The Essential…Wiley

By , Sep 13 2010
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Whoever persuaded me to try and choose ten essential Wiley tunes deserves a swift clap to the side of the head.

It’s a horrible task. A lot of great artists express their greatness prolifically, but few in the history of popular music have been so consistently brilliant for so long. I always lose mp3s from my hard-drive in meltdowns and extravagant flame-thrower accidents, but even with my sadly incomplete collection I still have over two days (that’s forty eight hours, if any of you are sleeping at the back) worth of Wiley mp3s which I’ve somehow had to pick just ten tracks from. It hasn’t been easy.

It’s not unreasonable to compare Richard Cowie to Bob Dylan or Miles Davis. It’s not like he’s not churned out a lot of shoddy material, like other legends, but his ability to adapt and find new ways of nuancing his skills is astounding. Wiley’s compulsive about music, and compulsively restless in the way he makes it. His plans change like the weather, he’s constantly unavailable, constantly changing his various mobile numbers: famously he’s like the 38 bus, cos he never turns up. He’s had beefs, fall-outs, and hissyfits galore, been stabbed 14 times, retired at least twice, and never released an album without denouncing it at some point, often before it’s been released. But each time you think he’s too bitter or dejected or exhausted to keep on making music (or at least, to keep on making good music), he hibernates as a ‘studio rat’ and comes back with some fresh wonder. He can’t help himself.

The concept of ‘scenius’, that inspiration comes from a collective semi-conscious mentality, is pretty appealing with grime. The grime scene has always had a collectivist, self-supporting attitude, despite mini-beefs, which in any case are usually more lyrical than real. As well as feeding on the communal hive-mind, collaborating constantly, Wiley’s had strong crew affiliations, from his early Pay As U Go days to primacy in Roll Deep, to a more sibling-like relationship with Boy Better Know. On radio, in lyrics, raves and interviews he exults the scene as a whole, and exults grime (“If you hear the name ‘grime’, Nan – I am the meaning”). He seems to feel the Godfather role keenly and has always been determined to bring people through. “If you’ve heard of Rascal watch out for Stryder” he spat back in 2003 – it’s quite poignant that both of these two have now had number 1 singles, something he’s failed to achieve.

Yet despite sitting proudly at the head of the table at grime’s family get-togethers, Wiley is a classic auteur, a one-man torrent of creativity. It’s not even about the Eski branding (sonically, or in the label or club night): just that in a scene of roaming militia, he’s always managed to be a lone gunman. And these ten essential Wiley tunes reflect him in that role – with a heavy heart I haven’t had room for any Pay As U Go or Roll Deep tunes, which is pretty astonishing really given how much good stuff he’s put out in both his garage and grime crew roles.

I’m going to cheat and cut a corner here and throw in bonus links to Wiley on Freeze FM spitting over jungle in 1998, and one of my favourite freestyles, ‘I’m like a 38 Bus Cos I Never Turn Up’. I always say this to people, so it would be remiss for me not to say it here: the best album Wiley’s ever put out was not actually put out by him: it’s free to download, and it’s the Grimetapes compilation of radio clips, Wiley Volume 1.


01: WILEY
‘ESKIMO’
(WILEY KAT RECORDS 12”, 2002)

A gong, some Sino taps, and the sound of a hollow metal pole rolling around a construction yard. If there’s a quintessential Wiley riddim, it’s got to be ‘Eskimo’. So many incredible beats could have gone in here, during what was probably his most fertile period for instrumentals – there’s a whole Dissensus thread devoted to ‘Wiley’s eski-œuvre’. ‘Ice Pole’ is a classic that was especially tough for me to leave out, as well as ‘Shanghai’, the thirteen hundred Eskimo reversions, ‘Ice Cream’, even the ridiculous ‘Pingu’ riddim (seriously, look it up). This was a time when a musician in his early 20s from E3 became the master of all he surveyed: a land located somewhere between China, Antarctica, and the 23rd century. Regarding the Thierry Henry video above, yes I know Wil’s a Tottenham fan.


02: DIZZEE RASCAL / WILEY
‘ICE RINK FREESTYLE’ / ‘SORRY SORRY PARDON WHAT’
(WILEY KAT RECORDS 12”, 2003)

If anyone ever asks you what grime is, it’s this. There are so many vocals of ‘Ice Rink’ worth hearing, and it was pretty tempting to just include the instrumental – nothing in grime tests that beat for sheer power. But I’m trying to cram in as much as possible to this ten, and I love that this clip unites the two key protagonists of grime’s tragi-comic narrative – the ageing father and the errant son – over effectively the same beat, one borrowing from the other. Also while we’re here, I’m happy that Dizzee’s the first black British superstar and everything, but do you know what would be really, really bonkers? If he ever chose to ride a beat like ‘Ice Rink’ again.

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03: WILEY
‘WOT DO U CALL IT?’
(XL RECORDINGS 12”, 2004)

One of K-Punk’s arguments at the hardcore continuum discussion was that critics need to talk more, and musicians need to stop talking, because they know not what they do. Well, Wiley gave us pretty much the first principle for discussing this decade’s music here, encapsulating UK urban music’s dazzling, defiant ineffability, the strange and unexpected collisions of ideas that spring forth into unnameable new tributaries. It would be difficult to have a ‘wot do u call it moment’ without ‘Wot Do U Call It’. This is one of only about two proper label-released Wiley singles that has avoided massively underselling his talent. Well done XL, pat on the back. Now, why did you release ‘Pies’, you idiots?


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04: WILEY AND RIKO
‘LETHAL DISS’
(from CREEPER VOLUME 2, 2004)

Wiley may have got bored writing bars for Lethal B, but I haven’t got bored of listening to them – not over ‘Fire Hydrant’, and alongside Riko at his best, anyway.


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05: WILEY
‘WD25’
(from EYE OF THE TIGER VOLUME 1, 2005)

An innocuous but unsettling Scandalous Unlimited production, on an underrated mixtape, this tune marked Wiley’s ascent into a new level of creativity: channeling more of his energies into being a deranged, stream-of-consciousness raconteur, rather than a maestro producer.

Blackdown’s justified fascination with this lyric – a sprawling series of sketches, threats, and inspired digressions – has always stuck in my mind. ‘I was a street yout, street kid, street boy – now I am a street man’ he spits, and this is the first of many expressions of growing up in his bars, the struggle between his sense of responsibility on the one hand – for the grime scene (“I do it so the sound expands”), but generally as he neared 30 – and on the other hand, his inclination to ‘come to your ends like Achilles and take out Hector.’


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06: WILEY
‘CRASH BANDICOOT’
(from TUNNEL VISION VOLUME 1, 2006)

In a transition moment for grime, when the prospect of major label success was receding fast, and self-released mixtapes were about to roam the earth, Wiley released this truly jaw-dropping track, on the first of his iffy-but-occasionally-brilliant Tunnel Vision CDs. The production is just startling, with its mad circus boings, bongos, and muffled claps, and the lyric takes ‘WD25’ up another gear again: ‘the bars are right, they’re like scriptures’. Scriptures for a pretty addled religion, but scriptures nonetheless. His flow is controlled and accomplished but still so animated here, with so many killer lines, a personal favourite being ‘There ain’t a club that you won’t see me at / Cos I’m a street star / There’s no set time I have my tea at’. (See also the Dissensus ‘Favourite Wiley Non Sequiturs’ thread.)

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07: WILEY
‘NIGHTBUS DUBPLATE’
(from TUNNEL VISION VOLUME 3, 2006)

‘Last three dubs hit The Movement and crushed it.’ Well, this one actually did. Look at what Scorcher’s doing now – who won that one? Wiley helped nix the tendency towards a certain type of ‘bait hip-hop’ (‘WHY ARE YOU LIKE D BLOCK? YOU’RE FROM ENGLAND YOU BATTY’) as well, at a time when the grime forums were revolting over exactly this. Wiley’s energy seems to overtake the beat’s at times, an exhilarating race he continues to win for almost six minutes. It should go without saying, but Nightbus is one of the best war dubs in grime’s history; the fact it features the line ‘Must be the same old kid in the dinner hall / Primary / Eating apple crumble and custard’ is just a bonus.


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08: WILEY
‘NAN, I AM LONDON’
(from TUNNEL VISION VOLUME 5, 2007)

As Dave Stelfox has pointed out in the past, the different frames of reference between, say, crunk and grime are chasms apart in scale. Lil’ John can and does big up the whole south of America: that’s a good 100 million people or so. A lot of grime tunes, on the other hand, are bigging up just one individual street in east London (I’m jamming down Roman / fuck iiiit‘).

I recently went to an academic event titled ‘Multicultural London: Past, Present and Future’, in which one of the speakers referred to Kano’s ‘London Town’ as an example of black Londoners’ sense of place in the capital, relating Kane’s tune back to Lord Kitchener’s ‘London is the Place for Me’. To which I would – and did – say ‘sure, Kano talks about London in a track. Anyone can talk about London. Wiley is London’. He does, erm, sort of live in Kent now. But shhh, let’s not distract ourselves from the point.


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09: WILEY feat. BLAZE AND TRIGGS
‘IF YOU’RE GOING OUT I’M GOING OUT TOO’
(from GRIME WAVE, 2008)

Exhibit A, your honour, that the music industry is an ass. Why didn’t this get a major label release? It’s as poppy and accessible as ‘Summertime’ and just immeasurably superior. It bubbles along like ‘Wearing My Rolex’s Bizarro World equivalent: an equally witty, succinct sketch of an evening scene, over light-touch cellophane synth melodies – further proof that Wiley didn’t stop innovating behind the production desk after the Eskimo period. ‘Wearing My Rolex’ has grown on me, and I’m glad it was a hit – it pisses all over ‘Dance Wiv Me’ as songs to dance to in the electro grimelite go. But this is just better than all of them. I mean, isn’t it?


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10: WILEY
‘WHERE’S MY BROTHER?’
(from RACE AGAINST TIME, 2009)

What’s that? Haha. Yeah he’s lost it. Right.

Dan Hancox

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