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Ghetts Talks Early Grime, Breaking Barriers, and the New Wave of UK Talent

Before he plays a ten-year anniversary show for his 'Ghetto Gospel' mixtape, Ghetts remembers being an outsider looking in.

by Tracy Kawalik
Jan 30 2017, 2:58pm

It was 2005, and a young artist named Ghetto arrived on the east London grime scene. His slick, fierce and precise bars spoke to a community largely excluded from the mainstream – and he unknowingly stood on the verge of changing one part of musical history.

Ghetts – as he later renamed himself – quickly became a pivotal grime player. The intricacy of his rhymes hit hard, first as a member of notorious collective NASTY Crew – alongside other respected artists such as Kano, Jammer and Marcus Nasty – then as he carved out his own musical legacy.

Ghetts released several mixtapes, drew in his fanbase and put his name to underground hits – "Top 3 Selected", "Grime Daily" and "Stage Show Don" among them – before he'd released his debut studio album in 2014. Rebel With a Cause saw him smash onto the mainstream, earn three MOBO nominations and add to his list of collaborators, from Giggs and Wretch 32 to Devlin.

But there's one classic body of work that Ghetts never got the chance to perform. Ghetto Gospel, self-released in 2007, was a revealing expose of Ghetts' personal story and musical framework as an artist. Ten years later, he's set to perform the mixtape in full for the first time, with a live band, at London's Roundhouse. I caught up with him to talk about the gig, coming up on the scene and his take on where grime might be headed, now that it's taken a leap into the mainstream.

Noisey: You're playing 'Ghetto Gospel' in full for the first time at The Roundhouse. Why now? Why ten years since it was released?
Ghetts: At the time when I recorded Ghetto Gospel back in 2007, I didn't have any financial backing or anything like that. I never got to tour or properly perform the album or anything. So obviously now, just being in the position that I'm in, I'm able to finally do it myself.

The sound still feels relevant today, though. What's it like going back to revisit it?
I'm a perfectionist – I go the extra mile to get everything bang on. I was only about 20 years old when I wrote Ghetto Gospel, so it's weird, because I've obviously grown a lot as an artist since then. I still think it's a classic but I can hear mistakes on Gospel that I thought were flawless at the time! But in the show it's hard because I'm [going to be] saying things in that same style as on the album, cos people are gonna want to hear it as it first was on the project. When I put Gospel out my voice hadn't even broken!

Grime heads and long-time fans might argue that Freedom of Speech was your best work.
I get that. Freedom of Speech is much more aggressive and high energy. But it's a good thing to have different material out there that people can argue about and relate to. As a rapper who writes lyrics that reflect and draw on my life and experience, it's cool for people to have followed me through that story.

Looking back over those early videos, did it feel as though you were part of something that was going to be big?
It's only now when I look back that I can see we were creating history, you know? We're so lucky, man, that people were there to capture a lot of that time on film. At the time, before all the mainstream platforms gave us shouts, we just knew we was "the people" that all the kids were listening to. We knew they were tuned into what we were doing. And that's always been the case – you know you're saying something right or doing something big when everybody's paying attention. [Once that happened] I didn't do anything besides music, and since then, I've always been able to live off it. I knew from that point I was doing the right thing.

What do you think has contributed the most to the scene gaining so much recognition now?
Being fierce. The mandem have been able to break down barriers and because of that become internationally known themselves. With that, a spotlight shines on the rest of the scene too. They say "men lie, women lie, but numbers don't." People could only ignore the numbers we were making for so long, before magazine editors, people from music streaming platforms and the wider industry went: "Wow, they've got something going on over there that's worth paying attention to."

As more artists break onto the scene do you think it's difficult to stay authentic and relevant? Where do you think grime is headed?
It kinda feels like we've been in the back seat for so long that all we have is everything to gain now. I don't feel like we have anything to lose ... because we never had it before, you know?

I'd say the majority of us – maybe 95 percent of us artists – didn't start with major labels or backing or anything like that. We had to do everything ourselves, so at this point we're happy that the scene's exploding and more people are getting into it. I don't think there's any pressure to change.

Now that some doors have been broken down, hopefully grime just becomes bigger. And hopefully the generation of kids and new artists who are sitting at home, waiting for their time to jump in, won't have to go through some of the same struggles that some of from the older generation went through. I'd hate for those doors to be shut again on the youths – we busted through and broke those barriers down for a reason.

You've worked with Wretch 32, Devlin, Scorcher, and Tinchy Stryder. You're on the new Wiley album too. Is there anyone you've not been able to collaborate with that you'd like to?
If I could've had the chance, I'd have wanted to work with James Brown, you know? I like the way he used to put his things together – he was a great great artist, crazy on the stage. Unfortunately I never got to see him live. Watching recordings back now, his show is a beautiful, beautiful thing.

As a lyricist you've always been ferociously quick. More than a decade later, do you think you can still hold it down?
Ha, I've had to slow up, but that's a choice. I've started experimenting with different core beats, finding new qualities in the music; different flows, different tempos. I like to try out new styles. I hear different pockets in music and new ways to do things and I like to experiment with that. But the message is still there; the skills are still there. Between rehearsing for the Roundhouse show I'm mixing and mastering a new album in the studio, which I'm dropping at some point this year. So stay tuned!

You can follow Tracy on Twitter.