Ghetts‘ commanding voice has been a constant presence in British grime music for over a decade. From his ferocious delivery to his off-the-wall rhyming, Ghetts is known for being raw, uncensored and intellectually sharp. When he tells you that he has played an integral role in grime music, you believe him. He is a father, as well, and his daughter’s birth has transformed his output. As the title of his upcoming album, Rebel With A Cause, suggests, Ghetts is reinventing himself.
The highly-anticipated project is a much heavier, darker ride, openly inspired by conscious observations. His new single, “Rebel” is a testament to his resilience. It’s a winning formula, one that’s sure to absorb listeners and immersing them into his inventive mind. It is as bold and dramatic a shift in sound as he has ever made, but he wants you to know: “I’m not doing what the mainstream or the underground says I should do. I’m doing what I want to do.” We got a chance to catch up with Ghetts, also known as Justin Clarke, and chatted about fatherhood, selling out, happiness, haters, and why he is a rebel.
RESPECT.: Do you ever think about how people your age or younger look up to you, or even see you as a role model?
Ghetts: I have never really looked at it from that perspective, but since the birth of my daughter, I kind of feel like I have a responsibility now. I mean, in terms of some of the things that I previously would have said in my lyrics, I really wouldn’t say certain things now, because of her. So that’s why my new stuff is not as raw or uncut as it was, but also because I’m living differently as well. My music is a reflection of how I’m living. It always has been, so that’s one of the reasons, too.
What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about you?
I think they think that I am bad or something. I notice that when a lot of people meet me in person they always say, “You know what, you’re a nice guy.”
How would you hate to hear yourself being described?
I think with “Artillery” being one of my biggest songs there are loads of people that will listen to that one song and think that’s exactly who I am, or what I am about. I mean, they think that song is the whole me, basically. They say first impressions last forever. For example, if I came on the phone and you were having a bad day, but you had this tone about you, I would think that’s you all the time, not knowing you were just having a bad day. Unfortunately, when I make music, sometimes the imprints from the songs will live on. I could make a very angry song right now, and that song would probably live forever, and the same goes with also making a cheerful song.
How many times a day do people stop you thinking you’re Chris Rock?
They know I am not him [laughs]. What they do say is, “Has anyone ever told you you look like Chris Rock?” It’s now at that point where I don’t really mind. I’m not too bothered. I don’t embrace it as such, but when I see him, I do see the resemblance. Then again, I’m my own person and that is how I like to be looked at.
Your music is often described as “moody.” Do you consider yourself a moody person? Or, perhaps someone who just doesn’t like to follow rules?
Yeah, I have a problem with authority. To be honest, if everyone is going right, I tend to veer to the left. I’m just like that as a person and sometimes I have ask myself, “Am I doing it for that reason alone?” or, “Is it because everyone is going in one direction, and I want to go somewhere different?” It’s something that really feels natural for me in doing that. It’s who I am.
You seem to be a very composed person. Is your upcoming album, Rebel With A Cause, inspired by your unruly approach to making music?
Rebel With A Cause has got so much different meanings. Like, obviously, “rebel,” meaning the way I am as a person and me wanting to do what I want to do. I’m not doing what the mainstream or the underground says I should do. I’m doing what I want to do. At the end of the day, I’m here today because when I was a kid in my bedroom I decided that I wanted to make music my way, which at the time people appreciated me for doing. So I try and still have that approach to music now. If you go onto my YouTube, you will see that I’ve disabled all the comments. When I started there were no comments and people just loved what I was doing, it was very authentic and that is the same approach I had with this project. I would say the first six or seven songs are very rebellious even though I kind of have a hindsight moment halfway through where I think the birth of my daughter provided me with this whole new perspective, which is basically the cause.
“Rebel” is a really striking song, perhaps one of your most overtly intense. Tell us a little about your writing process. Are your lyrics always personal?
Yeah, ninety-nine percent of time. I only write off reflection. Following the aftermath of the riots across the UK, I remember watching the news back then when I wrote the track. I wanted to be very direct because I think in this country, artists are very scared to do such things on the scale that I am trying to do it on. I wasn’t scared or worried about expressing my views. I wasn’t even thinking, “Is it going to get radio play? or “Will it be on TV?” Like I said, I just wanted to make music that is authentic and where I’m saying stuff without having to please anyone.
As a self-proclaimed “rebel,” what laws do you break every so often?
The speed limit [laughs]. I love driving fast, but on a serious note, I’ve not been breaking any real laws of such.
Do you find sharing intimate thoughts with the world liberating for you?
Yeah. Imagine taking a pain relief, that’s what it’s like. I made that song on a day I was feeling down, and I thought by going into the studio and letting it all out, people would be able to identify with me. If they can in any way. I feel like at times we all share the same feelings, so yes, it is liberating.
It sounds like this album was a session of musical therapy. But lyrically, I get the feeling listening to your music that you like to present situations but not really draw any conclusions. It’s like most of your tracks have something unconscious going on inside them.
I hear what you’re getting at [laughs]. A lot of my tracks do have a message behind them, especially the newer music. I wrote this album in a way that when you’re listening to it, I want you to feel like you’re reading someone’s autobiography. I didn’t want to talk about music during the album. I wanted to take people away from me being a rapper and just feed them my thoughts.
On “Rebel,” your voice is captured in a way that makes it sound like you’re yelling or self-loathing. What is it that inspires this heavy, oppressive approach?
When we got into the studio we made everything from scratch with this album. I knew that I wanted live instruments involved and because I know people love me for my energy I wanted to incorporate that in the record. The electric guitar brought that out a lot. I think I really gelled well with them, but for anyone thinking I’m trying to be mainstream or anything like that, you can tell them this from me: if that was the case, would I ever start a verse with “I don’t give a fuck my brother, I never have”?
There’s a particularly fascinating line in that song where you say, “All I acquired from the riot is that people are sick and tired, dying to be heard, that’s why there’s fire in my work.” Can you elaborate?
When we were watching the news we all focused so much on the bad and not the problem that started it. In the case of the riots – people were upset because of what happened in Tottenham to Mark Duggan. And that’s basically what I’m saying: “All I acquired from the riot is that people are sick and tired, dying to be heard, that’s why there’s fire in my work.” In the mainstream media, they just focused on kids running around and getting free clothes, but that really wasn’t the truth. That’s how I see it anyway.
Do you consider yourself happy?
Since the birth of my daughter— she was born in May 2012— I have been happy. I look at life from a completely different perspective. I love living and when she smiles, I smile. I’ve got nothing to be upset about and I’m grateful for every single thing I have and at this moment I am very content.
The different emotions you convey on the album are definitely intense, but it’s hard to define. Do you know what you want someone to feel when they listen?
I want them to really listen and have or feel some kind of emotional attachment. I’ve got a song called “Fatherhood” on there and if you’d ask me precisely, what I want people to feel when they hear that song, I would say if you’re a father or a mother— I would want it to take you back to that day when you first had your child. I want you to remember that happiness you felt on that day. If you haven’t got children yet, I just want you to feel my joy through what I’m saying on the song.
Whenever you perform, it seems like you’re removed from your body, like a puppet pulling your strings. Do you ever get scared of losing control?
[Laughs]. The reason I’m laughing is because this is the very same conversation my mom and I have. She says to me, “Sometimes music can be so powerful, do you really know who’s in control? Is it you or is it someone else?” I’ll answer the question truthfully— some days I feel like I’m not me on stage. It’s like an overwhelming feeling whenever I watch myself back.
Most musicians say that they get fulfillment when they are performing live for other people, as opposed to when their music is heard on the radio. What satisfaction does music provide for you?
It really is a pain relief for me, man. I go in the studio based on feeling. I never can say, “Okay, today I am going to make a song about such and such a thing.” I can’t do that, like, I go in the studio and I get a vibe and I start writing. It just happens spiritually.
“Party Animal” is such a suggestive song. You seem to really have a good musical chemistry with Kano.
You know what it is — with me and Kano, we’re friends outside of music and we’ve done a lot of songs over the years together. Our chemistry onstage, offstage, in the booth, out the booth is just a great friendship, you know? We highly respect each other as artists.
The thing you bring to the forefront of your music is confidence. Is it a natural thing or is it a quality that you’ve had to create to brand yourself in the music industry?
To be honest, this is a natural thing. I grew up in church where I had to get up and either sing or speak in front of many people, so at this age, it’s first nature to me.
You tend to get a lot of hate from other artists who I think would secretly love to be in the position you’re in. Does that frustrate you? Do you ever wish they’d just like you sometimes?
No, they drive me. I actually embrace it, exactly the same way I embrace love is the way I embrace hate. That’s why I feel I’m the outcast within the outcast, it’s pretty obvious that I’m seen as an outsider of the scene, even though I might be classed as one of the powerful members, I’m still not with everyone else. I kind of enjoy that role. I don’t think you have to be friends with everyone and I’m not going to give them the attention or to be distracted every time someone says something about me. Even though I’m from the grime scene, which I will rep until the day I die, I feel like my path is different from a lot of MCs. In grime, energy and certain other things are worshiped over lyricism and I’m one of the first people to bring lyricism to the table. So there’s not really a blueprint for what I am about in that scene. I am one of the blueprints for what the lyricism is within grime. In fact, you know what, I hate being a sheep in this day and age. Because someone is doing something, that doesn’t mean I have to do the same thing as well. I think that is what’s hard for me sometimes, but nevertheless I’m still counting my blessings.
Rebel With A Cause is out March 10.
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