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Black Sky Thinking

Wiley: Eskiboy's Dalliance With An Electro-Dance Alliance
The Quietus , October 9th, 2009 12:42

This week saw the first play of Wiley's new single with Chew Fu. 'Take That' meddles with electro; but is he already too far behind Dizzee, asks Tom Thurgood?

While his title of ‘Eski’ didn’t quite catch on, Wiley — the godfather of grime — is still a pioneer. The founder of a genre, he’s been at the top for years, his talent complemented by an utterly unique and idiosyncratic character that makes him loom large over London’s grime scene.

Yet 2008 marked him as a pioneer of an unwitting kind when his chart hit 'Wearing My Rolex' kick-started grime’s barren flirtation with electro. Electro-grime saw artists vying for a slice of the commercial pie but, for staunch underground followers, the torrent that followed was ‘pie’ — uninspiring tracks extolling the Blackberry and Bentley, palpitating with heavy hearts.

"I would have been happy with the one likkle rolex tune but the label they got too excited . . ."

. . . was the word from Wiley on his last album, Race against Time. So perhaps it’s a surprise that he's dabbling with anything remotely electro again. However, this time it’s on happier and more credible terms.

The Radio 1 playlisted Filthy Dukes collaboration, 'Tupac Robot Club Rock', came first. He even produced the 'Kill Em All, Let Wiley Sort It Out' mix — removing Plastic Little’s Philadelphian vocals from the original, Wiley fills the vacuum and takes on the track single-handed. And he does so triumphantly, adding a catchy and jubilant trance-like hook that rises from the melodic, droning blanket draped over the verse accompaniments.

Then the cameo on Riton and Primary 1’s infectious house and nu-disco hybrid Who’s There? A comic phantasmagoria that paints lurid pictures of ghosts in beds and voices in heads, the topic has been mostly skirted around by the grime fraternity (they would probably get laughed out of town). Yet Wiley’s contribution to the paranormal japery is classic — his voice an automatic aesthetic complement, he flows in and around chirruping horns by half-adhering to the prescribed topic of the day, lordly making himself the song’s subject in a reflection of the presence of the man.

Now, ‘Take That’.

Produced by Chew-Fu, the Brooklyn refixer who has tinkered with tracks by the likes of Lady Gaga, P. Diddy and Britney Spears, Gary Barlow is thankfully nowhere to be crooning. Not that you would hear him — the sprawling bass, rampant revs and suspended pauses teetering towards diving drops suggest that, despite 'Take That'’s transatlantic influence, Wiley’s latest can’t help but shake the hunch that it sounds a bit ‘Bonkers’.

Not that this is a bad thing — Zane Lowe has just dubbed Take That one of his Hottest Records. But the current similar sound is the latest tale in Wiley and Dizzee’s relationship, almost running parallel in recognition but never fully acknowledging the path of the other.

From uniting in the Roll Deep Crew and on Rascal’s Mercury Prize-winning Boy In Da Corner, divisions rose from Dizzee being stabbed in Ayia Napa; each blamed the other. With Dizzee’s ensuing success Wiley clamoured for a lyrical clash on the pirate airwaves, and the competition translated to sales; Wiley’s Playtime is Over and Dizzee’s Maths + English were released on the same day in 2007. Wiley made a reconciliatory ‘Letter 2 Dizzee’; Dizzee called him a ‘pussy'ole’.

Wiley has often been playing catch-up in the quest for the wider, popular acclaim that Dizzee now has a share of. But Wiley had the aces with 'Rolex' — reaching number two, it was a bigger track than Dizzee had ever had. Less than two months later, 'Dance Wiv Me' was at the top spot for the first of its four weeks.

Yet as Dizzee goes musically further from his Bow roots, Wiley is returning from a stint in Manchester to grime’s homeland. Only the other evening, he appeared on pirate Rinse FM for the first time in almost 18 months; forums went manic and the station couldn’t handle the amount of fans tuning in. Grime’s spiritual leader was back.

As the set drew to a close, over a funky house-inspired beat — the predominant, current strain of the London underground flavour — Wiley announced:

"I didn’t think I would ever say this bar on radio . . ."

And he recited the chorus of 'Wearing My Rolex'. Well, some of it:

"Ah nah, I can’t do that."

A seemingly trivial act, but for grime fans — who have had their fair share of substandard music from mainstream-moulded artists — the gesture cemented Wiley’s legendary status and his sacrosanct regard for the underground.

Wiley’s Filthy Dukes and Riton and Primary 1 chapters were more humble in aspiration than the move with Chew Fu. Yet, wherever the more mainstream-orientated 'Take That' ends up, Wiley’s one-of-a-kind status as the underground kingpin will not be denied. Though, from the initial signs, it seems Wiley might do quite well with this one.