The biggest hits, greatest videos and memorable moments that made Wiley the grime king
While Skepta, Stormzy, JME and the BBK crew have emerged as the crowned princes of the new wave of grime and Dizzee Rascal, Kano and Lethal Bizzle are the best-known of the old-guard, the one figure lurking in the background, often pulling many of the strings, has always been one Richard Cowie, aka Wiley.
With eleven studio albums to his name stretching back to 2004, Wiley has been cited as a major influence on many of today’s main grime scene players and helped give many of them their bunk-up to fame without, despite numerous major hits, gaining quite the same level of mainstream acclaim and celebrity for himself. All that changed with this year’s ‘Godfather’ album, his first Top Ten success and the record that earned him NME’s Outstanding Contribution To Music award and has helped him steal some of the, um, grimelight from his many apprentices. Now he’s set to play his biggest ever show at Brixton Academy in November - here’s how he got there…
Young Wiley: the rise of Eskiboy
Emerging from the early 00s East London pirate radio and garage scene and garnering mucho respect for the track ‘Nicole’s Groove’ under the name Phaze One, Wiley’s first taste of success came when his collective Pay As U Go Cartel hit the Top Twenty in 2002 with the frantic garage slick-cut ‘Champagne Dance’.
With Pay As U Go disbanding soon afterwards, Wiley instigated the Roll Deep crew, a shifting collective of rappers and producers that featured Dizzee Rascal and Tinchy Stryder in its early years and would later feature the likes of Skepta and JME. Here the roots of grime were planted as – collectively and individually - Roll Deep released a plethora of records exploring darker, grittier beats and themes and aggressive electronics. Dizzee’s ‘Boy In Da Corner’ was grime’s first major breakout success, but Wiley’s earliest grime releases, often under the name Wiley Kat, were still concerned with defining the scene even as it was taking off around him. ‘Wot Do U Call It?’ he asked on one single from his 2004 debut album ‘Treddin’ On Thin Ice’, deciding on “Eskimo sound” or ‘eskibeat’ as his chosen title, even launching Eskibeat Recordings in 2004 to launch new grime artists. Godfather Of Eski doesn’t quite have the same ring though, right?
The great Wiley breakout
After spending three albums as something of a background figure, developing his eski empire, helping found the Boys Better Know Records in 2005 and getting caught up in feuds with Dizzee and Lethal Bizzle, come 2008 Wiley began producing grime hits in earnest. ‘Wearing My Rolex’ saw him soften his style for Top Three success in the UK and ‘Cash In My Pocket’, ‘Take That’ and his involvement with BBK’s dancefloor sausage-fest ‘Too Many Man’ continued his culture-carving hot streak.
But it wasn’t until the release of 2013’s ‘The Ascent’ that Wiley became one of urban music’s longest overnight successes, hitting Number One with the tropic-trembling orchestral pop of ‘Heatwave’ and following it up with a string of Top Tenners. By the end of the campaign, 2000 people had signed a petition to have a statue of Wiley erected in Bow.
Wiley: grime ‘Godfather’
Despite his breakthrough, Wiley refused to compromise his work for something as small-minded as success. Leaving Warner Bros Records because they insisted on putting out a single he didn’t want to release from ‘The Ascent’ (‘Lights Out’), he concentrated on producing, releasing records by and shovelling guest spots at up-and-coming grime acts like Skepta and Stormzy, bashing out mixtapes like the internet was ending tomorrow and working up albums strictly on his own terms. It paid off too: 2014’s tenth album ‘Snakes & Ladders’ slipped by under the radar but this year’s ‘Godfather’ was his biggest hit yet, sitting alongside Skepta’s ‘Konnichiwa’, Stormzy’s ‘Gang Signs & Prayer’ and Kano’s ‘Made In The Manor’ as the definitive grime records of the age and earning him the respect he’s deserved since he was but a little eskiboy.
What’s Wiley’s net worth?
The Celebrity Net Worth website puts Wiley’s net worth at $6 million. That’s a hell of a lot of Rolexes.
Has Wiley had any beefs?
What rapper worth the name hasn’t? His well-publicised fall out with Dizzee Rascal, his one-time partner in inventing grime, was rooted in a night out in Aiya Napa when the Roll Deep rappers got into a fight with another crew, only for Wiley to continue the aggro the following day – the opposing crew went looking for Wiley but found, and stabbed, Dizzee. Since then, he’s had a mild beef with Skepta over a line he rapped on ‘Zip It Up’: “I'm the king when I roll through anywhere/You’re just a king when you roll through Barnet”. Considering that Skepta is now something of a king across the US, it’s a regrettable line, but the feud quickly blew over.
As did Wiley’s row with, of all things, Glastonbury Festival. In 2013, the grime star flounced off of the Glastonbury site without making his scheduled appearance, amid a storm of furious Tweets about money, mud and how everyone he knows was going to get sacked. “Fuck them and their farm” he memorably signed off. Come 2017, though, Wiley’s had a change of heart, announcing himself as playing Glastonbury and declaring “Rain or shine this year at Glastonbury is gonna be amazing because now I understand the real meaning of a festival.”