Grime Godfather Wiley has always been a favorite - Dizzee was the first grime MC on the radar, but Wiley was the architect, the one constantly pushing forward with his tweaked out sounds. In the lead-up to our feature on Wiley in the sold-out issue 23 - which, as far as we know, was his first US press - we were told that he's a headcase, it would never happen, etc. Then someone gave us his cell phone number and we got it all done. Despite our good fortune, Wiley's reputation as a wildly unpredictable character (see: his name) has proven to be merited, but even as he continually dodged journalists (including us, later on), photographers, promoters, agents and record labels, a steady stream of music kept coming. Although the menacing street sound he called "Eski" was always compelling, he really knocked us on our asses with the left hook that was the wildly slept on Roll Deep album - it fulfilled the candystore new jack swing promises he made to us in our initial interview in the form of puppy love roller rink jamz. It proved what we'd always expected, or at least hoped - this dude is capable of anything. Now, however, he's announced his retirement. If he really does retire for good it would truly be a bummer, but then again we've always said that our favorite musicians don't owe us more great music just because we want it and they are talented enough to deliver it. Wiley is Wiley is Wiley. We're just fans with a magazine. After the jump, read that first feature from F23. We don't mean it as a eulogy.
Wiley took his dad's new jack swing and ran it through London's incomprehensible grime machine to come up with the prettiest ugliness you can imagine
By Will Welch
A few blocks off of Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn on a sharply cold Saturday night in early 2004, one warehouse among the otherwise empty and dark buildings spilled lights and the low hum of muffled bass and people smoking cigarettes in torn jeans and custom Nikes out onto the street. Over the previous couple of months, buzz had been building among those folks who spend workdays on the Internet in Manhattan and weekends at bars in Brooklyn around a British cat who made something more or less like hip-hop named Dizzee Rascal. Words and website hits turned into mp3s, mp3s turned into DJ friends with 12-inches, and DJ friends with 12-inches turned into Saturday night at the Williamsburg club Volume, where Rascal gave his first Stateside performance on the longbed of an 18-wheeler parked across the warehouse space. The acoustics were terrible, the crowd was packed, and Rascal’s energy was relentless.
Although at first it seemed like Dizzee Rascal was the beginning and end of his own sound, it soon became clear that there was a whole scene of some indecipherable sort behind him in London. Rascal is part of East London’s Roll Deep Crew, and when his fans looked back to the UK to see who else might emerge, eyes, ears and web browsers stopped on a dude called Wiley that turned out to be a producer, MC and the chief architect of the in sound of the UK underground.
Wiley developed the sound of his debut album Treddin’ On Thin Ice while producing beats and writing rhymes to take to dancehalls and pirate radio stations around London and, accordingly, there are a few club bangers on the album. But ultimately the record is introspective and moody; a soundtrack for slamming the door of your apartment and skulking the muggy city streets on a night where the hanging clouds of car exhaust stick to your face and sweat bubbles under the pads of your oversized headphones. It sounds like a shadowy urban poltergeist horror show of flickering UFO streetlights and quicksand asphalt and belching subway grates. Skyscrapers seethe and loom and menace. Storefronts hide demonic factories sprung to life by the music’s low, synthetic, bowed strings that lope and lurch along in place of basslines; by it’s programmed drums and synthetic percussion that flip-flop-rock in skit-scatting patterns; by the snares that sound like they’ve been puddled with water and struck with metal brushes; by the keyboards that have either been set to laser-tag mode or programmed to imitate wah-ed up guitars or horns made of wrought iron. If Treddin’ On Thin Ice were a movie, it’d be like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” with the red varsity letter jackets and suburban mansions swapped for oversized black leather trenchcoats and haunted urban undergrounds.
London’s East End, from the Indian restaurant and leather shop destinations of Brick Lane to the Jack The Ripper pubs of White Chapel to the projects or “estates” of Roman Road, is a largely lower and lower-middle class area segregated into black, white and Indian communities. Wiley grew up in the almost all-black estates, playing soccer and listening to music with his father and even rhyming on local pirate radio stations when he was fourteen. With the rise of pirate radio, black communities in East and South London bubbled with new sounds in the early ’90s as ravers used ecstasy and electronics to flip traditional influences like reggae, soul and R&B into what became 2-step and garage. But when asked which British groups influenced him, 25 year-old Wiley answers, “Um, none. I started out listening to new jack swing. My dad, he got a whole selection of music so I would always listen to that, innit? From about 15 ’til about 21 I was on the road”— British slang for being on the streets—“and not doing music, until I realized I could live by going back to music instead of hustlin’.”
Despite growing up in an environment dominated by garage and 2-step, the only influences Wiley willingly sites are “Johnny Gill first of all and New Edition. Later it was Another Bad Creation, the Boys and Bel Biv Devoe.” Although it’s true that new jack swing—the music of the late ’80s and early ’90s that fused classic soul and R&B with synthetic funk and the drum tracks of early hip-hop—is the driving force behind the stripped electro-soul layers of his tracks, Wiley came almost directly out of the UK garage scene, and traces of its influence remain hidden in the bottom end of his beats.
When Wiley abandoned hustling and returned to his father’s sequencers and drum machines, the sound he developed with the Roll Deep Crew was tagged “grime” because, when he and Rascal and those that followed them began appearing at shows and on pirate radio, the garage crews they appeared with called their music “too grimey” and tried to shun them from their scene. On his first single “Wot U Call It”, Wiley rhymes, “I heard they don’t like me in garage/ Because I used their scene to make my own sound.” Although the garage crews obviously meant it as an insult, it’s precisely the griminess of the music that led to its success in London, and it’s that same rough, underground sound that attracted the crowds to Williamsburg for Dizzee Rascal’s American debut and will probably bring them back when Wiley arrives.
“Dizzee, he talks about strong topics,” Wiley says of the artist that is more or less his protégé, but who ended up breaking into the mainstream before he did. According to Wiley, London is full of rappers with competent flows who can spit a few bars over a beat during an on-air battle or hype up an audience, but few know how to arrange a song, and fewer still challenge themselves to rhyme about anything other than the already accepted range of topics. Wiley distinguishes between those on the grime scene who are content to rock a crowd and those who can construct a proper song using rhymes that actually relate the experiences of their lives by calling the former “MCs” and the latter “artists.” As he puts it, “Hearing Rascal is what made me wake up and think, Hold on a sec, we’re all over here talking about how we jacked a phone off an old woman and all sorts of rubbish and he’s over there, talking about positive stuff, stuff that he goes through, innit? I was an MC, but he showed me the artist part. I think Dizzee got sent to me to remind me of what I could do.” Wiley and Rascal eventually whipped the London underground into a frenzy and finally began attracting attention from record labels. When both eventually signed with XL Recordings, Rascal already had a proper album finished, while Wiley had a catalogue full of wildly popular beats but not a single fully realized song. Rascal released Boy In Da Corner, won the prestigious Mercury Prize and toured the UK and America. Wiley set to work on his album.
Although the tag that has stuck to the music is “grime,” Wiley calls his sound “eski” or “eskimo” and constantly invokes imagery of ice and snow in his titles. Whereas Dizzee Rascal attacks lyrically, spitting anger and fire, Wiley is reclusive, withdrawing into his own mental space and freezing out the rest of the world. “There was a long time where I felt quite cold inside and all them titles just came to me,” he says. In a skit on Treddin’ On Thin Ice, a girl calls him and leaves a screaming message on his answering machine, demanding a response. When I first spoke with his A&R representative about this story, he warned me that Wiley does not have a manager, is almost impossible to pin down to a schedule, and will ignore his phone for days. It sounds like the same person that’s on the album—the lyricist who not only details the gathering momentum of the avalanche of pressures and expresses the sensation of the hard tumble downward, but also the one who inevitably dusts himself off and wills himself into proceeding. The ice Wiley’s treading on may always be dangerously thin, but he treads onwards anyway, as determined as he is weary.
“We’re gonna bring Eski Night to New York soon,” Wiley says of the live shows he puts on in London. “I’ve got the songs from the album and then I’ll do a little performance just spitting. But my dad was in a band—I want to try to get into the live band thing as well.” The prospect of hearing songs from Treddin’ On Thin Ice played by live musicians at a place like Volume is hard to imagine—Wiley would have to assemble a bizzaro-orchestra unlike anything ever seen on a stage: a bass player playing through a blown amp, somebody playing a mic’ed Atari, multiple electronic string sections, seven or eight keyboards, somebody squeezing a rubber ducky into a microphone. It’s also hard to imagine partying along, if not to Wiley’s beats, then to his introspective, paranoiac rhymes: Let’s go back in the roads/ I’m going back in the cold. It’d be weird to experience Wiley’s music with an audience, rather than with nothing but headphones and the city pavement. But then again, sometimes the most crowded places are also the loneliest.