Words by Marvin Sparks—
Wiley is often called the Godfather of the UK’s vibrant grime scene. Having burst on the scene as a member of garage crew Pay As U Go Cartel, the prolific MC has been considered among the best UK wordsmiths for over ten years. He’s been involved in countless pivotal moments in underground music history, discovered and nurtured more artists than your average A&R, sparked the recent wave of grime MC’s scoring hits with electro-pop fused singles, and is generally an all-around legend. That said, Evolve or Be Extinct is an apt title for his eighth full-length release. The Bow E3, London-raised MC explores various styles, fusing grime, electro, hip hop, dancehall and just general Wiley productions you can’t call anything (is the Wiley-coined term “Eski” still available?).
Marvin Sparks spoke with Wiley about his musical foundations, how he modeled the grime scene using elements of dancehall, Jamaican music’s underrated influence on London’s music scene, and how all of these elements are coming more into focus on his latest tracks.
LargeUp: Why are you called the Godfather of Grime?
Wiley: I think people just gave it to me because of my age. They didn’t give it to me because they knew what God meant, they just thought, “He’s the old boy, we’ll let him have that.” When I look back at it, there’s always one person in every scene that wants everyone to get together and make it a unity. Coming from my background, my dad was a Rastafarian and he played music, that whole thing of doing music together to get a good sound was always there for me.
LU: How would you describe grime to those unfamiliar with it?
Wiley: Grime is very similar to punk rock. It’s noisy—less noisy than dubstep—but it’s got a voice. Dubstep, to me, hasn’t got a voice. It has people that the producers put on songs, but them MC’s are not the leaders in that scene, producers and DJ’s are. Grime is very hip hop, reggae-oriented, but it’s very different to rap although it’s quite similar. In grime, people will be spitting at that tempo (generally around 135-140bpm) and that’s it. Hip hop have gone past all the tempo and what people wanna call barriers and said, “This is hip hop” in America. However, over here, people go mad saying it’s this and it’s that, but really, it is the product of hip hop and ragga.
If you get technical, you can see it stems from garage. The other day I was having a debate on Twitter talking with someone and they [said], “You owe it to So Solid” and I was like this person has got half a point if I wasn’t [already] making music when I first listened to So Solid. By the time I heard So Solid, I’d made [many] tunes. I was always going to do that, whether I heard So Solid or not. I do think that grime stems from garage and those things, but I do think people are born and whatever they do will be a fusion of genres.
LU: Earliest memory of reggae and dancehall for you?
Wiley: Bro, I probably couldn’t speak yet, but I could hear the music. It was probably early Dennis Brown, Burning Spear, I don’t wanna say Bob Marley because it’s so obvious, Peter Tosh… Some of them realest people; my dad was playing the music. Charlie Chaplin, Ninja Man, all of those early people.
LU: Did you have any family members or friends running a sound system back then?
Wiley: Yeah! I knew so many. I’ll tell you the truth, you know with us we have “This person’s your family” and really they’re not? I had loads of that. “Your uncle’s running sound,” but really it’s your dad’s long time bredrin [laughs]. When I got older I met Saxon Sound people, [grime MC] Flowdan’s dad is from Vinyl Star from Brixton. There were different influences before we even got to garage.
LU: Care to elaborate on a tweet you sent: “Without people like Sugar Minott and Ninja Man I don’t think I would have picked up a mic”?
Wiley: They were like if a kid sees Lady Gaga or Tinie Tempah on TV, those don’s were them to me. I remember the first time I saw Sugar Minott at a studio in Peckham. I was star struck and that’s when I learned that different generations have got music people who they love and like. Some people like Michael Jackson lasts throughout generations and some are only known to certain generations. I’ve sat there thinking to myself, “These kids don’t know me” [laughs], but I’ve let that go. An old person might play a Sugar Minott song at home and enjoy it, so at least that can exist.
LU: Who would you say were your top five favorite dancehall artists?
Wiley: Of all time? I’ve been here from the generation of Papa San, Major Mackerel and Lt. Stitchie. We move on to Ninja Man, then Hawkeye, then like Vybz Kartel. Do you know what, bro? There’s too many. In Jamaica, their ability to do stuff is much higher. I don’t know why I think that, but a top dancehall artist’s skills on the mic, the ability they have to do a whole track, dubplate, the way they are in key and they singjay is a lot higher than any hip hop, grime or anyone. The energy’s too much and that’s why I respect them over anyone.
LU: Another tweet: “Big up all the people who put dancehall or reggae influence in your hip hop and grime. This is what gets me excited.” You have tracks such as “Welcome to Zion” and “Fire” on your new album, plus recently leaked tracks “Ninja” and “Dem Nah Kill.” How would you say dancehall has influenced your own productions?
Wiley: It has, even from “Know We” [by Pay As You Go]. Even the first beat I made on my dad’s computer was definitely reggae. I was influenced by reggae more than I even know, and I believe all the early hip-hop people were as well. When I was in Jamaica, my bredrin told me a story about Kool Herc and he was from Jamaica. In the end, when you patch it together, there is dancehall, yardie at the bottom of most sounds. That isn’t to say other people haven’t got their own sounds, but there’s black sounding music at the bottom of everything. Look at UB40.
LU: “Customs” is a track about going from Jamaica to Barbados. You seem to spend a lot of time out there last year, what was the purpose of going to Jamaica so frequently?
Wiley: To remember my skin. I really felt like I should have went there ages ago. It helped me to know who I was and that’s why I had to go.
LU: Is dancehall something you are looking to tap into more in the future?
Wiley: Definitely, but what I’ve realized is they have their own thing and I didn’t understand that dancehall is, and has been, worldwide all along. They’ve seen as much money as an American. That is what I’ve learned. I have to [tap into it] more now than ever, because the grime thing is something I can’t let die. I do music for money and other things, but typically, I can’t really stop making grime.
LU: Many say reggae and dancehall’s influence on, not only our underground UK scene, but popular music is underplayed.
Wiley: Yeah, dancehall’s definitely underrated. What I don’t like about how people treat it is, Jamaica is the originator for any reggae, dancehall music, and people around the world will take elements from it and make money while the real originators may not be getting what they deserve. Also, the producers who spearhead the projects may not pay the artists, so the artists are sitting there thinking, “Wah gwaan?” I’d like to go to Jamaica and teach them, so they are enlightened and producers don’t run their show. Producers may hate me for doing it, but I know if I’m making an album, I can make my own and not pay anyone. Not because I don’t want to pay a producer, but I wouldn’t want a producer to take my credit and spearhead my project. It’s just what you learn and what you’ve been exposed to. Beenie Man, Vybz Kartel, etc. can’t be tricked or fooled because they know who they are.
LU: After a few years’ hiatus, you brought back the legendary Eskimo Dance last month. How would you describe it?
Wiley: It’s like Sting. It’s my Sting. I was sitting there the other day thinking, “If I really want it to be like my Sting, I need to do it once a year.” I could do it four times a year, but it could lose its value. Is it something that should happen once a year? I was also sitting there thinking “Should I do my own UK Sting?” At the end of the day, I want to be a part of that kind of thing. I want to do my thing without me having to rap. I should be able to have an event where people get to do their thing. I just want to make it big, so people want to perform there. Me and Flowdan have been watching dancehall videos for the whole time. 1980 and all of that. I knew that I wanted my own Saddle to the East or Sav-La-Mar. Whatever their stage shows were, I wanted my own.
LU: You’ve had a fair few clashes over the years…
Wiley: The reason why I’m the warlord of this country—I’m not Bounty Killer—but the reason why I war is because I’m a sportsman about it. I do it because it helps raise my level. I feel like if I didn’t battle, I wouldn’t have got better as a person.
LU: Who has been the toughest?
Wiley: The person who made me stretch the furthest would probably be Durrty Doogz [now Durty Goodz] the first time we battled. There are other people who think they were, but they’re all scared of Doogz. I’m a person who isn’t scared of anyone give or take, battle anyone, and I feel like other people are scared of Doogz, [and] think I’m the easy target. What they don’t realize is I’m not afraid of who they’re afraid of, and I refuse to lose. As I’m older, I’m not in the same frame of mind as I was. I’m 33 now, so I don’t really wanna slander people and [record] war dubs, but it is a sport and if someone wants to play it as a sport, I’ll play it until the end. I’ve wanted to say this, everyone is scared of Doogz, they all lie and say “No, I’m not” and really if he sent for them they would not say a word.
LU: Strange question, but how does it feel when you get a reload?
Wiley: It’s like euphoria… wait, what does “euphoria” mean? [I explain] Right, euphoria is the right word. I didn’t even know what that meant until GFrsh said it in a song.
LU: That’s another similarity to dancehall…
Wiley: Yeah. But their euphoria is like sky high, a million times euphoria. Even the last time I was there, I was watching a stage show and it was just some next one. Beenie Man and Bounty Killer were there, but they weren’t talking. I just looked at it and thought “This is so similar to what we do.” It’s a culture, it’s a lifestyle, it means a lot and there’s more to it than what meets the eye.
LU: What would you say are key ingredients to a reload bar?
Wiley: When you’re saying them to yourself you can realise the fans are going to get it. What you say has to be what other people want to say. The “budududadada” was the last one where I thought it might get a pull up or it might not. Or some people could say “Nah Wiley, you said this on a next track”. When you’re writing the bar, you can tell what’s going to get a reload.
LU: And that was something helped by performing/rehearsing on radio or live shows, like sound system type environment.
Wiley: Yeah, most definitely.
LU: What made performing at The Heatwave’s Showtime event important to you?
Wiley: I should’ve been doing [events like that] all along, to be honest. This is where it goes back to being in England. When Gabriel hollered at me for Showtime, that is when I realised the dancehall thing. I am technically on earth and doing music because of reggae and dancehall. If they didn’t exist, neither would I. And neither would anyone else, bro. Soul, Motown and all that would, but would hip hop if ragga and dancehall didn’t?.And then grime, jungle and garage wouldn’t exist. Garage might of, but in a different form. Jungle, no way.
LU: Another track on the album is “I’m Skanking.” What are your favourite dancehall dances?
Wiley: Errrrr… [stutters] Not the bogle, nah. I like Thunda Clap [laughs]. There are loads. I can’t lie, I do like them dances, bro. They’re the best. That makes me too excited.
LU: Do you practice them in your room?
Wiley: Yeah, but I would never show no one, because how can ya? How can you show someone when you’re trying to practice to get it right?
LU: What do you think about the UK dancehall scene at the moment?
Wiley: I like it. I like Stylo G and Gappy Ranks. Riko Dan and God’s Gift are my originals. Flowdan, Jamakabi… I reckon there’s enough dancehall MC who can do a set at Eskimo Dance if I said, “Listen lads, can you do that?” They may be like “Well, why can’t I do a set with whoever?” I’ll just say to them “Lads, you can buss it up.”… A lot of them don’t understand when you spit together, that’s how you see who is the don.