“I paint pictures with words”

Words: Ruth Morgan
Photography:  Courtney Francis

The grime MC with a difference weaves emotional stories, loves electric guitars and doesn’t say no to make-up

When The Red Bulletin meets up with Ghetts, aka 30-year-old Justin Clarke, he hasn’t slept. He’s been in an Ealing studio all night, putting the finishing touches to recordings of his live shows. He’s now in a near-empty pub in London’s Docklands, an area he visits to skateboard uninterrupted and clear his head. But even in this remote venue at 11am on a Wednesday, he gets recognised. A student-type comes over to thank him for a “sick gig”, and Ghetts smiles his first smile of the day.

Ghetts - “Rebel”

“Rebel” is the lead single from Ghett’s newest album “Rebel with a Cause”, released in March 2014.

THE RED BULLETIN: Your album’s titled Rebel With A Cause. Are you rebellious?

GHETTS: As a kid, yes, but I had no cause. My daughter’s birth, three years ago, gave me direction. I split the album in half: my rebellious youth, then finding my purpose. 

How did you get involved with the grime scene? 

I’m from Newham. There and Tower Hamlets is where grime was born. People I went to school with played a big part in grime, and I envied them. I started comparatively late, around 18. Then I started reading all sorts of books and it changed me. I learnt to paint pictures with words, and tell stories in rhymes.

Did you expect success?

I have [award-winning grime MC and actor] Kano to thank for it. He was on the radio every week, embarrassing other MCs with his talent. When I joined his crew, I knew I had to be up to par. I was unpolished, my breathing was all over the place and I had a lot to learn. But he heard something in me and took me on tour with him and Mike Skinner from The Streets when I was 19. It opened my eyes to new possibilities. 

Are your family musical?

I was raised a Seventh-day Adventist, so there was a lot of gospel. Dad listened to jazz and Jamiroquai. I’m the black sheep of the family. At 14, I discovered garage, and then I got into US rap. Tupac was commercial, but he was saying stuff that Will Smith wasn’t. 

Why are you known as Ghetto, Ghetts and J Clarke? 

They’re all parts of me. 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 realising 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.

“Sometimes I spit so fast, you can’t digest it. But, to be great, you have to know the power of simplicity too”

What made you decide to put a live band together?

The guy on keys at my shows is my brother, Kadeem. He can play several instruments; he’s a genius. Kadeem formed the band, the Rebels, which gave my music an extra edge. There’s an emotional contact with live instruments. You feel something when you hear a piano, whoever you are. 

Is it still grime?

On Rebel, I brought in a rock sound that a lot of people wouldn’t class as grime. But my tone and delivery stems from grime. It’s the youngest genre in the world, one of the truest to come out of Britain. So let’s move it forward. If hip-hop had stopped aged five, it wouldn’t be what it is today. There’d be no Drake. 

Is innovation behind your spoken word track, too?

That’s different. Definition Of A Rebel is me with subtitles. Sometimes I spit so fast, you can’t digest it. So I slowed it down. Spitting fast came from wanting to be the best technically. It made me the MC’s MC. But the average listener missed a lot. To be great, you have to know the power of simplicity, too. I want to be known as a great songwriter as well as a rapper.

How did it feel to get three 2014 MOBO nominations? 

Great, but performing live at the awards on prime-time TV meant the most. I’ve watched them for years, and my mum always calls, saying, “How comes you’re not nominated, son?” So she was overjoyed. It was amazing. I enjoyed getting styled – even the make-up.

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05 2015 The Red Bulletin

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