By his own estimation, Wiley knows Robert Zemeckis' 1989 science fiction-comedy Back to the Future Part II quite well. "I've watched it, like, a trillion times," he says. "It's my favourite film of all time. When they made Back to the Future Part II, can you imagine how ahead they were in their brains? You put a pizza in the oven, it's small; when it comes out it's big. Microwaves! You know what I'm saying? It was the dopest film ever."
That the movie would strike a chord with the 38-year-old musician from Bow, real name Richard Cowie Jr, would surprise nobody who has followed his career — or met him. Wiley, who in person has something of the frenetic energy and agile facial expressions of Christopher Lloyd's Emmett "Doc" Brown, has always been ahead of his time. In the late Nineties and early Noughties, he pioneered the British musical genre that's come to be known as grime (though he called it "eskibeat"), with the help of his protégé Dizzee Rascal, who became the genre's first break-out star. "We're the yin and yang," says Wiley. "One side of grime is him, the other side is me."
Now, after a period during which grime seemed to fade from the public consciousness, and thanks to a younger generation of musicians like Stormzy and Skepta, it is once again having a moment and Wiley is getting his dues. "My fans are now kids who wouldn't know me, except Stormzy or Skepta gave me a mention," he says, sitting on a leather sofa — resplendent in an Atlético Madrid tracksuit and matching burgundy Nikes — in a photo studio in north London. "They're the reason I'm still here today." But, of course, Wiley is the reason Stormzy, the first grime artist to have a number one album, and Skepta, who won the 2016 Mercury Prize, are here too. "I am," he admits. "It goes hand in hand."
Wiley has always been an elder statesman of grime — he is six years older than Dizzee Rascal — and was known as "the godfather" of the genre because of his propensity to encourage other younger artists to grab onto his coat-tails. (In the early days, he produced and sold his own white labels out of the boot of his car; as people started to take notice, he took other artists to the pressing plant so they could make their own.) Not that it was a nickname he was ready for. "It's an old man's title. I wouldn't accept it," he says. "I was definitely too young — probably 26, 27 — but when you're the oldest in a scene they won't let you forget it."
Now, nearing 40, he has come to terms with it, using it as the title of his 11th studio album (he has also released 12 mixtapes and, following a disagreement with a record label in 2010, several hours of material on zip files), which came out earlier this year. Over Godfather's 17 blistering tracks, he reflects on his origins. "I had to look at the reasons why they called me the godfather, and I had to tap into why I'm Wiley. I watched my father be a musician [his father, Richard Cowie Sr, worked for British Telecom and was involved in the London reggae scene in the Eighties], so I wanted to be a musician, but there were times when I didn't. I've done every single thing that earns money, legal and illegal. I tried to resist, but it just came pouring out of me."
The album has earned near-universal acclaim — "there's no dud on this rattling tour de force," proclaimed The Guardian — and in November, Wiley will be celebrating its success with his biggest UK headline show, at London's Brixton Academy. Before that, though, Glastonbury. Wiley was booked to perform at Worthy Farm in 2013, but when he arrived he let his feelings about the festival be known in a now-legendary stream of tweets that began with "Soon as I land… Rain ffs" and included the immortal line "fuck them and their farm". He never made it onto the stage.
Asked about it now, he gives a decidedly Doc Brown-esque answer about how "the government didn't want me to experience it in the way that I should have experienced it," but says that he is looking forward to attending this year with an open mind and "a really sick camping trailer — a house on wheels, basically."
The problem then, he says now, was simply one of timing. "I know that if I was in Glastonbury in the Eighties, I could have stood in that field with everyone and seen what it would look like in 26 years anyway — with my vision, I would have been able to see. I had to find my own way, and now I've found it."
Photographs by Ash Reynolds
Fashion by Mark McMahon
The Godfather by Wiley (CTA Records) is out now