The album that he says will probably be his last is being released in the midst of grime’s resurgence, one that he hasn’t been a part of – now could be his final chance to mark his territory as the undisputed king
It’s a beautiful summer’s day in 2016, and I’m walking through a churchyard in East London, as I’d often do on a lunchbreak. However, this time is different, I’m on the phone to Wiley – the self-appointed but (many would say) undisputed godfather of grime – and we’re talking about whether he’d beat Jesus Christ in a clash. He’d tweeted that he was in the mood to be interviewed, I tweeted him back and a few hours later we’re talking. He’s in Cyprus, an island he excitedly tells me is in the Bible, a place where he’s just opened two shops.
“Listen, I’m not saying that Jesus roamed these lands, but these are not different to the lands he did roam, do you know what I mean?” he says. He’s not sure that Jesus would be into grime, but confidently asserts that he’d be a big Jackson 5 fan and would still bring the heat in a battle. “Jesus might win (against me) in a clash, even if he had no flow. Out of anyone who thinks they’ve been through anything, Jesus has been through the most, bruv. Jesus is gonna be a badman. Jesus would sell more albums than Adele. The fact that people say ‘Jesus Christ’. There is no-one on Earth whose name gets said that much. If Jesus really did drop some music... the world made that book about him and his mates’ lives. I think he’d beat everyone to be honest.”
What Jesus is to Christianity, Wiley is to grime, but as Stormzy and Skepta have dominated magazines and radio over the past two years, the genre’s founding father has sat back in the shadows, continually promising the release of an autobiography and his much-anticipated new album Godfather. Originally scheduled for release on September 2, Wiley scrapped it just a month beforehand, declaring it “pointless”. Why?
“Because I was talking to someone who put me on a downer that day,” he says. “My best friend.”
“Everyone thinks they know what’s right, everyone has an opinion, I respect that. We have an English attitude of negativity sometimes. People question so much, it can put someone off from doing it. People have so much doubt. It’s about being able to ignore that stuff and still be best friends. Your best friend means well because they’re not ‘yes men’, they’re trying to give you a heads up. So I’ll listen.”
The album is now due out on January 13. Despite Wiley assuring me that he’d send it, or that someone he works with would send it, I only heard it two days before release, even after sending numerous DMs and texts requesting it. After these interviews we lost contact. But Wiley had confidently assured me that this record will be a return to his roots, a declaration that he is the true godfather of grime. He’s in a strange position – this record feels like a comeback, but why?
“I don’t do music for money anymore,” he says. “I don’t make music for money anymore. Which is not easy when you’re a rasclart with a family.” The relationship between music and money, creativity and commercial success, and the self-doubt that awkward bond brings, is a topic that he explored brilliantly and ferociously on his 2014 album Snakes and Ladders, on the track “From The Outside”, featuring Teddy and JME:
I’ve been in the wrong system, the wrong territory, for way too long
If I say it’s right and I show it to Johnny, looks back at me like it sounds wrong
Who am I making music for then?
Me, the label or him?
I don’t like showin’ people eediat tunes cause really Wiley goes in
I’m torn between catering for me and the fans, I’m going mad
I only hear my big hits where people go to get tans
What’s sad to me is they want easy, I can’t show skills
For the wayward music they want brother, I don’t want mils
It’s a pointed reference to a period during his career where he had left the coldness and the ferocity of grime behind and swapped it for radio-friendly, sub-3min30secs bangers that dominated clubs in lager-soaked holiday destinations such as Magaluf.
“It’s a good time for me to come back with this record,” he says. “My genre that I started has come round full circle. I’ll tell you one true factor that I keep forgetting about all of this. I done The Ascent album, yeah? I done ‘Heatwave’, ‘Can You Hear Me?’, ‘Reload’ and that’s all I wanted to do. They wanted to do ‘Lights On’, I didn’t wanna do that. I thought, ‘Them three were cool, let me go and tour, let me get all this money and let me get myself back to grime, that’s what I do. I done ‘Lights On’, didn’t really wanna do it and I was like, ‘That’s it’.
“And then I made ‘Flying’. I remember I’d been on a mad one, tweeting ‘the revolution is over’ and all that, thinking ‘I don’t need to do this anymore, I’ve done it, I’ve milked it, made money, I need to keep doing grime forever.’ When the ‘Flying’ video came out (in August 2013), that’s when I knew. After ‘Lights On’ I said, ‘You know what, that’s enough. I can’t do it anymore.’ I told Skepta as well, I said ‘I’m gonna bring grime back.’ But unfortunately it flew over the fans’ heads and didn’t bring grime back how I wanted it to. Meridian Dan did that.”
Wiley attributes the success of Meridian Dan’s “German Whip” – the song that he credits as being at the forefront of grime’s resurgence – as being partly to do with Britain’s obsession with Germany. “The word German, in England, obviously we’re football fans aren’t we? England have got a thing with Germans, not in a racial way. I’m not in it that deep, but I’ve got mates who love football who will be like, ‘We’ve done the Germans 3-1.’ Meridian Dan’s good as well. I also understand the things we sing along to. When I heard, ‘If you see man driving a German whip, blacked out window, leaning back’... I was singing along.”
Despite openly admitting that he tried and failed to bring grime back with “Flying”, Wiley is happy for the astronomic success of artists like Skepta and Stormzy and the growing visibility of the genre, even if it does mean punters singing along to “Shutdown” in Kavos, or global adidas commercials starring Paul Pogba. “I can only be happy about that,” he says. “I wish it had happened before. Things come along and they go, scenes, genres, we’re living in a melting pot. The fact that Stormzy, Skepta and JME have made it commercial – I can only be happy about that. Stormzy is doing a great job of (empowering youth) at the moment. Even though I’m still here in the game today, the youth today who are searching for that empowerment wouldn’t look to me, they’d look to a Stormzy or a Skepta, a Lady Leshurr for girls. People who have got the power can speak. Speaking isn’t always solving, but speaking can be explaining.”
In a divided country that’s increasingly separated by left and right, young and old, Wiley appeals for unity, particularly when talking about the storm that Logan Sama found himself in when he said “grime isn’t a black art form”, something that created Twitter arguments, thinkpieces and even roundtable discussions on the radio. Wiley is unequivocal on where he stands, even though he hadn’t been aware of the controversy until I mentioned it. “Music has no creed or colour,” he says. “If you love music that much, it’ll love you back.”
“Even though I’m still here in the game today, the youth today who are searching for that empowerment wouldn’t look to me, they’d look to a Stormzy or a Skepta” – Wiley
As you, reader, will know, Twitter is an often hellish website famous for many things including Donald Trump, trolling and a spectacular inability to host nuanced discussion. Wiley was an early adopter, having joined the social media site back in 2010, and became known for his no-filter approach, famously tweeting “fuck them and their farm” at Glastonbury and begging to be cancelled while he was at Glastonbury, about to go onstage, in 2013. Now, he’s a calmer online presence, tending to use his account to promote his or his friends’ music.
“I think Twitter is good if you’re promoting music and you’re selling stuff,” he says. “Some people go on it for banter – that’s them. Some people go on it just to talk to people and socialise. There’s things it can be used for. If you use it for the wrong reason then it might not be a good thing. Hence why people close accounts. Hence why people get caught cheating. Nothing is hidden on there. There’s been stuff where things have happened – people have been shot or stabbed – and people go on and talk about it. Fucking too much is being said on there. Someone was saying earlier, ‘What advice would I give to an 18-year-old going into the game?’ Don’t use Twitter for nothing except promoting music. I’m not saying don’t talk to people, but do not engage in foolishness.”
While Wiley’s social media attitude may reveal a newfound serenity, his new record Godfather goes in at 100mph, a blizzard of ice cold grime that feels as defiant as it does dangerous, as celebratory as it is cutting. Gone is the introspection of Snakes and Ladders and within the first ten minutes, over three tracks, Wiley puts a flag in the ground to mark where he’s at mentally: fearless.
I based my career on proving myself to non-believers (“Birds and Bees”)
I’m the man and I know it, pass me the mic and I’ll show it (“Bring Them All”)
All of that doubt, that's gone. Why? cause I’m the lyrical don (“Bring Them All”)
Spitters can't better these levels of terror (“Holy Grime”)
It sets a precedent for the rest of Godfather, a piece of work on which Wiley invites his peers Devlin, JME and Skepta and outshines them all, ferociously skipping over beats like a bouncer running over ice. He sounds hungry, once wounded, but in shape and ready to fight – he even alludes to the practice of MCing as being something you need to be physically fit for, like any fighter. Wiley says it’s likely to be his last record, making it an album that will presumably serve as his epitaph, perhaps explaining why it sounds so determined. Releasing it in the midst of a grime resurgence spearheaded by a younger generation, does he think people will see him as the godfather again?
“You know what, I think it’s an easy spot to have because no one wants to be it at this precise time and so it’s easy,” he says. “I’ve got it. It’s like Usain Bolt, he’s won the race already. I don’t think anyone else wants this one, this title. They want ‘the king’ one and 'the wickedest MC alive', they want ‘the best producer’, you want to be the newest this and the hardest that or you want to be the badman, but nobody at this time actually wants this title and I have accepted it because they have given it to me – it’s mine already. Unless they listen to the album and are like ‘you know what? Rah man’ Then I’m in trouble!”