Richard Kylea Cowie (born 19 January 1979), better known by his stage name Wiley, is perhaps the most prolific British producer, rapper and recording artist to emerge in the last twenty years. He has made pioneering music in the fields of jungle, drum & bass and UK garage, but is best known as the originator and Godfather of Grime, the uniquely British take on rap music which roared out of east London in the early noughties. Since then he has straddled the mainstream and the underground, irritated and amazed people in equal measure and carved out a unique career path which he has more or less had to make up as he has gone along.
Wiley's earliest recordings date back to 1997, when he featured on pirate radio rapping over jungle beats. In 2000, Wiley joined with "The Hit Squad" garage crew with school friends DJ Target and MC Maxwell D. They achieved some success on the UKG scene but then decided to combine with rival crew Pay As U Go to become a "super crew," containing the Ladies Hit Squad members plus DJ Slimzee and MC's Major Ace and Plague. God's Gift, Flow Dan and Riko joined soon after. In 2002 the collective achieved a top 40 hit with "Champagne Dance"
Soon after, the crew disintegrated due to individual members having differing ideas of the direction the crew should take. Wiley went on to form the Roll Deep collective, which included Dizzee Rascal and Tinchy Stryder as MCs. Wiley’s vision saw him stripping the generic melodies and sickly harmonies out of garage music and developing the drums and basslines. For a while there was no name for the genre he did more than anyone to create, but eventually the label "grime" was the one that stuck. From 2001, Wiley produced a slew of instrumental singles on his WileyKat Record label, the best known being "Eskimo", "Avalanche" and "Ice Rink". The underground notoriety he achieved led to his being offered a recording deal with the legendary XL Recordings.
In 2004, Wiley released his debut album, 'Treddin' on Thin Ice' with his new label. Singles from the album included, "Wot Do U Call It?" which mocked the various names given to his music, and "Pies”, which showed his humorous side. Reviews such as in Pitchfork Media made comparisons between Wiley and his previous labelmate Dizzee Rascal, who had achieved success with Boy in Da Corner the previous year. Alexis Petridis of The Guardian noted the "comically polarised" fanbase Wiley had accrued; "At one extreme, its sonic experimentation has attracted the kind of people who run music blogs... [where] lengthy essays are posted on issues as the differentiation between Humean and Kantian views of motivation in the lyrics of Bonnie Prince Billy. At the other extreme, it is favoured by inner city teens who appear to communicate entirely in an impenetrable mix of street slang and patois."
During this period, Wiley occasionally referred to his music as "Eski", short for 'Eskibeat' – the name he initially gave to grime. He also released mixtapes under the name "Eskiboy". He explained his choice of name for his music and the continuing theme in his song and album titles such as 'Treddin' on Thin Ice', partly because he likes the wintertime, but mainly meaning cold in spirit. "Sometimes I just feel cold hearted. I felt cold at that time, towards my family, towards everyone. That's why I used those names.”
Many of Wiley's early vinyl releases, such as 'Eskimo', were released under the alias "Wiley Kat", this name was derived from a character in the cartoon Thundercats. However, the 'Kat' is never officially used by Wiley anymore, only being mentioned loosely in some of his songs.
In 2006, Wiley released his second album 'Da 2nd Phaze' on the Boy Better Know label. The album consists of 20 tracks that had been put together by Wiley from the past three years of work, including exclusive bonus tracks from God’s Gift, Alex Mills and More Fire Crew, the latter signaling the end of the Wiley-Lethal Bizzle feud.
This was followed in by Wiley's third album, 'Playtime is Over' on Big Dada Records, which combined artistic control for Wiley with a full scale release on a recognised label. Wiley was thrilled at the opportunity to be allowed to make a grime record as he saw it, and he formed a relationship with the label that outlasted any other he’s had in the industry.
In May 2008, Wiley found mainstream chart success with the hit single, "Wearing My Rolex". The instrumentation (such as the slower, house style beat and lack of sub bass) caused some unrest within the Grime scene, as Wiley had publicly vowed that he would never leave grime music to break into the mainstream. In the same month, Wiley released his fourth album entitled Grime Wave, which was described by The Times as a "very pre-Rolex album. With its roots firmly based in the harsh, bass-heavy rhythms of the scene".
This album was followed by See Clear Now, in October 2008 which included the mainstream hits "Wearing My Rolex", "Cash In My Pocket" and "Summertime". This album took Wiley in a mainstream direction. Despite its success, Wiley has disowned the album as he was "very angry" with the label, Asylum, about the production and also unhappy about his management at the time.
Now on his own label, Wiley went on to make another album, Race Against Time. This was released eight months after his previous album in June 2009, on Eskibeat Recordings and again he had much more creative control, if little time and few resources to organise the release effectively. The album includes the 2009 hit "Too Many Man", featuring Boy Better Know.
In 2010 Wiley released 11 Zip Files for free download on his Twitter page, containing over 200 tracks of old and unreleased music, including tracks from the forthcoming album 'The Elusive'. The following year, Wiley announced his return to the Big Dada label, and the release of '100% Publishing' . The album is perhaps best remembered for “Numbers In Action” and its innovative video, for which Wiley won a Video Music Award.
Less than six months later, he released his third album with Big Dada, 'Evolve Or Be Extinct' , including skits set in taxi cabs and at immigration as well as lighthearted bangers like “Boom Blast” and “I’m Skanking” alongside harder material such as “Scar”. Soon after the record’s release Wiley began leaking grime freestyles over grime beats and releasing them for free via Twitter. This collection was released chronologically with the names "Step 1", "Step 2" and so on. After "Step 10", all of the freestyles were compiled and released as a mixtape titled It's All Fun and Games Till, Vol. 1. Alongside working on his "Step" freestyles, various other promo songs were released. Wiley carried on with his "Step" freestyles, releasing Vol. 2 of It's All Fun and Games Till.
In June 2012, Wiley released his summer single "Heatwave", featuring Ms D and produced by Rymez. On 5 August 2012, "Heatwave" peaked at number 1 on the UK Singles Chart, making this Wiley's first solo number 1, selling an impressive 114,000 copies. His next single, announced in late August, titled "Can You Hear Me" featuring Skepta, JME and Ms D, was released in October 2012. The song was renamed to "Can You Hear Me (Ayayaya)".
Alongside a series of harder-edged releases on Big Dada, Wiley devoted much of 2013 to the promotion of his Warner album, ‘The Ascent’, inclduing his infamous appearance at Glastonbury that summer, culminating in his all-time classic Tweet: “Fuck them and their farm.” On 11 October 2013, a petition was presented to Tower Hamlets' mayor Lutfur Rahman signed by over 2,000 Wiley fans, requesting that a monument to the artist be erected in Bow. On 19 October 2013, Wiley was awarded 'Best Male' at the MOBO Award's 18th Anniversary.
Wiley remains one of the biggest characters and wildest talents in British music. Whether helping younger artists break through (Dizzee, Chipmunk, Tinchy), offloading hundreds of unreleashed tracks on Twitter, rowing with detractors or doling out private insights on the web – he is always in the studio. Ultimately a workaholic, he’s the kind of artist one can imagine making groundbreaking, avant-garde music well into his old age. A true maverick and an artist in the truest sense of the word, we’re lucky to have Wiley. We should make the most of it. But he probably won’t let us.