a level. If I meet a producer, I can say I got this album and that album and they can hear my music and they know what I am about, what I can do and what I have done.”
“Every one is like 14 to 20, and I’m 28 now. I’m thinking I need to go out in the world a bit more, away from the scene, and spread the word of grime. With my age and the work I have done, I’m a much more powerful person than just staying in London.”
With Dizzee’s album being released only as a digital format in the US due to the poor physical sales of his second album, and acts like Roots Manuva never really making that making it big in the States, what does Wiley think his chances of success in America are?
“I’m gonna record and get some groundwork in, do some summer jams in August and September, then go on a full tour in October just after the album comes out. Basically, I’m gonna put the time in. You know, right, the guys that have tried it before have kind of imitated the American music, with accents and beats and that. I’m just going there to be myself. I think Dizzee has a problem that they can’t really understand him all the time. I speak clearer. There’s also a good scene down south for us at the moment, so I’m going to work that.”
It is undeniable that Wiley does have the credentials to impress. His latest album is a diverse mix that shouts back to UK garage, R&B, straight-up hip-hop and, of course, his grime. His age and experience also hold him above others. He recently signed a groundbreaking partnership with Big Dada in the UK, which sees him claim a fair share of his royalties. It’s something he proudly boasts about on the opening track “50/50” with the line “Not 2% after recoupment,” a dig at his former contract with XL Recordings and current ones that his peers may be stuck in. Wiley has also set up his own label, Eski-Beat, which houses some of the scene’s top producers.
For a man who has survived 14 stabbings and is recognized as the creator of a scene that took untold amounts of kids out of their hood to the bright lights of big stages and raves across the UK and Europe, Wiley is proud of his accomplishments. He talks of going back some day to visit Trinidad and Tobago (as his grandfather would’ve wanted) in the same breath as pushing the concrete jungle of inner city life.
His success in the underground and his courtship with the mainstream has also kept him a loyal, devoted fanbase. As he recedes into the shadows and plans his next post-MC move, he stresses that he wants to hear grime music on daytime radio and in the public eye a lot more. “I’m somewhere in the world. I just got to go step into my shoes and say, ‘Hello everyone.’”
Words: Oliver Guy-Watkins