x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Evolve or Be Extinct: the latest from the 'Godfather of Grime'

The latest official offering from Wiley, the relentlessly prolific London MC and producer with a penchant for fighting with the music industry, continues his theme of living at terminal velocity.

Evolve Or Be Extinct / Wiley / Big dada / Dh46
Evolve Or Be Extinct / Wiley / Big dada / Dh46

The word maverick is too lightly applied to pop stars. By their nature they are already likely to be in possession of what is euphemistically called an artistic temperament - and, more than that, omniscient 21st-century media scrutiny sees to it that a pop star's every little quirk is broadcast to the world, amplified, argued over and then reverberated back onto them.

Perhaps we need them to be eccentric. If pop stars turned out to be just the same as us, we'd have to pull the pedestal from beneath them - so we look harder for their eccentricities. In the case of Richard "Wiley" Cowie, the London-born MC and producer and widely acknowledged "Godfather of Grime", it is not necessary to look very hard.

For starters, he has fought with the music industry in a way that makes symbol-era Prince look like a compliant, willing pawn. Never knowingly co-operative, Wiley has publicly disowned most of the 20 or so albums and "mixtapes" (album-length CDs, but spontaneously recorded and self-released) he has recorded since 2004, sometimes before they are even released.

His normal procedure is to produce a large batch of new songs, half of which will be superb, and half mediocre, then blame his record label for trying to control or manipulate his genius, deride the album and rip up his contract in a huff. He has publicly denounced his manager and various labels numerous times, normally before returning to work with them again a week later. "I might not be the easiest person to manage in the world," he told me with a chuckle after one such tantrum.

He has started more of his own labels and rap crews than anyone could possibly count - few have lasted, with the notable exception of Roll Deep, his original grime crew from East London, who have several classics (Heat Up, When I'm Ere) and now two number-one singles to their name. Wiley is an incorrigible live performer, frequently turning up to high-profile headline shows and performing for only a minute or two before departing, to consternation. He doesn't seem to be able to decide if he loves or hates the limelight. Once, while in hospital after being stabbed 14 times, he went against doctor's orders and escaped in order to take the mic at a grime all-nighter.

In recent years he has found time to accidentally start a race war with a flippant, stupid comment and, more enjoyably, make himself star of his own webcam TV channel, in which he took his laptop around with him everywhere, talking to the thousands of fans following his every bizarre movement. There are few pop stars who could entertain even while writing a shopping list, or going to the park - Wiley is one of them.

His greatest eccentricity, however, relates to the artistic process itself. Few in recent times - perhaps Sun Ra, or Mark E Smith - come close to his relentlessly prolific musical output.

In 2010, while working on tracks for a major-label pop album - his recent work has oscillated between underground, edgy grime and urban-tinged pop - he had another of his spasms of frustration, and in one night of madness, uploaded more than 200 of these tracks to the internet for free. Some were incredible, full of his strongest lyrical firepower and inscrutable wit, the beats rebounding with the same clinical futurism he had once briefly, in 2003, named as his own genre, "Eskimo" (because the sound was so cold). Many of the tracks were half-finished. Some had barely been started - some, in fact, didn't even feature Wiley himself, but were tracks by high-profile peers who had sent them to him with a collaboration in mind. Presumably they weren't wildly impressed.

After an act of creative catharsis like that - prompted by a row with his label, as usual - you'd think he'd be exhausted, upset and want a break from music-making. Instead, he wrote, recorded and released another set of songs the following week. In the past 12 months he has released no fewer than four more albums.

Where, you might well ask, is the man's quality control? The startling thing is, across the great mass of his recorded output, the quality has never really dipped - except perhaps for the shallow, unconvincing electro-pop album See Clear Now, in which he attempted to replicate wholesale the success of his hit Wearing My Rolex. Nonetheless, many have suggested that rather than releasing 200 songs a year of varying quality, he might do better to release 20 great ones.

There is sense in this, but it will never happen and misses the point of how - and why - he operates. Wiley is astonishing because he is so compulsive, prolific to the point of obsession - writing lyrics and making beats is not so much the only thing he knows how to do, as something he can't do without: so he always does, on Christmas Day, on holidays, on tour - constantly.

The question is, why? What drives him to produce like this? The answer has been hinted at before, but is clearer than ever on his newest official album, Evolve or be Extinct: he is raging desperately against the dying of the light. All of his work can be understood this way: as a furious, frenetic attempt to leave a mark, the biggest mark possible, before death. Grime is a notoriously fast form of hip-hop, the beats per minute (140, if you're wondering) inherited from UK dance predecessor genres such as UK garage - and before he made grime, Wiley was as a teenager a jungle MC, a genre in which the lyrics are delivered at almost terminal velocity.

On Evolve or Be Extinct's opening track, Welcome to Zion, he imagines himself at the gates of heaven and proceeds to outline what is so captivating about him: a creative urgency that borders on desperation - his life actually depends on it. "If a fan likes a bar [lyric], I want to write it, so I can say I wrote it, then they all quote it / it's all going to come back to me, like 'don't worry son, your life weren't worthless'".

On Weirdo he acknowledges his singularity. On one level a hook line like "they ain't on the same planet as me" is a typical bit of rap bravado - no one can keep pace with his talents - but it's also true at face value. "I'm a weirdo, but I'm not a bipolar / turn up at the show, I ain't even on the poster" he intones, deadpan, as the track's queasy bleeps fall to the floor around him.

There are more of these kinds of beats on the album courtesy of Mark Pritchard and this discombobulated electronic backdrop is perfect for Wiley's disjointed lyrical trains of thought, which are habitually full of non-sequiturs: profound one minute and baffling the next (the album's two silly skit-tracks are entirely baffling, though this is true of so many rappers - never content to leave the comedy to the comedians).

Pritchard's progressive style matches his own. As he says on the superbly disorientating Money Man: "grime is the game and I can't give up / I use the sounds other producers never touch".

Indeed, one of his great internal struggles over the past decade has been between the pop mainstream and "grime", the game he can't give up. As his Godfather of Grime sobriquet suggests, he helped to raise a genre that has gone on to much bigger things - or at least, some of its stars have. Tinie Tempah, Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and even his crew Roll Deep have scored numerous number-one hits in the UK, and for some, global stardom.

Wiley has glimpsed some of this success and may yet get the number-one single part of him still covets. The twanging Ibiza synths and stomping dancefloor beats of Boom Blast are the only nod towards this Tinie Tempah-like stardom. But elsewhere it's the "evolving", underground-grime Wiley who is in the ascendent, delivering his lyrics over a low, swooping hoover-bass on Link Up, or rapping a hundred miles an hour on the album's declarative title track.

Given a hypothetical Faustian choice between evolution on the one hand, and sell-out success followed by immediate extinction on the other, it's clearer than ever that Wiley would only ever choose evolution. The alternative is too terrifying to contemplate.

"My life's running out, we don't live forever / however, my music can live forever" he spits at full tilt on Evolve or Be Extinct, words tumbling over themselves for attention. As long as he remains mortal, he's going to keep making music - and lots of it.

 

Dan Hancox is a regular contributor to The Review. His work can be found in The Guardian, Prospect and New Statesman.