With ‘Godfather’, Wiley is Celebrating the Legacy of Grime

A few months back I wrote a piece lamenting the lack of in-depth knowledge of Grime in the wake of its achieving mainstream popularity. There was an eagerness amongst mainstream music journos to spread the word to their audiences, but nobody seemed to be doing anything more than basic research before doing so. Skepta. Shut Down. Boy Better Know. Done.

This was exemplified only a few weeks back by an Evening Standard review of Skepta’s performance at Alexandra Palace that complained about songs being “restarted” and audiences “going home unsatisfied.” The general consensus about this review is that the Standard sent along a music reviewer completely unequipped to review the artist on the stage, but a cynical part of me wonders if this wasn’t deliberate; if there’s anything the past six months have taught us, it’s that there’s plenty people out there willing to use outrage on social media to drum up some publicity. I’m sure the Standard were grateful for the click-throughs.

With mainstream coverage of Grime in 2016 largely confined to articles about Skepta — the release of Konnichiwa, its subsequently winning the Mercury Prize, his interactions with Drake and so on — I suppose it’s you could perhaps understand why a journo might walk into the scene and not fully comprehend the scope of the genre. And separating it from everything he achieved last year — which was nothing short of incredible — Konnichiwa might have been Apple Music’s album of the year, but it was far from the best grime album ever. It was a milestone of how far the grime scene has come since 2001, and symbolic of a sentiment that it was about time one of the only truly original genres to come out of the UK in the past two decades received some recognition, but it was far from representative of what grime is at its heart. This is not a criticism, just an acknowledgement.

When Wiley announced he would soon be releasing a new album, then, ears pricked up. When he said it would be titled ‘Godfather’ and might be his last ever release, things got much more exciting. Thing is, even when Wiley went through one of his many reinventions, he carried the scene with him. This is the guy from Pay As U Go Cartel, Roll Deep and BBK; the guy who brought countless young MCs into the 1Xtra studio for their first freestyle on Westwood; the guy who took UK garage and made his own genre, ‘Eski’. You don’t have to like him; but you have to respect him.

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If there’s anyone in grime who’s equipped to tell the whole story, it’s Wiley. And with Godfather, it feels like that’s exactly what he’s trying to do. This is a grime album in 2017 that says, ‘If you’re paying attention to us now, that’s fine, but you’re going to do so on our terms.’ No watering down. No grime-trap crossover. No over-production. No US rapper co-signs. Godfather is an auditory history lesson.

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First, the beats. With production from the likes of JME, Dot Rotten, Rude Kid, Teddy and Wiley himself, Godfather is rooted in classic grime production. Those trademark Eski sounds — Super Mario click-clocks, arf-arf synths and dustbin snares — are littered throughout the tracks along with the signature of every producer. Teddy’s booming kicks and guttural basslines; Preditah’s syncopated rhythms and dancing violins; Darq E Freaker’s quicktime intros and mad, bouncy drops that made Next Hype the track that breathed a new lease of life into a genre that most people had forgotten about. If you’ve grown up listening to Grime, then the way this album sounds just makes sense.

808s, moody horns, screeching violins, syncopated hi-hats, hand claps and choral melodies. Everything in this album stays true to the grime we grew up with; even U Were Always, Pt. 2 tips its hat to those sugar-sweet, emotional tracks that artists like Tinie Tempah were dropping on Channel U back in the day. And everything has been put together perfectly, using each element to its strengths. Ghetts sounds his best when he’s spitting over a racy beat with stabbing cello melodies, and that’s exactly what you get here.

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Which leads to the features. With the appearance of Jamakabi, Flowdan and Breeze, Wiley takes us back to the days of Pay As U Go and the birth of grime. Then you’ve got Roll Deep, with Scratchy, Manga and J2K and Little Dee (via his OGz teammate P Money), leading to Boy Better Know — Frisco, Skepta AND JME — and finishing with Chip and Ice Kid, two younger artists that Wiley brought up in the scene. You’ve even got Devlin appearing on track 2, whose feud with Wiley created one of the grime scene’s most memorable diss tracks. I don’t know a single grime fan who can’t quote at least the first 4 bars of ‘Extra Extra’. Maybe the two artists have patched things up since then, but by putting Devlin on his album, it feels like Wiley demonstrating that even during the beefs, he was leaving his mark.

Thanks to a roster like this, the flows are unapologetically grime as well. Flowdan and Jamakabi’s deep, dark patois-laced vocals take us back to grime’s roots in Jamaican dancehall and jungle music. Ghetts and Devlin bring the rapid-fire, angry delivery that made The Movement one of the most respected teams in the scene. Newham Generals and President-T demonstrate the ways artists flipped and experimented with the rhythm and made it their own. P Money comes through with the metaphor-heavy lyrics and overhanging bars that made his 2008 SB.TV freestyle a pivotal moment in grime. And then, of course, BBK come through with that inimitable flow that has made them masters of their craft; original, authentic and straight-up entertaining.

Then there’s Wiley himself. As I’ve already said, Wiley has been a master of reinvention in the scene. Garage, eski, grime, funky house, pop, he’s done it all over the years and always managed to make it his own, and every flow gets showcased on Godfather; half-time, start-and-stop bars that leave the listener hanging for more; off-beat flows that leave you rolling your shoulders and bouncing up and down in your chair; skippy rhythms that seem to move faster than the beat itself. We all know Wiley’s voice when we hear him, but you never know how he’s going to flow, because he can literally do anything with a beat. He’s like the Radiohead of grime; even the people who say they hate him, when pushed, will admit there’s at least one track they like.

I saw a tweet by someone yesterday that summed up my feelings about this album perfectly; “If this is really Wiley’s last album, he’s going out on one hell of a high”. This is it. Looking at the album as a whole, Godfather is basically Wiley showcasing everything that has made him one of the most important British artists of the 21st century — the kind of artist people petition Tower Hamlets build a statue of. No doubt, this album is a celebration of everything Wiley has achieved, as a producer, as a performer, as a rapper, as a leader and as a champion of the scene. But it’s also more than that. It’s a celebration of the entire grime scene; the cliques, the crews, the beefs, the battles, the beats, the bars, the flows, the freestyles, the olders, the youngers, the outsiders, the icons. In what might be his last major release, he’s doing the same thing he’s done throughout his career; bringing the scene with him, and making sure you listen.

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