Almost two decades into his career, the London MC is finally receiving the attention his blistering output has long warranted. It begs the question: what next?
Almost two decades into his career, the London MC is at the peak of his powers, finally receiving the critical and commercial attention his blistering output has long warranted. It begs the question: what next?
Ghetts is rifling down the road on his trusty quad bike, its engine a crackling, cacophonic roar.
Without slowing, he leans back, foot hooked around the metal bar attached to the vehicle’s rear, and pulls up into a triumphant wheelie. He holds it there, two wheels aloft, and continues charging forward at full pace. It is a display of exceptional balance, and onlookers respond with a series of appropriate observations: ‘Fucking hell!’ Or, ‘He’s mad.’ The 37-year-old rapper – real name Justin Clarke – pays them no heed. As his speed decreases and he begins his descent, there’s a stillness to him; a clarity.
“My first encounter with quads? I’d have been about four or five,” he says, speaking the following day over a video call. “I always dreamt of getting one. In all honesty, I used to have bare stolen ones as a kid – stolen peds and shit like that would come through the manor. But then I got into a position where I could get my own, pay for it properly, and do it the right way. It’s very therapeutic being on it, two wheels in the air. You feel mad free.”
Yesterday afternoon was the first time in a while that Ghetts had been out on the bike. A relentless work ethic dictates that most of his waking hours are spent within the confines of the studio – he prefers to spend the downtime he does have during busy creative periods with his kids. But we’d been out at an industrial estate around an hour’s drive from the town he lives in, getting some photos for this issue’s cover shoot. It made sense to bring the quad.
The Plaistow-born MC had been high-speed company. One second he’d be cracking jokes, the next he was animatedly taking a phone call, then posing for portraits, bounding between groups, back on the quad, off it again, before pausing all of that to bemoan the area’s apparent rat infestation. “Fam, there’s three, four, five here!” he shouted, pointing into the bushes. “That one is the size of a fucking beaver, fam. That rat would move to a cat, I am telling you.”
Today, though, relaxing at home in a tracksuit, he’s in a more reflective mood. There’s plenty to reflect on, too. 2021 was a colossal year for Ghetts – the biggest of his career to date. It began in the month of February, when he released his major-label debut Conflict Of Interest, an epic piece of cross-genre storytelling that pulled from all corners of his almost two decades in music.
“Making this album was kind of different,” he says matter-of-factly, switching his cap backwards as if to further stress the point. “The energy was pure. It was an energy of love, rather than [one of] going to prove people wrong. It wasn’t, ‘Fuck them, fuck that, fuck this.’ It was, ‘Let’s make sick music that may not exist in the world already. Let’s not try and do what everyone else is doing. If people fuck with it, hip hip hooray. But we’ve been true to ourselves.’”
The record, a 16-track odyssey that holds together effortlessly, shows Ghetts at his most far-reaching and versatile. In opening track ‘Fine Whine’ he’s unguarded and confessional (“The mic is my therapist”, he raps), while the memorable ‘Autobiography’ sees him soberly reflect on his career over the course of a seven-minute self-evaluation. At the other end of the spectrum, ‘IC3’ sees him jousting with fellow grime legend Skepta: the opening bar, ‘All black attire, draw back and fire’ sets the tone as two of the genre’s undisputed heavyweights go pound for pound. The likes of ‘Crud’ (featuring Giggs), ‘Skengman’ (featuring Stormzy) and ‘No Mercy’ (featuring Pa Salieu and BackRoad Gee) follow suit.
Upon its release, the album received universal acclaim – from UK hip-hop heads to the mainstream press. The crowning moment, however, came in the summer, when Conflict Of Interest was nominated for the 2021 Mercury Prize. “I was in the studio and my manager Trenton rung me,” Ghetts says, recalling the moment he heard the news. “My day-to-day manager, Dan, was on the other line. They were like, ‘What you doing? Are you ready?’ I was like, ‘I’m in the lab. Ready for what?’ Then they broke the news to me.”
“It was amazing,” he continues. “The truth is this: if you can make music for this long, without those things, you must really love the music – otherwise you’d have given up years ago. But what these things do do, is let you know you wasn’t going insane when making the record. Like when I had to argue with somebody about why ‘Autobiography’ had to be seven minutes. They said it should be shorter, because all the other music in the world is three minutes. Truth is, somebody always has to be brave to change the dynamic of what everyone else does. It always starts with one brave person that changes the dynamic. I had to be that brave person.”
There’s always been a sense that Ghetts was made to wait for his shot. He arrived as part of grime’s Class of 2004 – then going by the alias ‘Ghetto’ – lauded for his dexterous, full-throttle delivery and lyricism. As the noughties rumbled on, many of his peers dabbled with mainstream success. In the following decade, as grime began to reach whole new echelons, the likes of Kano and Skepta began receiving the kind of critical praise that their pioneering careers warranted. But Ghetts wasn’t always getting mentioned in the same regard, despite the quality – and quantity – of his output. Conflict Of Interest changed that almost immediately. “Shit man, for me to have had the best year I’ve ever had in music, 18 years into my career? That’s some strange shit,” he admits.
With the album, Ghetts says he stopped “giving a fuck” about what other people thought he should sound like, or represent. In a way, there’s a certain irony at play: that the most intimate, searingly personal music of his career – music that takes an unflinching look at the trouble he fell into as a younger man, his relationship with family, fatherhood, friends – reached a larger audience than anything else he’s ever put out there. He tends to agree.
“We all love a great party song,” he deduces. “We all love to escape our realities via that sometimes. But there’s something about an artist being extremely vulnerable and truthful, and you feeling like, ‘Shit man, you ain’t a million miles away from me – that’s exactly how I feel.’ That’s some real shit.”
“We are living in a time where individuals are making music to fit in a playlist that doesn’t represent them,” he continues. “Now we’re getting the same sort of tracks churned out 24/7. They work. They do the numbers and whatnot. But do they do anything for enlightenment? Do they change the frequency of how you’re thinking? Do they raise your vibration? Through age, I’ve found power in my own individuality. It’s enough to just do what the fuck I like, no matter what people expect from me. I’ve just got to keep the artistry pure, man, and work out how to market it after. Otherwise I can’t listen to it. And I don’t expect other people to either, to be honest.”
He shares an anecdote to further illustrate his point. Over the years, he says, he witnessed countless young artists enter the music industry shy and unsure of themselves. As time went on, though, he saw them grow in confidence – aided by money and fame. For Ghetts, that was never a problem: he’s always been upbeat, brave – even at the very beginning of his career, when life was by and large a bit of a grind, he still possessed a deep-rooted certainty regarding himself and his talents. However, as his journey in music unfolded, he found that he was going the other way. “The industry and its rules, it had made me start thinking weird,” he says. “I’m an optimist, but it had made me start thinking like a pessimist.”
“One day I said to myself, ‘Yo, your daughter is watching, my guy. Your yout is watching your every step. Who you are needs to be inspiring for her in terms of bravery. You need to be thinking limitless.’ You know when you’re a child and you think, ‘I can fly, I just haven’t worked out how to yet.’ Well, I needed to start thinking like this again. I realised I was too far from the original me. So I went back to the original me, the original version of me. That was it. I haven’t looked back.”
Ghetts cites his children – he has a son as well as a daughter – regularly in conversation. It’s clear, in this sense, that fatherhood has transformed how he thinks about his legacy. It’s changed how he thinks about the world, too.
“Bro, do you know what the truth is? The world is burning right now. The world is literally burning. And none of us are making an uplifting song. Bob Marley saw the world burning, bro, and he made ‘No Woman No Cry’. That’s what real artistry is. That’s the shit that man aspires to. How can I connect with the everyday person who is going through shit, who might not have enough to get through this pandemic, who don’t know where the next handout is coming from? That’s what real artistry is to me.”
To those who have followed him, this type of thinking – about society at large – shouldn’t come as a surprise. His parents both worked in youth clubs: he’s been vocal about how important these community spaces were for him as a young person and how their disappearance will impact the next generation (“How do those experiences happen now for those kids?”). Moreover, in 2019, he was one of several grime artists that came out in favour of Jeremy Corbyn and Labour in the run-up to that fateful general election (“Before Jeremy Corbyn, I didn’t give a shit blud – it was like another wing on the same bird”).
Given his platform, and the extent to which it has grown, it’s fair to say that there are things he wants to do that stretch far beyond music. But he’s never going to be the kind of person to talk vaguely about grand, transformational plans. “I’m not one of those people that say, ‘This is what I’m gonna do’ – I just want to do it,” he says. “The more I get into this position, the more I want to help in certain places.”
For the time being, though, Ghetts is dedicating those hours to the studio. (When we finish talking, he’ll head there straight away.) With that in mind, I ask him whether he feels the stakes are higher now, given what his last album achieved. “No,” he responds, without missing a beat. “I took a risk and the risk was just being unapologetically me, and that risk paid off. So it’s like, “Oh shit, I can do that easily. Okay, cool!’”
He’d be the first to admit that it took him a little while to recognise that. “I went through a period of shying away from everything, trying to act like I’m some super-reformed character. Then I realised, ‘It’s the jourrrrrney, man.’ This is what makes it relatable. I’m not some super clean guy, but I’ve glowed up on all fronts as a character. When I realised that, it was like, ‘Bro you’ve got to be proud of that – proud of where you’ve come from.’”
He’s not solely looking back, though. When he speaks of the future, he says he wants to travel – “Take my children round the world” – and learn from others. He says he wants to listen, absorb from others, and put that into his music in a way that doesn’t feel preachy or judgemental. Above all, however, Ghetts wants to continue being unapologetically him. He wants to inspire other people to be unapologetically themselves, too.
“I feel like right now I can make rapping about going [to] McDonald’s sound like the sickest verse – cos I think I’m that sick. But I want to up my experiences. So hopefully when people hear my album, the next one, they’ll want to do that – travel, go to different places, meet different people and understand their struggles. Where I am right now – emotionally, intellectually – that’s something I can do. So I will.”
Conflict Of Interest is out now on Warner Music.
Niall is Huck’s Editor. Follow him on Twitter.