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"Having had a slow, steady build is the best." says Ghetts. "The actual best. Having a cult following means that if someone says something good to me, I can know they mean it. I've never been that guy that's hyped. So when someone has decided that I'm the best, they're using their own frame of influence and came to this conclusion. I've never been pushed on anyone in this industry. I've always been around artists that are bigger than me. So when you come to this conclusion - and that's what my fanbase is doing - that makes me smile. Because I know that is just as pure as it can get."
Ghetts's articulate and upbeat assessment of his position is about as perfect a summation of his position in UK music as you could ask for. This is a rapper who came through in the first wave of grime, and has consistently earned the undying respect of his peers and hardcore fans - but who has also exhibited strategic brilliance and hard graft throughout his career, relying consistently on wit and talent over the vagaries of fashion, bringing him to a point today where he is not only making some of the best music of his life, but personally is in a position of acceptance and acute self-knowledge. All of which is expressed in Ghetto Gospel: The New Testament a record that has lost none of the darkness or ferocious competitiveness of grassroots grime, but at the same time is able to be full of complexity, finesse and wisdom.
Justin Clarke was born and grew up in East London: Plaistow in the borough of Newham to be precise. His parents were both Caribbean, and devout churchgoers. "I come from good stock," he says, "I don't feel I had it harder or easier than anyone else, but I had stability." He grew up with music in the background - his mum played gospel and his dad was "a jazzman", both as a fan and a keyboard player - but it was US rap that first grabbed him. At first it was whatever was popping off in the charts and on TV in the mid 90s: he remembers not seeing much difference between Will Smith and Tupac Shakur. But quickly he realised there was something different about Tupac, and from there got into Biggie, Lox (aka D Block), Nas, Jay-Z: all the most lyrical artists of the era. From there, older friends and relations would introduce him to more and he worked his way backwards through the greats: Wu-Tang Clan, Eric B & Rakim and so on.
He had little ambition as a kid, and little to no interest in school - except for two subjects. The first was biology: he was obsessed with studying and drawing insects, and inspired by reading the memoirs of Ben Carson considered science and medicine as a possible career. The other, unsurprisingly for someone so obsessed with the most intricate of hip hop lyrics, was English classes. "I was really sick at English," he says flatly, "shit at everything else, but I've always had a thing for words. Reading, writing, comprehension, details of the words, combinations, stories, structures - that's the only thing I had patience for." But any academic ambitions were quickly eclipsed by music, as he discovered UK garage and for the first time had a musical scene right on his doorstep that he could relate to and even feel part of.
"Seeing Pay As U Go on TV, Seeing Heartless Crew, that's where is all began for me," he says. "Then going to the all-dayers in Leyton or Hackney Marshes, seeing those people I'd been listening to in the flesh. Til this day, even, when I see Heartless Crew or people I grew up listening to I pay homage. The role they played in my childhood was huge." It was a time, more or less, of optimism in the ends. People with real London accents and vernacular were on Top Of The Pops. And, says, Ghetts, "There was no rivalry between areas, within Newham at least. And I went to secondary school in North London, I knew people up there. I could go to all those places no problem." This was where he truly felt part of a scene, even if - despite all his obsessions with writing and story telling - he never imagined himself as a performer within it.
Ironically, given how fondly he speaks of the time, it was getting into trouble that - indirectly - got him into the scene. Despite his stable family background, as he puts it, "the area had its culture", and he was drawn into misbehaving as teenage boys so often are. He's not keen to talk about what landed him in prison, except to say "I had a thing for cars..." It was an accumulation of petty offences, ultimately, that led to him spending the last couple of years of his teens behind bars. But where for many, this is the tipping point that makes them reliant on crime to survive, he went the other way. "I'm lucky," he says, "that as a person I've got good energy. People talk to me, I can talk to anyone. Any walk of life. Not saying it was nice in there, I had my fair share of problems. But I spoke to a lot of people, I read a lot, I wrote lyrics, and people started telling me they were good, that I was good enough not have to return."
By the time he came out, still just 19, the eruption of grime was "already on its way". And, using the name Ghetto, he dived into it, making a huge splash. Newham being "one of the birthplaces" of the style, his old friends from school and raving - Sharky, Stormin (RIP), Lethal Bizzle, Dizzee Rascal - were already scene leaders. When he came home, he put out calls to them, asked for honest opinions on his lyrics, blagged studio time, and set himself on the path he's still on today. To an outsider, the beginnings of grime - sprawling crews of aggro teenagers shouting threats and disses at one another in makeshift, illegal radio studios and youthclubs - could look chaotic and maniacal. But Ghetts emphasises that there were enduring support networks, "a training ground in those radio stations", and a brutal honesty to the discourse. "I call it competitive transparency," he laughs. "If you're in a workplace, some other guy gets the promotion you want, you congratulate him, but deep down you're angry. In grime, you're honest, you say what you think about someone getting ahead of you. It's out there on the surface!"
With his deep understanding of hip hop, literature, and just daily conversation, he was a natural - and the scene embraced him, yet he was an outsider too, constantly trying to find an individual identity within the torrent of hype and creativity. Though he was part of crews - notably N.A.S.T.Y. Crew (with Stormin, Sharky and other legendary names like Jammer, Marcus Nasty, Terror Danjah, D Double E and Footsie) early on - his name stood apart as a unique vocal technician and lyricist, and he stayed independent, taking boxes of CDs by hand to shops, getting his own distribution deals. Of his associations, the one he speaks of most fondly is The Movement: himself, Devlin, Scorcher, Wretch 32 and Mercston. Just as he'd naturally sought out the most lyrical hip hop MCs as a kid, within the grime scene he gravitated to the smartest lyricists, the storytellers, the people who "didn't just do those eight bars for the radio, but did lyrics over 32 bars, 64 bars, real lyricists." Not everyone got it at the time, especially as people tried to chase pop stardom with the major labels sniffing around as the 2000s rolled on, but Ghetts stuck to what he believed in.
Grime rose and fell, rose and fell again. Pop careers crashed and burned - but, as Ghetts puts it: "because we'd always done everything ourselves, people could survive that. We know the distribution, the finance, the agents, all of it." He insists on input in every part of the creative process too. "I don't make beats, but I'm there in the studio: 'Yeah THAT melody - try shifting to THAT - no change THAT snare...' I don't touch the buttons but I'm involved in every track." And because he's always focused on his skills as a rapper above all else, he has ended up in a position of strength. "I always have to remind myself," he says, "this started out as my therapy... and it's worked! When I was praying for certain things I used to wonder why I was given something. Now I don't even question God. If I'd had six pop hits, back in the time I wasn't having no luck, would I be relevant enough now that people would want to hear me? I believe God gives me what I need."
And, though Ghetts's back story is impressive and his reputation well earned, Ghetto Gospel: The New testament speaks for itself. Sometimes it's philosophical, as where he's questioning the world his daughter is growing up into ("Black Rose"), or taking a movie director's role and looking at the violence of London's streets via multiple angles and roles ("Next of Kin"). Other times it's straight-up confrontational grime, an expression of the energy that crackles through those very streets. "I can see it from all sides now," Ghetts says, explaining that he can both understand the fears and insecurities that underlie rap bravado, and still celebrate its power and directness. Just check out the absolutely extraordinary “Preach”, with Ghetts both hollering his heart out and delivering ultra-technical verses over gospel pianos, sounding for all the world like an East End Outkast: it's a track full of hard-won wisdom and undiluted street ebullience.
Or immerse yourself “Jess”, written from the point of view of a friend with cancer: a devastating five-minute drama, that give a strong indication of how powerful Ghetts's current forays into acting are going to be – and hint strongly that he could well end up writing, not just acting in, movies. Every track on the album has depths of characterisation and narrative that take time to unpack, meaning that the album gives up more with every listen. Ghetts is very well aware of this, and hopes that “this is going to remind people what a real album is, not just this week's hype thing, that everyone will chat about then next week move on to whoever else has got their hype record out. It should be something that people are listening to months and years later.”
And there are always rewards for keeping it this real. And not just industry, or fan recognition, or the trappings of monetary success. "Just the other day," Ghetts says, "someone I'd met in jail sent me a message through Instagram, saying how knowing me from that period of time, seeing me come through everything that I've come through, seeing what I'm doing now, has inspired them to get on with their life. That touched me. I thanked him. Because that is the best compliment I could ever have."