Wiley v Stormzy: sparks fly in grime's generation game

Two of the UK’s most successful grime stars are tearing chunks out of each other with diss tracks that open up the intergenerational tensions in British rap.

For many of us, January is a time to reset, exercise, and get mind and body in order for the start of a new year. But someone who clearly hasn’t downloaded any kind of mindfulness app is Wiley, the east London MC and widely acknowledged “godfather of grime”, who has spent the first week of the year whipping up chaos – and directing it at Stormzy.

Top of YouTube’s trending charts, and generating gleefully mud-slinging discussion on social media, have been a pair of Stormzy-disparaging Wiley tracks: Eediyat Skengman 1 and 2. They mark the return of grime’s great sideshow: the hilarious pugilism of the diss track, where MCs “send” for each other with freestyles that mock their talent, success, family, friends, clothes, hair, trainers and obscure corners of their biographies. Grime fans will gaze into the middle distance like the historian Antony Beevor at the battle of Arnhem when you bring up such celebrated beefs as Skepta v Devilman or Chip v Big Narstie.

True to form, Wiley fires off taunts about Stormzy’s breakup with Maya Jama, his friendship with Ed Sheeran (long perceived by Wiley as a “culture vulture” feeding off grime’s cred), and his mic skill. Even Stormzy’s mum’s hairdo gets threatened: “If I see your mum down Croydon market / I’m gonna rip that weave off her head, dead,” reminiscent of him accusing Lethal Bizzle’s mum of having athlete’s foot (though for hair-related sending, we must bow to Bugzy Malone’s takedown of Chip: “With that shit on the back of his head / He looks like Sonic the Hedgehog from Sega”).

Stormzy responded with Disappointed. Wiley has always had a playful smirk sitting behind his disses, and rarely delivers real malice – it sounds like sport to him (as well as a rather cynical way to get his Twitter followers and general cultural standing up a notch). Stormzy, however, goes in hard, calling Wiley the c-word, and accusing him of being a crackhead from “a whole fam of rejects” – this mere weeks after Stormzy was revering his antagonist on his track Wiley Flow.

However malicious or not these individual barbs are, there’s a wider unease. Grime broke through in the mid-00s as the most exciting, experimental UK music in a generation, but initially failed to get commercial traction – it was only when Wiley embraced electro, pop and house that he reached the top of the charts. This sound was then rejected as inauthentic in grime’s second wave, as tracks such as Meridian Dan’s German Whip and Skepta’s That’s Not Me returned to a jagged palette – and indeed Stormzy, who broke through with a freestyle over one of the most beloved grime instrumentals ever, XTC’s Functions on the Low (the track in question, Shut Up, is perceived as a diss of Wiley’s brother Cadell – this stuff runs deep).

With his gigantic charisma and pinpoint flow, Stormzy consolidated grime’s return to the charts – no doubt galling for Wiley, who hasn’t had a top 10 hit since 2013 (though the brilliant Boasty reached No 11 last year and was a big club hit). But with his R&B and gospel numbers, Stormzy also pre-empted and indeed drove the subsequent marginalisation of grime as a style: US trap, UK drill and the fluid genres around Afrobeats and Afro-pop have all been much more successful in the last five years.

This seems to be really what stings Wiley, whose diss tracks are as much an attempt to reassert the style he helped invent, as they are attacking Stormzy himself. On these new tracks, Wiley falls back in love with the neat battle bars that defined grime – “revenge is sweet just like nectar / I’m Achilles, you’re Hector” – and is even perhaps implicitly critical of himself. He recently collaborated with US rapper Future on the very limp R&B single Givenchy Bag; but now he’s telling Stormzy “fuck the drip” – the very high fashion Givenchy Bag was hymning – and asking “where’s the bars?” Designer labels and smooth pop tunes? That’s not me, he seems to say.

The old grime guard, then, are bristling at the new, multi-genre, pop-friendly world the generation below them have built – even though they helped create it with their late-00s hits – while the new generation, whose careers have been built on the backs of pioneers like Wiley, are now lashing out at their forefathers.

“This is grime, this ain’t rap”, Wiley witheringly asserts on the second diss track, placing one style above the other; “You’re not on the dancefloor any more,” he tells Stormzy, valuing the raging club style of grime above the high-street pop that Stormzy has been heading towards. He also expressed dismay that Stormzy used a UK drill beat for Disappointed, and has attacked Top 10 west London rapper AJ Tracey on Twitter for his UK garage track Ladbroke Grove. Old-school grime MC Dot Rotten took Wiley’s side, saying to Stormzy in his own new diss track: “Shouldn’t you be having cups of tea with Adele?” Stormzy, meanwhile, appears unfazed, announcing on Disappointed: “They say I’m pop, I don’t mind that … the only thing bigger than me last year was Brexit,” and allies himself with Jaykae, another new-school rapper who recently taunted Wiley and Dot Rotten.

All this Oedipal energy makes for a tremendously entertaining psychodrama. Not only is it a saga of intergenerational conflict, it’s also the latest chapter in UK rap’s fight with itself, as it swings back and forth between gritty authenticity and proud pop. And as Stormzy et al move out to the leafy suburbs and continue their chart runs, it won’t just be Wiley’s generation sniping at them, but a new generation of MCs hungry to set themselves apart.

By Ben Beaumont-Thomas via The Guardian