Eskiboy review: garage and grime musician’s energetic autobiography
Wiley offers insight into his family and past, and the social energy that propels his work
Wiley: his father and sister provide intimate observations from behind closed doors, highlighting personal quirks, familial pains and a tireless work ethic. Photograph: Karwai Tang/WireImage
Born Richard Kylea Cowie in 1979, the man better known as Wiley has been a central figure in the mainstream success of urban black music in Britain in the 21st century. Raised mostly by his reggae drummer father in east London, Wiley got his start in music as a teenager in the mid-1990s, first learning how to DJ with jungle and drum and bass records, before moving into the burgeoning UK garage scene as both a producer and a rapper. However, it was the appearance of white-label releases on Wiley’s own Wiley Kat Records in 2001 which marked the beginning of something unique, something groundbreaking.
This autobiography takes its title from the nickname Wiley acquired, or created for himself, around the time of those first singles. It comes from the cold, harsh sounds of the earliest grime rhythms: icy sub-bass, gunshot snare drums, and brief sparkles of melody; titles like Eskimo, Snowman, and Freeze. When these sounds collided with rapid-fire vocals, the combination was electric. As part of the Roll Deep crew, which also included a teenage Dizzee Rascal, Wiley found himself at the heart of a new underground movement quickly erupting into the mainstream.
Eskiboy is at its best when it captures some of the social energy that propelled Wiley, and grime more generally, into the popular consciousness. It begins with family: Wiley’s father, Richard snr and sister, Janaya, are illuminating voices within the book, providing intimate observations from behind closed doors, highlighting personal quirks, familial pains and a tireless work ethic. Some of the best parts of the book are Janaya’s descriptions of her brother’s frequent escapes from London – going to Perth or Toronto on a whim, staying for weeks or months – and her attempts to control his spending.
Identity in dialogue
One of the most potent moments in Wiley’s childhood is his return to London, aged 11, after spending a year living in Kent with Janaya and their grandmother. He is initially worried about not being as good at football as his new city friends – his reputation in the otherwise quite racist, small-town school was built on his sporting prowess – but mostly he is excited by the social opportunities open to him, the chance to form an identity in dialogue with others.
Since that time, Wiley has thrived by feeding off the energy of others and giving it back multiplied. That isn’t to say the man’s career has been plain sailing –Wiley’s got enough scars and knife wounds to prove otherwise – but the way it’s presented here, it seems like tension is typically productive; competition spurs him on, and everything that happens can be folded back into the music, the ultimate record of life as he lives it. He gives freely of money, time and energy to those who ask, but is also inconsistent and forgetful, always moving on to the next thing. It’s often been a maddening combination for those who have relied on him, and sometimes a source of resentment.
Eskiboy is told through 96 bite-sized chapters, each seemingly transcribed and cut from longer interviews and arranged in a vaguely chronological order. While this captures the voices of the people telling these stories, it doesn’t leave much scope for background information or an explicit narrative thread; the book assumes a certain level of familiarity with the grime world. If you don’t know who Logan Sama or Flowdan are, you’ll be wondering for a while about the context and importance of their contributions here. Perhaps this is only right – grime has its own language, its own gestures, and its own history, so there’s probably little point in trying to make it more palatable or approachable for some notional outsider. It’s one for the heads.
Colour and depth
For those who know something of Wiley’s life and work, the short chapters will add colour and depth even if they are light on detail. You pick up snatches of stories, a sense of how things were and how the people involved felt at the time. That’s often enough. It would be interesting to see if another book could be written, using the same source material, but framed as biography rather than autobiography. Wiley’s story is essentially grime’s story – he’s been there the whole way though. With grime now mature enough to be declared dead and then reborn in recent years, Wiley’s progress from innovator to godfather could be the best account of the genre’s life to date. Eskiboy chooses a different path: more direct, more immediate, less faffing about. Like the man himself, this is sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, but it is nonetheless appropriate as a portrait of an artist who has always cut quick to the point and expected his audience to keep up: “Describe yourself in one word? Grime/What do you value the most? Time.”