Wiley: Meet The Godfather Of Grime

Gus Stewart \ Redferns
– Wiley
Cover of April 16, 2018 issue

Wiley’s biggest inspiration is his dad, Richard Cowie Sr. “My very first memory of music is my dad playing a heavy reggae baseline in his band,” he told Pollstar. “We were living in Kent, [England], at the time, the house was always filled with music. I would start banging on cardboard boxes. All throughout my life my dad has been my mentor, my hero.”

One of the earliest recordings of Wiley on the internet is a Rinse FM segment from Nov. 17, 1996, on which he is joined by DJ Target and fellow MCs Maxwell D, Blade and Riddles: a 17-year-old kid from Bow in East London, flexing over any jungle beat he’s presented with.

Jungle instrumentals usually come in speeds of 160 to 200 beats per minute, and Wiley spent the majority of his late teens and early 20s freestyling over these fast-paced rhythms. By the time he settled on 140 bpm grime beats in the beginning of 2000, they must have felt slow in comparison. It was the time Wiley began carving out a musical niche for himself. He started stripping down garage music to its essence, developing the drums and bass lines, and calling it “Eskibeat” or Eskimo Sound.

Grime came up as a genre designation once more and more artists started emulating the style. Eskimo became Wiley’s brand, and he started referring to himself as Eskiboy. He launched a club night called Eskimo Dance around the same time, which quickly became the biggest grime event in the country and has since developed into a rite of passage for anybody claiming to be a grime MC. “Any artist in grime you can think of has at some point performed there,” Wiley’s manager, John Woolf of A-List management, told Pollstar. The list includes Dizzee Rascal, Skepta, Devlin, Stormzy, Jme and many more.

Woolf has been working with Wiley since January 2008. They met through a DJ called Twin B and the late lawyer and artist manager Richard Antwi. Wiley had just recorded “Wearing My Rolex,” and Woolf remembers being excited about the song. “We sat down and he told me I should be his manager, and that was it. I was like, ‘We should get to know each other,’ but he was like, ‘My mom always told me I needed a Jewish manager, and I’ve heard you’re a good guy.’” 

John Woolf
– John Woolf
“He’s the ultimate maverick genius,“ says Wiley’s manager John Woolf about his client.

“Wearing My Rolex” peaked at No. 2 on the U.K. singles chart, which marked Wiley’s first proper mainstream success. Grime, at the time, “wasn’t anywhere close to where it is now,” Woolf recalls. Dizzee Rascal and Kano had enjoyed some success, Rascal in particular had already placed two of his albums on the top 10, Showtime in 2004 and Maths + English in 2007. “But no one had had any real hit singles as it were. This was before ‘Dance Wiv Me’ or ‘Bonkers’ [by Dizzee Rascal]. ‘Wearing My Rolex’ opened the door for a lot of people to go and have hits, and suddenly be able to release very commercial singles.” 

Wiley releases music on his own label, CTA Records, and goes through ADA for distribution. Owning his masters pays off. Every millionth stream equates to roughly $7,000 of income. Wiley’s top-three singles on Spotify are “Heatwave” feat. Ms. D (22,776,600 streams at press time, or roughly $159,460), which also marks his first and only No. 1 on the U.K. singles chart to date, “Can You Hear Me” (18,893,557, $132,230) and “Wearing My Rolex” (17,889,397, $125,230). In 2012/2013, he had four top-10 hits back to back: “Heatwave,” “Can You Hear Me,” “Reload” and “Lights On,” selling 1.5 million singles in total. 

Said Woolf: “He is a creative genius. [Working with him] taught me so much, and I am proud of everything we’ve achieved during this decade, from hit singles to hit albums to MBEs to books.”

The Godfather of Grime
Vicky Grout
– The Godfather of Grime
Wiley carries his title with great responsibility, representing the genre with all his heart.

An MBE is the British Queen’s award for important contributors to art, science, charitable work and public service. Wiley was awarded for his services to music, which spans two decades, 10 Top 20 singles and more than 4 million records sold. Prince William himself pinned the medal on him. It was March 2, 2018, and Wiley headed from the ceremony at Buckingham Palace straight to Brixton, where he exchanged his blue suit for a tracksuit to play a headline show – to this day, one of his career highlights, according to the man himself.

The show was part of a tour that started Feb. 1 in Sydney, Australia, at Max Watt’s, and closed March 25 at Amsterdam’s Melkweg. Wiley is now getting ready for the festival season, being included on the bills of Sonar Festival in Barcelona, Spain (June 15), Wireless Festival in London (July 6), and Outlook Festival in Pula, Croatia (Sept. 5).