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speaking with Mary Anne Hobbs this week, I have been utterly charmed by the man! Formerly known as Ghetto, Ghetts was a part of a Grime collective, NASTY Crew, abut left because of tensions within the group. He then moved to the collective, The Movement, which included future stars such as Wretch 32 and started to make a name for himself. These modest and encouraging movements, he started putting out impressive and unique releases. 2000 & Life – released in 2005 – contained twenty-four tracks and is a stunning mixtape. It was a big move in Grime and is responsible for pushing the scene forward; giving impetus and inspiration to young artists emerging. Ghetto Gospel arrived in 2007 and, compared to his previous mixtape, was a more mellow, tender and interesting listen. When speaking with Hobbs for BBC Radio 6 Music, Ghetts explained his family and the fact there are a lot of women in it; how he has grown up around women. It is easy to see that when we listen to the subjects broached in Ghetto Gospel: girlfriends, sisters and relationships with women are explored from various angles. Keen to not to be seen as an angry rapper with a lot of aggression, it was a stunning move and a mixtape that, again, pushed Grime forward and opened horizons for other artists. We often associate Grime with a sense of anger and fuel but a lot of modern-day artists such as Stormzy can mix the deep and emotional with the more fired-up.
Ghetto Gospel is Ghetts’ breakthrough release and one can quibble whether it is a mixtape or an album. I guess it is a more conventional album – even though it was labelled a mixtape when it was released. Since that debut album release, Ghetts has been breaking ground and stepping out more on his own. 2008’s Freedom of Speech (mixtape) featured very few producers and it signalled a darker and more aggrieve sound – very different to the tone and vibe on Ghetto Gospel. Full of great one-liners and moments, Ghetto Gospel is viewed by many in the Grime scene and a benchmark and classic. Whether you see Rebel with a Cause as Ghetts’ debut album – one can debate that fact – it was long-awaited and was a huge triumph. Released through the Disrupt label, the album explored many sides to Ghetts’ personality and life. It is a fascinating work and one that was a step in ambition from his previous work. Last year, Ghetts spoke with The Independent about his recent album, Ghetto Gospel: The New Testament. He chatted about that album and what music means to him:
“Back in 2007, east London MC Ghetts dropped his mixtape Ghetto Gospel, aged 21”.
“Back then, I was very outspoken about how I viewed the world,” the musician, born Justin Clarke, tells me in a pub in Shoreditch, around six miles from where he was born in Plaistow. “Today I see it somewhat differently.”
Ghetts has gone onto become one of the UK’s most respected rappers, releasing a number of mixtapes, as well as his 2014 debut album Rebel with a Cause. Now, more than a decade after Ghetto Gospel, he has followed it up with Ghetto Gospel: The New Testament.
“When I make music, it’s therapeutic,” he says, explaining how he walks into the studio with a blank page (literal and metaphorical), with “no hopes other than that people might appreciate it”.
“I’m blessed enough to be able to make my own decisions,” he says. “But a song like ‘Black Rose’ … I did it because it was how I felt. I had my own space. The discussions off the back of it was an amazing surprise to me. Even though I’ve made songs in that realm before, I’ve not led with videos, so maybe in the past the message has been lost.”
Ghetts had a very clear opinion when it came to the question of Grime and whether, with so many new artists coming through, the genre was in danger of dying:
Ghetts scoffs at the mention of news articles asking whether grime is either dead or struggling to survive as the drill and Afrobeats genres grow in popularity.
“I feel that it’s weird that grime MCs even react to it,” Ghetts says, pretending to huff, and leaning back in his chair, arms folded. “I’ve seen people reacting to something that’s not true.”
“I love grime with my heart,” he continues. “I know a lot of people in the culture have love for me, but I’ve always deemed myself more of a tempo specialist. I’m not defined by a genre – a genre cannot define the artist. I respect grime enough to represent it because that’s what made me, that gave me my first listeners, and I will never deny being grime. Grime itself will never die”.
This year, Ghetts is busy and seems to be preparing something. When he spoke to Mary Anne Hobbs, he appeared relaxed but excited for what is to come. The Grime scene has evolved since Ghetts/Ghetto launched onto the scene and one of the reasons for that is the man himself. When speaking to Nite Life in this interview from last year, Ghetts talked about his latest album and what opened his eyes; why artists should not be constricted by form and expectation:
“‘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 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?”
Ghetts appears humble and modest but there is that determination and belief that makes his work sound so convincing, malleable and exhilarating. When reviewing Ghetto Gospel: New Testament, this review tapped into the essence of Ghetts and what makes his music so fresh.
“The real strength of this album is in its adaptability though, as soon as ‘Spiritual Warfare’ fades out we are met with Kenny Allstar’s booming voice on ‘Houdini’ where Suspect delivers some viscerally threatening lyrics on his feature. This is where we see the stage-show Ghetts that shone on 653 EP, assisted by an all-star cast with the likes of Little Simz, President T and Chip, his impeccable and satisfying wordplay come to the fore. ‘Shellington Crescent’ with Chip in particular pits two of grime’s top talents against each other, the chemistry and flow of their back to back bars building to such an intoxicating climax of machismo Ghetts starts boasting about his ambidexterity with guns.
Contrast that with the empathic and deeply considerate manner of song writing shown in ‘Jess song’, written for a friend suffering from cancer, since passed away. Or ‘Window Pain’, dealing with the heartbreaking deaths of young men in London gangs from the perspective of a mother.
The long awaited album is a satisfying, full, and exciting experience for listeners old and new. It’s a testament to both the ingenuity and the longevity of Ghetts’ craft that longtime listeners of over 15 years can enjoy the same songs as the fresh ears that might find their way to this record. Great care is taken with sound design, with the flow of songs from one to the next; there is a sense that this project was a labour of great love from a great artist and his collaborators. Well worth a listen”.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
It seems like everything in right in front of Ghetts! He has already laid down this incredible body of work but one suspects his best days are still ahead. He is an engaging and fascinating interview subject that conveys so much wisdom and depth. I have been listening to the music he put out a few years before his latest album and what he sounds like now. There is definitely an evolution but, with every album/mixtape, you can hear something singular and unchanging. The once-angry young man seems to be in a better headspace – he spent time in prison as a youth – and it seems like music has been a focus and guide that has steered him from trouble and allowed him to express his inner-emotions in this very productive, compelling and beautiful way. Ghetts is an artist who has just spoken out against the prejudice dark-skinned women have been exposed to for centuries. I love what Ghetts is doing: it is scary to think just how far he can go. Check out his Spotify page and social media feeds regarding new music, tour plans and all the latest news. The Grime scene is changing all the time – although it would be unfair to label Ghetts simply as Grime artist – and Ghetts’ music is responsible for pushing it more to the mainstream. The man has been putting out superb music for years now but I think his very finest creations are…
JUST around the corner.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images