We took the opportunity to speak to grime royalty Ghetts at the release of his new Swindle collaboration, Drill Work – his first outing since dropping his long-awaited Ghetto Gospel: The New Testament in September. The genre-blending, skiddish 140ish tune couldn’t be better suited to one of grime’s most enduring, innovating and outright best MCs. Ghetts’ mastery of the craft allows him to continually catch us off guard, skipping or adding a beat as he pleases and switching up his flow like a golden snitch.
Talking to Ghetts, it’s clear that this linguistic alchemy doesn’t stop when the mic is put down; he speaks with an intriguing inflection that feels somehow a step ahead – coming in soft where you might presume a stress, pausing, or not, unexpectedly as he delivers his decades-earned wisdom.
this linguistic alchemy doesn’t stop when the mic is put down; he speaks with an intriguing inflection that feels somehow a step ahead
Though it was his 2005 mixtape 2000 & Life that ushered him into the ring, copyrighting the signature tear-up style of his then Ghetto moniker; the release of Ghetto Gospel two years later truly inducted him as one of the grime greats.
Ghetto Gospel is held up alongside Kano’s Home Sweet Home and Dizzee Rascal’s Boy in da Corner as one of the genre’s most important bodies of work
Ghetto Gospel is held up alongside Kano’s Home Sweet Home and Dizzee Rascal’s Boy in da Corner as one of the genre’s most important bodies of work, and was our first glimpse of the more mellow incarnation of Ghetts.
‘2000 & Life,’ Ghetts explains, ‘I had just been incarcerated for some years, so that record embodies that feeling. After hitting the road and seeing the world through music after the success of 2000 & Life, I feel like Ghetto Gospel is a natural growth – how I felt at the time, what I thought was achievable, the things I wanted to talk about and the people I was influenced by.
‘I struggle with saying the same thing over and over again or trying to sell the same product. I look at albums like chapters in my book that reflect my life at that time. They are a true reflection of how I was feeling and a way of sharing my thoughts with people, whether they agree or not.’
I struggle with saying the same thing over and over again or trying to sell the same product
At this time the MC was unofficially going as Ghetts – the album including the track I’m Ghetts – but it wasn’t until 2010’s Calm Before the Storm that he officially rebranded, hoping to take a meaningful step away from the bad boy image (ask Carlos) that he’d crafted as a younger MC.
‘I’d been branded with a name and people couldn’t look past it. What kept happening was I’d meet people and they’d say “but you’re so cool” or “you’re proper smart” and I used to think, “what have I put out there that makes people think that I’m not?”
‘I took an almost out of body experience and looked at it from another perspective and I saw that most of the moments they’ve caught me in, I’m clashing or it’s a moment when I’ve been involved in something – so I couldn’t wait to get away from that.’
I’d been branded with a name and people couldn’t look past it (…) I couldn’t wait to get away from that
However, Ghetto is far from dead. ‘I still very much have that other side alive in me’ he says, describing himself as having three equally exceptional aliases. Ghetts took the time to lay it out for us with his 2013 single release Cypher by Ghetts ft. Ghetto ft. J.Clarke, switching verse by verse between all three. The video features the hoodied, gas-up Ghetto (2003-present), the more grown up Ghetts (2008-present) and the super slick, self-assured J.Clarke (2013-present) – the persona closest to the real life Justin Clarke. He can and does call upon any of these characters at will, with all three making an appearance in The New Testament.
Ghetts comes from a culture of crews, rolling with Nasty Crew, before starting The Movement with Devlin, Wretch 32 and others; which at the time came hand in hand with MC battles. Fortunately, Ghetts’ ability to freestyle has never been called into question, building his reputation on clashing and holding several historic Fire in the Booths to his name. However, it seems this reputation as one of the best freestyle MCs is a byproduct of a man obsessed with lyricism.
I’d rather talk about what’s happening in my life or the world, or write something story-based than write for another MC
‘Naturally, I’d say I’m not a battle MC. The time that I come from was a dangerous time to be on the radio, so you had to write lyrics just in case somebody would come in for you and embarrass you. Naturally, my thing is to treat music like a therapy session. I’d rather talk about what’s happening in my life or the world, or write something story-based than write for another MC.’
More than a decade since its release, Ghetts is honouring his original masterpiece by adding another chapter, The New Testament
More than a decade since its release, Ghetts is honouring his original masterpiece by adding another chapter, The New Testament. Though Ghetts was already working on an untitled project, it was during the Ghetto Gospel 10 year anniversary tour that the album fell into place. Having not had the chance to tour the album originally, it was the first time he had seen his songs connect emotionally with a crowd.
In its subject matter as well as its quality, Ghetto Gospel stands out as an important record. Alongside out and out grime bangers like Top 3 Selected, in tracks like State of Mind, Trapped in the System and Closest Thing to Heaven, Ghetts breaks ground on issues that others in the scene weren’t really touching.
Like its predecessor, The New Testament delivers some straight up bangers (…) but on the whole deals heavily in themes of street violence, gang mentality, colourism and misogynoir
Like its predecessor, The New Testament delivers some straight up bangers like Pick Up the Phone and Shellington Crescent, but on the whole deals heavily in themes of street violence, gang mentality, colourism and misogynoir.
It might be his new testament, but Ghetts doesn’t preach or tell us what to do. He calls it as he sees it, as he’s always done, but this time through the eyes of an older, wiser man. Black Rose calls out colourism within black communities and frustratedly preempts the double standards and discrimination his dark-skinned daughter will face as she grows up, promising to be a source of love and support for her. Next of Kin takes on gun crime not with a call for armistice, but instead dealing in perspectives – of a mother, a shooter and a son who’s passed away.
‘I’m at an age now where some of my friends have sons that are 16. The other day a 14 year old died in Walthamstow and I just remember hearing it on the radio and thinking “wow”. Because I’m not 16 now and I’m not around it, I’m not thinking “that happens all the time, man”. At that age I was desensitised by a lot of things that I was around. So I wanted to write a song where I didn’t judge anybody, because I know what some of these kids are going through and it’s much easier said than done when you’re outside of it.’
I know what some of these kids are going through and it’s much easier said than done when you’re outside of it
The New Testament doesn’t get bogged down in conscious rap, far from it. The album is an outstanding body of work, complete with masterful lyricism, head-nodding production and powerful collaborations. After reintroducing himself with album opener Caution, Sir Spryo’s ‘sounds of the sir’ tag on the President T-featured Pick Up the Phone signals some serious talent to come, with contributions from Wretch 32, Donea’o, Kojey Radical, Little Simz and Stefflon Don to name a few.
Of course, the album’s caliber is no surprise to long time fans. Despite a couple of questionable co-signs in his younger days, including a best-forgotten feature for Cher Lloyd, Ghetts’ own music has never strayed from a place of authenticity, and he’s one of grime’s few pioneering MCs that can be credited with never chasing radio play. However, he’s not keen to play up to the underground crowd either:
Ghetts is one of grime’s few pioneering MCs that can be credited with never chasing radio play. However, he’s not keen to play up to the underground crowd either
‘I really feel like people should just make what they want. As I’ve grown I just feel like there are so many boxes and categories, and it was those same boxes and categories that really stifled me into playing up to a perception. As soon as I was free of those things, I really excelled musically because I didn’t care about how people think something is meant to sound.
‘I always say you can conform both ways. People only really acknowledge if you conform to the mainstream, but what about all the people who conform to the underground?
That originality will be appreciated 100% – it will. It’s scary to do that, but it’s crazy when it comes back around
‘There are loads of people that do that because they know that they can play with the purists like that. There is as many conformists that way – people who are really scared to step out of their comfort zone and try new sounds. What makes music sicker is somebody’s individual ingredients, what they bring to their sound and the music they put out. That originality will be appreciated 100% – it will. It’s scary to do that, but it’s crazy when it comes back around, because it’s appreciated so much more.’
As any genre moves towards the mainstream, there is a panic generated among fans that the music will be bastardised by an opportunistic industry, but grime has once again held its own. The people who created the genre are still contributing to the scene, getting widespread recognition without compromise. Skepta’s Konnichiwa landed at number two in the album charts, with Kano and Wiley getting top 10s, and Ghetto Gospel: The New Testament reaching top 30.
‘I always felt like grime would have a resurgence’ he says. ‘Knowing some of the individuals involved, I felt like there was too much great energy put into the grime scene just for it to end there.’
there was too much great energy put into the grime scene just for it to end there
Four years since his last album tour, Ghetts is bringing Ghetto Gospel: The New Testament out on the road this month – and he’s more than ready.
‘You think I come to spit over a vocal version of the song and not give it my all, you garn mad’ he says. ‘Come and witness a level of versatility which will leave you speechless as we go through all emotions, pushing the buttons only real art can.’
Photos by Misha Meghna and Ashley Verse