Music is a capricious beast, which is why the industry can sometimes be a revolving door as artists come and go as the zeitgeists shift. The youth are often the driving force behind these shifts, which is why rap especially, is often referred to as a young man's game; as who better to be elected epochal spokespeople than the youth themselves? As the mainstays of yesteryear are slowly replaced by fresh blood, many of them fade into obscurity, try their hand at other occupations, or cling hopelessly onto their previous positions in office. At 36 years old, conventional wisdom suggests that Ghetts should by now be falling into one of these categories. Instead, he’s turned out to be something of an anomaly; he’s just released his magnum opus Conflict of Interest, railed the whole scene behind his album campaign, and debuted at number two on the charts.
Before this purple patch, Ghetts spent most of his career as an under-appreciated genius, who was either ahead of his time or deemed simply not marketable. The quality of music could never be called into question, from his debut mixtape 2000 & Life (2005), Ghetts has been someone who has always pushed the envelope. The meaty 25 track tape may not be as succinct and lacks the continuity of his later work, but Ghetto (Ghetts’ previous moniker), was like a mad scientist frantically experimenting on each track trying to catch lightning in a bottle. Despite never quite managing it over the course of the 25 tracks, we’re nevertheless treated to flashes of his brilliance throughout, on standout cuts like “Sycamore Freestyle”, “Over” and “Pride”.
Being one of grime’s earliest lyrical proprietors, meant that rather than following a well-traveled route, Ghetts himself became the cartographer, figuring out both pathways and pitfalls along the way. This journey into the unknown made Ghetts difficult to place for labels, and he hadn’t yet refined the lyrical ferocity that had quickly become his calling card. Determined to shake the early criticisms leveled at him, Ghetts released Ghetto Gospel (2007), which was widely regarded as his best body of work, until it was dethroned by Conflict of Interest & Ghetto Gospel: The New Testament. I remember first getting my hands on the mixtape from UK Record Shop, a proud moment for me, as I’d only been able to procure a bootleg version of 2000 & Life a few years earlier. When I first laid eyes on the cover, Ghetts with his hands clasped around a rosary, bowing his head in prayer, it was clear that he was once again taking the genre in a new direction.
Pressing play confirmed just that, as Ghetts draws you into the confessional with each track, giving you more of Justin Clarke, the man behind the personas that have shifted grime’s tectonic plates. It's the first time we really get to see how multi-faceted Ghetts is; over the 21 tracks, depending on the sermon, the service is lead by either Ghetts, Ghetto, or J Clarke, each providing us with something distinctive. Whether it's the hellfire summoned for the five and a half minute lyrical barrage on the iconic “Top 3 Selected Remix”, or the nimble quick-witted rhyme schemes on “I’m Ghetts”. The quintessential grime machismo is even traded in for vulnerable introspection on much of the latter half of the tape. One thing that is omnipresent throughout, regardless of who’s in the pulpit, is the water like flows; that bend and curve around parts of the instrumental like you’ve never heard before, coupled with Ghetts’ celestial lyrical capabilities; its little wonder that this wasn't his Boy In Da Corner moment.
Although the mixtape went down in grime’s annals as a classic record, critical acclaim aside, it garnered little else in the way of recognition from the wider music industry. It’s almost as if they were not yet ready to receive his musical blessings. Ghetts’ subsequent releases followed a similar pattern of plaudits from the underground, but never reaching the firmament like fans believed he was capable of. One snub, in particular, saw Ghetts take aim at these industry heathens for not ranking him in the top 10 MCs in the country. Ghetts was well known by now for his warmongering, so these MTV panelists were just the latest to be put to the sword on his 2011 track “Who’s On The Panel”.
The late noughties saw many MCs dabble in electro-pop, as by this time it was all but accepted that grime and its offshoots were not going to become profitable pursuits. Ghetts’ own dalliance with the sounds of electro, came in the form of a remix of his track “Sing 4 Me”. Although not the worst song to come out of this period, it felt like the selling point of the track was the instrumental and the catchy chorus, as opposed to what Ghetts really had to offer. The lyrical depth, the wisdom, and the mind-boggling flows, all in all, the compromise hadn’t been worthwhile. But at that time, in order to achieve any sort of widespread success, this was the price MCs had to pay. Some paid in full and got huge returns. Tinchy Stryder, Tinie Tempah, and Dizzee Rascal, all emerged victorious from an era that was genocidal for many Great British MCs. For those that refused to pay the toll, lean years awaited them, but the loyal fans they’d accrued during their career thus far did too.
For me, a member of this plucky band of Ghetts fans who’ve been listening for the last 15 years, the last twelve months felt like we were witnessing the first refined droplets of a lifelong distillation process. “Mozambique” was the first song that trickled out, it felt like Ghetts crystallized all the elements that fans had loved about him into one singular track. He’s tried it before, but everything ranging from the way he maneuvered around the beat, to the way he was putting words together just felt like he’d finally zeroed in on the perfect formula.
As a fan, I asked myself whether or not the fandom was clouding my judgment: was this just gonna be another “critically acclaimed” Ghetts album? I know he’s great at making music, but is it genuinely going to connect this time? Then “IC3” dropped. The track brought together two elder statesmen who had both emerged from the lean years of the genre, bloodied and scarred, but both ready to claim the spoils of the hardship they had endured. For the old heads, after the war they waged, seeing Ghetts and Skepta on a track together was a moment in itself. Hearing Ghetts’ verses confirmed that I wasn’t being led by nebulous fandom, and Ghetts was really in a different headspace.
Fans have always been of the impression that Ghetts’ brilliance is wasted on the masses because most people don’t catch the complexities in what he’s saying, there are too many layers for the passive listener to truly appreciate. But with this run of releases Ghetts polished the process even further, the lucidity in his delivery, alongside the exactness in what he was saying, begun to awaken the masses to a virtuoso who’s been in their midst for over a decade. “Don’t tell me go back where I came from when the Queen sits there in stolen jewels. Cool. I go back with a chain on, and light up the place like Akon”. It’s direct, clever (but not too clever), and infinitely quotable. Aside from great one-liners, Conflict Of Interest flows like an album that was made before the streaming era. Rather than a collection of singles, which many modern-day “albums” have become, Conflict Of Interest has been designed to be listened to from cover to cover. This method of consumption has been all but forgotten since the birth of the playlist, but Ghetts reminds us exactly what we’ve been missing. Each track is like a chapter in Ghetts’ autobiography, giving us continuity and expert lyricism in abundance.
Those of us who’ve been with Ghetts from the start will be well aware of many of these anecdotes, but we’ve certainly never heard them like this before, and there’s plenty of easter eggs embedded in either the lyricism or the instrumentals themselves, that will keep the OG Ghetts fans happy. New listeners may initially be drawn in by the star-studded tracklist, but once Ghetts has lassoed them in with “Fine Wine” they’ll be unable to escape the journey he’s about to take them on. Ghetts has done his major-label debut right, he’s not compromised on anything, he’s retained all his old fans, and certainly earned a whole host of new ones with the musical masterclass that he displayed on Conflict Of Interest. The most exciting thing of all is that it’s clear that his best years really are ahead of him…
For more on Ghetts, listen below to DJ Semtex' conversation with the Grime pioneer on the Hip Hop Raised Me Spotify podcast.