With Wiley's music having provided the dominant backdrop to my teenage years, the prospect of interviewing him was initially overwhelming, exciting and pretty bloody frightening. Although often viewed as erratic and unpredictable through a mainstream lens, Wiley has been the pivotal figure in grime's emergence as one of the UK's most exciting genres and under his mentorship, artists like Tinie Tempah (who featured on Wiley's 2007 album 'Playtime is Over' alongside Tinchy Stryder) and Chipmunk have gone on to reap huge commercial success. He's also presided over Roll Deep's chart successes as well as maintaining his affiliation with grime's premier underground crew, Boy Better Know.
That's not to say he's without his critics though. After failing to build on his burgeoning reputation with debut effort 'Treddin' On Thin Ice' back in 2003, an album that struggled to capture the public's imagination in the same way as Dizzee Rascal's 'Boy In Da Corner' did, doubts regarding his attitude and ability to cut it at the business end of the industry have led to notable periods of disillusionment. On the flip-side, where labels have often hesitated, the grime scene has ultimately profited and Wiley's turbulent relationship with the genre he has grown to embody so purely has provided listeners with almost a decade of unforgettable music, raves and controversy.
Now at the back end of 2012, his decision to sign a deal with Warner earlier this year led to his first ever UK number one in August and from speaking to him for a little over 15 minutes in a dressing room at North London's Holborn Studios, it would seem that this time he is focused on sticking around:
After spending over a decade in music, how do you think you've managed to stay so relevant for so long? How has the journey been for you?
"Its been crazy. I think persistence, the drive to not wanna give up and keep doing it has kept me going. There's always other people who do it to keep you going as well but I do feel like its been such a long journey. It's actually been longer than how it feels thinking about it."
Heatwave was your first UK number one following signing your deal with Warner. What sets it apart from 'Wearing My Rolex' which almost reached top spot back in 2008?
"Heatwave was a current song for the summer that connected with audiences and when a tune connects, it's gonna do its job. With Rolex, it connected but just not enough to out do Madonna."
How does it feel to finally say you've had a number one single?
"I had two number ones with Roll Deep but couldn't feel a thing and I couldn't feel anything with this one either until I got told live on the radio. You want another one straight away. You just think as a human, what can I do to get my next one?"
Your new single features Skepta and JME - do you think it can follow the success of Heatwave? How important is it to have friends and fellow MCs on tracks with you?
"It's very important. Having friends on songs with me or albums is why I'm here to be honest. It's what i've wanted to do all along since I started."
Why did you decide to sign with a major label again?
"Basically, there's two ways you can go; independent or major. It can still work independently but it's not a big engine. Major's are a big engine but i'm not scared of them and i've realised that I can be that guy and go up against them now. I respect labels but I'm not frightened to challenge them anymore."
Aside from Warner, you've also released the 'Steps' series and put lyrics to beats from a whole range of grime producers and put them out for free, an incredible feat considering you'd been working with Warner at the time. They've all been well-received by the grime scene too, with fans hailing the tracks as some of the best grime you've released for a few years. What was the thinking behind it? Did you feel like you were giving something back?
"I did the whole 'Steps' thing after coming out of a Drake concert but obviously I knew it was time to work anyway. I was at the gig watching and Drake said, "Shout out to my man Wiley", and everyone made a little roar. A few minutes later he said the same thing but with Sneakbo's name and the roar was so loud, a lot louder than mine. He's another don and he's come from my world and he's succeeding, got nothing but love for him, but it made me realise that his roar was louder than mine. It made me think about who I am and how people see me. I felt like I needed to express myself and that all came out in the Steps tunes."
You've also presided over the relaunch of Eski Dance, your legendary club night that was essentially a training ground for some of today's biggest and most successful UK MCs. What made you decide to relaunch it? Have you been surprised by the magnitude of it's success?
"I've been trying to do it for years but people around me have never really believed in them until me and Cheeky got together last year, got the venue and just did it. It's now a brand, it's an event where we can do our thing and that's what it'll always be. When I didn't have them I was ringing everyone and asking for years."
In the name of nostalgia, Lord of the Mics has also enjoyed a successful relaunch - would you ever consider clashing again? If so, who would you like to clash?
"No, but not because I don't want to though. It's just because i don't want someone else getting all the stripes from clashing me."
You're still affiliated with Boy Better Know and Roll Deep - how has it felt to see them develop, both as collectives and as individuals, and go on to be successful UK artists?
"It's good, that's what it's meant to do with or without me. They just need to keep going to be honest. They've all got the same chip in their bodies, the one that makes you want to work and be a success you know what I mean?"
On a more general note, who do you think has been the most talented MC you've worked with?
"The most talented I've met at kid level are Dizzee, Kano, Chipmunk, Devlin and Ice Kid. At adult level, I'd say Skepta, Ghetto and D Double E."
Looking forward, how do you see the future for grime in the UK? Are you still enjoying being a part of it? Do you feel like you've achieved all you can achieve with it?
"The future of grime doesn't lie with me. I'm 33 so it lies with the guys who are 19, 20 and whatever they want to do. I feel like it's a bright future but I'm hoping to smash the ball out the park like Craig David and when that day comes, I want to stop. I want to get to that day where I have that big hit and can leave on a high. I watched Rocky Marciano do it and it worked for him, you know what I mean?"
What comes next for Wiley now?
"My record label, A-List records. I've signed J2K, signed Ice Kid, me and Manga have made an album and Scratchy is there too. I signed Angel's brother A-Star as well because I noticed he could sing. Away from that, I've got a big label deal that's about to go down and it's bigger than what I'm doing now so the future's bright."
Words by Tomas Fraser