Interview with Wiley
People don’t buy singles any more. Tell that to Wiley – the man has sold over a million of the units with anthems like ‘Wearing My Rolex’, ‘Cash in My Pocket’, and ‘Take That’. Not only that, but what he seriously deserves props for, is doing it by his rules; he had to make his way into the pop charts not with the stealthy move of a pop artist, but heaving grime – a genre he’s been dubbed the Godfather of – slung over his shoulder at the same time. More than being able to dance with chart positions, he has ushered through generations of grime artists, being a prolific collaborator, and sat at the throne of the legendary Eskimo Dance Nights. We caught up with Wiley after a fateful weekend in February…
I just have to check, I’m not interrupting Temple Run, am I?
No, you are so lucky, but you know it’s not even in the day that it happens, it’s when it’s at night and one of my friends just wants to chat – not rubbish, but they wanna piss me off, so they ring and I have to switch it off, then when I resume, I die, and I could have been on millions, you know what I mean?!
Yeah, my thing at the moment is Scrabble, I’m addicted.
Yeah, I like scrabble. Scrabble’s a good game.
Keeps the mind dextrous, doesn’t it…
So Wiley, you were a child in the 80s; with the news of Whitney over the weekend, can you remember the impact that she had on the charts.
Yeah, yeah, you know what, she was honestly a very powerful woman, Whitney Houston. Obviously I didn’t have all of her music and stuff, ‘cause I was more into Michael Jackson, but I did hear it all being played.
She had a way of infiltrating your brain even if you didn’t own it, didn’t she?
Yeah, definitely, and by a certain age, I was definitely singing along to her music.
From someone in the music industry, do you think it’s possible to have a career as big as hers and not fall into the trappings that Whitney did?
It is, but it’s just that she wasn’t lucky enough to have not, and the other day I was thinking that Bobby Brown was not a good influence. Obviously that’s one small element, but we mustn’t ponder on that because obviously he’s hurting too, but I felt that he wasn’t a good influence on her then, but I was also informed that she had life before him, so obviously she would have known what it was, but I don’t think she would have died just because of drugs. As I was saying to someone, obviously drugs can play a part, people abuse drugs and they die, you can’t moan about it, but I do feel like Bobby… I don’t know man, they’re like Blake and Amy, but I shouldn’t push blame ‘cause I don’t wanna judge anyone –
- No sure, but it’s almost like they’re star crossed lovers, ill fated…
Yeah, you know what I mean, and she went down the wrong road and sometimes people turn to something in order to… not get over what they’re thinking, but to take away from something that they’re doing, I don’t know.
In happier news, you’re coming to Norwich next month; what’s your relationship like with the live circuit nowadays? Do you still love it?
No, not really! Well I do understand what it is though, and because I’ve been doing it since I was fourteen, fifteen, it’s crazy to say you can do the same thing year in, year out, forever, for that long. You can’t possibly do that without getting older, looking at it, maybe having some children, some responsibilities, you know what I’m saying? Real life takes its place, and my family, they don’t say, ‘stay in, you can’t go out’, they don’t do that to me, but I’ve got older - I’m no longer 14, 18, 20 or 25. I do still do a lot of work, but maybe you slow down, your engine slows down a bit and you live life, but not so fast. I feel like everyone’s in a race to their grave without them knowing it; they don’t know it, but everything you chase... it’s crazy man.
They say the rolling stone gathers no moss, but is it bad to gather a little moss for cushioning?
Ha, yeah… it’s OK.
Even if the live circuit doesn’t drive you as much any more, you’re still one of the most prolific artists I can think of; you’re constantly creating and releasing material – what keeps your motivation up?
I think that was years and years of being in previous scenes where people buy vinyl, make up dub plates, then they go on the radio, you know what I mean. You know that whole thing is instilled in me. I was talking to Geeneus, my brother from Rinse FM the other day, and we had the same sort of conversation, and what it is, is being on pirate radio, I don’t know what it does, but it just gives you this connection with people through airwaves and online. I wanna say it’s better – some people will say it’s not, and that the scene’s gone downhill, but in evolution, it is moving forward, even though some people say it isn’t. I feel like the way we consume things will change, change to a different way.
It’s true; if we don’t evolve, we’ll stagnate and drop off the earth - do you think if you weren’t constantly creating, you’d stagnate and disappear?
Yeah, definitely, and ‘cause it’s my job and hobby as well as, I know I treat it more as a job than I did before - since I turned 30 I treat it as job much more. Before, I was just having fun and I get angry at myself sometimes, but if I wasn’t having fun, I might not have kept recreating. It is good that you live a bit, but you do then have to get realistic.
So when you started out, you were well known for your Eskimo Dance Nights, and it’s great to hear you’re putting them back on, is that right?
Yeah, yeah, we had one the other day and the next Eskimo Dance is gonna be at Proud 2 again on May 11th.
Has it reconnected you with your youth? Has the rush of feeling of what it was like come back?
Yeah, you know what I mean!! In fair, for me, not so much, I mean, I like it, but I’ve put it on so the next generation of people can have their turn; you’ll obviously hear some of the old legends, but I wanted the new people to come through and do it, so that they could have their chance.
And is that why you put it on in the first place, because there was nothing going on that was like that, and that provided that for people?
Yeah, definitely, I definitely done it for that and you know like in Jamaica they have those open air stage shows and stuff, that sort of gave me a lot of energy to do it ‘cause obviously they’ve been doing them for years and years. I just wanted one of them for our MCs and DJs basically.
It’s awesome that it’s come back, and obviously you’ve mentored young artists in the past, or they’ve simply looked up to you, but who’s flying the flag for you at the moment?
I think, do you know what, a really clever move that has occurred recently is that Chipmunk has gone to America –
- Yeah, which is something you expressed interest in doing before…
Yeah, I definitely would love to do that, but in a different vein to what he’s doing, but he’s gone there and that has made me happy, the reason being because he’s young, he’s got time, but more importantly, he hasn’t done anything wrong yet in the criminal side of the law! They wouldn’t allow him in there, you know! When you’ve got that, you need to go and never come back really, because that is the centre of where anyone who does music, acting or anything, wants to touch base. I’m not saying they want to live there forever, but they want to see who they are in America. So I’m really happy that he’s doing that, and I’m sure he’ll make us proud. I’m also happy to see what Adele’s doing, because she’s on the same label I used to be on, at XL and I like what she’s doing; I also like what Maverick Sabre’s doing and anyone that anyone recognises as being talented, from Ed Sheeran to Kano, I can see it too and I listen to it, I express myself to people around me to make them like it and I move on. I listen to like a lot of music, I mean, a lot. It’s probably flooding my brain!
People like you and Ed Sheeran though are hard working; Ed was always willing to have 100 self printed CDs in his rucksack at his local gigs round here, and it’s people that work hard that are doing it for themselves…
The thing with Ed is he’s the boy with the guitar, and he’s a good singer and he wasn’t really gonna lose; he had that in him, didn’t he? Whoever taught him, or his dad, or his parents, whoever gave him that music energy, that was in him, and that’s why I like Ed. Whoever made him wanna do music, he stands on this earth for that reason.
I was thinking about Adele’s success at the Grammys and it’s true that hers and lots of UK music translates to America, and as much as we look up to the US, they’ve often been infatuated with our small island creativity –
- Yeah, they have, they have…
But why is it that grime hasn’t really translated in the US?
I don’t think grime will translate there, not because it’s not good enough, because as I said, there’s wordsmiths like Devlin and Kano who can stand up over there – obviously they’ve got wordsmiths like Eminem and Drake and Lil Wayne, but this is what I think: in the world, the American language, to an American, is first. Second might be, like, South American; they know straight English, like US English, they know some Spanish and stuff, but if you and me was both American, we are not gonna accept another language before our own. With singing, it’s not really the same thing, because most singers, even if they’re English, have a more American… it’s like singing is universal more than grime would be. Grime’s like spitting, but they don’t live where we live, they don’t understand all of our references that we’re saying and they have their own, which they’ve had for forty years plus. So how can something that we’ve just done the other week, or year, or ten years or whatever, exceed something that’s been going for 30 / 40 years in the number one entertainment place in the world. It’s just impossible; I used to think when I was younger, ‘yes man!’, but now I’m 33 and I look at it, I realise it’s impossible, even when Tinie Tempah’s got ‘Written in the Stars’ going on over there, I don’t think they accept him in that vein, and I know what vein I mean. Obviously he might get a tune with this one, or that one, but I’m saying he ain’t gonna be in the hood, in the Bronx, coming up through that ranks. That’s what I think has happened; I mean you can’t can you? It’s like Nike or Adidas, they’ve been on the earth so long that someone small ain’t really gonna succeed them.
They might humour them for a while, but they can’t be challenged…
Yeah, yeah, that’s what I’m saying. As people that want stuff, and I wear a lot of Vans to be honest with you, but I just realised that some brands, like some commodities, some franchises are not gonna lose the race they’re in. Even though Chipmunk’s there and he could do great things, I think that they accept their own language first. I see that with Drake – even though he’s from Canada, he sounds American, doesn’t he?!
Although America is this big beacon of entertainment though, the thing with grime in this country is that it’s produced anthems for our generation that for us individuals in the UK, it means a lot…
Yeah, yeah, to us, definitely – to us, definitely; even though it’ll come and go, it means a lot to us and we do accept that.
So you cut a fine figure, Wiley, at 33, you’re still working hard and I just want to know what’s next for you?
For me, I’m on my way to 35, and when I’m 35 I’ll have a sit down and stop. I understand that at different ages, there are crossroads, and obviously I like reinventing, so 35 was always going to be a point where I’d stop and say right, what can I do from here on that doesn’t have to be the same as before, you know what I mean? So I wanna do a little bit of acting and stuff, so I’m gonna go and do a bit of training and try and get in Eastenders, so that’s one thing, and any TV stuff so I can get experience, and then I’ve got music – I’ve got music anyway because I make so much, I’ve got years worth, but I feel like sometimes you have to give them a break, like I don’t listen to the same people I did 10 years ago, and obviously I surfaced 8 years ago, so I know that a generation has come and gone, and kids always spearhead what’s happening next from that youth point of view, so I just think that I’ll sit down and do that – work up to 35 and then once I get to 35, I’ll have a bit of planning… I’ve got lots of music though, so it’s all good.
Wiley comes to The Waterfront on March 29th. For tickets, go to www.ueaticketbookings.co.uk.
RIGHT YOU LOT. The Mercury Prize shortlist will be announced next Friday. The best ten albums of the past year. What would be your choices?