Wiley is the most idiosyncratic, irrational, inspired, inspiring and entertaining musician that the United Kingdom has produced in over a decade.
A member of three generations of UK groups in Pay As U Go Cartel, Roll Deep Crew and Boy Better Know, he’s seen it all, from UK garage’s transformation into grime, to people he helped nurture’s (Dizzee Rascal, Skepta, Chipmunk, Tinchy Stryder) transformation into stars. And yet, despite playing such a huge part in modern UK music, both mainstream and underground, he’s always been that one step away from genuine stardom – a position summed up, it seems, by his stroke of crossover genius, 2008’s ‘Wearing my Rolex’, just missing out on the #1 spot it deserved.
This interview was designed as a quick catch-up with Wiley, about his eccentric – and occasionally downright bizarre – new album Evolve or Be Extinct, but with Wiley on good form, it turned out to be one of his most candid interviews yet.
When Big Dada first sent out an email about Evolve or Be Extinct, they said it was an EP you’d been recording with Diplo. How did it become an album?
“No. What happened was [with] Diplo, I done two tunes with him and one for us. So one was gonna be on our CD [Evolve], and two were for his thing. With the album, I’d just done 100% Publishing, and I wanted to keep going. I finished it last year, and I had all the tunes sitting there, and Big Dada weren’t sure if they were gonna do it. So then I leaked a couple of tunes, made some new ones, and we done the deal. When I finished 100% Publishing I just went straight onto this, trying to improve I suppose.”
You’ve traditionally had a difficult time with labels. How comes you ended up going back to Big Dada?
“Just because me and Jamie from Big Dada, we’ve just got a good music relationship, we always talk … I just done another album, really. When I did the first one for them, Playtime is Over, the door was always open for me to go back.”
Do you think you’d ever sign for a major again?
“I doubt it, they probably all hate me by now [laughs]”
You do seem – and I mean this in terms of your music, and yourself, on Twitter and such – a lot more relaxed since you’ve gone back to Big Dada.
“Yeah, there’s no high expectations… it’s not really hard to nail it there, you know what I’m saying? It’s a low – well, not a low label – but it’s not a major, is it?”
They’re not looking for a number one, I guess.
“Nah, and they’re just cool. Sometimes that’s not really want I want though. And I sit here and think well if I’m on my own, I’d have more firepower and more charge, as opposed to sitting here. So it’s just… it’s mad, it’s whether you’re prepared to put your money where your mouth is, you know what I mean?
“Do you know the truth bruv? Everyone asks me these questions, every day, and I answer them, but in my head I know that I’m gonna get off this phone, and go find a million ways to rise above what I just said. Because obviously that’s bullshit, I wanna rise up, I wanna be massive, I wanna see more records than everyone. But I’m just saying that at different times in your life, you might feel a different way.
“But in this 2012, I’m not gonna sit down and rest. And I will chart, I know I will. It’s just with what song, that’s what makes me angry, whether it’s with a watered down song and obviously everyone’s not gonna care as much, but if it gets in the chart then it’s still charted, you know what I mean?”
You know it as well as I do though, you can get a balance [between the chart and the streets]. A lot of US guys do it really well.
“Nah but do you know why? Because their accent is the balance, before anything. They’ve already beat us, in a race that we will never win, and it’s in an accent race. An American accent is worth more than an English accent. So you can hear an American rapper [laughs] who ain’t nobody, nobody’s heard of him here, a few people have heard of him over there, but as soon as he surfaces in England, they accept him straight away. And it’s mad. People say it’s the other way round, that they like the English accent. But not in music. It’s a different way. I feel the American accent is the most popular accent in the world; so they’ve won that race. We will never win that race.”
What’s the way around it then?
“Nah, there is no way, that’s the whole point. Hip-hop’s like 40 years old. Do you think if I was part of hip-hop, and I’d been doing it for 30 odd years, that I would let anyone – anyone in the world – tell me about this hip-hop thing we’ve been doing fo r 40 years. I wouldn’t, would I?”
“I’ve been trying to work it out for years, I really have. But you know who else I thought was gonna work it out? Have you heard of Ignorants? There’s a guy called Trevor, Ignorants, they used to do remixes in the ‘90s and 2000s, do you remember them? They’d do like K-Ci and JoJo, they’d do Another Level with like Dane Bowers on it. It weren’t garage, it was more r’n’b and hip-hop to be honest. I used to listen to their music, and I thought they would crack America.
“I met ‘em about three years ago, and I was like rah, you guys, I thought you would definitely nail it. And so did they, obviously, along with Craig David – obviously he’s had a great day, Craig David – but I spoke to them, and they were like look, it’s harder than ever. And I had to listen to their conversations and listen to what they went through, and then I understood that it is quite hard, and it is the luck of the draw. It’s a dream – like if you can pop off there, it’s a dream bruv.
“With Jay Sean and people like that, I’ve got respect for them. They’re not the most talented in England, to be honest with you, but that’s neither here nor there. They’re over there, and they’re doing the thing mate. I take my hat off to them.”
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After you did the mixtape with Whoo Kid I thought you’d end up collaborating more with artists from the States, but there hasn’t been that much of it.
“I haven’t really tried it. I’ve got like, feature work in my email all the time, I’ve done a thing with Ja-Bar, who’s with Soulja Boy, I did the thing with Juelz Santana. I’ve done a few. But again, that’s neither here nor there. I’m from here, they’re from there. Even if we do a song, and someone likes it there, and someone likes it here, they’re still world’s apart. And obviously my name is not even the biggest here. So it’s a weird one; even though the people know who I am, I’m not the most famous one here. With a Tinie Tempah, or a Dappy, or a Chipmunk, they’re a bit more…”
They’re more part of the establishment.
“Yeah, if anyone’s gonna connect with Americans it’ll be them stepping up first anyway, so there you go. It would be good to do it, but yeah.”
On the UK side of things, you’ve obviously been part of grime since the start, and there was a time where you clearly had a lot of emotional investment in that scene, and it would stress you out if people weren’t pulling their weight, or putting in enough work. Do you still get like that now?
“Nah, nah, I’m past that. Well, I’m not past it, but with age… you can’t do everything forever. I’m at that age where it’s like, whoever loves it, do it, but that’s really not my main concern. My main concern is getting where I wanna be, ‘cause for years my concern was getting them to where they wanna be. My main concern now is getting a single or an album eventually that proves I am who I am. So if I haven’t proved it yet, or someone who doesn’t like Wiley isn’t satisfied, or someone’s like nah bruv, he can’t do it, or whatever they say – [to prove it to them] is the eventual goal.
“I think putting out music is gonna come to an end, anyway. There’ll never be a day when things aren’t released – things are always gonna be released, but it’ll be a very different world. And it’s gonna change very soon, I think.”
Is there a difference to you, between putting out an album with a physical release like Evolve or Be Extinct and releasing free-to-download albums like Chill Out Zone and Creating a Buzz?
“Nah, that’s what I mean – there ain’t no difference. That’s what it is, what I’ve got on my computer, there’s always four or so different projects that I’m fucking about on. But the main hit is what I need. You know, that one record that’s a hit, everyone loves it. I’m just searching for that hit that says you know what, fucking hell, Wiley’s sick.”
You were pretty ahead of the curve with the zip files you leaked that time. Everyone in the US drops stuff for free now, it’s just the standard.
“I’ve witnessed hip-hop people do that for years, to be honest with you. Just before I did that zip files thing I was listening to a lot of Lil Wayne – he’s someone I’ve followed from the start of his career – and he gives away a lot of music.”
Well he had that period in particular where he just did tons and tons of free mixtapes. And then his next album, The Carter III, was huge.
“Yeah, no, exactly. I done the zip files because I saw how he’d given [his work] away, and I knew that if I gave mine away, then everything would be okay.”
What prompted you to do it? Was it label frustration?
“You know what it is, with majors and people? See majors, I send them work bruv. If someone from a major stops, and looks at me, they should see that this person has made it so that everyone from my age group down to Chipmunk’s can go into doors and get record deals, because of the scene that me and Dizzee created and nurtured.
“That’s important. Because if I worked in any label, whether I hated Wiley, or hated whoever or what, I would be able to stop and see that in the last eight years, this man has tried to help everyone – not even himself – to make there be a scene. And now there’s a scene, and everyone’s looking at him like his name is Billy Nobody. People say yeah, I respect Wiley and reh reh reh, but in a record label I don’t think they see it. And with who they’re signing, they don’t know that it’s me telling those people to go see Island, or go see XL, or Relentless, or Sony. Do you know what I’m saying?
“Some of these [artists], some of them have been dropped since [I helped them out], and then they look at me like Wiley’s a cunt. And that’s one thing I’ll never understand. If I was a cunt or not, whatever we’ve been through, when those people got signed it was me who sent them there. And sometimes it’s ‘cause I’ve felt bad; like I’ve thought okay, I maybe I did fuck about here … you know, give them the beats ‘cause if they vocal them they might have a hit.”
Even before labels get involved, there’s people getting signed who you helped get on Rinse at an early stage and stuff too.
“Do you know what I mean? I feel that the labels miss that a bit, and I want them to think about that. Because it could be the difference between learning a lesson and not learning a lesson. Like I could’ve made a mistake but learned a lesson by sending them some artists, and people they can make money from. We just need to get a balance there. Because for any mistakes or wrongdoings I’ve done, I am sorry, I’ll step back and say I’ve done wrong there. I need them to be able to say that too.”
Looking back, is there anything you wish you’d done differently?
“Yeah, definitely. Do you know what I’d do? I’d go back ten years, go see Megaman [from So Solid Crew], and say I want everyone signed to me, I want everyone’s publishing, and I want to rip everyone off so I’m a billionaire. That’s what I’d have done. That’s wrong as well, that is wrong. I’m not that person.
To be fair, it sounds like you’ve helped put a lot of people on in the past without taking any sort of cut yourself.
“It’s my own fault, because if I was a proper businessman, I wouldn’t have allowed it to happen. So therefore it is my own fault. But I never wanted to own anyone.”