Interview with Justin Clarke: His evolution from Ghetto to Ghetts
There’s no introduction needed, Justin Clarke is one of grime’s most interesting characters. An East London MC with unparalleled natural talent and a Jekyll-and-Hyde-style split personality; he has been involved in some of the genre’s most defining moments.
In grime’s early days Justin Clarke was better known as Ghetto, a fiery, competitive MC fresh out of jail with an aggressive delivery. From the start, Ghetto made a name for himself on pirate radio, in clashes and on live sets, but there was always more substance in his lyrics than most other MCs and he proved this with his 2005 release, 2000 and Life. Ghetto’s 24-track debut highlighted his ability to craft songs and write hooks, something which to this day eludes some of the grime scene’s biggest names. “I had to learn how to write songs,” he tells me, “the people I was inspired by could all do that”. While grime MCing evolved from the tradition of drum’n'bass, jungle and garage raves, Ghetto was quite clearly inspired by US rap and hip-hop, and wore these influences on his sleeve, referencing it in his music often. 2000 and Life summed up these divergent styles best with a freestyle over Dr Dre’s Watcher instrumental immediately following Line of Work, a grime track with a Danny Weed beat.
Ghetto arrived in the scene later than most MCs his age, and he believes that this was an important influence on his individual style, “I was the last of my batch,” he tells me, “it helped because I’d lived a little bit more so I could put that substance in my lyrics”. From the very start Ghetto’s lyrical and technical ability on the mic were always in another league to that of his peers and his second release, Ghetto Gospel, saw him combine his complex, intricate rhyme schemes and gritty, detailed narratives of inner-city London life with a smoother, clearer delivery.
“Ghetto Gospel was something that was so true to me at the time,” he tells me, “I painted pictures of everything I was going through”. The album has gone on to be Justin’s personal favourite of his own releases, “I was really proud of myself” he tells me.
As the young Justin Clarke matured, so did his sound, as Ghetto became more and more ambitious, so did his music. This led to him changing his name to Ghetts, and the releases of Freedom of Speech and Calm Before the Storm, he also left NASTY crew and formed The Movement, along with Devlin, Scorcher, Wretch 32 and Mercston.
After a few years in and out of the music game, this month saw Ghetts finally release his long-awaited album Rebel With a Cause, after a creative promotion campaign which included the creation of his own smartphone app, allowing fans exclusive access to new material. As you might expect, the album is the result of a lot of hard work for the Plaidstow MC: “I had 140 songs to choose from, we were recording like mad,” claims Ghetts, “it was so hard, because we wanted to tell a story through this body of work, but a lot of songs that I thought were amazing didn’t fit in”.
As you might expect, Rebel With a Cause is an album with a concept and a theme, “it’s a young man’s growth in inner-city London” he tells me, “it’s very conceptual, the rebel being me in the early years, but maybe a bit like James Dean, without a cause, but then the birth of my daughter became the ‘cause’ of my album”.
“You’ve got a really rebellious first half of the album and then about halfway through there’s a moment of clarity in a song called Ghetto No More,” he tells me, “It’s that moment of clarity, looking back in hindsight and looking back on the rebel. Everyone can relate to that, everyone goes through changes.
“With this album I wanted people to hear the growth of my music and understand the stories behind why I made it,” he explains, “they’re really close to home; I wanted people to feel those emotions with me”.
Justin Clarke may have matured, but he still fizzes with the same energy which helped make him such a vital part of the grime scene. He may no longer be the same young MC who so unceremoniously lost his temper with Bashy in a street clash, but you can’t help but get the feeling that when Justin is around, Ghetto is never far away.
“I acknowledge that Ghetto possesses his own set of skills and I recognise that certain tracks are Ghetto’s home,” he tells me, referring specifically to his incendiary features on recent tracks Skillzone and Hoods Up, but fans shouldn’t expect to see a return to the days when Ghetto would clash any challengers. “I’ve not got the composure for clashing, I put my hands up to that,” he tells me, “as a musician sometimes you have to choose one or the other and I’ve not seen anyone successfully juggle both equally. I feel like my power lies in making bodies of works.”
All of this means that, despite rumours to the contrary, the much-hyped clash between Ghetts and P Money will certainly not be happening. “The clash will never happen,” he tells me, “it would overshadow everything”. Ghetts even hints that the lyrical war between the two was much more friendly and less spontaneous than it appeared from the outside, “a lot of people don’t know the proper ins and outs,” he tells me, “he actually spoke to me about it before any of the dubs”.
The success of Rebel With a Cause will naturally win Ghetts a lot of new fans, and hopefully over the coming year these fans will get to see the rebel in action, as he plans to re-release 2000 and Life and also bring about the return of Fuck Radio, the home of so many legendary and historic grime sets. For years, Justin Clarke and his 2 alter-egos have been one of the UK’s best-kept secrets, but with a high placing in the UK album charts, it seems that the story of the rebel is finally going to be heard.Tagged in: Drum 'n' bass, Ghetto Gospel, Ghetts, grime, inner-city London, Jungle, Justin Clarke, MC, music
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