On the U.K. hip-hop scene, there is one voice that continuously makes the most noise – that of Richard Kylea Cowie aka Wiley. Known as the originator of the U.K. grime movement – a brand of hip-hop that combines lightning quick lyricism with dynamic electronic production – Wiley has also put it upon himself to carry the genre on his back. While success has pushed the first generation of grime artists in different directions, Wiley has remained steadfast.
Although, he’s had his fair share of controversial moments – feuding with major labels and a somewhat tumultuous relationship with the festival circuit – he has developed an elder sense of wisdom. At this point in his career, Wiley has evolved to compartmentalize his musical output unlike most artists. He knows when it’s time to make a chart-topper or a club record and how to go about it, but his heart always remains with the genre he helped to create. Like some Warren Buffet-esque philanthropist, Wiley has taken all of his success and put it back into the promotion and development of grime.
Although, his thoughtful perspective doesn’t only concern the genre he has raised since its infancy. Speaking with him, I was surprised by his degree of awareness of hip-hop as an international phenomenon, which I found ironic because American audiences may still experience bewilderment at the idea of British hip-hop. Feeling the need to represent his scene on a larger scale, Wiley displays the kind of scholarly perspective seldom seen in hip-hop artists today. For his most recent single “Flying,” Wiley returns to the renowned Big Dada label to once again remind the masses that the experimental underground is the place he calls home. For our discussion, Wiley spoke on his need to stay true, where that desire comes from, and the fundamental differences between the U.S. and the U.K.
THE DAILY SWARM: First off, how do you view this new single “Flying” in the context of your career?
WILEY: It’s a record that I could have delivered before today. It’s like a weird type of sounding song. No other person’s song sound like it at the moment. And for me, I always look at what people are sick of and what people don’t accept from different people in different territories. It’s always leads me back to one thing: if you just be yourself and do what you’re good at. Eventually, people who study all of these different hip-hop areas will say, “Oh yeah, that’s cool. What else is cool?” They’ll find what they think is cool, but they will be able to hear it and discover it, rather than me falling back and just making something for the chart in this territory.
THE DAILY SWARM: You said that it doesn’t sound like anything that is out right now, how would you describe the musical DNA of “Flying”?
WILEY: I think it’s just electronic. It’s electronic; it’s weird. It’s obviously a form of hip-hop to us, but people would label it “grime.” People might say electro, but when I was a kid, the loops and samples people would use would be always be some weird electronic music.
THE DAILY SWARM: What kinds of songs or artists come to mind when you think about that time?
WILEY: In England, there was this guy called Mac Herbert. He was very electronic. He used to make beats out of stuff like spoons hitting the teapot or something – just weird shit. And obviously Daft Punk, and The Prodigy, even though they were a bit more heavy with it. They were a bit more dance-y or rave-y, but yeah, people along those lines.
THE DAILY SWARM: How did the video for “Flying” directed by RUFFMERCY – who’s worked with Schoolboy Q, Blue Daisy, and Danny Brown, among others – come about?
WILEY: My friend Jamie said, “Listen, we should do something crazy.” So, he showed me some of his stuff that seemed to work with that formula. Basically, I understand that when you do a video, it needs to jump out. It can’t just be the average, normal video anymore. People want something different.
THE DAILY SWARM: Especially if it’s one of those raw performance videos, you need some creative visual effects to make it pop.
WILEY: Sometimes you watch videos that are out there and you say, “Oh, we’ll do a video like that video.” Like, if someone’s a big star, people will tend to emulate all of their artistic decisions. So, I just wanted something that was different. I’m happy with it. It’s a bit flashy, though. It was making my eyes hurt a bit.
THE DAILY SWARM: Yeah, if you suffer from epilepsy, you might be in trouble. So, obligatory question: as you’re credited as the “Godfather of Grime,” how has the genre evolved, and where do you see it headed moving forward?
WILEY: I’ll be honest with you, since Dizzee Rascal came out in 2002 or 2003 – it’s been 10 years. I think it was elevating; then it was going up, and it was going down; people love it and then they don’t. I think today, each person who was someone from 2002 onwards – you know, the Kanos, the Dizzees, the Wileys, there’s all sorts of Chipmunks – I think those people have got the chance to take it somewhere from here. So, in the last few years are going different directions. Some people are trying to chart; some people are trying to make money; some people are sticking to their guns.
THE DAILY SWARM: So, the scene has kind of split and diverged…
WILEY: Yeah, it has. And today, everyone watching the “Flying” video thinks, “So, in the last two months, Wiley’s just gone over there, sold a million singles and he’s using all that energy to push grime like he always does.” And that makes people want to do grime again. Some people were feeling it anyway, but when someone like me comes back and says, “You know what lads? I love grime and you know I love grime,” but there is no better time for me because I’m older. I’m happy financially and I don’t have to find a major label. I definitely need a team of people to help me do what I wanna do, but it’s not number one on my list anymore.
THE DAILY SWARM: You’re mentioning that you’re older and I remember you saying that Jay Z couldn’t still be doing his thing in the U.K. Why do you think that is?
WILEY: I think in the U.S.A., that market, that slice of entertainment is number one in the world to me. It doesn’t matter if Roc-A-Fellas or whoever thinks they’re at the top or bottom. I look at it and I think that the whole world looks at America in terms of entertainment. It’s just the way it is. Obviously, we do our thing, but we look to America. I think when something is as big as it is and has been running for that long, it deserves to be number one. In England, we like to think there’s a limit unlike in America. I’m not sure why we feel this way, whether it’s the queen or whatever I don’t know, it just feels like there are limitations that aren’t over there. I think that’s the one thing that is holding us back. I’m not saying that’s not going to change, but right now we can’t totally be ourselves like A$AP Ferg or A$AP Rocky or Young Jeezy or Gucci Mane like we’re not allowed to. Plus, some of the stuff they get away with, we’d be in jail for.
THE DAILY SWARM: It’s kind of interesting because I see what you’re talking about, just in terms of how the different scenes play out. You have the whole “American Dream” idea, but then, in the U.K., I see hip-hop as being much more influenced by the immigrant experience than over here.
WILEY: Yes, exactly. My experience as a child, listening to people like Another Bad Creation, Chi Ali, and everyone else, I was always watching what they were doing. Whether they were singing or rapping, whoever it is, Bell Biv Devoe, etcetera. To this day, I say it to my friends sometimes – I wish I was born in America. And that’s a dangerous thing to say because I’m English/Caribbean; I have an English accent. To have been embraced the scene that you have there, you would have to have been born in America or Canada. In England, everyone dreams of one day blowing up and going to America, but in fact, it’s even harder in America than it is in England, unless you were born there; some people point out Trinidad James as an exception, but I understand the barrier. In London, we all speak the same and someone from Manchester speaks differently. I can understand him; I work with him. Some people might not understand him in London properly, so when you do put the two different accents on a tune, to some people it sounds weird.
THE DAILY SWARM: Yeah, I remember in the initial days of grime when there was a little bit of crossover, it was hard for people to comprehend that they were doing hip-hop, too.
WILEY: It is hip-hop, though. It’s rappin’; it’s spittin’ bars. It’s because someone labeled it.
THE DAILY SWARM: I think in some ways when grime was starting, yeah, it’s hard for someone in the States to understand, but it came at a time when hip-hop in the states was really stale in terms of lyricism. It was the accent, but also just the sheer amount of energy put into the lyrics.
WILEY: Yeah, I understand.
THE DAILY SWARM: Although, now in the States we’re seeing a lot more lyricism with people like Kendrick Lamar. I was wondering for hip-hop fans in the U.S. who are still unaware of the scene in the U.K., who would you draw a parallel with on this side of the pond with yourself and the grime scene?
WILEY: Well, the grime scene is just the hip-hop scene in the U.S. So, you’ve had DMX, Biggie, Jay Z; we’ve had the same sort of situation, but I think if I was in America and I was Wiley, I think I would be very similar to a Cam’ron. The truth is, different people make different decisions so they’re not as current anymore. I would like Cam’ron forever, but a young kid might not. They might like A$AP Rocky or someone like Drake. I might say Jay Z, but not really because Jay Z’s older than me so whoever’s in the 30-34 zone – maybe 50 Cent. He’s a bit rough, I wouldn’t be him [laughs]; I like him though. I like 50 Cent because he really is that person: even if you love him or hate him, in the end you’ve got to accept that you’re one way, they’re another way. Now, Lil Wayne, he’s a little bit closer to my era because we have enough in common – like the way he has a clique and brings people in. He would’ve grown up on the same stuff as me.
THE DAILY SWARM: Speaking on the whole crew idea – do you think crews have the same intention in the U.K. as they do here? With something like Young Money, I feel like it’s a kind of packaging to market everyone and unite different artists under one aesthetic. Is it the same idea with the crew that you’ve started?
WILEY: It has been, definitely. The whole Young Money thing – when I think back to the first crew that I tried to start when I was 10, 11 years old, it was did the exact same thing; it’s just that there are a lot of people who has grown out of a crew as well. In Young Money, the stars who have stemmed from there are Tyga, Drake, Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne, and then you might go over to Rick Ross and Meek Mill. In our case, it would be Dizzee; it would be Wiley, and then stem from there to Roll Deep and Tinchy Stryder, and then it will go on to me working with other crews like the Kanos. It’s very similar, but I think today, we’re in the best position we have ever been because we’re not fighting to make money anymore. You know, you have that thirst; you’re trying to make money, you’re trying to make money, you get money, you save it or you spend it, whichever. A lot of people who were in grime from years ago, they’re quite comfortable. That’s when you can sit back and say, “I don’t actually have to make music for money anymore.” I can just make it because I love it. When we’re all coming up, we all want to make the coolest thing, but also commercial. You’re trying to get to number one.
THE DAILY SWARM: A lot of your contemporaries have gone in different directions, why do you think you have kept that mentality as opposed to someone like Dizzee Rascal?
WILEY: I think it’s because I come from that other element. I was born in 1979, and as soon as I can remember, on the screen would be dancehall music. So, I would’ve been watching those shows with Ninjaman and Shabba Ranks. My element is from them. If you’re a Caribbean/English person, I think you grow up with that music in your home and you grow into it, but it’s already in you. That’s what’s kept me here, the music; my dad’s a musician as well. It’s just knowing what people love you for and what you’re best at. For me, it’s that grime element. I think it’s definitely my dad, the dancehall, hip-hop and even new jack swing. It’s all of the music that was pumped into my brain.
THE DAILY SWARM: Carrying grime on your shoulders, do you feel a lot of pressure or even feel limited by needing to satisfy that contingent of people who see you that way?
WILEY: Yeah, I definitely do feel a lot of pressure. But as long as you love it and love making it and show that to people, it’s fine. Sometimes there’s leaked music and mixtapes that are geared more towards the fans. There’ll always be a set of fans that understand the passion and take some of the pressure off. But I think the problem is England: we haven’t released enough of what we’re good at. If everybody just released all their best stuff, I think we’d be in a crazy place. I think in America, they love what they do. Even Lil Reese – he might go to the studio, record a song, loves what he does. Because he’s loving it and people are catching his vibe, it’s actually popping off. Lil Reese isn’t going to do “Starships” like Nicki Minaj, you know?
THE DAILY SWARM: Yeah, definitely not.
WILEY: Because what he’s doing is popping. He doesn’t need to do “Starships.” Obviously, I love her, but I know in my heart that she never needed to do “Starships” or a record like that.
THE DAILY SWARM: At some point, her and her team did a complete overhaul and changed her persona. I know she got rid of a lot of people close to her. Maybe she’s trying to get back to that, but I just remember hearing her verse on Kanye’s “Monster” and thinking, “Holy crap!”
WILEY: Yeah. It made me think, “Ok, in England we have to do this shit, but she doesn’t!” But again, to get in the ranks of 200,000,000 YouTube views, maybe that’s what she thought she had to do.
THE DAILY SWARM: Following your chart-toppers like 2008’s “Wearing My Rolex” and more recently “Heatwave,” it always seems like you go back in the direction of your origins like eskibeat and the like. Have you always felt an aversion towards mainstream success? Has that changed over time?
WILEY: To tell you the truth, I never really wanted mainstream success. I just wanted grime to become mainstream. I realized that different scenes go in and out of fashion, but as I got older I realized music is music. I wish I was in an environment like America, but I’m not. We look at the whole America thing and we do our own thing, but we see people like 50 Cent in the top ten twice and we tend to get a bit lost in our thinking. So, why shouldn’t I be in the top ten twice? Our radio won’t stop it, but they’re not necessarily trying to help either. So, you always have to readjust your thinking to fit your environment. I’m not upset, though. I’m just happy. I did “Heatwave,” which is kind of calypso. So, for me it wasn’t that bad, but I know that eventually, after I make all this money, I need to go back. Like, I have a phobia: I don’t want an American person to hear me if it’s not my best. My cousin asked me, “If you were to go to America, what would you show them?” No way would I show them “Heatwave.” I don’t want to show them the song I did for money. So, that’s how I’m thinking, that I’ve got to go back home. In America, they might understand a bit of what we’re doing, but not if I’m not at my best or I’m not doing what I’m meant to be doing.
THE DAILY SWARM: What that the thinking behind releasing the “Step” series – the numerous freestyles you released through Twitter?
WILEY: Yeah, man, I spit bars, and that’s my main thing. Over here, the radio wants “nice” songs. Not just “nice” songs, but the radio wouldn’t let us get away with some of the stuff rappers get away with over there. I think eventually it could change, but the bigger you get in your specific territory, maybe the more they turn a blind eye to some things.
THE DAILY SWARM: You eventually were able to strike a balance, although you’ve definitely had your fair share of issues with major labels like Warner, but now you’re at the point where you know where your music goes. When did you figure that out?
WILEY: It was probably this year. In January, I was making songs and I was questioning myself about trying to please everybody and I thought, man, you can’t please everybody. How can I make something that can reach out to everybody? Then I realized: the underground is the underground and the mainstream is the mainstream. When something crosses over into the mainstream, the underground doesn’t like it anymore. I had that stupid battle in my head and I decided there was no real way to win. If I cater to two sets of people, then I don’t have that battle anymore. If a hip-hop fan from America would look over, they can still see the passion. They can see that you have rhymes regardless, and that’s what I always get back to.
THE DAILY SWARM: There’s been a resurgence of new talent in grime, but everyone’s making a bigger deal about producers like Logos over MCs. Do you think it’s a temporary shift or are people just not paying enough attention to up-and-coming MCs?
WILEY: Again, I think the older ones like Skepta, JME – what we need to do as an older section of grime MC’s is we need to always embrace the youth. Lately, we’ve all been touring and trying to make our money. I’ve got a lot of respect for producers, obviously, because I produce myself. I love producers who try to take it to that next step. I’d be happy if a grime producer is becoming known. Here, we do have the Wileys, the Kanos, the Dizzees, and the Skeptas – we do have those people. If we could just all stay on the same page, then we could ignite it properly. It is igniting, but it needs to be moving somewhere. “Flying” is a good thing because people are going to look at it and say, “Fucking hell! After all that, he just comes straight back.” A lot of people would rather head for the charts, but we need to stick to what we’re best at. It’s nothing to me. I listen to Tinie Tempah and think he’s blowing up and everyone likes him; that’s cool. How do I blow up? Ok, I can’t copy him, but I’ve gotta be myself and find the route that’s going to get me to that number one spot.