Like a fractal of Wiley’s entire output, Eskiboy is compelling, funny, inconsistent and just too plain bizarre to have been the work of anyone else. It’s told in staccato sentences that ramble for pages. It skips around in time, quite happily contradicts itself, and ignores entire periods, songs and people. Really, what else did you expect? Any book that has its author write – out of nowhere- “I’m like a Kung Fu master” then follow through with literally zero attempt to elaborate, could only have come from Richard Kylea Cowlie.
Aside from the occasional shot of clarity provided by interviews with those close to Wiley (particular revealing are the intimate conversations with his sister Janaya and his dad Richard Snr ) Eskiboy reads like a three-hundred page freestyle. The Godfather splurges out the last 38 years in a jumble of emotion, memory and opinion that’s as much therapy as narrative. Sacking off the basic tenants of every music biography I’ve read, the book demands two things of its reader; 1) that they already have a broad & detailed knowledge of the fifteen year+ soap opera that is the grime scene and 2) they aren’t too hung up on facts.
With everything told in Wiley’s conversational voice, there’s plenty of meandering down dead ends, and a whole lot of mentioning someone as though they’re a long term friend of yours (casual music fans are going to be fucking stumped as to who the hell half of the people wondering through the pages are). The contradictions are comically brazen; he claims definitively “that was when I became Wiley” – as though he hasn’t just made the same definitive claim a few pages back, when remembering an entirely separate occasion. But in many ways this looseness is enjoyable; biographies that pretend their subjects travelled through life in a series of neatly partitioned scenes, propelled by a steady paced momentum are peddling so much bullshit. Wiley telling Wiley’s story is messy, convoluted and incongruous and all the closer to a lived life for it.
What there aren’t are detailed accounts of – say – the thought process behind the Devil Mixes (they don’t get a mention at all) or the shooting of the Wot Do U Call It video, or a sense of who was actually in Roll Deep at any given time, or the story of how he ended up joined BBK, or anything on the classic mixtapes he released in that period, or mad trivia like why he reworked the Only Fools and Horses theme, or why and how he starting and re-starting the Eski Dance raves. Basically, there’s a lot missing, and you have to wonder how much more thorough the book might have been had it been edited by someone with a deep knowledge of grime, or written, as was originally planned, with Hattie Collins.
Still, what is lost in geeky detail (although, ffs, couldn’t Penguin at the very least have got an editor to cobble together a discography?) is repaid in the sheer joy of getting a huge shot of unfiltered Wiley. Anecdotes are flung around with impunity– the mad spending on cars, the impulsive flights around the world, and the sheer horror of getting his face slit open by gangsters. He broadly moves from his childhood in London and Kent to his present day status as an underground hero, with certain themes returned to throughout. His loneliness, his relationship with his parents and his relationship with Dizzee cast a long shadow, and resolution remains elusive. It’s hard not to assume that with Dizzee, Wiley felt he’d created a surrogate family to replace the one that had abandoned him, only to fuck up and have that surrogate walk away as well. The cleavage has left a wound, and he can’t stop picking at the scab.
The description of their breakdown is an example of the books vague, almost impressionist style – the myth of Wiley and Dizzee in Napa has been told a hundred times (including by Wiley himself); whilst out in Napa, a teenage Dizzee allegedly pinched Lisa ‘So Solid’ Maffia’s bum, which led to the war that ended with Dizzee getting stabbed. In Eskiboy the story is flattened into non-descript ambiguities; Lisa is described as ‘some girl’ from ‘a rival crew’. Perhaps lawyers stepped in to remove names, a strange move considering Time Out published the same allegations – with all the names left in- just last year.
Still, if you’re happy to ignore a lack of kiss and tell facts, there’s literary power in the prose. I don’t give a shit if people think this is a reach - the three page chapter on the Napa incident reads like Absolute Beginners rebooted for a new millennium, the sentences as truncated as the emotions Wiley’s unlocking.
“This is all men, young men, all egos, pride and beefing. You know what I’m saying? Something happened, something else happened, and suddenly it spiralled out of control. So we lost Dizzee after this. It turned out that he was out on his moped, and ran into another group of boys from one of the crews. I wish he wasn’t on his own when it happened. I wish he’d stayed with me. That’s all I wish, because if he stuck with us, then it might have been a different story. You know what I mean? So after me and this other boy did what we did, they came back and found him. Just out in the wilderness.”
It’s impossible to mention Dizzee without bringing up the beef that unfolded on twitter last month between them. Testing the adage that ‘no publicity is bad publicity’, Dizzee went at Wiley over a series of tweets that included both stuff that would probably just push sales of Eskiboy more (threats to kill him etc) with the decidedly harder-to-spin accusation that Wiley is a nonce ‘more protected than Saville’. Question marks over Wiley’s sexual antics have been raised by enemies in lyrical battles for years – Devlin and Trim have both taken shots at him for a supposed proclivity for 15 year old girls, but nothing’s ever been made to stick in any real sense. Whether this is because too many people in the scene feel like they owe him (and his legendary generosity is detailed in the book – over the years he’s dished out free recording sessions, bought mates stacks of clothes, given away computers, and so on), or whether it’s because people are going for the worst thing they could possibly say without anything to back it up, Wiley’s not speaking on the subject. It should be noted that he –sort of - denied the allegations in a recent interview. [“Dizzee’s not as accurate as he wants to be”]. Without any actual victims speaking up it’s imprudent to comment – but the recent charging of Solo 45 with 29 allegations of rape from four different people make it very hard to believe that no one in grime is above covering up for their peers. No doubt there’s as much dark shit going on in grime as there is in every other aspect of the UK entertainment industry, and Eskiboy is full of violent, damaged characters living outside the law – including Wiley himself. With no concrete charges levelled Wiley – but a whole lot of smoke – whether you feel you can support him as an artist or not is something you’re going to have to decide on for yourself.
This doesn’t change an irrefutable fact; Richard Kylea Cowie is a musical one off who has shaped the direction of modern British music. Even told in his roundabout way, Eskiboy covers a period of intense cultural innovation, from jungle to grime and beyond, with Wiley’s darting, complex mind acting as a pivotal driving force, whether he’s producer, mentor, artist and clown. Even his forays into pop such as Wearing My Rolex and Heatwave are as much about changing the shape of pop music itself as they are about him changing his sound for the charts, and 20 years into his career, his influence is only denied by the cloth eared or belligerent.
Eskiboy isn’t the book on Wiley that many would want. It’s not the myth laid bare. Someone else will need to write that. Instead of dates and chart placements you’re getting stream of consciousness musings and well placed commentary from those closest to him. Realistically if you wanna know where Icerink was mastered you need to look elsewhere. But if you want to know Wiley’s inimitable, idiosyncratic thoughts on music, celebrity, success, family, race, parenthood, Britain and humanity, you’re in the right place. And, really, I can’t imagine any fan would want anything less.