As he approaches 40, Wiley might be settling into his role as an elder statesman of grime – but he’s showing no signs of slowing down. The legendary MC and producer tells Ian McQuaid what it’s like having Drake as a fan and whether his new album Godfather really will be his last.
If you’ve been paying even the slightest attention, Wiley has been a musical constant for years. Active in every British dance mutation since jungle, Richard Kylea Cowie has ploughed his energy into distilling all the elements that pass through our hybrid, immigrant culture – bashment riddims, American hip-hop, garage, jungle, punk and cheesy pop – and reconfiguring them into his own unique sound. That’s why they call him the godfather of grime, an epithet that’s now the title of his new album, Godfather – an album he’s threatened could be his last.
Wiley’s made a virtue of embracing its accessible heart, switching between the avant-garde frost of his own trademark eski-sound to shameless sunshine pop and back again. This flip-flop has been a regular dichotomy throughout his career, and for every Crash Bandicoot freestyle and ‘Step’ track there’s a matching piece of expertly executed populism, from the White Town sampling 2-step of ‘Never Be Your Woman’ to Roll Deep’s early run of chart bangers to his late-90s versioning of the Only Fools and Horses theme tune. This attitude has been key to his long-lasting appeal – Wiley has never been afraid of taking on the charts as hard as he takes on the underground. Most times it’s seemed like he wants it all. Who else could have sacked a dozen managers, self-leaked a hundred tunes and cancelled a thousand gigs, and still be sought after by managers, labels and booking agents?
As he approaches 40, his place in British culture has become increasingly mainstream. He may not be in line for a knighthood any time soon, but there is a MOBO-sponsored plaque outside his former Bow school (engraved with his postcode-referencing bars, “I’m so E3, the whole of E3 got so much talent I hope you see”), and the BBC recently featured him on a list of the 15 most influential black Britons, saying he’s given Britain “a unique voice.” Yet despite this acclaim he still bubbles with an unpredictable, restless energy. Even now, with his new album Godfather – mostly classic grime designed to appeal to fans of 140 bpm bangers – he is twisting and turning through the promotion. A Boiler Room show was announced and then cancelled mere hours later. He’s been telling interviewers various versions of the story that Godfather is going to be his last album ever, and his feud with Dizzee (which he spoke about with self-eviscerating frankness last year) remains an open wound that time refuses to heal.
Whether he gives up grime or not (and we’re going to bet our house on not), Wiley is a rare gem, a candid interviewee in an age of slick media-trained artists, a genuine musical innovator who hasn’t yet tired of invention, and one of the few acts worldwide who can call their album Godfather without anyone raising an eyebrow. We caught up with the Godfather to learn as much as we could about Wiley’s world – it’s a rambling trek through promised autobiography, musings on grime and America, and Wiley-esque left turns into unexpected opinions.
Godfather is out now.
“Spotify and Apple have got the industry in a headlock”
How are you feeling about the new album? Are you positive about it?
Because of how many albums I’ve dropped, I’m leaving this one to the public, to the fans, to the people who don’t know me. I’m leaving them to have their own say without me saying, ‘oh yeah, it’s the best thing!’ I’ve gotta be careful. In this day and age everyone’s [attention] span is shorter, we like things for less and less time ‘cos it all moves so quick because of streaming. Since Apple, Spotify and YouTube have taken it and got it into a headlock, it goes quite quick, so I have to leave it to them to say how they feel about it. I didn’t want to over-sell it.
As you say, you’ve released loads of albums, and also a bunch of mixtapes – is there a difference in the way you approach them?
On a mixtape you’ll be trying to have fun, it’ll be stuff you’re just trying out because you’re not stuck to the formula of making a ‘song’ – and if you are making a song it’ll be a version of someone’s song, like your little remix. It’s like you’re practicing, it’s like you’re learning how to write. For what I’m doing here, I’m past that. The original part of grime has already happened, I’m just here today trying to do my part. It was an album I had to make before I was ever going to stop.
I’ve heard you say that this is going to be your last grime album – how seriously should we take that? I mean, Jay Z retired before…
Well, OK, it’s actually my last solo album. Because obviously I’m older now; I could go start a group with two other top MCs if I wanted to. I’m older and I’ve survived crews, solo, crews, solo, help, friends, help, friends, crews, solo. Y’know. Paul McCartney is not still with the Beatles is my point. You’ve got to go on a musical journey and it doesn’t mean ‘drop an album and you be the ting’ – it might be that you are doing a Dr. Dre for some artist who’s gonna get in the game.
So which of the crews that you’ve been in was the Wiley equivalent of the Beatles?
Probably the beginning; Wiley with Dizzee, Tinchy, Flowdan, Scratchy. Really early Roll Deep.
It’s interesting that you say that the original part of grime has happened – when I think about producers back in the day, everyone was in their own lane; you were out doing your thing and it sounded really different from, say, Terror Danjah.
Yeah, yeah, all the elements.
So are there still producers in grime in their own lane in the same way? Do you think that format of grime has much left to say aesthetically?
Yeah, because these kids haven’t been here before have they? It’s their first time here. Only the fans can outgrow the artists. If the artists keep on making music and can grow and reinvent themselves then sometimes they can reach the next generation as the generation that came up on them leaves them.
You’ve been known for supporting the next generation throughout your career – is there anyone out there now that you think you would have had a sick clash with back in the day?
Ah, nah nah, I don’t think like that anymore [laughs]. I don’t always think like that. I’m just happy for the new generation. I want them to be blessed. There are some good ones out there and the truth is they know who they are. BBC 1Xtra know who they are, YouTube know who they are and all the blogs know who they are. Record labels know who they are. You can see who’s killing it.
Right now there are multiple generations of MCs – from original junglist MCs right through to the kids doing drill – and they’re all active at once. I can’t remember a time in my life when there was four generations of MCs on the scene at once.
Neither can I, bro, and the reason why is that each genre has had its time, and the newest one, the kids making Afrobeats and drill, this is the current generation. We gotta remember here that no matter what anyone is doing there’s a lot of influence that’s gonna have come from Jamaica and the West Indies, parts of Africa, America – and England where you watch Top of the Pops or raa-de-daa, that’s another influence. What comes out will always be a fusion.
Do you think the Jamaican influence on grime has been underplayed a bit?
No, it hasn’t, because the whole stage show element was based on that. Without there being dancehall and American music that we’ve all grown up on then none of this would be possible.
Your dad was in a reggae band wasn’t he?
Yeah he was, so a lot of the elements that come out of me are from what I learnt from him.
Do you ever think about doing music with him?
I did when I was younger. We can, but he’s like a real musician. We’d mix the sounds, the grime with what he does.
When you say he’s a proper musician, does that mean that you don’t think you are?
Not as much as he is – he taught me didn’t he! He’s a mastermind. I’m the son, the dad knows. He’s still alive, he knows what’s going on, especially with musicianship, with hands-on playing of piano, bass, keyboards, drums.
Do you play anything?
Yeah of course! That’s what I did in the first place.
What did you learn first?
I’m a drummer. I play drums.
Would you ever do a thing where you were playing drums with someone?
Yeah I could. I could. It wouldn’t be hard.
I think a lot of people would love to see you playing drums.
Yeah I would do it, it’d be cool.
“It’s not my long-term job to worry about the grime scene. The music’s not gonna go anywhere”
Earlier on you touched on the fact that Spotify and Apple have got the industry in a grip-
They’ve got it in a headlock!
Back in the day someone like yourself or Ruff Sqwad could survive outside a label system – and make a lot of money – by selling white labels to indie record shops. Without that market around to support artists, can something as independent as the grime scene happen again?
It can. It’s not my long-term job to worry about that though. I’m a bit older. I can start trying to help on that but someone who’s younger will experience it kicking in. The music’s not gonna go anywhere. In terms of it being in the limelight, things come and go, each thing has a phase in the light then it moves on. At the moment everything is in the light, and hopefully if we all keep pushing then it can keep going for a long time. We want it to stay there, but like all things the generation changes. For all we know the next generation might like rock and roll.
And talking of being in the limelight, how does it feel to have an artist like Drake coming over here and shouting you out from stage?
Big up Drake, big up OVO and Skepta – you have to big him up. I’ve watched them rise, I’ve connected with them, we respect him, and it’s a good thing he’s done a shout out. It’s all good times right now in terms of connections. You know Tre Mission from Toronto?
I was thinking about him, I wanted to big him up. He is the first grime MC I saw from North America who was spitting grime. You could tell he wanted to do grime. I was thinking about this – for him, if he blows up he can sell music to America, Canada and England with both sides, grime and hip-hop. If Tre Mission gets his timing right it can help the scene worldwide. I’d say he’s a key. If he does it and it pops off, and he builds a cult following, that cult following he builds over there can look at us and appreciate us. What do you think?
I think it’s interesting that you say he spits grime – most American (or Canadian) MCs don’t sound right on grime, they don’t spit properly. Can you isolate what it is he does that makes him grimey?
Well, there are some people who can do it whatever, you put a grime beat on and they can do the do – Busta Rhymes, Twista, to them they can do it, the tempo doesn’t matter. And obviously we’d be liars if we said we hadn’t heard Busta growing up. Some people’s comfort zones are different tempos.
Interesting that you should mention Busta though, because he’s got the Jamaican patois thing going on.
Exaaaaactly. To some people tempo means nothing. And [for] some people who haven’t experimented or tackled it, it can become an issue.
Do you think that, for you, life would have been very different if you were born in America?
It’s crazy, I used to think like this but I can’t anymore, ‘cos if I wasn’t born in England I wouldn’t be Wiley, I’d be someone else. Honestly, now I think we’re all born where we were meant to be born.
I remember reading an interview with you where you said if you had been born in the States you would have had more opportunities in music.
Well, I feel like that, but then I could have been one of the ones that went jail. And the more I think about it I wouldn’t have wanted my nan and granddad and their mum and dad to go through some of the stuff that my other ancestors went through over there. There was a lot of shit going on over there, so who knows what would have happened. The black people who survived America, and the black people who are surviving it, the ones who go through shit, I take my hat off. ‘Cos a lot of shit goes on over there. And it’s not easy bruv, it’s not easy to survive the shit that’s going on over there. Imagine my nan and granddad in the South in the ’40s and ’50s? It’s crazy bruv.
Do you think there’s a comparison between musicians and, say, black British actors who have to go to the States to find work?
Well, they go there because the number one centre for entertainment is America. There’s nothing you can do about that. But the number one hub for grime is London – or was London, now it’s not just London, it’s Birmingham, it’s wherever they’re doing it.
What do you make of the scene outside London?
I love it. I’m a fan anyway. I love it – we have football teams from all round the country, we have boxers from everywhere, so to have MCs competing from everywhere is like having a premiere league or division one and two.
“We didn’t know how much danger we were putting each other in at times”
Changing the subject a bit, there was an autobiography listed on Amazon that was going to be written with Hattie Collins – it’s disappeared, what happened to that? Is it getting released?
What it is, is she’s not writing it – she did her own book which made her a bit busy, and I was doing my album which meant I didn’t have time to worry about it, but now I’m on that. I’m going to sort that out now – I’m halfway through it. I’ve had meetings where I’ve been going through everything. There’s no drama with me and Hattie though, I know she had to do her book, grime was coming back and everyone was gonna get their two pence weren’t they?
What do you think you’ll open your autobiography with to get people’s attention?
Maybe somewhere like when we were up on the roof of Deja Vu [FM] with Dizzee and Crazy Titch clashing. I don’t wanna drag anything up, but there are things that have happened that sometimes I look back on and think… oh my god, we were on a roof, loads of us up there, there was no fence or anything, the drop was well over 50 feet – he’s gonna lunge for him, or he’s gonna lunge for him, we’re all gonna run, we all could have ended up falling off that roof. I look back and think there was nothing to stop us falling off the edge, nothing to stop man throwing man over the edge. It’s crazy. Shit, we didn’t know how much danger we were putting each other in at times.
And what about the film you’ve been talking about doing?
Yeah, I’m definitely gonna do that. Definitely. It’s all about timing. With age you get mature and you know how to plan things so you get them done. When you’re younger you’re rushing it.
Is that gonna be autobiographical or what?
It’s gonna be a real film, like any other music film. I’ve been speaking to people, we’re ready, it’s all in place. But obviously I’ve been working on my album, I’ve been trying to get that finished. I was getting stuck with the album for a bit, thinking ‘shit, what beat should I use? What beat should I jump on?’
How do you break out of getting stuck?
Not stuck, I don’t get stuck like proper stuck, but I’ll be trying to get an idea to people, so I’m trying to please people innit, but then if it’s not pleasing me I don’t think it’s going to please anyone else. Or the reverse, if it’s pleasing me too much, I do the opposite, I do the one that’s gonna fuck up the club that I didn’t make it, some other guy made. You have to reverse the psychology sometimes. I like all elements of grime, but the grime I make may not be the grime someone else makes. There’s a lot of different elements of grime and it’s all coming out of the woodwork.
Well, Armour just dropped a freestyle…
There you go, Armour Hot Water. He came studio with me, he went in the booth and set the booth on fire. He killed it, then he asked me if I had a verse – I was sitting there thinking and I couldn’t do it! He’d lit it up so much he needed a God’s Gift or Riko to match his style. He would have ripped my head off! Jesus Christ Armour!
Can I ask you what happened with the Boiler Room performance that got cancelled this week?
You know what it is, they rushed it on John Wolf, my manager. He’s a good guy but they rushed it on him. I came back to England and I had stuff to do, I had maintenance to do on my properties and I missed a court date for some driving thing where I got flashed by a speed camera, it’s nothing, you pay the fine, but if you don’t pay them it triples and they put a warrant on you, so I’ve got stuff to deal with. I’ve got three shops, I’ve got two sports shops and one that sells clothes, so I’ve got stuff to oversee, so I was coming back to do it. Obviously John had been lining up promo ‘cos he means well, but I’ve got stuff to do and I wasn’t ready to do it.
If you were a manager would you manage Wiley?
No I wouldn’t. But basically, tell you the truth, in grime, artists don’t need managers.
Why have you got one then?
Because I’ve been doing music industry shit, but it’s come back to grime full circle, and I’m not gonna just say fuck off to my manager. Maybe we’re going to do different things, different ventures with the money we’ve earned. But you don’t need a manager to sell grime, it’s not rocket science. A manager is needed so that the record label and an artist don’t get into an argument. All they’re there for is that an artist can tell a manager something he don’t want to tell the label face to face, and the label can tell the manager something they don’t want to tell the artist face to face. But there’s some clever managers out there who’ve earned some dollar, I’ve got to big them up, but you don’t need them. If you’re good at doing your homework and getting your shit done you don’t need one.
Right, final questions: what are you gonna do for your 40th?
I’ll probably just go on a flipping boat cruise round the West Indies.
Would you release any music?
I’ll do something. I’ll be trying to grow up. As I approach 40 I’ll be a grown man, there’ll be none of me being an arsehole!
And finally, will you unblock me on Twitter?
What did you say?
I can’t even remember. I probably said some shit.
You probably did bruv, but you’re allowed to be a troll once. I’ve been a troll before, you know that. You’re alright. God bless, it’s sorted.