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Ghetts is many things: a rhyming legend, master clasher, songwriter, artist. Right now, like many other parents in lockdown, he’s also a homeschooler. “I’ll be honest with you, yeah? I’m getting asked questions about long division,” he laughs, a stack of Nike boxes and child screams making up his current Zoom backdrop. “I just gotta thank God for Google.”
Now 36, and sixteen years into his career, there’s few artists who can match the consistency of Ghetts. A member of formative grime collective N.A.S.T.Y Crew, the Plaistow-born artist put out his first mixtape, ‘2000 & Life’ in 2004, introducing listeners to his fearsome pen game and jabbing, staccato flow. ‘Ghetto Gospel’ came a few years later; a mellower record that tackled female relationships and social commentary while retaining the lyrical energy that’s kept him on longtime grime fans’ top five lists.
As an MC, Ghetts has always been multi-faceted, drawing out different sides of his personality through pseudonyms: there’s the hyper-energetic Ghetto, the slick, considered Ghetts, Reggie (Reginald is his middle name) and Justin Clarke. As he rapped during Risky Roadz DVD footage of his The Movement collective: “Hello, the name’s Ghetto, Justin, Reggie all the same fellow”.
That mood is at play on the cover art for ‘Conflict of Interest’, his third studio album and first major label record. A split-head view sees a young Justin Clarke flashing a cheeky smile on the left, present-day Ghetts in the middle, and the right is a mid-20s iteration of the MC, a nod to his Ghetto alter-ego. He formally resurrected Ghetto on the single ‘Skengman’ featuring Stormzy, listing him as a featured artist. “I wanted to mark a time of growth by letting people know [that] all of those sides still exist within me. Every now and then I’m still the young Justin around my mum and elders, I’m still that little boy. The present Ghetts now is very focused on the mastery of the music, and Ghetto on the right is rough around the edges.”
“I wanted to show people that as humans we’re just very complex individuals,” he continues of his decision to compartmentalise himself. “It’s not just my story that I’m telling about being conflicted – as humans, we’re conflicted. I just happen to be able to tap in and record some of these emotions. Sometimes I feel happy, I feel joy, I’m happy that I’m making my family proud. And then there’s other days where I feel like, ‘No mercy, man!’ I used to fight with it a lot.”
Drop the needle on the record and we dive straight into the Ghetts story. Opener ‘Fine Wine’ is packed with autobiographical details in full technicolour, nothing spared: “I’m upstairs writing bars and my daughter’s colouring, embarrassed, had a bill to pay and my girl had to cover it.” Ghetts talks to himself, plays interviewer and dissects his career moves like an out-of-body experience. The LP is full of tracks you need to play over and over to uncover lyrical Easter eggs, wordplay at its most intricate. You’ll marvel at the vehicle references packed into ‘Hop Out’, or the cinematic descriptives on the Miraa May-featuring ‘Squeeze’: “The pavement’s red, the block’s four stories.”
“Every time I step into the booth and stand in front of that mic, I feel much better. Even before a word even comes out of my mouth, I feel at peace.”
Ghetts’s mum gushes about how a three-year-old Justin Clarke got up on stage in front of thousands on the intro to ‘Autobiography’, a track which journeys chronologically through early clashes, Marcus Nasty taking him to radio stations and touring with Mike Skinner. Storytelling lines like “outside my yard, chipped tooth, who set the levels? Mouth full of bars, true stories, check the records,” take the listener right back to the moment. ‘Fire And Brimstone’, which opens with a clip of Dizzee talking about Ghetts, unfolds like he’s sat on a therapist’s couch, tackling PTSD and flashbacks of “blue lights in my rearview”.
“Like everybody else I go from ups and downs, sometimes I feel low,” Ghetts says, “but I realise every time I step into the booth and stand in front of that mic, I feel much better. Even before a word even comes out of my mouth, I feel at peace. It really takes the weight off my shoulders a bit. So I call my studio sessions therapy sessions.”
Where we see different sides to the MC lyrically on record, he also proves he can attack different styles with precision. There’s plenty of nods to grime in its past and current incarnations (the dark, sighing ‘Crud’ repurposes old N.A.S.T.Y Crew lyrics like “Think you’re a big man ’cause you got a beard?”) but Ghetts has long moved past being categorised as a grime artist. “I always feel like grime could never die. It’s weird, my feelings on it,” he offers. “Because I’ve always tried to present myself and push myself as much more than just what people think a grime artist is. And I don’t know if I’ve influenced other people to do that. I hope I have. But I was saying to one of the producers I work with earlier today on the phone, I said, we’re in the business of making ‘sound’ and ‘vibration’. Let’s not worry about labelling it or putting a stamp on it or feeling like we’ve created a new genre, because it doesn’t sound what like we’re known for doing.”
“I’m not a massive fan of nostalgia. I like when I hear growth. And I see growth, you know.”
He continues: “Grime gave me a platform, so I don’t want to ever sound disrespectful towards it. But I kind of feel [that] it was so focused on this nostalgic sound, and a lot of people never got to evolve. And I never wanted to stay in that bracket. And it was, it was hard for me, I was criticised in the earlier stages, when I took a step back from doing the radio sets. But I’ve always tried to tempo specialise and incorporate different subject matter that people might not deem as the grimiest, or the hardest sound – I’ve just always tried to do that. And I can only be true to myself. But I’m not a massive fan of nostalgia. I like when I hear growth. And I see growth, you know.”
Part of Ghetts’s growth on this album involved inviting a range of guests to join him: UK rap’s current hottest property, Pa Salieu and BackRoad Gee, appear on ‘No Mercy’, Heartless Crew’s Mighty Moe toasts the start of silky UKG banger ‘Good Hearts’, Emeli Sandé lends vocals to the piano-strewn ‘Sonya’, and Ed Sheeran crops up on the pared-back, guitar-led ‘10,000 Tears’. While the Sheeran link-up could be considered a strategic industry move, with streaming numbers undoubtedly in mind, Ghetts and the ‘Shape Of You’ hitmaker have collaborated before.
In 2011, a time when Ed was attempting to get signed by a label, Ghetts featured on Sheeran’s ‘Drown Me Out’ from his ‘No 5 Collaborations Project’. It was only right that he’d return the favour. And he went above and beyond: “He’s just such a such a lovely person,” Ghetts says. “I DMed him, and he was actually going to Japan and wasn’t able to do it. Then he hit me from Japan like, ‘I found a studio for you, send the song over!’ This is a testament to him as a person. And what was really weird is that because the engineer couldn’t speak any English, when he sent the files over, he sent all of Ed’s outtakes and everything – and Ed was saying to me that he’s taking a break and I felt really bad.”
Musically, ‘Conflict of Interest’ feels more polished and atmospheric than anything Ghetts has put out before, with lush strings and ghostly choirs sitting next to heaving 808s. “With this album, I never let anybody send me any beats,” he explains. “There was no beat packs. I wanted to make music that was so bespoke and tailor-made to me that we literally cooked everything from scratch. So it was me saying: ‘I like that sound, I don’t like that sound, oh that melody’s nice, maybe we should do this here’. That’s how I’m definitely gonna move forward making music.”
A tight-knit production team found him working closely with Ten Billion Dreams, who reused the string harmony of the Prince Rapid-produced classic ‘Top 3 Selected’ on ‘Mozambique’, Rude Kid and Sir Spyro. There was also his “blood brother” Kadz Keys and Swindle (“a goat in his own right. Whenever I’m doing anything like strings, I give him a call and say: ‘Bro, this is your field – I’ve got a song that’s at a six, but I know if I leave it in your hands, we can get it to an 11 out of 10’, you know?”) TJ Amadi (aka TJ 2 Percent) also worked as executive producer, making the whole album flow.
A pandemic-induced lockdown isn’t the ideal time to roll out an album that’s arguably the finest of your career. “This campaign was meant to be like my last on steroids,” he sighs, reminiscing about the 2018 launch of ‘Ghetto Gospel: The New Testament’ that saw him put on an exhibition in East London featuring a model of his own bedroom. Covid-19, he says, has forced him to think outside the box and be more creative – and the online teasing of the record succeeded in making people stop and take notice. “It’s the first time I’ve actually felt pressure to deliver because I kind of feel like everybody’s on side, which is strange for me,” he says. “To have everybody like: ‘I’m really looking forward to your album,’ you know, loads of people that I respect: DJs and other artists. It feels different this time.”
Fans of the album will be happy to learn that Ghetts is cooking up a deluxe version. “We recorded so many songs,” he says. “It’s a shame that some of them didn’t make the final cut and not because they’re not great songs. It was just like a bit of fitting the pieces of a puzzle. But we’re definitely going to have fun with the deluxe – I’m looking to add at least an EP worth of songs. So it should be another moment.”
In the outro of ‘Fine Wine’, Ghetts looks to the future while reassuring fans that he isn’t going anywhere: “Let’s talk about legacy, I don’t care about nostalgia, my best years are ahead of me.” It looks like Ghetts is finally getting his flowers.
Listen to ‘Conflict of Interest’: