He’s reshaped the landscape of British black music, had more record deals than any self-respecting artist you can think of and is regarded as a legend, genius and probable mad man. If you’re looking for the epitome of a paradox, 32-year old Richard Cowie is most certainly that guy.
Over the last 15-or-so years, under his Wiley moniker, he’s not just broken musical boundaries and ‘founded’ the grime scene, but been the subject of constant scrutiny thanks to his total disregard for the unspoken rules of business etiquette. Firing his manager on a forum, not turning up to his own video shoots and being accused of racism towards Jay Sean fans are just some of the instances littering the east Londoner’s CV.
And today’s no different. Cracking open a can of cream soda he sits down and lets out a sigh.
"My wish today is that I was Wiley, and I was 17 or 18, and got sent to the best territory like Japan to just make music because now it's over really. The only thing that's going to happen is I’m going to do what the fuck I want until people say 'we hate you Wiley'. I've always tried to please the grime kids who moan. The album I’ve just made is pleasing me though. I just wanted to make beats and spit on them because people who should be aren’t.”
As Wiley exhales, smoke plumes filling the room, he stares out to sea, the tour bus parked up on Brighton seafront housing a man who’s at times harder on himself than his worst critic.
“I just think that if your peers are gone and you haven't gone, that becomes a thing inside a human. When I’m walking down the street it dawns on me sometimes, it's like being stuck in the fifth year at school. Numbers is success for me even though you might think it’s about longevity. People want me to be Grand Master Flash, and I’m not dissing him, but I don’t want to be Grand Master Flash. I don’t just want to be the guy who started it. I guess me and money have got a bit caught up with each other..."
For a man who sold in excess of 100,000 vinyl from the boot of his car and has surpassed the £1million mark where earnings are concerned, it’s food for thought. But that’s the thing with Wiley; once you know him you’ll realise he’s an abundance of contradictions. Renowned for being generous yet shrewd, loyal yet unreliable (“it’s rarely personal.”), his biggest penchant over the years has been for cars, a Bentley and Aston Martin Vanguard among the purchases. "I’ve splashed out on studio time beyond people's wildest dreams, I put money back into music… I pay for other people, not just for me, because no one else is going to do it."
Ultimately, those who want to be part of the Wiley equation must learn to work with what they’ve got and leave the master at work. But since joining the Twitterati there’s never been more talk surrounding his mental state, something that actually raises more questions for Wiley than it does answers. His recent spate of ‘adverts’ (check his YouTube channel), ranging from the pro’s of Hartley’s squeezy jam to a step-by-step guide to making boiled eggs resulted in numerous accusations of class a drug taking.
“I’d just woken up and I was boiling eggs at 9.30 in the morning. People ring me up to get footage and film me so I’m rebelling and using Ustream or YouTube. That’s me saying I don’t want to be on your show I want my own. People who watch that and think I’m Charlie Sheen, well they’re lost.”
The insults are nothing new for Wiley either; for years people have been telling him he’s in dire need of therapy, to which he argues otherwise.
“People say I’m bipolar. What is ‘a bipolar’? I’ve grown up around loads of people who are like me really in terms of their mood swings. Maybe it’s the weed – and I don’t mean weed psychosis – weed doesn’t make me mad it makes me record and chill. I think what they’re trying to do is explain my stretch from 18-32 and not succeeding. Sometimes I just feel like my time’s been and gone, you know?”
So, why the reflection? Well, despite a discography that spans two decades, we’re sat parked up outside the Concord 2 marking the penultimate date of Wiley’s first ever national tour. So why now? It’s not like he’s been short of material but the fact he’s never stayed in a record deal long enough to do a tour probably has something to do with it.
“I nearly cried when I did the first date. I’m used to walking out on stage to 4,000 people at Eskimo Dance not 500… But my agent and the label kept telling me it was important. When I got left in Cardiff (cause the tour manager decided to drive off), I was gonna pull the tour, then I just thought ‘No Wiley’. I’m proud of myself for doing it.”
His early work like ‘Champagne Dance’ with Pay As U Go Cartel (formed alongside Rinse FM owner Geeneus, 1Xtra’s DJ Target and legendary dubplate DJ Slimzee), in the late 90s, along with minimal garage cuts like ‘Nicole’s Groove’ under his Phase One alias, rung all the right bells. Grime (or as Wiley called them ‘Eski’) anthems ‘ice Rink ’and ‘Eskimo’ set a new pace thanks to the genre-defying sonics and subsequent middle finger to over produced commercial dance music. It was also a good indicator as to Wiley’s mindset at the time when he attributed the cold theme that ran through his music to his heart and feelings.
Signing to XL, in 2004, alongside his Roll Deep crew stable mate Dizzee Rascal had Wiley asking ‘Who Ate All The Pies’ and ‘Wot Do You Call It’, on his debut album Treddin’ On Thin Ice. Wiley now attributes this move to the worst decision he made in his career: “If I could change something I’d change signing my deal to XL… It showed that if two people of the same nature go into a record company, doing a similar thing, they've gone into competition. It was a conflict of interest for me and I probably knew it then but I wanted the money… It set my path wrong, it changed the next seven years."
A falling out and a move to Big Dada later we were told ‘Playtime Is Over’. For a short while it was and another independent foray later, Wiley signed to Asylum Records. But two top 10’s in the national single chart with ‘Wearing My Rolex’ and ‘Cash In My Pocket’ didn’t stop Wiley saying his goodbyes and going back underground to flood the market with a grimier sound.
But It was only a matter of time until he made another record that was too big to stop; ‘Take That’, produced by American hot-shot Chew Fu, shaped up to be one of 2010’s more original dance records and the album it had been taken from, The Elusive, looked set to be THE seminal Wiley record.
Ensuring his crew Roll Deep had a bag of chart hits (check ‘Good Times’ and ‘Green Light’ for evidence) he secured them a deal with Relentless and signed himself to Island Records. While Roll Deep secured number 1’s, differences in A&R direction at Island resulted in another walk out and Wiley releasing – or rather uploading - The Zip Files – over 200 previously unreleased tracks from his hard drive. Including The Elusive Album.
“I don't think i've made my best song yet because I haven't applied myself in the studio like I used to for ages…. This album isn't necessarily better than The Elusive cause that didn't come out and get proven, I did what I did cause that’s how I felt at the time, but it's maybe the last gasp before I have to be quiet and then come back with a bang, you know shut up for six or seven months… I've never really shut up before."
So, just when everyone thought his time was finally up he’s releasing another album, 100% Publishing (“because I’ve done it all myself”), with Big Dada.
“This deal isn’t about money. I went to them because I never really had a team behind me. And Jamie Collinson (A&R) understands me like Target, you and JME do. They’ll love me unconditionally, whatever mood I’m in. If I’m being a prick they just leave me to it.”
And it seems to be working. The video for the lead track, ‘Numbers In Action’, has been lauded by everyone from die-hard fans to Example and Tinchy Stryder as one of the best videos of this year.
“I didn’t even really like that song but I had the idea to just mess about with loads of numbers. The most important song to me is “Music Not Money”, the one I’ve done with my daughter. She’s five but she’s a music fanatic, well advanced, loves Jessie J… She told me “dad, I love you, I’d rather you make the music you like, you don’t have to make those pop songs.” You see, your children are like wireless humans, always there. I couldn't love a woman like I love my children, music or money though.”
His two daughters aside, Wiley cites composer Matthew Herbert as musical inspiration while Mike Skinner, Devlin, JME and Skepta get a nod on the word play front.
“What my parents went through (when I was younger) spread my brain out so I didn't get to apply myself at school, but people have been through worse, they've lost their parents - I just felt like I lost my parents… I used to roll with a dictionary but I read more business books now and books that get made into films so I can see the differences. Avatar was a good one.”
Downstairs in the kitchen, proceedings are equally chilled out, his friends and tour companions JJ, Scratchy, J2K, and the sound crew busy charging iPads, stocking the with fridge with wine and water, looking for healthy food options and ensuring there’s weed on order. Using the tour to showcase hits past and forthcoming, tonight’s show looks pretty plain sailing.
In the same way that Wiley’s found his spiritual home in Liverpool (“I love the people and you get change from a fiver if you’re in a taxi...”), being outside of London appears to have a calming effect on him.
“Brighton relaxes me a bit because I remember coming here - Sister Christine used to do church trips when I was a boy. I love the waves but then I think about drowning and it freaks me out because truthfully i haven't accepted death. I'm scared to die, I just don't want to die but I know that’s not realistic.”
Two hours and a portion of fish and chips later, Wiley’s ironing his shirt and sipping on a cup of rose. Having roped in a spate of new talent, warming up duties have been left to Mz Bratt, Kozzie, Marger, Rival and Canadian grime kid Tre Mission for one night only. Sweaty girls reveal their bras as they wave their vests in the air. Rudeboys at the back contend with the festival-like pack that rides each other’s shoulders.
“The dream of Wiley is over, now it’s about finding a new dream…” he concludes as he exits the bus, ready to own the stage he’s fought such a battle to grace. And own it he truly does.
We're wishing on a star.
Text by Chantelle Fiddy
Photos by Can Evgin