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British MC and producer Wiley pioneered the fusion of U.K. garage and hip-hop known as grime during the early 2000s, and remained a popular and prolific artist throughout the following decades, scoring several U.K. pop hits and releasing a bounty of acclaimed albums and mixtapes. Initially calling his knotty, brittle style "eski" or "eskibeat" before later proclaiming himself as the "Godfather of Grime," he scored hits as part of garage crews Pay as U Go Cartel and Roll Deep before launching a successful solo career. Several groundbreaking instrumental rhythms, often released as white label 12" singles or free downloads, preceded his 2004 debut album, Treddin' on Thin Ice. From there, he constantly bounced between independent and major labels, issuing grime releases such as 2007's Playtime Is Over and the Tunnel Vision mixtape series, as well as more pop-focused, danceable material, occasionally scoring major hits like 2008's "Wearing My Rolex" and 2012's chart-topping "Heatwave." He returned to his grime roots with 2017's Top Ten-charting Godfather, which was followed by two sequels, and he ventured into dancehall on 2020's Boasty Gang - The Album.
Richard Cowie Jr. was born in East London in 1979. His father, a reggae musician, introduced him to early hip-hop as well as the drums, and he began to DJ, rap, and produce music as a teenager. He made appearances on pirate radio and joined several crews, including Pay as U Go Cartel. He co-produced the 2000 garage track "Nicole's Groove" by Phaze One, and Pay as U Go scored a Top 20 hit with "Champagne Dance" in 2002. Crucially, he also released several instrumental singles under his Wiley Kat guise, all bearing chilly titles like "Eskimo" and "Ice Rink," which helped lay the foundation for the grime sound.
Shortly before Pay as U Go disbanded in 2002, Wiley founded Roll Deep, which also included Dizzee Rascal and Tinchy Stryder, as well as other MCs who would end up having significant solo careers. Wiley signed to XL for the release of debut solo album Treddin' on Thin Ice (2004), one of grime's first full-lengths. He switched to the Eskiboy pseudonym for underground mixtapes on JME's Boy Better Know label, including 2006's Da 2nd Phaze and several volumes of Tunnel Vision. 2007's Playtime Is Over was the first of several Big Dada-issued Wiley full-lengths.
In 2008, following the independent release Grime Wave, Wiley made a controversial crossover move with his third proper album, See Clear Now. Released on major label Asylum, it had a considerably larger recording budget than his previous output and featured production input from Mark Ronson and Arthur Baker, among others. The bouncy single "Wearing My Rolex" reached number two on the U.K. singles chart. Less than a year after the album was released, he returned to his Eskibeat label with the full-length Race Against Time. Wiley reached the Top Ten again as a featured artist on Naughty Boy's 2010 single "Never Be Your Woman." He continued to lengthen his reach by setting up the A-List label for the development of upcoming talent, as well as Elusive Entertainment, where he issued Chill Out Zone (2011).
Wiley returned to Big Dada for 100% Publishing (also 2011), along with Evolve or Be Extinct (2012). He moved back into the major-label system for The Ascent (Warner Music, 2013), the release of which was teased with the fizzy "Heatwave," a number one U.K. hit. Three additional singles from the album reached the Top Ten. Life Is a Game of Snakes & Ladders (Big Dada, 2014), featuring the eskibeat throwback "On a Level," didn't fare nearly as well commercially. Mixtapes, an EP, and a stream of stray tracks all reached the public in the mid-2010s.
After the release of Snakes & Ladders, Wiley appeared to go quiet for a couple of years. In 2016, he returned in a big way; he announced his 11th studio album, Godfather, as well as his autobiography, in addition to plans to release a feature-length autobiographical film. Godfather was delayed numerous times and was even scrapped at one point, but it finally arrived in January 2017, and became his highest-charting album, reaching number nine on the U.K. charts. Eskiboy, Wiley's autobiography, was released the following November, as the MC/producer issued the single "I Call the Shots," featuring JME. Wiley was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire for his services to music at the beginning of 2018. The full-length Godfather II, with guests including D Double E and Sinead Harnett, appeared in April 2018. A bevy of singles followed throughout the year, which he capped off with the homage to the grime scene "Raise Your Glass."
One of Wiley's 2018 singles, the dancehall-influenced "Boasty" (which originally featured Mucky), was re-recorded with Stefflon Don, Sean Paul, and Idris Elba, and released in January 2019. The track reached number 11 on the U.K. pop chart, and a full dancehall/rap crossover album titled Full Circle was scheduled to contain appearances from Future and Nicki Minaj. A further charting single titled "My One" (with Tory Lanez, Kranium, and Dappy) appeared, but the album was eventually called off due to rights disputes. Wiley feuded with Stormzy at the beginning of 2020, releasing a trio of "Eediyat Skengman" send-offs, before the two reconciled. Godfather 3, a grime album featuring dozens of guest MCs, appeared in June 2020. Later in the same month, coinciding with Windrush Day (marking the anniversary of the migration of several hundred Caribbean people to the United Kingdom), Wiley released the dancehall-influenced Boasty Gang - The Album, including a solo version of his 2019 hit. ~ Andy Kellman & Paul Simpson
- London, England
- 19 Jan 1979
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