“Replaced that ‘ex’ with an ‘i’, that’s why they call me an icon,” Ghetts spits on the single “Proud Family.” An icon indeed: with over a decade in the game, he built grime from its conception, proving his immense lyrical ability through an extensive catalog of classics. Despite this, his latest album, Conflict of Interest — which was released in February — marks the veteran’s first project with major label backing from Warner Music.
At the start of the 2000s, grime encountered a period of suppression. Tracks were minimized by radio stations, gigs were shut down by the police and artists were overlooked by the music industry, which in turn, forced the genre to remain underground. Yet by the tail end of the decade, this stigmatization generated a protracted rough patch that saw artists distance themselves from its raw sound and lured into the lucrative commercial route — from Wiley’s “Wearing My Rolex” to Dizzee Rascal’s “Dance Wiv Me” both charting the same year. Witnessing this commodification, but unwilling to cave in, Ghetts continued his independent journey, signing distribution deals only with grassroots labels that aligned with his vision — a move that has allowed him to reap the rewards of patience.
“I make music for me first and foremost, for me to enjoy in my car. [If] I can’t enjoy it, I don’t know how I can put it out to the world.”
Hailing from Plaistow, the East-London native captured the ears of the underground circuit with his pioneering debut mixtape 2000 & Life, in 2005. Revered for his infamous clashes and freestyles sprouting from pirate radio stations like Rinse, DeJa Vu and the illustrious Risky Roadz DVD series, his highly energetic flow and hard-hitting punchlines — along with the unique ability to occupy the most hidden pockets in a beat — cemented him as one of grime’s greatest lyricists.
Being left out of MTV’s top 10 grime MCs list in 2010 prompted him to vent his frustrations on the track “Who’s on the Panel”, taking aim at those involved in its selection and reiterating his iconic discography. But 10 years later, Ghetts is at peace and the perception of being underrated is now behind him. “If you ask people who love lyricism and love a rapper’s pen…I’m probably in everybody’s top 5,” he says.
Ghetts is split between three personas: there’s Justin Clarke (his birth name), Ghetto (his original pseudonym), and Ghetts (the artist now). As the title suggests, Conflict of Interest reflects the tensions between these three strands of his personality — something highlighted by the split-faced artwork on the album’s cover. First introduced in the 2013 bar-for-bar battle “The Cypher” on SBTV, each of his aliases come with notable sonic differences that are all invoked on this album: Ghetto takes the form of a dark alter-ego possessing his signature rapid-fire flow that earned his reverence, J Clarke assumes the mature contemplative figure and Ghetts, the flawless lyricist.
“Put it this way, Ghetts couldn’t go to a set with Ghetto, he’ll die.”
Much like the intro (“Fine Wine”) implies the beauty of growth, Conflict of Interest’s complexity provides an introspective look at Ghetts’ personal and musical evolution. The tracklist serves as a chronological journey of his life, commenting on the Black experience in Britain, navigation within the music industry and sinister aspects of intimate relationships — all accompanied by second-hand monologue skits to narrate the project. Smoothly transitioning between inspirations from his grime roots, trading melodies with Ed Sheeran, adopting the G-Funk sound native to the West Coast and paying tribute to the genre that started it all, UK Garage (including an appearance from Heartless Crew legend Mighty Moe) is a minor display of his versatility and musical reach.
Coinciding with the album’s launch is the Evolution of Ghetts video series directed by Saoud Khalaf. Here, alongside the exclusive reveal of Chapter 3, HYPEBEAST sat down with the artist to learn more about how Conflict of Interest came together.
HYPEBEAST: It’s difficult to fathom, but Conflict of Interest is your major label debut. Has that changed the creative process at all for you?
Ghetts: Not the creative process, that remains the same. That was a big thing about choosing a label and choosing a home, I was sitting down with various other labels and some were offering more money. But it wasn’t about the money, it was about me being able to stay true to my identity.
Where did you find the inspiration to work on the album during a lockdown?
I just continued as usual but within the restrictions and guidelines. I’m a studio bod anyways, I just kept going to the studio. Where the album was based on three parts of my life, I wasn’t creating from the here and now, so it was still easy to tap in and create.
What drew you to the UK legends you have featured?
When I do collaborations — minus the Skepta one — I make the tune first, then think ‘I wonder who could take this to another level.’ It was less thought out, it was more natural and organic. When I made “Sonya” I had it for a little while and I was listening to it over again and thought let me reach out to Emeli Sandé, she’ll sound amazing on this. I had both verses and a hook done for “10,000 Tears” and I felt ‘Yo Ed would kill this.’ The same with “Little Bo Peep” — I had that since Ghetto Gospel: The New Testament and I was struggling with a chorus. I listened to “Breathing” by Hamzaa with myself and Wretch 32 and I wanted that vibe for my album, and after I had that for a while I knew Dave would bless it with an amazing verse. I guess I’m just lucky enough for all of those artists to come through for me and bring the dream to life.
Ghetto Gospel was the first show of your versatility and even in this album you adopt different sounds, was that just your inspirations at the time of recording?
Ghetto Gospel was actually an album but for some reason, I wasn’t moving fearless enough at that point in my career and I called it a mixtape like an idiot. But with this album it was more my inspirations throughout my life and career, I wanted to show people that where I’m from it’s like a big melting pot, influenced by so many different things across the board and [being] familiar with so many different genres, it’s not just one thing. The reason why I love Conflict of Interest so much because it really showcases how diverse my life is, not even just me but my life, and things that I’m inspired by, what I listen to, what I grew up on and what I’m in to.
You’ve said before that you see music as a form of therapy, how does this compare to previous releases?
They’re pretty much the same in terms of therapy, it always feels good to stand in front of the mic, say something that I don’t say in everyday life and get it off my chest.
What has been the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome during your career?
Probably myself. I don’t know how to explain it, but Conflict of Interest — even the title name comes from how conflicted I am as a person. At this point, where I’ve got Ghetts, Ghetto and Justin all in harmony with each other, this is the first time this has happened [laughs]. They’re playing their roles very well but normally it’s not like that.
It was your unique flow that caught people’s attention to Ghetto, but now it’s become more of a dark alter-ego. Sonically what would you say is the key difference between J Clarke, Ghetto and Ghetts?
I think Ghetto is the tekkers — alright put it this way, Ghetts couldn’t go to a set with Ghetto, he’ll die. But Ghetto couldn’t chat to Ghetts in the arena of performing or songwriting or anything like that and I think J Clarke is the one that can channel both at any time if he wants to and channel the introspective as well — so he’s the most powerful one of all three.
The album and artwork personifies your growth, and your sound has truly evolved over the years. Do you attribute any of that to the progression of production?
Yeah of course, a lot. TJ Amadi 2 Percent is somebody I needed on this album because his understanding of me as an artist is very deep. We’ve worked with each other since 2011 but not this extensively, we were having conversations about where he wanted to take music and how he sees it sounding and I was like ‘Bro we’re on exactly the same page’ so I definitely can’t take all of the credit for that. I’ve worked with some amazing people from Kadz Keyz, Ten Billion Dreams, Reiss Nicholas, Swindle, Rude Kid, Sir Spyro. Everybody that was involved, we were able to come together, without ego, for the greater good of the project. That was important, having so many producers on board but being able to trust each other in where we were going to take the music.
Producers are really putting the UK on the map globally, what are your thoughts on the current rise and appreciation for British music?
It’s time and it couldn’t have come at a better time. The diversity we’re providing, it’s not just a Jae 5 x J Hus sound, a M1 x Headie sound, a Boy Better Know sound, an SN1 sound, or a Ghetts or Kano sound. I feel that we’re providing so much across the board in terms of music — it really is amazing.
It’s been a long-time coming for UK artists to finally get the recognition they deserve. You’ve been in the game since the early 2000s and witnessed the genre’s first wave of demonization and commercialism. Staying relevant and true to yourself in such an ever-changing industry requires a lot of perseverance, how did you stay motivated?
It’s just a feeling I suppose, I can’t really say that it was some big super plan I had. I just love music to the point where I’m my own biggest fan, I make music for me first and foremost, for me to enjoy in my car. If I don’t make music from that perspective and I can’t enjoy it, I don’t know how I can put it out to the world.
What’s the biggest change you’ve witnessed in the scene?
Festivals. I remember first going to festivals and we’re thinking ‘what the f**k is this, man?’ to the point where it wasn’t even intriguing to get out of the van, we didn’t even think it was lit like that. We were doing up festivals at that point when it was like ‘you sure we got the right place?’ [laughs] To see it now be headlined by people from the culture, it’s crazy to see that now.
Going back to the days of “Who’s on the Panel” it seems you’re still bringing people’s attention to your pen. Does the feeling of being underrated keep that fire burning?
Nah, because at this point I don’t feel like I’m underrated. I haven’t felt like I’ve been underrated for a while. But talking about “writing off” just came from being in the game for a long time and it’s unusual to see somebody keep excelling after so many years. The underrated thing is weird, it all depends on who you’re talking to, it’s the perspective of it. If you ask people who love lyricism and love a rapper’s pen ‘is Ghetts underrated?’ — I’m probably in everybody’s top 5. Some people are not into that and lyricism is not at the forefront of the game right now, so I had to stop saying that I was underrated because it was creating a narrative that I was, but I don’t think I am at all.
In recent years you’ve embraced and channeled representation, have you ever felt that you were put in a box as a Black British male artist?
Yeah even till this day. This could be anyone — this ain’t just racism, sometimes it’s the way you dress, the way you speak and where you’re from people think we all make the same music, but we don’t, we don’t all speak about the same things. There’s a lot of differences in our individuality, but I guess that’s just down to people that are ignorant, you know?