If any rapper knows what's next in British hip-hop, it's Wiley. Since 1997, the 32-year-old has been at the front of the country's grime scene - the spiky genre that mixes elements of dancehall, drum'n'bass, and American rap with minimal, electro-rave production - and has paved the way for MCs like Dizzee Rascal, Lethal Bizzle, Kano, Lady Sovereign, and this year's biggest import Tinie Tempah (who's not totally grime, but, hey, can you think of anyone who's had bigger commercial impact here?).
With Wiley's excellent album 100% Publishing out next month, SPIN asked him to break down some of the best new sounds blasting out of the U.K.
This 27-year-old has a checkered past - he dropped out of school at age 16 and has served prison time for weapons possession - but his future's looking up: He's been signed by tastemaking label XL, which has put out breakthrough albums by M.I.A. and Dizzee. His dark past, coupled with his super-deep, easy-going flow, makes for compelling music, says Wiley. "When you listen to him, you may think he's chatting rubbish, but it's not, and he's connected with all the grime rappers, females, bubbles..." Bubbles? "Yeah, like, when I'm 40-years-old I can just bubble. [In the U.S.] you'd call it cooling out or chilling."
The South London rapper, best known for his mixtape collaborations with Konan, might appeal to most fans of contemporary American hip-hop with his elaborate strings-and-things production and vivid tales of life on the streets. But Wiley says Krept's knack for delivering knockout punch lines sets him apart. "He's just great at them," he says. "If I had to come to the states, and, well, not battle, but if we had to spit in the U.S., he's someone I'd like to show off to everyone."
Perhaps the most forward-thinking artist within grime, this Tottenham rapper spices old-school beats with jazz, funk, and reggae, not to mention his pretty solid singing chops. "He's incredibly clever with punch lines," says Wiley, before breaking down the semantic differences between British rappers and MCs. "MCs come from the club and have a hosting point of view, and then there's rappers, people who come from the bedroom. Wretch is a rapper. And I want to see him blow up and go all over the world."
Kareem "Lowkey" Dennis hails from Central London, but his stark tunes look far beyond the U.K.'s borders: The leftist Iraqi blasts Western foreign policy in the Middle East and racial profiling of all Muslims as terrorists. "He's way more political minded and using a different part of his brain," says Wiley. "He's ahead of a lot of people, but he's very good. You'll learn something from him."
Think of this Margate, England, rapper as the British equivalent of Eminem: Over brooding, piano-powered tunes, he unleashes sharply-delivered tales of using his "will to rap" to escape his blue collar hometown. "Some rappers try to keep up the bad-boy image of coming from the street or having been shot nine times," says Wiley. "Obviously, some haven't done shit, but Mic Righteous is different. Like Eminem, he's come from nothing. And there's just something great about seeing him have the energy to just rise up."