Ghetts: ‘Glastonbury is going to be a moment to remember’
Fourteen years after his appearance in the newcomer slot, the British grime MC is set to return to the iconic music festival’s stage as one of the UK rap scene’s agenda-setting pioneers
Thursday 23 June 2022 By Ciaran Thapar Photography by Elliot James Kennedy Photographer's assistant: Felix Borelli Styling by Kiera Liberati Grooming by Ephraim Onyegbule
In June 2008, a 23-year-old Justin Clarke, better known by his former stage name, Ghetto, took to the BBC Introducing stage at Glastonbury festival. Hailing from Plaistow, east London, he’d been riding pirate radio airwaves for some years, cementing his reputation as one of the most ferocious MCs on the circuit: a conjurer of lightning fast, crystal clear, unrelenting lyricism. His song, ‘Top 3 Selected’, had catapulted him to the fore, channelling the raucous competitive energy of a sound system clash into considered song form.
Grime music as a phenomenon had morphed out of a darkening UK garage sound half a decade prior. As the genre evolved, its major players faced a fork in the road. Soften the sound, commercialise and appeal to a widening audience? Or stay true to the art? Many tried the former, with varying degrees of success. Few who braved the latter remain in the game today, let alone at the top of it.
‘That was greazy Ghetts. Greeeeazy Ghetts,’ the MC chuckles now. Older and wiser, beaming in reminiscence, he is sat in the restaurant at 180 House, London. He’s just finished a plate of salmon, spinach and chicken breast; protein after the morning workout. His muscular frame fills out a baggy, burgundy Balenciaga T-shirt, far from his skinny sort of yesteryear. ‘The honest truth is, back then, I didn’t know what anything was. When I look back on myself, there is something I like about that, but at the same time, it’s so mad. People would say to me: “Woah, you’re playing at Glastonbury? And I’d be like: “Yeah, I guess… OK, cool”,’ he shrugs. ‘I didn’t know! It was just another stage, another show.’
Top: jacket and gilet, both Helly Hansen; trousers, Separate Collection; shoes, Axel Arigato; cool box, YETI; bottle, Craghoppers; fire pit and cup, both Snow Peak
Above: jacket and trousers, both Christopher Raeburn; shoes, Axel Arigato; tent, Heimplanet x 66 North
I’ll let you guess which road Ghetto chose. He is a case study of winning by staying true to yourself. His authentic, uncompromising direction of travel has only been reinforced by his evolution into Ghetts, a subtle rebrand which, in his words, is like a switch from the wild, unpredictable yellow flame of a Bunsen burner into the hotter precision of its blue one. He returns to perform at Glastonbury this Saturday – 7.30pm on the John Peel Stage, which will be broadcast live on the BBC, this time as more of a celebration than an introduction – 14 years later, as a veteran at the height of his own and UK rap’s greatest powers.
The last time I spoke to Ghetts was under different circumstances. At the start of February last year, with the paralysing peak of COVID-19’s most brutal return holding most of us indoors, he peered back at me over a Zoom call. It was days before the release of his latest album, his first venture as a major label artist, Conflict Of Interest.
‘I feel like this is the best I’ve ever connected with people via music… I got to a space where I don’t give a f**k what people think I should sound like, look like or do. I can’t play by anybody else’s rules. I’m only now starting to realise how much of a visionary man is,’ he said. But even he couldn’t have predicted the accolades that awaited him over subsequent weeks and months.
‘I want to be reflective about the time we’re living in. [In my work] I am stuck between giving people substance that reminds them of that, or giving you bangers that take you away from that’
Within days, Conflict Of Interest would be hailed as a masterpiece. Shifting genre and tone with ease and blending digital production with live instrumentation, its various single and video offerings – ‘Skengman’ featuring Stormzy, ‘Crud’ featuring Giggs, and ‘IC3’ with Skepta – sprung from the foundation of a tracklist that raised the bar for British rap, slicing right through the ballooning genre’s saturated ecosystem.
Following a passionate social media frenzy among loyal fans, and a bold PR campaign that saw Ghetts drive a tank through central London, the album peaked at number two in the Official UK Charts. It would later gain nominations for a Brit Award, the Mercury Music Prize, three MOBOs (where he won Best Male Act), two NME Awards, and a win at the DJ Mag Awards for Best Rap Album. What was experiencing this long-awaited buzz like at its nucleus in real time?
Jacket and gilet, both Helly Hansen; trousers, Separate Collection; shoes, Axel Arigato; cool box, YETI; bottle, Craghoppers
Gilet, Berthold; top, Daily Paper; sunglasses, Balmain
‘It was amazing, because I always knew in my heart that there would come a point where that would naturally happen. And to see it come to fruition while I’m still here, while I’m still active…?’ he tails off, nodding in appreciation.
‘I was never someone who would look at someone else – one of my peers who was in a better position, maybe, than I was. I always just thought that everyone has their special moment, everyone has their time, and you’ve just gotta be in love with the art… So, to see it all come to reality was just a really beautiful moment. But I had to remind myself to enjoy my wins and celebrate,’ he explains. ‘You’ve got to remember how hard you worked. Because sometimes I get this feeling of wanting so much more, and working, and going forward, like I don’t want to dwell in the moment while the world goes on. I’ve had to find a balance of celebrating those moments, but also be like: let’s work.’
Ghetts concedes that in the week leading up to the announcement of his chart position, while Twitter stormed in his support publicly, privately, ‘in our group chats, between me and the mandem, we were laughing, because me saying, “I want it, I want a number one”, that’s so out of character. Usually I’m like: whatever happens, happens. I’ll be happy with a top five, regardless. But it got to this point where it was like… bro, stop pretending, man. You want this.’
The fact that he didn’t bag the top spot is immaterial. Elsewhere, a continuum of statistics speak for themselves. According to Metacritic, Conflict Of Interest remains the best reviewed rap record by a UK artist, and is number four in their best records of all time, sitting in between the works of Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West.
Among the highs, Ghetts kept making music. Only recently, in April, did he take his first proper holiday, a trip to Jamaica with his family. He has also built his own state-of-the-art studio complex in Essex – ‘for me and the whole team, a place where I don’t have to worry about mixing energies.’ But he is honest that while his work rate has barely faltered, he is finding it a challenge to become inspired.
Jacket, AA Spectrum; tent, Heimplanet x 66 North
‘I always just thought that everyone has their special moment, everyone has their time, and you’ve just gotta be in love with the art’
‘Movies… music… entertainment itself seems to be uninspiring, because everyone is looking for a viral moment. Art inspires art, whether we know it or not,’ he says. ‘I’m at my highest vibrations when this other person is shooting sick videos, or that film I saw is absolutely phenomenal. Then it makes me go, “OK, these are the levels. That’s where the bar is. OK, let’s try and meet that… I like that feeling”.’
I ask him to expand upon the current state of music. He shrugs his shoulders, preparing to deliver an uncomfortable truth. ‘I’ve tried… I listen to everything. I listen to see if I can have an understanding, or if there is something I can learn sonically,’ he says. ‘When Thursday night comes, I’m excited for 12 o’clock, for new releases. But nothing has really blown me away. I almost feel like it’s the way that we’re now acquiring music that makes us devalue it. I used to value songs in a different way. I’d hear a song, then I’d have to wait to hear it again… I’d have to go here or there to get the tune. It was a whole journey within itself. A journey of value.’
But Ghetts is wary of being too cynical about generational shifts in music production and consumption. When I note that it must be difficult for young artists who feel the need to compete for shortening attention spans on TikTok to cut through, he nods. ‘It’s very hard. I don’t wanna be criticising outlets, and how people use them, because I came up in a different time,’ he explains. ‘I think maybe artists way before my time were better recording artists than we were. I’ve been listening to 1970s and 1980s music sometimes and I’ll be feeling like: why is there so much emotion? The way they used to record: without being able to loop something, or play it back… so older generations probably thought that way about generations that came after them. Music evolves.’
Ghetts explains that while the lyrical focus of Conflict Of Interest was in many ways introverted and reflective on his own journey, his next body of work will most likely look outward. ‘I wanna make sure I think about what individuals have gone through, mentally and physically, in the last few years… what they are still going through,’ he explains.
Jacket, AA Spectrum; trousers, Liberati; shoes, Axel Arigato; sunglasses, Thierry Lasry; cool boxes, both YETI; cup, Snow Peak
‘I’ve been putting a lot of pressure on myself, in terms of my writing, and what is being said. I knew Conflict Of Interest was a moment when everybody would hear me, so I wanted people to understand me. That’s why I wrote from that perspective. Now, I want to be reflective about the time we’re living in. The world is burning,’ he pauses to hold my gaze. ‘I am stuck between giving people substance that reminds them of this, or giving you bangers that take you away from that. It’s very hard for me to do.’
Since last year, Ghetts has been characteristically selective about further musical appearances. He contributed a verse to Swindle’s ‘BLOW YA TRUMPET’ alongside other men of the moment, Knucks, Akala and Kojey Radical, whose video features in the super producer’s short film, The New World. His latest solo endeavour, a ‘Daily Duppy’ freestyle for GRM Daily, was released in March. And he featured a heartfelt ode to family matriarchs alongside Jah Digga and Georgia Copeland on ‘Grandma’s Place’.
Now, coming off the back of a sold-out UK tour in November 2021 – which concluded at The Roundhouse in Camden, north London, featuring a slew of collaborators – Kano, Giggs, Stormzy, Emeli Sande, Dizzee Rascal, Aida Lee, Shakka, and more – he’s excited to take the latest, most advanced iteration of his stage show to Glastonbury.
‘I am way more of a seasoned artist than I was all those years ago,’ Ghetts explains. Overall, he says, although he prefers performing at his own concerts, so that he can own the space, he appreciates festivals, ‘because you can really gain new fans. People go to Glastonbury to find new artists. I think that’s really sick, to go somewhere, be open-minded and think: I like the sound of that, who is that? Glastonbury is going to be a moment to remember, for sure.’
Can we expect any special appearances? he shakes his head. ‘Nah, not this time…,’ he says. Then he sits up excitedly to correct himself. ‘Oh wait! Tell a lie. I won’t say any more, but I just told a lie.’
Jacket, AA Spectrum; trousers, Liberati; shoes, Axel Arigato; sunglasses, Thierry Lasry; cool box, YETI; cup, Snow Peak