It's said that to be a true cockney, you must be born within earshot of the Bow Bells, which sit atop St. Mary-le-Bow Church in The City of London. Wiley, who hails from Bow E3, is as London as it gets. And in the last five years, as a new din rings out over the East End–the rat-tat-tat gunshot snares, skuzzy bass, and relentless fight raps of grime–this ice-cold MC/producer, sometimes known as "Eskiboy," has slowly styled himself as the godfather of the sound of young London.
Surprisingly, "Godfather of Grime" is a title that almost everyone seems content to let Wiley have. Though his career was built on beef–he's lyrically sparred ("clashed") with half the MCs on road, including Lethal Bizzle, Bashy, Durrty Goodz, and Scorcher–few can argue with his longevity in the young genre, where white-label one-hit wonders are the norm, not the exception. An early stint in the Pay As U Go Cartel–who had some chart success in the blingy, almost P. Diddy-esque first wave of grime–perhaps informed Wiley's future distaste for pop-rap and major labels. He soon began championing a darker, stripped-down take on grime dubbed "Eski," highlighted by riddims including "Eskimo," "Blizzard," "Frost Bite," "Ice Rink," and "Igloo." Besides having more synonyms for his ice-cold street demeanor than the Inuit people have for snow, Wiley's Eski concept was early evidence of his DIY marketing acumen and his willingness to take everything to the extreme (his beef with one-time crew member Dizzee Rascal notwithstanding).
It is with this mixture of pedagogical and warrior spirit that Wiley started the Roll Deep Crew in 2003, and with which he now is raising a new generation of grime artists. He is both a furious battle-cat and a sensible father figure. He is a producer, manager, and entrepreneur. Moreover, he is an MC, one who alternates between stern intensity and touching candor, and is prone to revealing uncomfortable amounts of information about himself without the slightest bit of apprehension. On "Bow E3," where Wiley gives borough-repping rappers like Long Beach's Snoop Dogg and Brooklyn's KRS-One a run for their money, he even reveals his phone number. ("Certain man trying to say, like' don't rep for E3/I'm not E3/Are you crazeeee?/My name's Wiley/I come from Bow E3/0-7-9-6 1-8-9-7-0-3-3")
"Out of everyone in the scene, he's not afraid to clash," says 16-year-old Icekid, one of many teenaged grime MCs whose career Wiley is currently jumpstarting. "Even if he knows his opponent is better than him, he doesn't care. As his little speech goes, war is the way of the world."
Listening to Wiley's brittle technoid hip-hop and alternately dark and deadpan lyrics, it seems he's always at war, either with himself or someone else. But Wiley Kat's best-known battle continues to be waged with former friend Dizzee Rascal.
In August 2004, Wiley–both the founder of East London's roughly 20-member Roll Deep Crew, and its main production talent–released his debut full-length, Treddin' On Thin Ice. In their haste to capitalize on the grime scene, London mega-indie XL Recordings inconveniently sandwiched the record between two albums from the young and cocky Dizzee Rascal: January 2004's groundbreaking, Mercury Prize-winning Boy in Da Corner (on which Wiley appeared) and its September follow-up, Showtime. It was a testament to how prolific young grime artists are, but a bad decision to flood the market with three releases from an undeveloped new genre, made under very similar conditions by two people with similar backgrounds working very close to each other. Wiley's album flopped. He walked away from XL and Cage, his and Dizzee's manager, and from his friendship with Dizzee. Since then, Dizzee has veered towards a US hip-hop audience and mentality with his latest album, Maths & English, while Wiley has taken it back to an underground-style street hustle.
Deep wounds don't heal quickly, and Wiley and Dizzee continue to make songs about each other. Dizzee often directs his barbs at unnamed enemies, as on the venomous "Pussyole (Old School)," which is currently climbing the British charts. Wiley's lyrical beef takes a more direct–maybe even bipolar–tone on "Reasons" and "Letter 2 Dizzee." The latter, a wistful track with bells and a melancholy trumpet sample, sees Wiley boasting about being the best in grime then imploring Dizzee to call him, detailing what he's been up to since the pair broke up, and reminiscing ("I remember 01 December, me and you shoppin'/Over tag poppin'/Remember the BAPE v-necks we were rockin'/Had that early"). "It don't matter, I'm still your big brother," he flows, though whether it's to comfort himself or his nemesis is uncertain.
In true grime tradition, Wiley saves most of his aggression for his mixtapes. Tunnel Vision Volume 6 contains two Dizzee diss tracks; one is a line-for-line response to "Pussyole," in which Wiley simply lets the track play while he responds to Dizzee's claims in a personal spoken-word attack. "I have done more for you than your cousin has done for you in all the years he has known you," he shouts, not even rapping. "In Ayia Napa' was there with you. You pinched Lisa Maffia's bum, why?" he says, alluding to an incident with the first lady of So Solid Crew that lead to Dizzee getting stabbed. "If you want to talk, talk to me direct, say my name," he lectures, as if to continue his tutelage of Dizzee through his last line of communication. "If you've got money, it doesn't matter. What matters is who will win the clash."
Can't Stop, Won't Stop
Like a younger version of US hip-hop, grime is experiencing a second explosion fueled by self-motivated artists; skeptical of the majors, they're making money through white labels, mixtapes, and gigs, and promoting themselves almost entirely on the internet. (You can often hear the "dun know da MySpace" mantra shouted out on tracks, just to make sure that you know that MCs are on the MySpace.)
In this new climate, Wiley has once again established himself at the top of the pile. He has an unparalleled rate of production–approaching Lil' Wayne proportions–and has emerged with a barrage of releases, notably 2006's Da 2nd Phase album and the 10-volume Tunnel Vision mixtape series (both released through MC/producer JME's Boy Better Know imprint). He is a self-proclaimed "workaholic" who is constantly in the studio. "I have most of my bits done for a new album," he says over the phone from London, though it hasn't even been six months since the release of his Playtime Is Over album on Big Dada.
"You can't stop Wiley from making music," says Big Dada's Jamie Collinson. "When we first approached Wiley about making an album on Big Dada, he wasn't quite finished with Da 2nd Phase. By the time we heard the songs that we really liked from the album, he had gone and released it on his own."
On Playtime, Wiley sounds wiser and more motivated. "My Mistakes," the album's first single, is filled with erudite string flourishes and Wiley's signature heavy two-step beats, and features him openly lamenting the initial mishandling of his career. "Sometimes I wish that I stayed with the same manager that I had back in '03/Simply because Cage knows me/But I am glad now I got a whole tree/Of family MCs/In the G-R-I-M-E."
For a while, Wiley claimed he would give up MCing after Playtime's release, but, in an even-more-brief retirement than Jay-Z's, Wiley is back with a new fervor. "When you are doing everything in a scene, it's difficult to see what it's like, innit?" he muses. "I'm 28 and in the next five years, I am going to get my level of MCing higher and higher."
Growing Up Grimey
It would be one thing if Wiley's energy was focused squarely on his own musical output, but it doesn't end there. He is the father of an 18-month-old baby girl who is "showing a lot of musical talent," and he has taken a handful of young producers and MCs under his wing at Eskibeat Records. "Wiley's always got youngsters around him, man," says Icekid, who Wiley has designated the "CEO" of Eskibeat. "To a lot of artists, they see him as an older brother to look up to. He knows. He's got a lot of respect for me."
Indeed Wiley is serious about the ability of young MCs. "Dun know the youth!" he shouted out recently on Tim Westwood's long-running hip-hop show on BBC Radio 1, where he brought along Icekid and Chipmunk to perform freestyles. "Watch out for the 16-year-olds!"
He is giddy, almost disturbingly so, about his child-star discoveries, potentially because they are the key to him getting his groove back. "I believe in child stars," he says. "I was one. Everyone in grime is 20 and downward all the way to 14. When I was a child, I saw other kids doing music like Kriss Kross; it made me think that there were other kids in the world doing what I wanted to do. Sometimes you need to give a child a big responsibility."
Wiley–who was 25, already old by grime standards, when 18-year-old Dizzee was signed–takes his role as an elder statesman of the scene very seriously. "These kids, they're not Dizzee, but they're as powerful as Dizzee was. They are going to make it, with or without me. They are going to have to tread their own path. I am going to guide them but I am not going to control them or make money out of them. The kids will be there. I have to show the world what they are doing, and make some of the older ones understand what the levels are today."