When Ghetts takes to the stage to perform at this evening’s MOBO Awards, most people probably won’t remember the last time he stood on that spot. Way back in 2005, a hungry young newcomer with a big mouth and a raw, hyperactive style, he was invited up by Kano to appear on his fellow rapper’s song Typical Me. It’s taken this long for him to return with his first nominations – three no less, for Best Male, Best Album and Best Grime Artist – and make his mark as the next to smash out of the grime underground.
“Life’s like that sometimes,” he says of his slow-burning rise from angry teenager fresh out of jail to mellow family man, unafraid to show his vulnerable side on his debut album, Rebel With a Cause. After multiple mixtapes for the cognoscenti, it hit the charts earlier this year, the year he turned 30. “I’ve been on the scene for a decade. in previous years, musically everything was going okay, but not so much the business side. Now I’ve got good people on my side working as hard as I am.”
This year’s MOBOs aren’t the first formal acknowledgement of his prowess, however. Last month he was named Hardest Working Live Act at the AIM Independent Music Awards. “I don’t know why exactly they picked me. It was probably how long I’ve been at it, when some would have quit by now if they was me.”
It has been quite a journey for the man first known as Justin Clarke. Look him up on YouTube and you can find blurry footage of the days when he called himself “Ghetto”, battle rapping with exhilarating fury, sometimes storming away from the phone camera because so many words are trying to come out that his tongue can’t keep up. There’s a notorious clip of him trading rhymed insults with Bashy and taking it personally when his manliness as a prison inmate is called into question.
Growing up in Plaistow with a primary school teacher mother, a younger brother and sister and a separated but involved father, all heavy churchgoers, he says that things should have been different. “I was never ever meant to be on that path. I’m from a great background,” he tells me. But when he was 12 a fist fight with an older boy resulted in him being stabbed in the arm. It changed him.
“It done more damage mentally than anything else. It made me not want to be a victim again. I started to be aware of things that maybe the average 12, 13 year-old ain’t aware of. It kind of went downhill for me from that time onwards.”
He went to prison, shipped around various locations, for “car crime, mostly” between the ages of about 16 and 19. “I didn’t do nothing crazy but because my sentences ran consecutively I ended up being in jail for a really long time.” It was a music and drama course inside that pointed the way for him. He’d never really rapped until he was locked up.
“I was terrible at rapping before. But it was the books, man. Just reading loads of books. I read whatever was available. The inmates were my first fanbase. They used to say things to me like, ‘You’ve got something. When you go out, make sure you pursue this. Don’t come back, man.’ Those early words of encouragement meant a lot.”
You can still hear the angry young man on the first half of his album. I tell him, and mean it as a compliment, that I find it almost impossible to do anything else while listening to those songs – answering emails, making the dinner, you name it. They’re so fast, so explosive, so stuffed with aggression. I can understand his claims that some sections of the media fear grime, and follow his argument that this bass-heavy, unrelenting sound is not, as some would say, Britain’s version of hip hop. It’s a new punk.
“We are the most authentic sound to come out of Great Britain since punk rock. I really believe that,” he says. He claims not to be interested in following his peers Wiley and Dizzee Rascal into the singles chart with poppier tunes. “Some people might say, ‘Ghetts is in the Evening Standard. He’s mainstream now. He’s not for us.’ That’s an ignorant way to look at it. I’m always going to represent the underground. But ‘selling out’ is a bit blurry for me. I’m not one of them people that only wants a certain demographic to listen to my music. The more people that hear it, the better.”
These days he’s much calmer company, quietly spoken behind a beard and a baseball cap, keen to talk about our children and relationship tips. He’s well settled in east London with his girlfriend and their two-year-old daughter, whose arrival in his life has changed his perspective for good. The second half of his album takes a surprising turn with the saxophone soul of Ghetto No More and later, the gentle flutes of his song Fatherhood, on which he admits, “I feel like crying.” His rapping voice and his music soften.
“I decided when I was making this album that for you to love me as an artist, I want you to know who I really am. If you don’t like me no more, that’s fine, but I know that I’m being true to myself and I can live with myself,” he says. It’s remarkable honesty from someone who arrived on the scene playing the bad man. “When I’d finished the record I looked at the CD and thought, ‘This is me.’” If you don’t know him already, seek him out now before he gets laden down with awards. It’s about time.