ESKIBOY: A reflective and vulnerable tale of a very raw and traumatic climb.
By Serena Hussain (Editor) - An in depth review.
I’m without a doubt a Wiley fan and keen listener of UK grime Artists Skepta, Wretch 32, Kano and Ghetts. I’m not a 'grime head' and I wasn’t a 'grime kid', but I was a London kid. And as a Londoner still (the same generation and age as Wiley) I appreciate the cultural, geographical, and historical musical references in this autobiography that flesh out the origins of this genre of music which is fast becoming an 'any household' name. This book joins the dots for those who know and don’t know grime.
“Never disturb a baker when he’s mixing up the flour" Skepta lyrics from song ‘It ain’t safe’.
Wiley baked grime.
In this autobiography, Richard Kylea Cowie aka Wiley breaks down the ingredients of Grime, which has risen and still is rising.
“Grime is a rudeboy genre... but it’s not a badman genre" ... "Your bars don’t have to be bad. Your bars can’t be badder than you are. You have to be badder than your bars.”
This book reveals the early influences and incidents that made him and the genre what they are today, and by sharing his story through multiple narrators, mainly his father 'Richard Senior', sister Janaya Cowie, as well as comrades Wretch 32 and Logan Sama et al, it reads as a reflective and vulnerable tale of a very raw and traumatic climb.
Richard Senior: “I go backstage…I suddenly realise that something’s happened. They look a bit rattled… And then I look at him and see blood running down the back of his leg. He’s been cut. But he was still doing it. So when it comes to heart, I don’t think there’s too many people that have got as much heart as him.”
‘ESKIBOY’ reveals the roots of grime and in true Wiley style, the pages of his book are shared with other voices and testimonies. It avoids being indulgent as it’s told through multiple perspectives. We get short segments written by the eyes and ears from that era, from those who know the makings of Wiley, and the experimentation that went into grime.
“Back then, if you jump on the mic, you’ve got to prove who you are. You couldn’t talk nonsense, or just make something up. The bars that you were spitting were actually true. You had stories. That was really the start of MCing…”
Spitting over beats to energise crowds... grabbing the mic to tell stories and battling it out… grime has always been delivered in an energetic conversation directly with the crowd. This is how the scene was established in London since the early 2000s, with this raw but intimate interaction with the audience.
Wiley's early influences included watching his parents’ video collection of sound system clashes on repeat. He observed how the then emerging Jungle MC’s picked up elements of the style, charisma and lyricism which informed MCing. Jungle opened his eyes:
“It made us realise that our accents were allowed… (Jungle) was the kind of music that we felt could be ours, or that we could be a part of”.
Arguably the accent and slang which are the core indentifiable traits of grime have also been a barrier for the genre to be embraced globally, specifically in the U.S. With so much american influence in ‘urban’ music, a UK MC is sonically and linguistically hard to digest and embrace. Grime isn’t a copycat genre though … it’s authentic to its’ core.
Logan Sama: “He gave a voice to kids from council estates for the first time - not in an american accent”. Sama goes on to say how grime was the first genre in the UK to be born with the internet and which exploded once file sharing kicked in; adapting to changes and growing with the circumstances it found itself in. Sama explains the crazy experimental start of the genre and it being an ever-evolving organism. One with certain characters leading it and making it.
“Grime is raw … started in the city. It started in the estates… with people who didn’t really have much. We lived in one of the poorest boroughs in England”.
Wiley’s influences are Grime’s ingredients. His father Richard Senior explains how Wiley was a big part in forming those early crews. His vision organised and mobilised them, encouraging them to write ‘bars’.
“I can make a whole song from nothing, whether it’s just instruments or whether it’s sequences. We had to make something different. But my dad says he can recognise his music in what we make. He says he can hear himself. The drums are a big part of it. The snare, he always says. If you listen to any song back in the day, it’s the snare that makes it. The snare is important in grime. It’s part of our identity”.
WILEY DEALS IN MUSIC:
Flow Dan: “Wiley is strategic. He’s always had plans. He’s always had a bigger idea. Beyond the situations we were in. When Wiley started to clock on that his instrumentals had power, things changed. His beat-making started to form the scene.”
Having been on pirate radio since fourteen, he himself attributes this to the makings of 'Wiley'. From setting up Rinse FM in his living room (whilst someone hung out of the window with an aerial) to distributing white-label releases directly to niche record stores, Wiley pinpoints the very early makings of grime that began with Garage, Heartless Crew and So Solid. He calls Dizzee's “Boy in da Corner” and Kano's “Home Sweet Home” grime bibles.
Wiley explains how it started as a young black man’s punk rock. Shouting on a beat to get a reaction. But “the grime nationality is rudeboy now. And anyone can be a rudeboy... It’s a release” … “You hear people talking about the grime sound coming from another planet? Well, that’s because it does.”
Regarded as impossible to stop, he is a self confessed “grafter” and “tag-team master”. He gives us pages of lyrics from his extensive library of songs, reminding me of the 2010 Jay Z ‘Decoded' book where the U.S Rapper and Music Mogul gave contextual explanations of his lyrics and past hits. But in ‘ESKIBOY' we get a journal - deeply open and honest reflections which at times seem changeable, perhaps reflective of the person at the centre of the story, and at the centre of grime.
The Grime Man, once a Grime Boy, perhaps always a Grime Boy, is the secret to Wiley still being so relevant. His hunger and drive to propel others, and his spontaneous instagam freestyles still have our ears and hearts open.
In Wretch 32’s words, “Wiley was at the forefront” which we can appreciate made him a major target; his sister being held for ransom and the multiple near fatal attacks.
The most emotional and revealing account is what went down with Dizzee Rascal. Wiley recounts the events which led to Dizzee being attacked in Ayia Napa in 2003 and includes a personal letter addressed to him. The disconnect between both Artists is tragic in a Shakespearean sort of way since their ascendance was so intertwined and dependent on their collective talents and influence. Wiley asserts he claims no credit for the success of Dizzee Rascal but the facts are that Dizzee is one of many Wiley has helped connect the dots for.
“Pad and a good pen” is all he has ever wanted. Music is his therapy - one which has paradoxically invited the very chaos he seeks to escape from and has him finding a family life out of England.
Wiley’s DIY approach and relentless drive makes him the Godfather of grime and it's these characteristics that reflect the quality of the genre. The young MC’s he has championed are now in positions of influence and the ascendance and making of the scene reads like a training ground where he traded in a different more generous kind of currency - on the foundation of friendship and helping others. He still keeps himself connected to what snowballed the genre into life... his hunger.
“That’s where hunger comes from - the pain that I hold inside…"
This book reveals nuances absent from his past interviews. In fact, it reveals the kind of insight I seek to extract from every interview I do as Wiley tells his story in full for the first time. Wiley is flawed and refreshingly honest about it; endearingly so and without arrogance. Watch out for Godfather II - he’ll be back with another banger no doubt. Order your copy of ‘Eskiboy’.