The BBC 1Xtra tent at Lovebox was heavy and humid. Somehow, I found myself at the front, pressed against the railings, struggling for breath, sweat seeping from under my cap, soaked in second-hand weed smoke and warm beer. But that would soon be forgotten, because Ghetts had entered the stage, riding a Segway, gliding back and forth across the platform like a jockey saddling a horse, mic in hand, ready to deliver the finest set of the weekend. Two summers have passed since that afternoon in 2015 and I still hold the memory.
Some MCs stand out best on record, but to appreciate Ghetts' greatness, you really do need to see him perform live. His performances are pilgrimages, a holy experience; Serena with a racket, Messi with a football, McGregor in a cage—whipping the crowd into a hypnotic state where time and space are forgotten, and the world around him seemingly falls away, leaving only the pulse of a cackling instrumental and riotous sermons leaving his lips.
If there is such a thing as destiny, and we all indeed truly arrived on the earth with some sort of quest to fulfil, then Justin Clarke is a vessel, blessed with a microphone and a pen, ordained to roam the earth, stirring the human spirit wherever he goes. But he also sits at a biting point: some supporters pine for the Ghetts of old, the teenager seen on Risky Roadz and Practice Hours; others struggle to accept him in his most recent moniker, J Clarke. But for me, these combined parts of Ghetts make him the undisputed greatest British MC—one standing rude and tall above all his competitors.
Where others see an artist who has irreparably changed, I see one who has evolved. Like Jay-Z, who went from baggy tees and "Big Pimpin'," to settling into middle age with a wife and some kids and a few family businesses, Ghetts has also steadied, becoming a father and squashing his squabbles with the likes of Bashy. In his twenties, he moved from his original name of Ghetto into Ghetts, bringing a focused, refined method to his madness. Then came J Clarke, an abbreviation of his first name, a more mature MC who highlighted his growth not just as a musician but as a person. It was him away from the microphone, the veil cast aside, a father, a son, a friend—away from the bravado and braggadocio that can come with life as a grime MC.
To demonstrate the differences between the three personas, he released a music video titled "The Cypher" in 2013, where the alter-ego's went back-to-back, sparring lyrically over the same instrumental. Ghetto was erratic and combative; Ghetts, slightly more measured but still breakneck in delivery; but J Clarke, with a calmer flow, seemed more low-key, more certain of himself. It was the growth of a boy into a man. Watching him dip between styles, all unique in their packaging, was not only a testament to his artistry, but also came with the realization that Ghetts was of that special breed of MC who could evolve his craft without abandoning his roots, nor would he make the mistake of leaving his gradual maturation out of his music. As J Clarke he was not afraid to be vulnerable with his listeners.
"They're all parts of me," he said, in an interview a few years back. "Ghetto has an attitude, arrogance. He was me when I was young, a reflection of my surroundings then. I was insecure and acted up. My friends began to call me Ghetts, so soon I took on that name, not realizing how much I was changing musically. I toured, saw the world, met new people and it relaxed me. I was laughing more, I let my guard down. Finally, J Clarke is the person I am in front of my nan and my daughter. He's my calmer, emotional side."
While many of grime's big players have gone international, taking their tours to the Americas and Asia, embedding themselves deeply in mainstream British pop culture, Ghetts has not yet done the same. He seems to run against the grain of grime, that for the time being at least, moves massive numbers. But that's also what makes him special: Ghetts has never conformed, and this general indifference to toeing the line is what has built his reputation. On a track, he fears no man, and it's this attitude that has gifted us some of the more exciting moments in the genre's short history. Whether it be diving into battle, outnumbered, on a Tim Westwood freestyle session, or famously taking music industry panels to task for omitting his name from their end-of-year lists, he has remained war-ready.
Perhaps the one thing holding Ghetts back is his lack of a seminal "traditional" album. His mixtapes—2000 & Life, Freedom of Speech and Ghetto Gospel—have been heralded as some of the genre's finest bodies of work. In this new era however, MCs are stamping their impact with full-length LPs. His debut, Rebel With a Cause, released back in 2014, was perhaps more mellow than supporters were expecting, with the project feeling more Justin Clarke than the Ghetto heard on his previous mixtapes. As such, it didn't add as openly to his reputation as one of grime's best barrers and isn't mentioned in the same breath as classic LPs such as Boy In Da Corner or Home Sweet Home. When outsiders first turn to the genre, looking for an album that captures its essence, it is not a Ghetts LP that they are first greeted with.
Still, seminal album or not, he's a technically flawless MC, with his skittish drawl cleaving through instrumentals like a butcher's blade through meat. Midway through his set on that afternoon in 2015, when barking through "Esco's Spirit,"—an exhilarating homage to late Grime MC Esco,—he beat his chest so hard, and spit his lyrics so fiercely, it seemed as if the heat and the lights and the humidity would overwhelm him and he would keel over. But before the inevitable happened, and the oxygen could no longer reach his lungs, he found a second wind and kept going. Sweat poured from his temples as the DJ pulled up the track, raised gun fingers and animated howls peppering the air.
As Ghetts, Ghetto, or J Clarke, this energy continues to exist. With a second album allegedly on its way, it's time the road is cleared for Newham's finest to step into the light. As he says on "Who's on the Panel?": "I'm the best MC when it comes to a CD, show or battle." He's been showing and proving for 15 years—it's now time for Ghetts to receive his crown.
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