Status Ain't Hood

Grime Pioneer Wiley Has Nothing Left To Prove

The veteran grime MC/producer Wiley and I are the same age: 37. Old enough to be old as fuck but young enough to feel like you’re only starting to figure things out. But grime is such a young and fluid and fast-moving genre that you can be 37 and claim Chuck Berry status. Wiley pretty much invented grime; there’s no way the genre would be anywhere near where it is without his work. And he created that whole sonic universe before he was old enough to rent a car. In 1997, when I was in high school, Wiley was freestyling over jungle beats on London pirate radio stations. When I was drinking my way through college, he was putting together the Pay As U Go crew, one of the most important collections of UK garage MCs. When I was still drinking my way through college, Wiley was discovering Dizzee Rascal and Tinchy Stryder, forming the Roll Deep crew and producing some of the first grime instrumentals, combining dancehall and garage and rap into something altogether new. Within the first decade of his career, he’d been an innovator, a scene kingpin, and a ridiculously successful A&R. He’d been though boom times, backlash, creative stagnation, a sellout phase, and a revival. And now that grime, in its most chaotic and frenzied form, is finally threatening to become a truly global music, Wiley is saying that he’s ready to ride off into the sunset.

Nobody believes him. Wiley is a famously cantankerous personality, and he’s threatened to retire at least a few times before. He’s also blasted his friends and peers on Twitter and canceled festival appearances with no warning. The one time I interviewed Wiley, many years ago, we got into one of those weird confrontations where you square your shoulders and make lingering-too-long eye-contact and start to wonder whether you’re about to fight. (It’s a long story, but we were both 25 or 26 and drunk, so maybe it’s a short story.) But one of the reasons that Wiley is saying that his new album, Godfather, might be his last is that he’s got nothing left to prove. And that is an absolutely undeniable truth.

Everybody who has come out of grime and built a major career — Dizzee Rascal, Tinchy Stryder, Skepta — came up, at least in some sense, under Wiley’s tutelage. He wasn’t just a musical influence, though his chaotic and restless early-’00s instrumentals did lay down the parameters of the genre. They actually came up in the same crews as Wiley. They watched him and learned. Like those guys, Wiley went through a late-’00s moment where he stopped making grime and attempted to make crossover pop. But unlike those guys, Wiley was still making good music. 2008’s “Wearing My Rolex,” which went to #2 in the UK, and 2012’s “Heatwave,” which went to #1, are cheesed-out EDM-rap songs, and Wiley has completely disavowed them now. But where his peers were dabbling in pop-music sweep, Wiley was making sure his tracks had the same wild and unstable energy that made his music special in the first place. The whole time, Wiley just kept cranking out new music — 11 studio albums in 13 years, on top of countless mixtapes and non-album singles and collabs. And now that Wiley’s protege Skepta has brought back the early-’00s grime sound and turned it into a sensation, Wiley has responded by making one of the best straight-up grime albums I’ve heard in ages.

Pop music still hasn’t had a chance to catch up to grime in the past decade-plus, and the things Wiley was doing on his 2004 debut album, Treddin’ On Thin Ice, possibly the last album I bought on import before buying imports became a ridiculous thing to do, still sound like the future. It’s funny to hear Wiley describe himself as “old school” on Godfather, but grime is now at a point where it can have an old school, and Wiley is absolutely of it. There are introspective moments on Godfather, like the relationship-story single “U Were Always, Pt. 2.” But for me, the strongest moments on Godfather are the ones where Wiley goes full grime, sounding like a fired-up kid yammering over a broken Super Nintendo.

There are moments on Godfather where I can’t believe I’m hearing someone my age. Wiley’s style is hard and clipped and authoritative, but he’s also the sort of speed-rap sprinter who sounds like he can keep going forever without getting tired. Some of these tracks, like “Back With A Banger,” are absolutely relentless jackhammers. On “Bait Face,” he makes playground shit-talk sound revelatory: “I walk up in the place like everybody’s better than me / Hmmmm….. sike!” And even when he slows down, Wiley makes sure he stays firmly within the lines of the grime sonics that he established more than a decade ago. Now that Skepta is out there on every festival lineup, Wiley has a clear path to international stardom. Instead, he’s made a compromise-free album of straight-up bangers, and he’s telling the world that he’s done. “This is the end of my career, in terms of proving anything,” he told The FADER recently. “After this, I don’t have to prove anything to anybody. It’s not my job any more to jump around and try being the number one guy.” After all, why worry about being the number one guy when you’ll always be the first guy?

FURIOUS FIVE

1. Lil Bibby – “You Ain’t Gang (Remix)” (Feat. Lil Durk, Dej Loaf, & Kevin Gates)
In which a new street-rap generation’s most convincingly grisly voices — including Dej Loaf, who is sweet and airy and melodic and who will absolutely rip your scalp back — mob up to make something deeply exhilarating. If you don’t get at least a tingle of adrenaline when Gates comes snarling in, maybe this whole rap music thing isn’t for you.

2. Lud Foe – “Fvcked Up”
We’ve made a big fuss this past year about all the utopian, giddy, inventive rappers coming out of Chicago’s after-school cipher scene lately. But Lud Foe will never let you forget that a Chicago rapper will stomp your gray matter into the ice.

3. DMX – “Bain Iz Back” (Feat. Swizz Beatz)
I belong to a generation that hears DMX’s voice and immediately gets an urge to drive a dirtbike through a 10th-story window. It doesn’t matter how dessicated that voice might get; the feeling is still the same.

4. Your Old Droog – “G.K.A.C.”
One of the best ’90s revivalists in the New York underground goes deep into the sort of cinematic storytelling we don’t hear very often anymore. As long as we’re reviving the ’90s, let’s have some more tracks like these.

5. Kirk Knight – “Setup” (Feat. A$AP Ferg)
Pro Era and A$AP Mob both sometimes make tracks that scan, on the surface, as fight music. But they’re not fight music. They’re party music, and they’re pretty good party music at that.

IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO