06.04.13

Wiley vs. The Majors

With the news this week that grime grandaddy Wiley has been flirting with the idea of leaving Warner Music Group, we felt it worth casting an eye over all his major label squabbles and exits over a decade of music-making. For many, these repeated bust-ups are the main reason Eskiboy has never really reaped the levels of fame and fortune to match his cultural significance. But they also reveal an artist with a fascinatingly singular approach to the music game and a candid and canny understanding of the dangers of playing the majors game – enough to make Prince proud in fact. So here they are, from independent beginnings at XL to WMG, via disaster with Island and a couple of time-outs with Big Dada. It’s been a rocky road, to say the least

XL Recordings (2004)

Did he walk or was he pushed? With Wiley and Dizzee’s personal relations in tatters by this point, it seemed unlikely the Bow boys could remain label mates on independent label XL for long. Despite being considered a grime classic, the poor commercial performance of ‘Treddin’ On Thin Ice’, which many put down to lacklustre promotional handling from XL, probably did it for both parties on this one.

Asylum Records (2008)

Following a stint with Big Dada for ‘Playtime Is Over’, Wiley signed with Atlantic and Warner Music-associated imprint Asylum Records. It was with Asylum that Wiley got his real commercial moment with chart botherer Wearing My Rolex – but that aside, things didn’t really go so well. In a post titled ‘Do Not Sign A Record Deal If U Have Got Money’ on the RWD Mag forum spelled out why the pairing was doomed from the start:

“I have to remind everyone I had my bikes, car, chain and watch and all that before this album deal so I didn’t need to sign this deal really but I got pressured into it by my manager obviously he just wanted money and I signed knowing I was gonna end up flipping cos it wasn’t me it was what asylum wanted me to be which was never gonna work.”

In an impassioned, potentially alarming, later forum post, Wiley singled out ‘See Clear Now’ cut Cash In My Pocket as the source of his frustration at the road Asylum had taken him down:

“I Jus Wanna Die Now Im Goin Mad You Know What Im Goin On Holiday And When That Tunes Done Its Course I Will Come Back Dont Even Talk To Me About That Tune Ever I Will Smash Up Ur Car If You Even Say To Me Wiley I Love That Cash In My Pocket Tune”

Island Records (2010)

A planned record for Island Records following the signing of a four-album deal, was eventually aborted following a riled-up Wiley sharing those Zip Files as he grew impatient with the label’s slow pace. “Labels say you can have control but labels lie a lot” he spat succinctly on ’100% Publishing’ cut Talk About Life a year later, after being reunited with Big Dada. On MJ Cole collaboration From The Drop, Wiley mapped out the Island saga more explicitly, voicing his understandable frustration: “I’m giving out Zip Files like a virus/I wanna thank them fans/ That knew I had very good plans/ Had tons of music, album ready/ But the label they didn’t understand”.

Virgin Records (2010)

Around this time Wiley also associated with Virgin, releasing the Emeli Sande-featuring Never Be Your Woman. Despite becoming his second top ten hit, no album materialised with Virgin. Speaking directly to RWD Mag this time round, Wiley came clean on the perils of the pop game, speaking to why grime stars have frequently found it harder striking that balance between the underground and the mainstream compared to their culture-straddling US hip hop counterparts:

“Chart success changes you, because once you’re perceived you don’t get another chance for people to perceive you. And people’s minds are quick so you’ve got such a short window. What pop does is that once you become popular people are ready to drag you down, everyone thinks you’re special… To be popular [in the UK] is not cool.”

Warner Music Group (2013?)

By his own admission when interviewed by FACT last January, it was looking unlikely Wiley would sign for a major again: “I doubt it, they probably all hate me by now [laughs]”. But in the same interview, after displaying some ease at the more relaxed situation at Big Dada, a characteristic shift of focus was revealed as he traipsed back over his words and revealed his gutsy side (and the one grime is pretty much built around): “obviously that’s bullshit, I wanna rise up, I wanna be massive, I wanna see more records than everyone.”

Low and behold, around the same time as drip-dropping those blistering freestyles that would later make up the ‘It’s Only Fun And Games Till Vol.1’ mixtape, Wiley signed with WMG. Things appeared to be going fine until a beef with iTunes over track orders led Wiley to leak ‘The Ascent’ himself, then taking to Twitter this week to proclaim: “I am walking out of Warner today, I don’t need em anymore,”. A later tweet shouldered more individual blame, and seemed to cast WMG in a better light than many of his previous labels: “I’ve rinsed majors for every penny, enough is enough… Need to put my own money where my mouth is now and stop pussy footing around the industry. I have got time for [Warner] and I respect you but goodbye.”.

These tweets have since been deleted, though, with Wiley appearing to calm the exit talk a tad. A representative from Warner when asked for comment told Dummy “it’s just business as usual as far as we’re concerned”, so it seems that the MC’s relationship with the label could well still be intact.

As ever, the exhaustively prolific and always fascinating Godfather of Grime continues to turn over those questions of money, fame and creative integrity endlessly, wrestling between that need to be the hypest of all, while knowing that commercial hype will almost inevitably require the watering down treatment. Ice Rink or Wearing My Rolex, Heatwave or Dubplate Riddim – in many ways it seems Wiley is yet to decide who he really wants to be remembered as.

But I think I can safely assume we’re all relieved this is still the case: