It’s a funny thing, maturity. It doesn’t signify abandoning who you were but more acknowledging how your past has, for better or worse, formed who you are today. And with someone like grime mainstay Ghetts, you see that mapped out in his music. Last year’s Ghetto Gospel: The New Testament album typifies his new artistic era. Sonically, the younger artist known as Ghetto – who learned, perfected and gained validation for his craft while in and out of prison – isn’t the same as today’s Ghetts, the man who stuck to his convictions and stayed true to grime as he knew it. Ghetts has managed to evolve his sound and he’s been rewarded with the modern and dynamic audience he attracts; the sheer diversity in faces at his London show at Islington Assembly Hall on Friday 31 January showed that.
This might sound obvious, but Ghetts' musical catalogue feels so singular because it’s so expansive, stretching over more than 15 years. Ghetto Gospel: The New Testament comes ten years after the original Ghetto Gospel project and the growth is striking. You’d not quite label him an underdog, but his slow ascent to mainstream, widespread recognition positions him like one. While some grime greats drifted into the pop space in the late 2000s, stitching fibres of dance music into singles primed to engage white audiences too, Ghetts swerved the crossover approach. And that dedication to the genre, unbothered by courting mainstream adoption, is one of the reasons why fans love him so much, and will come out ready to defend him from those who underestimate his talent. His UK tour this year, ending tomorrow night in Bristol, demonstrates the staying power that may have kept him more ‘underground’ but ensured he never left. The resurgence of grime in the UK mainstream, in our current post-Gang Signs & Prayer era, has given Ghetts the props that he entirely deserves, and the response to his latest release, and its live iteration, embodies that.
Warming up the crowd before Ghetts appeared, the show DJ joked that only “real” grime fans would know songs like Kano's Giggs-featuring “3 Wheel-Ups.” At first, that straight-up acknowledgment of the grime-head hierarchy temporarily threw up an invisible barrier between subdivisions of the punters: on the one side, you’d find the original fans, some now easing into their mid-thirties and clustering a bit further back from the stage in happy groups, versus a new generation of grime adoptees jostling to the front.
But any sense of competition would be forgotten swiftly. Ghetts hopped on stage to “Caution,” the Ghetto Gospel: The New Testament album opener, in a red and white Supreme take on the classic biker-gang fit, leather gloves included. The screen behind him flashed with cryptic visuals, all slithers of light and bodies dancing, before switching to show bikers rolling through dark alleyways. His performance acted as an internal play-off between the young, explosive Ghetto and the older, meticulous Ghetts. When he switched his flow to its signature aggressive pattern mid-song, the young Ghetto who unrepentantly battled his age-mates on road took over. The crowd instantly matched that energy, sending their gun-fingers flying up one moment before exploding into the tussle of a mosh pit the next.
Ghetts delivered a strong performance with narrative and emotive visuals. He didn’t just spray bars to an amped-up crowd; he showed a holistic approach to his art form. The show itself felt like a theatre piece in two acts: a throwback to a darker Ghetts and the concurrent emergence of newer, considered Ghetts. Though Ghetto Gospel: The New Testament stands out as a strong, and critically acclaimed, album, in a live setting its intensity also pulled the crowd away from a ‘bangers only, mosh hard’ energy. At points, I could practically see fans struggling to reconcile the dark and carefree grime MC they once knew with the now genre-bending, deliberate Ghetts who places fatherhood and family at the top of his agenda. It’s nigh-on impossible for any performer to keep a high-octane energy pumping all the way through their set, and so Ghetts intentionally brought the levels down during the show’s second half.
Switching his look to an all-black ensemble, he led out a choir plus a live band – a clear signal that things were about to change. And so ‘act two’ felt like the dramatic rebirth, in part due to the setlist and visuals. The second half included tracks such as “Jess Song,” a slow, sombre melody about losing a friend unexpectedly to cancer. A heaviness softly descended in the crowd as “Next of Kin” reminded us of the silence around knife crime. When Ghetts delivered the opening line, “She’s got a front row seat to her son going to sleep for eternity,” as images of young men faded on the screen behind him, I could feel those around me recalibrate from a party mood to a contemplative one. While “Window Pain” played – a song about the forgotten victims of gun and knife crime in London – the faces of those who lost their lives to violent crime, and the image of a boarded up Grenfell Tower, lit up on the screen, too. In an age where fans grapple with separating artists from their politics, Ghetts makes a compelling choice to just willingly embrace empathetic and outspoken views instead.
By the end of the show, a mini-festival of sorts showered by guest appearances, everyone got their money’s worth. Chip, Wretch 32, Shakka and Donae’o all turned up, bringing even more energy to the room after Wretch-featuring “Purple Sky” transitioned the show back into more upbeat territory. By the time Ghetts spun into Rude Kid’s “Banger After Banger,” for his own guest verse, heartrates were up again. Ghetts embraced each guest after they joined him; he later revealed that his surprise acts had joined him for free, simply because they loved and respected him. While on stage for the second time, Wretch and Ghetts bantered about who taught whom how to dance, who grew the better beard – a moment of vulnerability and black male affection that didn’t go unnoticed.
It is a pleasure to see Ghetts so comfortable in his masculinity and identity. He wasn’t afraid to break into a hip-swinging two-step or switch up to a more aggressive bop. That confidence allowed him to command the ebbs and flows of crowd-hype like a grime conductor – it was quite magical. Before slipping offstage pre-encore, Ghetts embraced the front row of the audience, reaching for their raised arms and thanking his fans and family as they flooded the edge of the landing. He closed the show with the stage full of his mandem, their iPhone flashes twinkling, as the live band blasted “Artillery” for the final time. When the music stopped, and lights returned, he was still there, embracing those he knew and loved, closing what he called on Twitter his 'best' performance 'ever'. Call it growth, call it maturity, call it what you like: Ghetts continues to prove why he matters so much to grime, and Black British culture more broadly.
You can find Chanté on Twitter.