In January, a few short years after exploding onto the pirate radio circuit with a self-dubbed “eskibeat” that birthed the genre with a thousand names, Wiley – aka “eski”, “eskimo boy”, “Wiley Kat” – announced his retirement. Wiley doesn't have the cash to rest on his laurels after this sort of grandstanding statement. He's no Jay-Z quitting his rap career for a turn as an industry heavyweight. In fact, there's no industry into which Wiley could be reborn.
Instead, he's sort of out to make one. As the innovator of grime, a quirky genre born from the same London pirate radio traditions that spawned UK Garage music and countless other fractured categorizations, grime stands out as one of London's most profoundly original recent innovations. While fundamentally a subgenre of hip hop, grime drags punk aesthetics and electronic production kicking and screaming into the fold in a startling revision. In essence, it tears hip hop a new one by lifting it from the US east-west-south divisions, starting almost fresh in the streets of east London, where there's as much music industry infrastructure to support local music as there was in the Bronx in the late 70s (which is to say, not much.) So when Wiley says he's retiring, he's referring to his decision to step out of the underground movement that he's widely credited as spearheading in hopes of winning it a better above-ground credit line.
Dizzee Rascal and Lady Sovereign (if she counts as a grime artist) have already done their own sort of damage getting grime out into the mainstream, but the difference is that while both of these younger artists have nodded towards American hip hop in their attempt for greater global recognition, Wiley's hewn a lot closer to his original stylings. With those standards firmly intact, his “retirement” will be spent proselytizing:
“It's a genre that's gonna blossom one day, but not just yet, you know. But by the time it does, I might be old. What I have to do is spread the word a bit, around the world a bit more, and to do that, I've got to retire from the scene… to spread the word of grime.”
Through the course of our conversation, the expression “the word of grime” drew Wiley like a big black fly to a bug zapper. In Wiley's universe, it's not that different from saying “the word of Wiley”, and in essence, he's the rock upon which he's building his church. He's not satisfied with the cult status he's earned. His planned world touring is his last ditch fight against a public-inflicted crucifixion, an attempt to be one step ahead of an entertainment industry that loves to call him the originator of grime but thus far hasn't rewarded him with a corresponding pay load. “I'll be old, see what I'm trying to say? In 20 years time, all the kids growing up listening to it, they'll be billionaires, and you won’t be, and you were the creator, see what I'm saying?”
To assume that grime will rise to the heights of American hip hop is a tall order, one that takes as much ego as blind faith. Regardless of its inherent dissimilarities, Wiley has the benefit of hindsight over American hip hop's history, or at the very least, he's not blindly forging ahead in a vacuum. His pride rests in the assurance that he is the progenitor of a the genre that launched the UK into the hip hop world, not just as imitators a la The Streets, but as innovators, like Dizzee Rascal, about whom Lil Jon famously commented to the Guardian, “I like that Dizzee Rascal kid, even if I don't understand what the fuck he's saying.” With that sort of street cred, Wiley sees himself at the very beginning of a very long lineage, and as a result, not in the shoes of Eminem or Jay-Z, but in those of the earliest of hip hop innovators.
“Imagine this: it's like Grandmaster Flash, yeah? They respect him because he didn't give in and he tried to evolve, but really, he hasn't had a chance to reap the reward that most other hip hoppers have had. So being the creator and starter of a genre is a good thing on one hand, but on the other hand, it's a dangerous thing.”
His rapping cadence, considered “distracting” by some, devalues the dance-readiness of the two and four and shotguns through verses like a clipped but malfunctioning wind-up clock, spitting ceaselessly and unpredictably in rhythmic and lyrical circles. It's almost punk, the way his quintessential eskibeat-cum-rapping jibs against our rhythmic expectations. The outcome is jarring and not for everyone, but it's also unseated what rap has basically meant since its inception by rhyming against the beat instead of with it.
That's his story and he's sticking to it. As Dizzee, his one-time disciple turned casual public enemy, spreads the word with Lily Allen collaborations and increasingly accessible beats, Wiley sticks resolutely to the game he's always been remembered for. He's too old for innovation. “I don't really wanna be in beefs anymore. I'm tired. I've been in beefs since I was a kid. I'm tired, I'm tired. I just want to make money now.”