2004 interview with Grime boss Wiley on the eve of the release of his debut LP Treddin on Thin Ice. Written for a special edition of the fanzine Hardcore is More than Music which appeared as a supplement in The Guardian newspaper during the summer of ’04.
My bass-quake sounds much better than yours, Wot Do U Call It? Disco-rap was made socially conscious by Grandmaster Flash’s The Message and paved the way for grittier hip hop; reggae ‘versions’ were distorted into weird psychedelic shapes by Lee Perry, King Tubby and Prince Jammy to become dub, and disco and house were rewired through Detroit’s switchboard by May, Saunderson & Atkins to become techno. So it is that Wiley’s East London sound Eski-Beat and Jon E Cash’s West London derived Sub-Low have divorced themselves from their progenitor UK Garage to become the true UK hip hop. Spoken in real London accents with crazy futurist-beats that are innovative enough to give Timbaland and Pharrell nightmares.
‘There’s already a UK hip hop,’ says Wiley, ‘Blak Twang, Rodney P, guys who have already been doing it for 10, 15 years. I don’t want to tread on their toes, so i just leave them to get on with it. I know that this has got more power, more lift-off, it’s more than UK hip hop. But they don’t necessarily think we’re all that good anyway.’
This worry shouldn’t keep him awake at night. At 25 Wiley is already the pioneer of his own UK movement, namely Eski and the head of Roll Deep Entourage – a crew of MCs, DJs and producers of which Dizzee Rascal was famously once a member. In addition, he is promoter of his own Eski-Dance raves and has an album Treddin on Thin Ice about to be released on XL Recordings, home to White Stripes, Basement Jaxx and Badly Drawn Boy. Treddin was preceded by the single Wot Do U Call It? a vocalised version of his twisted drum-less instrumental Igloo. Rather than being the tale of grimey life ‘on road’ that was perhaps expected, it is instead an upbeat swipe at the media’s obsession with genre specification and the garage scene’s reluctance to accept Wiley’s wayward experimentation.
I like house & garage, all those songs where the women sing, I like them. So it wasn’t that I hated (Garage) and set out to change the music. But I just realised that to emcee it’s better for the music to be clear, to have a simple beat with a simple bassline. Then when you emcee to it, you’re heard loud and clear. I listen to a lot of hip hop which is just sampled beats with rapping over it. A lot of my ideas come from that.’
Is what you do still part of the garage scene?
‘No, that’s what (Wot Do U Call it?) is for – separating the two scenes. The house & garage scene really didn’t like what I was doing, so I had to. Not everyone involved in house & garage is open-minded. Some of them are and will listen. A proper house & garage DJ might think it’s just noise but just because he doesn’t like it that doesn’t mean that it isn’t something. Another ten thousand people over there DO like it. As long as there’s a following and I’m happy with what I’m doing, it’s something.’
You might describe Wiley’s Eski sound as garage heated under a Bunsen flame until reduced to its skeletal bass core. But it goes much further than this. Like so many great musical movements, be they rap, punk or Jungle, Eski is influenced largely by Jamaican reggae and dub.
‘I listen to a lot of reggae: Sly & Robbie, Johnny Osbourne, loads of Studio 1 but most of it from 1983 onwards. I used to sing along to all the songs from then, I knew what all the songs were. I used to play drums and try and copy whatever they were doing. What I’m doing now is a fusion of reggae, soul and everything, even country & western. Some tunes I listen to and just laugh but that’s still an influence, I’m still taking note of whatever I’m listening to.’
You use a lot of string sounds in your work, where does this influence come from?
‘I love orchestras, live instruments. In the end I want to make music which I can perform live and I’m thinking live when I’m making it. So if I travel with a band or an orchestra I can say to them, “Play this” and it won’t be too hard for them because it’s already along those lines. I always try to do that.’
Won’t you be diluting the Eski sound though by using real instrumentation?
‘I don’t see myself as purely Eski. I want to make music altogether, not just Eski. Eski represents a particular time but I’ve got more influences in me than (just) that.’
Wiley is a man who refuses to be restrained by what is expected of him because of his particular social demographic. New hip hop visionaries like Pharrell Williams of The Neptunes and Outkast’s Andre 3000 have similarly channelled skills learned from hip hop cut n’ paste production to create any thing they wish from any genre of their chosing . Outkast’s Hey Ya! for example, is the best psychedelic rock record in eons. The video where multiple versions of Andre perform on an Ed Sullivan/Ready Steady Go type TV show, rewrites pop history as if Parliament’s over-looked acidrock classic Osmium had outsold Exile on Main Street. Wiley instrumentals like Eskimo, Thai Weed (with Danny Weed), Ground Zero and his contemporaries like Wonder, Jon E Cash and Geeneus (Wizzbit) are the sonic counterpart to Frank Gehry’s architecture – glistening, futuristic and alien but built for function. Yet certain quarters are already labelling this movement, rather negatively as Grime. Despite Wiley and Dizzee’s high aspirations, they and their peers are still viewed as council estate music made specifically for council estate kids.
‘I don’t call it Grime but other people do. I don’t really want to call it anything. I (just) want people to like it and then one day it will get named. We don’t really have the power to name it. It’s the people that accept it, the radio stations, MTV and all that, who’ll say “Right, it’s this”. They’re the ones who’ll name it, we just have to wait.’
Up until now Wiley’s solo reputation has largely been gained from his productions, providing water-tight beats for legions of MCs to spit fire over. Treddin on Thin Ice introduces Wiley as a dexterous lyricist with his own unique flow. At times serious at others serendipitously reminiscent of The Kinks and Small Faces cockney witticism on Who Ate All the Pies and I’m Goin’ Mad.
‘I like producing more but I understand that I can emcee. I try to work at making them both as high a level as they can get. During the Dizzee phase (of Roll Deep) my production was higher so then I had to work on my emceeing. Then I went back to producing . You have to try and make them rise at the same time.’
Which MC and producers do you look to for inspiration?
‘I like Erick Sermon (of rap legends EPMD and producer for Redman amongst others). People don’t really give him that much respect but he’s heavy, his levels are quite even. And Timbaland as well but his beats are higher (than his rapping) and Pharrell because he will try anything. It always works because he’s not scared.’
What about (Wu-Tang Clan’s) RZA?
‘Not really. Everyone compares me to him but I don’t know why.’
Probably because you both use Eastern strings a lot.
‘I understand that but I don’t really know so much about him.’
Mystery and controversy still surround Dizzee Rascal’s stabbing in Aya Napia and subsequent departure from Roll Deep. One thing that’s certain is that it was one of the darkest chapters of Wiley’s life but equally something he seems happy to leave behind. With his choice of cold track titles (Eskimo, Igloo, Ice Rink) though, you might be mistaken for perceiving Wiley as the new century’s Peter Murphy.
‘I’m just happy to pass over that period completely. The two scenes (garage and Eski) are separate now and from here it’s alright because there are loads of people coming up behind me. Dizzee’s already up there, so it’s alright. It will work out.’
How do you see Eski (or grime) developing?
‘It’s going to go far. First it will spread around the country. Right now everyone in England knows something about it but it needs to be promoted until it’s absolutely massive. It’s already in Amsterdam a little bit and it’ll slip into Europe. Wherever Dizzee goes that will open doors. Wherever he is, is where everyone else is going. It’s just that he is the first. Roll Deep will have an album out this year.’
‘Maybe there, maybe somewhere else but it’s going to be big.’
Despite his new found positivity drama still seems to follow Wiley, noticeably at Eski-Dance events which often see tensions erupt.
‘The reason why there’s drama (at Eski-Dances) is because there’s energy. There’s bad energy and good energy and it makes people get excited. So when there are two people clashing on stage, the energy travels. It gets to the crowd and kids jump around, they go mad. That’s just what happens, and it’s going to happen with or without me in there so I don’t really see it as our fault.’
What if in a few years from now, people say that UKG was all happy times, bling and champagne until Eski and Sub-Low came along and turned everything grimy and moody. What would you say to that?
‘That’s just wrong, it’s not turned moody. I went to a house & garage night not so long ago called Before and it was heavy! It went haywire for a little bit but in a few years people will say garage is this and what I’m doing is something else. The two scenes are separate now.’
A storm is coming. Prepare for the big Freeze.