Where To Start With... Wiley
If you want to trace the roots of Grime music back to where the genre first began, a good place to start would be the UK garage scene based in London in the mid-1990s, which included various groups such as So Solid Crew, Heartless Crew and, perhaps most importantly, a collective known as Pay As U Go Cartel. Based in East London, Pay As U Go included amongst their rank several figures who would go on to make a name for themselves, including DJ Target, DJ Slimzee and a young, brash MC then going by the name Wiley Kat – a tribute to one of his favourite cartoons, Thundercats.
While their rivals were rapping over the garage beats that were popular at the time, Pay As U Go took a more eclectic approach, using garage and jungle instrumentals as a backdrop for their frenetic, hard-edged rap style. When Pay As U Go disbanded around 2001-2002, Wiley co-founded another crew named Roll Deep along with others such as Dizzee Rascal, Skepta and JME. Along with other emerging crews like Ruff Sqwad, Wiley and his contemporaries began honing a new sound which was yet to be given a name that stuck; “Sub-Low”, “Eskibeat” and “Frontline” were some of the early attempts to define what would eventually become known as Grime. While the genre was still finding its feet, it was Wiley who was setting the example to follow with tracks like 'Eskimo' and 'Wot Do U Call It?'. Dizzee Rascal might have been the first to bring the new sound to the mainstream with his 2003 debut Boy In Da Corner, but there's a reason that Wiley is often described by his peers as the “Godfather of Grime”.
Wiley's own talents and the momentum generated by his white label releases soon saw him gain the attention of XL Recordings, who released his 2004 debut album Treddin' On Thin Ice. Since then, he's proved to be one of the most prolific artists the genre has to offer, releasing an impressive 11 studio albums over the last 14 years. In that time there have been flirtations with a more mainstream sound, but the results have been mixed. By the time of his fifth album See Clear Now, released on Warner Bros. imprint Asylum, Wiley was talking up his ambitions of being a male equivalent of Missy Elliott, blending underground credibility and popular appeal. But while cuts such as the Bless Beats-produced 'Wearing My Rolex' were bold attempts to take the Grime rap style onto the dancefloors of mainstream clubs, Wiley expressed his dissatisfaction with the production work of others on the album such as Mark Ronson and Jake Gosling, bemoaning his lack of creative control before disowning the album altogether and reverting to his own stylistic type on albums like Grime Wave.
In some ways, Wiley has always been just a little too far ahead of the game for his own good. By the end of 2016, in the months preceding the release of his 11th album Godfather, the pioneering rapper was suggesting that the album might be his last, describing its release as “pointless” and even threatening to cancel the record altogether - all this at a time when Grime was experiencing a resurgence and peers such as Skepta and Kano, as well as relative newcomers like Stormzy, were enjoying their moment in the sun. However, release it he did, and it turned out to be his best album in years.
Just a year on, it seems that Wiley's retirement has been indefinitely postponed and this week he returns with Godfather's follow-up, the aptly-titled Godfather II, and he continues to be in fine form. On 'Call The Shots', which features guest vocals from JME, he addresses some of his mis-steps and his attempts to cross over; “I've said it before, I got sidetracked / I realised I had to bring the vibe back". Along with his recently released autobiography Eskiboy, the new album indicates that Wiley finally feels comfortable with his place in the music scene he helped to create, and long may that continue.
You can find the video for 'Call The Shots' below, beneath that we've picked out five key tracks from Wiley's career so far as an introduction to his work...
'Wot Do U Call It?'
Back before everybody called it Grime, Wiley was already poking fun the attempts to classify his music and on 'Wot Do U Call It?' he also addresses his use of the existing UK Garage scene to push his own style, whether they liked it or not...
Wiley has made no secret of his former life as a drug dealer and this cut from his third album, 2007's Playtime Is Over, addresses some of the grimier aspects of life in the east London boroughs where he grew up.
'Wearing My Rolex'
Wiley might have been dismissive of some of the tracks on his fifth album See Clear Now, but there's no getting away from the success of the album's standout tune, which earned Wiley his biggest hit to date and peaked at No. 2 on the UK Singles Chart.
'On a Level'
If ever there was an appropriate metaphor for the ups and downs of Wiley's career, the title of his 2014 album Snakes & Ladders takes some beating. After another foray into more chart-friendly territory with his previous album The Ascent, which yielded the Bow MC's first UK Number One with 'Heatwave', its follow-up saw Wiley returning to a more hard-edged style and of all the great tracks on one of his strongest albums, 'On a Level' is one of its standout moments.
'Bring Them All / Holy Grime'
Our final pick is this cut from Wiley's most recent outing, Godfather, which features a guest appearance from Devlin and sees Wiley reflecting on his status as one of Grime's elder statesmen: “Not many man have been in the wars that I've been in / I can work here but it's not a place that I could live in / Gettin' new money though but I've already made a killin' / I've already made a scene, I already live a dream”.