I arrive at the Primrose Hill offices of music manager John Woolf’s A-List Management in good time for our four o’clock interview.
Woolf, the company’s founding partner, boasts a roster of successful songwriters, DJs and producers but he is best known for being the man behind Wiley, well known as the “godfather of grime,” music which sprung from the council estates of east London.
This leafy suburb, home to coffee shops and yoga studios, is a long way from the Bow E3 studios where Spurs-supporting Wiley is credited with creating the grime sound more than 17 years ago.
I’m intrigued by the contrast, especially this week, as BBC presenter Reggie Yates has just apologised for boasting that popular black music artists are no longer managed by “some random, fat, Jewish guy from north west London.” Here I am in north west London, about to meet Wiley’s manager. What will he make of Yates’s comments?
I ring the doorbell and am let in by a tall figure in jeans and t-shirt; he’s on the phone and ushers me upstairs.
Once his call is finished, he introduces himself to me as Shivas Howard Brown, one of the team’s music managers.
Brown delivers me to Woolf’s presence in his open-plan office, and I find myself standing in the middle of a meeting that has not yet finished. Woolf, who is 35 and looks neither random nor fat, is coming to the end of a conversation about how many cows he would need to marry his guest. I listen, a little confused, as the “African tradition” is explained to him.
“Is John going to be in the JC?” Brown, now off the phone, barks excitedly. “You don’t understand, I’m basically Jewish too. I went to Highgate, so every Jew in north London knows me and I’ve been to most north London synagogues I’m still trying to learn the full Shabbat prayer. Please shout me out in the JC.” This is similar to the response I had when I asked Woolf for the interview in the first place: “I’ve only ever been in the JC because of football and the Maccabiah Games. I’ll tell my mum; she’ll be so excited.”
Eventually, the meeting comes to a close, the guests leave and I ask Woolf where he would prefer to talk. Somewhere more quiet?
“There is no such thing as privacy in the Jewish community, so we can just chat here,” he says.“We’re all family.”
I’m facing a triangle of desks, occupied by Brown, Woolf, and Cyrus Alamouti, A-List Management’s co-founder.
“Cyrus is an Iranian,” Brown says with a smile. “There is peace between the Iranians and Jews in this household.”
I’m keen to know how Woolf, a Jewish boy from Holland Park, ended up managing Wiley.
“It was 2007, and we met in Hoxton. When I met him, the first thing he said to me was that his mum had told him that he needed a Jewish manager.
“I don’t know why she told him that and I have never asked.”
Woolf had started out by promoting parties and raves, which led to DJ-ing and a growing realisation that he wanted to work in music management.
When he first met Wiley, he had a whole speech worked out.
“It was about management being like a marriage, and why you shouldn’t just jump into things.
“But Wiley was like ‘no, you’re Jewish, my mum told me I need a Jewish manager’ and suddenly we were head-first into things and working together.”
Since then, Wiley has had chart success, performed at Glastonbury, and released his latest album on his own label — Chasing The Art. This year, he won the Outstanding Contribution To Music gong at the NME Awards, and he has just released his autobiography, Eskiboy (William Heinemann).
Woolf says it’s a book that “Wiley had to write. It is his legacy.”
In it, Wiley, 38, charts his life and career over 96 chapters, including the trauma of being slashed across the face, and how he invented grime, the gritty music of the inner city.
Despite Wiley’s mum’s insistence, Woolf is adamant that “where you are from should not define your ability, or who you interact with.
“Yeah, I’m from Holland Park and grew up between there and South Africa and yes he is from Bow, but I love grime music.
“I grew up in the era of drum and bass and garage and grime was the natural progression from that. It was exciting and raw, how I imagined punk rock would have been back in the 1970s. Such amazing energy and people doing things just for the sheer love of the music.
“It was what I was into; I grew up excited about that kind of music.”
He says he could have done something “conventional, but that wasn’t me. Music is what I love and I think it is important to do what you love.”
I take the chance to ask him what he thinks of Yates and his “fat Jewish manager” slur.
“I had a feeling you were going to try and ask me about that,” Woolf says. “I know Reggie very well and have done for many years. He is a good guy and I stand by him. I know what he meant by his comment. The way he phrased it was not great but not for one second do I think any part of him is antisemitic or that he should be held to blame for his remark any further.
“There are a lot of people who have been fortunate to get to high positions in their fields and that is not because of their religion it is because of how hard they have worked.
“Being a certain religion doesn’t determine your success, what determines your success is your attitude.”
Does he feel less of a manager to Wiley because they don’t share the same back-story? Would Wiley be better off with a manager who was from a similar background?
“I’m not there to be his best friend; I’m there to be his manager. I’m there to help his brand. We don’t need to hang out with each other.
“I don’t ever think about it,” he adds, meaning he never thinks about whether there are other Jewish managers looking after grime acts.
Fans of Wiley will know his and Woolf’s 11-year partnership has had its highs and lows, which have played out publicly.
The MC famously fired his manager on Twitter, declaring “John Woolf you are sacked forever” before releasing over 200 songs for free, without his label’s knowledge.
The sacking was short-lived. And despite the challenges, Woolf describes his artist as being “like a brother.
“Like with any relationship that lasts 11 years, you are going to have your ups and downs. You’re going to have moments where you hate each other and love each other.
“It is just that our moments have been in public.”
You get the sense of achievement Woolf feels about what he describes as his “longest ever relationship by a county mile.”
And he is not unaware of the irony. Would his mum like to see the 35-year-old settle down?
“Of course she would, she is a typical Jewish mum. But things happen when they happen.
“At the end of the day, I think she is proud of what I have achieved with Wiley.”
His parents belong to Western Marble Arch Synagogue, and he describes them as “quite conservative” but is quick to explain that, for him, religion is different: “It is such a personal thing. It means a lot to me and it is part of my identity.
“I guess I am spiritual even if I’m not overly observant. There are people that go to synagogue once or twice a year and then there are people that go all the time.
“I don’t feel like I need to go to a building to be Jewish. I get something out of going on Yom Kippur because I can see the point of it. I can go and reflect and repent for things to be a better person.” At this point, Alamouti interjects to tell me Woolf wears a Magen David around his neck and, when he is travelling, he holds on to it before a flight takes off.
“I wear it because it protects me,” he says pulling it out from under his top.
“I guess I’m superstitious. But I also like that I can see someone wearing it and have a connection without them without having to say anything.”
What does he think about musicians who refused to play in Israel?
“I’ve had big arguments about it. Everyone can have an opinion from a keyboard but it is a different situation when you are living there and going through the situation.” And he recalls falling out with the singer Bryan Adams over “Israel and Palestine” on Facebook.
“We had a big argument about it once. I don’t understand people like Roger Waters, who spend their time trying to ban people from performing there.
“He has nothing to do with Israel. It is a strange thing to tell other musicians where you should not play.
“You should be telling them to play in Israel and in Palestine. Shouldn’t we be encouraging more of that? I’m all about unity. We should be encouraging that.”