Wiley – Eskiboy (Heinemann/Penguin)
This book looks like a biography. A big, Christmas or birthday present biography. It is solid, it has the name of a star written across the front of its glossy dust jacket in Helvetica bold and a striking, masculine portrait. It could be the ghost written biography of a footballer.
It couldn’t be further from one. The first thing Wiley says is that he hates biographies.
The writing is terse. Matter-of-fact statements which belie a great deal of depth and understanding. You can hear him speaking, like you can hear Miles speaking in his autobiography, but Wiley is rooted, and there is warmth.
This book has two poles. At one pole it is straightforward, ‘keeping it real’, or whatever label you want to put on that from the culture. At the other pole, the book structure works like a prism. We see key figures in the story of Wiley’s life move from Kent to London and back, but we see them do this through different eyes. Producers, family, friends, crew members. Wiley himself is at least three different people, Richard Cowie, Kylea, Wiley…
Hackney, Shoreditch, Canary Wharf, Tower Hamlets and Bow. Rinse FM and other pirates, mandem, Roll Deep Crew, Dizzee Rascal. These are all faces of the prism. But it is the story that could be about anyone that is the most honestly told and vital:
‘In my generation no-one knows what they’re doing. Our parents parents were different – they came from the West Indies to England to work. They just had to be on point.’
In some ways, then, this is everyone’s story, the big story Zygmunt Bauman writes about: The hell of choice. But this is also just the story of some. Estate kids. Black kids. Those with the odds stacked high against them. Wiley cites crack cocaine in the 80s as a big breaker of communities: ‘All kinds of fuckeries’, he says, and he doesn’t need to say more than that. Four words. See how much he shifts by not messing around with it.
Wiley’s mum’s brother was murdered in an argument and they all moved to Kent. In Kent, they experienced racism. His sister came home from school having been called a ‘Paki’ by an Indian boy. We somehow get all the geographical relations of white flight and the strange disorientation of moving from city to country, London to Kent, in just a couple of pages.
The book covers early days early on, and recent times later on, but aside from this generalism it is essentially non-linear. There are interludes in interview form. As though this bloke Richard Cowie has asked people he knows about this character Wiley, becoming a journalist in his own life.
There are poetical interludes. As Linton Kwesi Johnson says, this is where poetry is in Britain, UK hip hop, grime, dubstep. This is also where the prophetic tradition that the first wave of incomers brought with them has gone. It was always a partly colonial prophetic tradition. Is it a coincidence that Roots Manuva – Rodney Smith – was brought up by a poor tailor and preacher? No. There is a tangible line across generations:
‘The hardships and struggles at that time were the usual struggles: money, the streets. Even then, not really being safe. People hustling. There were still people trying to lean on you for whatever reason.’
It could be Curtis Mayfield, it could be Eldridge Cleaver or Bobby Seale, it has their directness and hard won wisdom. Like them, Wiley understands the old ways of channelling different impulses:
‘Back then, I realised quickly that a loss is sometimes just a loss. If you’re caught up in any violence or drama, you think that if you take a loss, you have to go out and get a win. That’s the way the world is. But sometimes you have to let it go. Use the energy you have for revenge and channel it into something you enjoy doing. That energy can be cold like ice, and people can get hurt. You just say, “No I am not having it”, and people go to jail, or people get killed. Or the energy can be hot, and you can succeed. That energy can take you all the way to the top. Don’t move backwards, move forwards. Get on with life. Literally I found a way to use the energy I had productively.’
But as you can see this isn’t some indulgent journey of self-creation, not for the people from those estates. This is survive and thrive or die. The usual routes out are here for black youth: football; music; it’s the same story that goes back to the thirties, to America, boxing and other activities, or selling drugs. School is explained as a stark binary, exams, university, or ‘other’, and there’s a heaviness about taking the path to ‘other’:
‘Every boy when he goes into the world has to find his own path. People show you stuff, both good and bad, and you need to decide what to do and what not to do. I was very lucky not to go to prison. I knew what drugs were before I got into the game. There is a lot of money in drugs. Anyone who goes into it will find it hard to come out, because of the money. That’s why people end up in prison. The risks go up as the money goes up. But drugs are not good, and that’s it. Don’t take drugs. Trust me.’
These are things that people who haven’t lived it only know – if we’re really honest – because they happen to have watched The Wire:
‘Streets are crazy. No matter how bad you are, you can’t avoid it. There are no rules. There is no ring, no boxing gloves. It’s more dangerous than anything. You can get shot, stabbed, hit with a hammer. Anything. Not just London, either. Anywhere.’
There is a moment, where the future could be drugs, and he surges into music. You can’t do both, he says. He talks of his dad, a stable presence, of good parenting, being surrounded by great music. The roots in jazz are chatted through – and punk actually – through to Smiley Culture and Tippa Irie, through to Jungle in 1995 and 1996 and he’s waking up.
Wiley minutes the realisation – a delicious moment – that with Jungle their accents were now allowed, ‘a London someting rasta’, and on it goes, Bashment, Grime, Dubstep:
‘When it started Grime was a young black man’s punk rock’ Wiley explains. ‘The grime nationality is rude boy, now. And anyone can be a rude boy, you get me. It’s not just for black kids any more. It’s for everyone: black kids, white kids, Indian kids, Turkish kids, Moroccan kids. It’s a release.’
On one level, this book does everything those who arrive at it with expectations will want: Rinse and the pirates; clashes and dissing Kano; Dizzee.
But it has many other layers, it does such a lot more, and it never breaks with its straightforward style while doing it. It combines the most economical talk with a non-linear, prismatic structure.
It isn’t Ulysses, but it doesn’t have the clichéd symphonic rise and triumphant end section of the usual biographies. Towards the end, we find Wiley in a panic as a motorcyclist looks as though he’s going to shoot him, a vignette that shows fame doesn’t bring serenity. But we also find him creating in real time, every day, spitting into his iPhone, hundreds of recordings, sketchbooks becoming bigger things.
This book is a snapshot of the early twenty-first century. It tells you what it is to live precariously. Everyone lives precariously now, but some, as Orwell might have said, more so than others. It is about not being risk averse, although in a context where you either make yourself buoyant or you drown. It moves from poverty to excess. It is the story of a journey through everyday multiculture, generational cliffs and British class. But it is also about London black history, the river and the routes back to the Indies, to the Caribbean.
Everyone should read this – and it arrives right at the moment we need it most – just when the island appears to be turning inwards and moving backwards, this book shows you how to turn your heart outwards and move forwards.