Wiley on his final album: ‘I need to not let grime die on the way out’ | Music

While I was waiting for Wiley to answer the phone for our interview, he was busily tweeting about the greatness of The Wire (“people will be tryna copy it for ever”), the killing of George Floyd (“there has to be consequences”), and his spice-free passionfruit and mango flavour order at Nando’s (“no shame at all”). It is hard to imagine someone more committed to sharing their every waking thought with the world. So it came as a surprise to discover that his new album would be his last. “I’m 41,” he tells me. “I don’t want to try and fit in with kids. I just need to not let my genre die on the way out.”

This is not the godfather of grime’s first supposed exit. The first time I interviewed Wiley for the Guardian, in a council flat on the Isle of Dogs in east London in 2007, he was talking about retiring then, too. He seemed weary, burned out by the tensions and beefs of a fractious London pirate radio scene. It was a different universe from the internationally popular, festival-headlining colossus that is black British music in 2020.

That day, he said: “You know what, I’m 28 – when it’s peaking, I ain’t even going to be here.” Thirteen years, one No 1 (plus two more with his crew Roll Deep), nine Top 20 singles, a few dozen albums and mixtapes, an MBE and Ivor Novello inspiration and NME outstanding contribution awards later, it seems fair to say that he found a second wind.

Today, he releases Godfather III, his final album as Wiley. It was not the swan song he had intended. Last month, his glorious 2019 dancehall earworm Boasty – a single featuring guest spots from the confounding but inspired combination of the British rapper Stefflon Don, the Jamaican pop star Sean Paul and the British actor Idris Elba – became his first to rack up more than 100m YouTube views. It spent more than half of 2019 in the charts. “It won’t die!” he says, laughing.

Still going strong … watch the video for Boasty.

Boasty’s global commercial success was set to lead to something equally triumphant – a dancehall-heavy, Atlantic-straddling album of big-name collaborations called Full Circle, due for an autumn 2019 release. In August, he revealed the all-star track listing, featuring guest spots from Nicki Minaj, Popcaan, Future and Beenie Man. But only a fortnight later the project seemed to be in serious jeopardy, with Wiley claiming on Twitter that Drake had blocked the use of a verse by his Ovo label signee Popcaan and that Minaj was “going to start her family”. The album never materialised.

He won’t be drawn on the specifics of who nixed Full Circle – the blame goes far wider than Drake – but it has left him weary of anything but total independence. “I was on a roll and Full Circle, with all its international features – that was going to be nuts,” says Wiley. “That was my dream come true, as an urban artist. But no one wanted me to do it: the industry looked up and said: ‘Ah, no, not him again. Get him out of here.’ I was really upset that it didn’t get to surface.”

Wiley has long embodied grime’s irrepressible DIY energy, which never rubs up well with the suits. Among other spectacular fallouts, in 2013 he leaked his breakthrough pop album on Warner a fortnight before its release after a dispute over the track listing. Even after all his success, his team is limited to a manager, John Woolf, while his sister, Janaya Cowie, takes care of some business affairs – and that is it. As with most of his extensive catalogue, he is self-releasing Godfather III. There can be few national treasures with whom a national newspaper interview is arranged via direct messages on Twitter.








‘I don’t want to try and fit in with kids’ … on stage at South West Four festival in London in August. Photograph: Joseph Okpako/WireImage

The collapse of Full Circle saw Wiley return stoically to “doing what I’m here to do”: finishing 22 tracks of his first and truest love: grime. “When they blocked Full Circle, I made it my goal to make sure the grime scene wheels are spinning before I leave,” he says, repeating for emphasis: “I need those wheels to be spinning.” The result is the final part of his own Godfather trilogy – and yes, he has heard the jokes about the panned final instalment to the Francis Ford Coppola series.

He need not be worried. It is an album with the sonic energy and crackling wit of his first grime outings in the mid 00s, but with the catharsis and wisdom you would expect of a star who has overseen two often-relentless decades of hype, beefs, peaks and troughs.

Loose ends are tied up – one track pays homage to Rinse FM, the celebrated Bow pirate station he first appeared on in the 90s; another is named after his epochal grime rave, Eskimo Dance. The latter is a 13-MC, 13-verse medley in which the microphone is passed, and the instrumental switches from one classic to another, every eight bars.

When the dust settles and the album’s resting heart rate has returned to normal, his knack for candid self-reflection is also as powerful as ever. “Last year, I could have killed the game, the system didn’t let me / A&Rs and bosses wishing fans would just forget me,” he raps on Press Record, the maudlin final track. Instead of the global grandstanding of Boasty, this is, he intones gently, “that ‘Clear your head, sitting by the lake’ shit … that ‘In the end, no one is your mate’ shit.” His parting words are: “Baby, I ain’t got a clue where my life’s going.”

But the mood is not bitter or resigned and looks to the future as much as the past. Wiley opted against all-star grime veteran guests and instead called on the next generation of London MCs, tweeting his fans to nominate the best new talent and then inviting them to deliver verses.

“I’m just trying to help,” he says. “Some of the stuff I do seems like nothing at the time, but then when a star comes from it you’ll realise. The people in the top of grime, they don’t even wanna be grime, do they? They wanna be hip-hop! So this is the perfect time to work with new MCs who love grime, because I’m on my way out.” Wiley mentored, boosted and paid for studio time for Dizzee Rascal, Tinchy Stryder, Skepta and Chip, among others. A little-known MC called Stormzy, he reminds me, was brought on stage to perform at a Wiley gig in January 2015 – which seems as good a point as any to ask what the hell happened at the start of this year.

A few months after Stormzy’s historic 2019 Glastonbury headline performance, he released the unabashed homage Wiley Flow, adapting some classic lyrics and flows from the elder MC: the ultimate tribute. Yet, by January, the two MCs were topping YouTube’s trending charts with a series of taut, ferocious, mum-cussing diss tracks against each other. “We’re over it now,” Wiley assures me. “I’ve spoken to Stormzy, I’ve got love for him. I just wish he hadn’t jumped in the way to defend Ed; that’s the only reason it happened. Ed Sheeran, England’s golden boy – he can use you, but you’re not allowed to use him.”

Wiley collaborated with Sheeran on the latter’s 2011 EP No 5 Collaborations Project, all eight tracks of which featured grime MCs; its success won Sheeran his first record deal. Wiley’s problem now, he says, is with Sheeran piggybacking on grime for street cachet without supporting its artists. In 2019, Sheeran went to No 1 with Take Me Back to London, a single with Stormzy, alongside a remix featuring new-school MCs Aitch and Jaykae. “When he tried to put out that grime remix, I was like: nah, man, this is not sitting well with me,” Wiley says. “Because we’re not allowed to use you: you haven’t given a shit about us, since the time you started, until Stormzy came along. I don’t like the way that grime gets used.”

In response, Sheeran said he had agreed to “90% of the features I’ve been personally asked for, unless I’ve been on a break or I haven’t known the artist … You know I have a deep respect for the scene, and for you.”

The ensuing diss tracks injected life into the genre after drill and other US rap styles had come to dominate the UK scene. In the midst of the clash in January, two teenagers on my morning commute pored over every line of each diss track, picking out their favourite zingers and comparing the two MCs’ stature. Grime felt like the centre of attention again – and Wiley with it. Austin Daboh, an executive at Atlantic Records, observed in 2019 that while hip-hop is like the tides – steady, relentless, reliable – “grime is like a tsunami. It retracts from the shore … and all of a sudden, every few years, it comes and crashes.”





Wiley with his MBE for services to music



Wiley MBE … he was recognised for his services to music in 2018. Photograph: WPA/Getty Images

Ultimately, Wiley admits, it was not Stormzy or even Sheeran that he was angry with, but a music industry and media that will drop a genre “the minute they can’t control it or monetise it. I am part of a genre that they’ve been nicking artists from for years, making millions and then throwing them away. If you’re a businessman, at what point do you even care what you’re selling?” His voice rises with incredulity: “Humans have managed to sell water back to humans! Humans are nang.”

As well as music industry fickleness, he says, there is a lack of coordination and teamwork from grime and rap artists themselves, especially as success atomises them ever further. It is all a long way from the crew-driven scenes of jungle, garage and grime he started out with. Stormzy, releasing under his own label, but via a deal with Atlantic, a major label, “should be owned by ‘The Grime Group’ or something like that,” he says. “It’s been 20 years and we should have got our legal and business brain on by this time. That’s where we keep going wrong! Each one of us, when we get cosy next to a manager and a good lawyer, that’s it – gone. People retreat into their mansion.”

He sketches out a mafia-esque “gathering of the five families” that would have the likes of Skepta, Kano and Lethal Bizzle running grime and reaping the profits. His long-lost mentee Dizzee Rascal is also invited: the pair became estranged following the latter’s stabbing in Ayia Napa, Cyprus, in 2003 and Wiley still feels responsible for allowing the feud to happen. “Dizzee, your chair’s at the table, too – I tell you what, I’ll put my chair right down the other end, so you don’t have to sit next to me.”

For now, Wiley is ready to promote the album, launch The Wiley Podcast (at the request of the record label Sony) and maybe then get back to Cyprus, where he and his family spend three months of the year. “Jesus Christ,” he says with genuine alarm, “I’ve realised I need to go to Cyprus to empty the fridge. It’s going to stink.”

He has endured lockdown, but he has not found it easy – nor written one bar of music. In normal times, he likes to keep moving. “I think it helps your mind,” he says. “Because I’ve grown up with a council estate mind, kind of boxed in – so travelling helps. But, saying that, when you’re in the studio, you’re in quarantine anyway. At the start of lockdown, even though I was panicking, I realised this is how I’ve spent half my life – I wake up, I go on the laptop, I drink tea, I go inside a studio, all day, and I don’t leave until 10pm. I didn’t need training for this.”

It is a peculiar thing when rap grandees talk about retiring. Like all pop, rap thrives on youthful cool and exuberance, but if you have devoted your life to such a fluid, personal, loquacious form of self-expression, how do you turn off the taps? Where does that catharsis get redirected?

On closer inspection, Wiley is not threatening to quit music entirely – he just has no desire to be Bon Jovi, Queen or the Rolling Stones, he says. “Trying to be in the same field as the kids when you’re in your mid-40s is ridiculous. No one wants to stop, but you have to be able to discipline yourself and” – he pauses – “not stop, but shift.

“The sad part of the story of the poor boy who grows up with nothing is you search everywhere and chase after everything – but by the time you’ve learned what you need to learn, it’s getting towards the end.”

He senses that grime’s tsunami has rolled out again. “If I’m the last one left doing it, and it’s so dead and it’s so washed, then that tells you the fucking truth about the genre,” he laughs. “I am grime!”

Godfather III is released today 

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