Wiley is the biggest MC in East London. In any bit of London for that matter. He's the man who brought Dizzee Rascal and his Roll Deep Entourage through, who re-invented garage with a hip hop twist via his "Eskimo" and the "Ice Rink" riddims. The man who added the Orient and took away the beats with "devil mixes." The man of many lyrical beefs. The man with the string-lead, glacial, riddim-not-track musical vision. On the release of "Ground Zero," one of his very strongest riddims to date, Hyperdub caught up with Wiley …
Martin Clark: How did Eski Dance come about?
Wiley: One day I just wanted to do a rave innit? I thought of the name and went to Mix It Up promotions and did it with them. We had the first, the second, the third and it's going well. We're on our fifth one now. We just tried to get all the people in the scene under one roof.
And what is that scene?
Some people call it grime, grimey or whatever it's called. But I call my sound "eski beat." That's what I call it and everyone else can call their sound whatever they want. So people who make similar music to me, it will go under that anyway.
So it's part of grime - but there's more hip hop in what you do than most grime, isn't there?
Yeah yeah, because I write songs to it as well. But the hip hop market they haven't accepted us yet.
So who else is on your wavelength?
Very few. Dizzee. Jammer, Kano from NASTY. TNT. There's a couple of people who see the vision. There's many more but they're the ones I see on a regular basis. Danny Weed, Target, Louie White and Bigga too.
So is it a new UK form of hip hop?
Yeah it is but it hasn't been called that yet. But it is very similar because everyone writes their beats, everyone writes their songs, it's rapping but English. That's the only difference. People are just talking about their lives.
The other side of it is the MCs. Some MCs are big but they can't write songs. They haven't made the conversion from MC to artist. That's why some of them are still just MCs. Once you make the conversion and start writing about your feelings and all things like that you make it real for yourself. You gotta make the conversion.
Tell me about the sounds that you use…
Yeah I've got a few more plug-ins now. But I use whatever my ear catches innit. I flick through and then play whatever I want to play with it. I'll play melodies. A lot of people don't think I make my tunes but I've made everything. I have done tunes where I didn't engineer but whatever happens I always play what I want in. That's why I call myself a producer. I mix it all down and do it all myself right now. I'm just trying to press on and get further and further in my career.
Why do you use sounds that no one else would use?
Exactly, exactly: sounds people would think that're weak, or that's anything. But I just hear things. I play it and it just forms together innit. It's like a gift you know that? When I sit down I don't copy nothing, as such. I don't try and base my music around anything. Ideas just come in my head and I play them.
There's a big Oriental feeling to them…
I used to watch a lot of Kung Fu films. I just like the idea of the Oriental thing. I started that idea, then I stopped it and then went back to it. It just something I like. I like Chinese music. I like Greek music. I've been buying loads of kinds of music: Greek, Chinese, African. I just went to some place called Sterns? It sells world music and I bought loads of stuff there. I'll take it back and sometimes I'll sample it, sometimes loop it, or take parts and put them in different places. I do all different bits to try and get the finished thing.
That's strange to hear you're sampling because a lot of your tunes have sounded distinctive and related because the strings seem to come from a similar source or module…
I like orchestras innit. I listen to a lot of that. If I flick through a module and hear anything orchestral I might go in that direction. Though on another day I might go in another Oriental direction. I go in different directions every time I start.
But a lot of people use synths/strings to make things sound light, sound ravey …
I know what you mean. When I listen back to it I think the same thing myself.
So how did the idea for the two Ice Rink vocal 12"s come about?
What it was that I made that thing quickly and vocalled it myself. It's going to be on my album - I've got a song on it. One day I decided to let other people do versions to get their names big. There's loads of different ones - I only put out those two vinyl - but I've got all the best MCs on it. If it becomes a single for my album I'll put them out. There's a version by Flirta D, he's done a good one. He's been around for ages but he's here now, noticed now. I like him, he's one of my favourites. Kano, he's one of my favourites. Crazy Titch, his one didn't come out. There will probably be two more parts before I bring out the CD. Plus I've got the "War." I've got loads of mix CDs. Once called "Creeper Vol 1" coming out soon. Tinchy Stryder, he's got one called "The Takeover". Roll Deep Regular CD we're doing. All three of them will be done very soon. On Creeper it's little snippets of some tunes from my album and other stuff, freestyles. Tinchy's is the same. Roll Deep's is the whole Roll Deep Crew, everyone, working together to get the Roll Deep vibe going again.
What about the Eski Dance CD?
Nah that's another whole separate thing. That's all the best MCs: Wiley, Flirta D, Doogz everyone. Maximum and Danny Weed back-to-back mixing. Maximum is a new DJ, he's big. He's gonna be very big. He's how Slimzee used to be, but Slim's gone all sort of breakbeaty now innit. But this little boy Maximum he plays for the MCs. He's good, he's good. You'll see him at the next Eskimo. He's on his own, though he's done a couple of things with East Connection, but he's his own person, see like Slimzee is. When I do mix CDs I want him to DJ because he just plays what I want him to play. I don't even tell him what to play, he just plays it and I just like it. I give him dubs, loads, just bung them at him.
How many DJs actually get your beats? Danny Weed, Karnage…
Yeah, people get 'em but the reason why they haven't got em recently is because I ain't been on the ball with everyone recently. Otherwise I would have let more people cut dubs and that.
That's the funniest thing, because your 12"s are the biggest on road, but no one's got them on dub.
They're about. I've even got a back catalogue of stuff that never came out. or it came out and it wasn't mixed down properly. But it's gonna carry on, it's not gonna stop.
How did the idea for the beatless "devil mixes" come about?
Nah it's not "devil mix" you know? I called it that because it sounded evil to me innit. But I don't call it "devil mix" anymore because when I started calling it that I started to get lots of bad luck, if you understand. I called it that because it sounded evil but really, why didn't I call it "god mix" then? Because I don't believe in the devil. The more and the more you say his name, believe it or not, he'll come closer to you. And that is the truth, I swear I am not joking. "Bass mix" I call them now, cos it's just bass. The devil mix brought me too much luck. I was selling the devil mix of Eskimo and they were selling so fast. I bought stuff with the money, bought a car and crashed it. So it just turned me off.
It's an obvious thing to do - take the beats out of the tune - but in practice no one dares to do it. Why did you just go "fuck it?"
Cos I just did. I like bass innit. Obviously my dad used to be on a soundsystem, it used to be all about bass. You used to get parts of the tune that were all dubbed out. Just bass running and then the beat coming back in. So the ideas were all there but I decided to just take the beats out and just leave it and MC on it and it worked.
Is that because the energy and momentum of Eski raves comes from the MC not the beats now?
Yeah yeah. It works because people like the tune anyway so when they hear the bass on its own it's like another thing. The same tune but another feeling, feeling the bass.
So how long is it before we get the "Eski Clothing" range?
Yeah exactly! The Eski clothing range is on it's way. Eski Boy and Eski Girl. The Roll Deep Collection. Everything. It is happening: it's on its way. Believe. I'm on the case for that straight away. Merchandise that's on its way. Eskimo Dance is separate, but Eski Boy and Eski Girl, that's gonna be proper, I'm going in the world with Sean John and all them. That's what I'm gonna do but I need to get out there with my album and all that.
So how is the album going?
Yeah I've finished it. I've got 17 tracks. The first track on it is called "Came To The Game." There's "I Was Lost," "Reasons," "I Need Someone," "Got Somebody," "Problems," "Going Mad," "Moving On" "Next Level Remix" "Pick Urself Up" "Ice Rink (vocal mix)" and "Eskimo (vocal mix)."
Who's on the Eskimo vocal mix?
It's being done now, but we did have one already but I've re-done it because it had some different people on it. I just wanted to keep it straight cos it had a bit here, and then another bit there.
Is like that the amazing "Eskimo (Chubby Dread vocal special)" with you, Dizzee and more?
Exactly. That was a special but people started to like that. I was going to do it like that but then I changed my mind, because it's so old I didn't want to do it. My single is going to be "What Do You Call It" which is on the "Igloo" rhythm. I done it ages ago, before "War." It goes "what do you call it?/garage?/what do you call it?/urban? 2step?"
It's explaining about how we started doing garage and then they started turning their back to us. Pushing us away, trying to say we're ruining the scene and all that.
A few people, they know who they are.
Media people or garage industry people?
A few people in the industry, the big people in garage, they were blaming the sound because they think it makes people fight or get shot. Whatever they thought, they tried to associate it with that. But we've had four Eskimo Dances and no one's died or nothing. That proves it weren't nothing to do with me. We've moved on and they can't say it's anything to do with me because all I do I MC and do the music. If someone's got a feud with someone and they want to shoot them then that is going to happen with or without us.
So when you're MCing, whatever lyrics you say, it makes no difference?
Erm not really. What I say - I can't talk for everyone else, I say what I say - I don't actually go out there and say "Oh yeah, hello, I'm going to shoot you with a gun… I'm this… I'm that." That's not really me. I just go up there and say lyrics. My lyrics aren't really like that, so they can't associate me with it.
What's the name of the album?
I haven't properly but I want to call it "The Next Level". Because it's the next level of what I'm doing because I was in the underground doing that. I want to stay in the underground but take it up some levels.
What about guests?
Yeah Kano, J2K, Tinchy Stryder, Roll Deep, some productions from other people but it's mostly me, a Wiley album. I wanna show what I can do.
What about "Bastard?"
That tune's not coming on the album.
"Ice Rink," "Eskimo" etc What's the reason for the ice theme in the track names?
I'm a winter person but the cold… sometimes I just feel cold hearted. I felt cold at that time, towards my family, towards everyone. That's why I used those names. I was going to use "North Pole" but I didn't even get that far. It was all things that were cold because that's how I was feeling. There are times when I feel warm. I am a nice person but sometimes I switch off and I'm just cold. I feel angry and cold.
So the eski beat sound, where is it going?
It's going wherever the people in it, take it. It isn't gonna stop. So if we're all together it will go somewhere. If everyone breaks away its harder for one person to run off. If we build a scene it's easier. To work together is better.
What was Dizzee like when you first me him?
He was like just a little boy from the area. He was like energy, raring to go. He put something back into me that I never had in me at the time. I wasn't converted to an artist, that's one thing. And I was just an MC. Listening to him made me convert to an artist, it made me open up my mind that it's not just about garage. It's music, just make music. Before that I didn't have it in me, but I got energy from him. When he was growing up listening to me it was vice versa.
What do you make of him winning the Mercury Music Prize?
That was good, that was good. Dizzee is big and there is no limits to what he can get, win or how much he can sell. Me and him we got signed together and we got signed for the same reason, both because we produce, we are artists and we were big in the underground. I'm behind him. My spirit is with him, his spirit is with me. We just do what we're doing. Even though we're not together, we're still trying to do the same thing but we're just different people. He's trying to go out into the world and let everyone know, and so am I. I don't chase him around and following. I wait til I go in the world and we'll see each other.
In London a lot of people know you. Do they treat you differently?
Yeah there's a lot of respect out there, I suppose. Through the music, they like it and they understand where I'm coming from. They feel it. I do get a lot of respect from the street but you get a lot of hate too. But the hate is a minor, I don't use my energy on it, I block it out. It's usual. It's been going on since I was a little boy. It doesn't mean anything. I just carry on.
If you turned your mobile off for 24 hours how many messages would you have on your answer phone?
Loads. Hundreds. I've had to change my number four times. I was going to have no phone. You know why? Because I remember the day when I had no phone. And just no worries. The phone controls your life you live through the phone. It would be awkward without it but sometimes I think: "why do I have to have a phone?" It rings a hundred times a day. All it is, is people talking to me. And sometimes you get the wrong people ringing so that's another reason. People who aren't really helping me and that tarnishes everyone else.
So are you on a pirate station now?
Nah. I just go on any station. I've been kicked off loads of stations because they say I draw attention to the station. People just want to be on, when I'm on. But I'm allowed on a few but I'll be stopping soon, when I go out into the world. I can't just go radio then. It's only cos I haven't got anything to do that I go now and try to stay fit. Stay sharp. When you're swinging with all them up and comings they're all trying so hard you have to make sure you level stays. That's what I've been doing lately.
So who has tested you?
No one really. There's people who have touched me but I know if I put my head to it I can get through it with them. Dirrrty Doogz was probably the main one so far. But apart from that, no one. It's all little battles that I can win really. But Doogz is good, I can actually say that, he is good. But he hasn't converted fully to an artist yet but I hope he does. His brother Crazy Titch will convert quicker than Doogz will because he's more like Dizzee. A person with the same anger in them.
What's your "not garage" lyric about then?
They pushed us out. Imagine them saying it's grimey, don't play any of that stuff. If we'd been the kinda people to stop playing it then we would have just lost something. So I felt if they're going to push us out, we'll take our music and go somewhere else with it. It elevated from garage but the "real" garage headz who like garage - and I like garage. I never said anything about not liking Todd Edwards - but the high people in the scene tried to push the sound out. You'll see now its called four-to-the-floor. And we like four-to-the-floor but if they try and push out its our duty to do our thing. We'll do what we're doing. If we don't then we'll have not succeeded. We believe in our music enough that we will succeed. My music is eski beat, I'm naming myself. People can follow or not follow. Whoever makes music similar to me will be named that. So I'm trying to pull a little stunt really.
The first time it was noticed was on the flyer for Eski Dance. People were like "what's Eski?"
And that's the best thing. That's what I want people to say: "what's eski?" I want people to keep saying that. Then they listen to it and say "But it's garage. But it's not garage." And finally, one day, if the stunt pulls off, I will have named a music. I will have been the namer.
What about "Ground Zero?"
I made "Ground Zero" on September 11th. It's a bit weird: it's got feeling to it. I just felt like my towers had crashed down. I'll tell you the truth: I made it on that day because I felt down - on the floor.
What made you feel down?
Something personal. A woman. But it's alright, I got over it.
The Americans I really want them to hear "Ground Zero" to see if they relate to it. When the towers fell down, the newspapers had a face in the dust. As is if it was the ghost of Bin Laden. WHOAH!! [gets distracted by what's going on outside the car] someone just crashed, oh my god…
[Returns to the conversation] You know when the building fell down? Imagine travelling through the streets, through all that dust. I want them to understand that I understand. I felt it.
If we were in West End and the BT tower fell down and we were on that street. The fear you can't imagine the fear that would be in someone. 'Am I going to die? Am I going to live?' Your heart would pop out of your chest. I've had that feeling: where you feel like death.
I fell through a roof before - 20 ft high. I didn't know what I was falling into. When I fell I got hooked onto a long spike coming out the wall. I injured my leg. I was on a pirate radio station and we were getting away from the police. I fell off a roof into a garage, yeah. But my record bag stayed hooked onto a spike out of a wall.
Loads of times I nearly died man. Someone rolled up and went to shoot me. So it's that fear, of when your heart was like "bang" and you ask "is this gonna be the end?"
So people have tried to shoot you?
Yeah not that I want to advertise it. You try and get out of it. So it's that fear and if you look carefully into it "Ground Zero" has that feeling.
Interview by Martin Clark on 23/10/03