Amid Wiley's claims that Ed Sheeran had exploited grime for his own gain, we take a look at Ed Sheeran's multiple liaisons with the hip-hop world on both sides of the Atlantic.
Armed with little more than a guitar and loop pedal, Ed Sheeran is the driving force behind one of the 21st century’s most unlikely pop dynasties. His often benign, made-for-mass-consumption sound has its detractors, granted, but there’s little that can be taken away from the Halifax, West Yorkshire-born songwriter’s exorbitant success. Independent for much of his early career, Sheeran’s progression from journeyman of the UK’s musical highways to an arena-conquering megastar hasn’t been without incident.
Two months on from the release of his No.6 Collaborations Project, his liaisons with artists from across hip-hop and grime has gained the ire of one of the UK scene’s originators. The oft-cited “Godfather Of Grime” Wiley took umbrage with Sheeran after the video for the Sir Spyro Remix of “Take Me Back To London” hit the internet. Despite providing a launchpad for rising stars Jaykae & Aitch to attain their first ever number one singles, the Eskiiboy took to Twitter and had no shortage of barbed comments for the household name:
"I’m sick of people using grime to look good for 2 minutes fuck Off FFS. Shall I get my guitar and foot pedal out? Anyone who uses us and our sounds are culture vultures. Don’t come to grime if you’re a clout chaser and a culture vulture stay away."
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Split between broaching Wiley’s latest claims and cauterizing some old wounds, Ed explained his position on the matter and its concluding stages, reaffirmed his stance on grime as a whole and offered an olive branch to the pioneer. “You know I have a deep love and respect for the scene, and for you,” Ed claimed, “I look forward to (Wiley’s upcoming project) Godfather 3, excited to hear it.”
Similarly rebuffed by regular collaborator Stormzy— "you know Ed been doing this from early"— the South London MC’s seal of approval is in no way falsified and speaks to Ed’s long history of co-mingling with all forms of hip-hop. In fact, Wiley’s rhetoric is a notable change of tune since days gone by. During a 2017 interview with DJ Vlad, Wiley discussed the supposed ill-feeling towards them with his usual unflinching honesty, but made sure to make mention of Ed’s tight-knit links to the world of grime.
"Ed Sheeran sort of came through my scene and got famous," he said. "He was working with a few people and I respect Ed. He came through our scene and if you ever ask him and he said no, I’d be very surprised. He’s talented man, I worked with him a lot. Whenever I had any bad mind towards him, I’ve had to step away and be like ‘no come on, he’s a musician.’ Just leave him alone."
To adequately chart Ed’s affiliation with the artform, you need to delve all the way back to his formative years. At the tender age of 9, Sheeran’s father John, a prominent art curator, gifted a copy of the Marshall Mathers LP to his young son, citing Eminem as “the modern-day Bob Dylan.” As opposed to admiring Em’s lyrical virtuosity on a base level, Ed would soon implement the lightning-quick loquaciousness he was hearing to overcome one of the scourges of his early life:
"I learned every word of it, back to front, by the time I was 10," Ed remarked. "He raps very fast and melodically and percussively, and it helped me get rid of the stutter."
Understandably, Em’s influence on Sheeran has been an indelible one and the singer/songwriter had hoped to work with Detroit’s finest for many years, turning in ad-hoc mashups of many of his classic tracks along the way. After fulfilling his lifelong dream on Revival’s "River," his new collaborative project allowed him to realize another ambition by adding 50 Cent to the equation on "Remember The Name." A vehicle for each artist to espouse their rags-to-riches narratives, Ed explained to Charlamagne Tha God that he avidly believes he wished this once-in-a-lifetime trio into existence.
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“I said to Max (Martin) ‘I’m going to London tomorrow to go and guest with Eminem and I’ll see if he can get 50 Cent on it. Then I walked in Eminem’s dressing room and 50 Cent was in there so I was like this has to be meant to be.”
Bolstered by appearances from Young Thug, J Hus, Dave, PnB Rock, Chance The Rapper, Travis Scott, A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie and Meek Mill, No.6 Collaborations Project is, in many ways, the culmination of Ed’s years of intermingling with hip-hop and grime. Said to have “90 percent rap music and 10 percent other” on his iPad, his recent output isn’t even the first time that he’s shared headspace with an illustrious MC for a full-scale release. No stranger to flirting with hints of rock & Americana in his own material, Yelawolf and Ed Sheeran teamed up back in 2012 for the Slumdon Bridge EP. Distributed as a free download, Catfish Billy reflected on the seamlessness with which the record came together:
"'There's a dude named Ed Sheeran, he's here from overseas, he wants to hook up and do music,'" Yelawolf's manager told him, as relayed to MTV news. "I didn't really have nothing to do. I was like, lemme just go up to the studio and holler at him... Go up to the studio, shook hands with him, dude was cool, we vibed out, we recorded five songs in one session, and I haven't seen him since." No matter how much of a disharmonious fusion it may seem on paper, Sheeran and the ghetto cowboy expand on the threads that bind them— namely blues, folk and beatboxing— to craft a criminally overlooked diamond in the rough. On the other end of the spectrum, fans are still yet to hear the outcome of Ed and The Game’s proposed double album. Initially scheduled for release in early 2015, the Compton veteran lavished praise on their joint material and spoke of how “we were just planning to record one song; we ended up doing like seven.”
"The songs that we got, they’re real songs," the Game continued. "We was just going. He was on that guitar. Acoustically, he’s a genius, man."
Far from the by-product of his worldwide notoriety, it was a channel that’s synonymous with UK hip-hop that first fostered his links to the genre during the embryonic stages of his career. Years before he’d neatly share a track with Lupe Fiasco or perform "XO Tour Llif3" on-stage with Lil Uzi, Ed was a staple of SB.TV. Lesser known as Smokeybarz, videos of Ed performing versions of soon-to-be smashes such as “The A-Team,” “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You” and a freestyle version of himself, Griminal and Devlin’s link-up on Lewi White’s “Young Guns” soon racked up millions of views for the relatively unheralded artist.
Away from rubbing shoulders with the hip-hop world, it’s important to note the crucial component that immunizes Ed against claims of exploiting hip-hop culture-- he’s a fan. Speaking to XXL, Ed qualified what it is that he responds to in hip-hop with an eloquence and passion that proves he isn’t merely scratching the surface of the genre, but understands the craft on a more profound level:
“My favorite song on the Kendrick album [good kid, m.A.A.d city] would be “The Art Of Peer Pressure,” just because of the flow and the story and the fact that it’s three verses telling three different things. I like storytelling songs like that, like “Stan” or even like “Regulate.” Immortal Technique is very good at that as well, having a song that really draws you in and the next time you listen to it you’re not bored, even though it’s the same story.”
And in spite of the litany of hip-hop royalty that he managed to share a track with on his new album, a 2017 interview with Denver’s Alice 105.9 would suggest that there’s at least one he still hopes to tick off his musical bucket list. When asked which rapper he’d love to work with, Ed didn’t spare a moment’s thought before declaring “J. Cole, he’s probably the one I listen to the most.”
Whether or not you’d ever be inclined to listen to +, - ÷ or any of his other mathematically-named albums, one allegation that has proven to hold very little weight is that of Ed Sheeran as a culture vulture. As both active participant and admirer from afar, the English singer/songwriter is a firm supporter of hip-hop in all of its forms and its continued influence on him is clear for all to see.