Words: Rajveer Kathwadia
Photography: KillerWithTheAim
Art Direction: Hyperfrank & JP
Art Design: Adam Gill
Styling: Ghetts

Ghetts Is Blessed With A Gift ✨

“If anyone asks what genre of music I make, say substance with a bit of greeze,” declares Ghetts on “Anakin (Red Saber)”, taken from his latest album, On Purpose, With Purpose. His voice carries the poise and accuracy of a national guard sniper, the now-veteran grime artist affirming both the duality and balance found in his music. For a long time, though, it was the other way round.

Coming up through the legendary N.A.S.T.Y. Crew at the peak of the pirate radio era, Ghetto—as he was known back then—established himself as a firecracker of an MC, packing as many rhymes into his bars as he could, like commuters on the Central Line during peak time; hot, bothered, and liable to snap at any moment. The Ghetts I meet at his purpose-built studios is very different to the mercurial talent I first encountered 15 years ago at his then-manager’s office in Walthamstow. Then, I was listening to his mixtape, Freedom Of Speech, for the very first time—a project where no subject matter was considered off-limits; a controversial, aggressive, and often uncomfortable listen at times.

Just a couple of days before our latest appointment, Ghetts is honoured at the 2024 MOBOs with the Pioneer Award. After a moving acceptance speech where he acknowledges the resentment he had felt at being overlooked prior to the time when Freedom Of Speech was released, he performs a song from the new album: the Sampha-assisted “Double Standards”, a sonically beautiful track where he highlights the ugliness of the world; issues such as the inconsistencies of government foreign policy, racial profiling, self-hate and so much more, all while the slogan ‘FREE’ is emblazoned behind him. While taking in this powerful moment at home, I thought to myself: “This is what real ‘Freedom Of Speech’ sounds like.”

After revealing that he nearly named his latest effort Freedom Of Speech Vol. 2, to signify the flow of truths compiled across its 18 tracks, Ghetts details the growth he’s had to go through to get to this point of contentment in his life and career. “I’m just more comfortable in myself,” he says. “I’m not really bothered by much these days, and I think I was bothered by everything at one point. I was just frustrated, uncomfortable, young, and I felt like the world was against me and I had to just fight that.”

Truthfully, when listening to On Purpose, With Purpose, it’s clear that a lot of things do still bother the 39-year-old rapper. Inequality being one, the ubiquitous spectre of death another. “I’ve seen the devil in the flesh and tried to grab him by the horns/It’s been death after death without having time to mourn,” Ghetts laments on highly-anticipated posse cut “Mount Rushmore”, alongside long-time cohorts Kano and Wretch 32.

“I’m becoming more self-aware of what I’m doing, so a lot of the music I make is way more intentional than before.”

A lot of On Purpose, With Purpose’s direction is guided by the loss of Ghetts’ nan, who passed on the very same day he shot the video for Conflict Of Interest’s “Proud Family”. “She was a very religious woman and a lot of the morals instilled in me came from her, through my mum,” he recognises. This tragic demise raised questions in Ghetts about purpose and aims, many of which he aims to address with the new project.

“What’s beyond this life? Will I be able to see my nan again? Am I using the gift God has given me for the right reasons?” he asks before paraphrasing Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben in conclusion: “With power or influence comes much responsibility, and I was acknowledging what’s happening in the world more. Not just my world, but the wider world. And these questions I kept asking myself, the less I felt conflicted. I realised what I just might be here to do, and that’s to spread love and maybe make music on a different frequency that’s more self-reflective sometimes. I’m becoming more self-aware of what I’m doing, so a lot of the music I make is way more intentional than before.”

But this is the thing: Ghetts has always taken lofty subjects to task—whether that’s the cycle of incarceration on “Trapped In The System” from 2007’s Ghetto Gospel, or black-on-black crime on Freedom Of Speech track “Brothers In Arms”—though he hasn’t always been given the credit for doing so. 2Pac suffered a similar affliction. When the rapper emerged on the scene in the early ‘90s, the son of politically active Black Panther Party members was known more for his socially conscious output rather than the predominantly ‘Thug Life’ influenced music released before his untimely death in 1996. ‘Pac was particularly vocal about societal issues affecting women—something else the Newham native has in common with the late, great rhymesmith.

“Black Rose”, the lead single from Ghetts’ 2018 album, Ghetto Gospel: The New Testament, took on the topic of colourism experienced by Black women from both within and outside the community. On his latest, one of the LP’s more poignant moments comes in the form of “Jonah’s Safety”, a storytelling track where Ghetts puts himself in the shoes of a woman suffering from postnatal depression. Inspired by conversations he’d overhear from his partner, who’s a social worker, the song is a moving tale of relationships and adversity as he aims to empathise with the subject. Highlighting the harsh realities faced by young women in disadvantaged communities, the parallels with 2Pac’s 1991 song, “Brenda’s Got A Baby”, are plain to see.

As with the death of his nan, religion also plays a major part in Ghetts’ growth and evolution. Sitting forward for the first and only time of our chat, he vehemently declares the strength he’s taken from his beliefs. “God has got soldiers and if man believes in God and trusts God, man ain’t meant to be here in fear, rudeboy. That’s the honest truth, ‘cos that’s even disrespectful to God himself. Man’s underneath the most powerful and man’s moving in fear? You don’t really believe.” Passing down from his nan, through his mum, Ghetts’ faith isn’t the only influence he’s taken from his elders. “My mum’s a deep woman,” he says, “so I think just having her blood run through my veins and hearing the conversations she was having while I was growing up [influences me to use my platform to highlight political and humanitarian issues].”

“I’m still growing artistically, becoming more fearless in what I do. Being fearless is a great feeling for me because it gives me the freedom of being super authentic.”

Ghetts’ mum appears at the end of “Double Standards” to deliver wise words around manifestation and world views, and is visibly present on a behind-the-scenes video documenting the MOBOs, leading prayers for Ghetts’ camp, as well as speaking about her relationship with her son: “I might be a parent and I [might have] come up with my son, but at the same time, I’m inspired by him and that’s how it’s meant to be. I might be the elder, but I can learn from the young people and he is one of them.”

This transference of energy is something very present in Ghetts, who has always championed young talent. From taking Griminal and Devlin under his wing during the Fuck Radio era, to giving up-and-comers Pa Salieu and BackRoad Gee a pep talk during the video for their collaborative single, “No Mercy”, G-H has always found it mutually beneficial to share his space with young voices in an exchange of experience for youthful insight.

“It’s like a lot of the young Gs, I naturally gravitate towards them, and they gravitate towards me,” he explains. “I feel like the younger generation have so much to offer, man. It’s always the younger generation that are changing the world and it’s always the older folk who want the world to remain as it was, and it never does. And the only people who ever win long-term are the people who have the understanding that the world’s forever changing and to evolve is the only thing we can do, or stay stagnant. So even understanding how young people listen to music or approach music is like a case study for me sometimes. Like, I like it and I try my best to understand. Sometimes with not much success, but I try.”

The new album features “Blood On My Hands”, a dark, menacing song featuring drill artist Unknown T—who, at 24, is 15 years Ghetts’ junior (quick maths!). The intimidating track is the ‘bit of greeze’ he alluded to on “Anakin”—an energy he thinks is important to retain in some capacity. “I don’t know if that’s ever gonna leave me,” he admits with a sly grin, “especially when I have some of the finest producers that give me that type of landscape to walk on. There’s something vicious TenBillion Dreams does with 808s. Rude Kid also. Very few people can do that, but those two definitely bring that out of me.” The song also brings about an acceptance of the once-compartmentalised facets of his personality; Justin Clarke, Ghetto, Ghetts—they’ve finally unified after years of being kept apart. “‘Blood On My Hands’ has the delivery of J. Clarke, but the content of Ghetto,” he laughs. “It’s mad!”

Another example of Ghetts refusing to remain stationary, is his welcoming embrace of Afrobeats/Afro-house with a trio of songs grouped together on the second half of the album—something he attributes to his consistent presence on the rave scene. “Yeah, I’m outside!” he passionately declares. “Anyone who knows me knows that, at some point, this was coming because I stay outside. I’m with the people and even when I’m outside, I don’t even like the VIP section. I go use the toilet in the VIP and I come back out,” he jokes, before clarifying his deep reverence for the sound that’s been taking over the past few years. “That’s my thing: Afro-house. That is, like, super me, in terms of what I rave to. I just hadn’t found the right textures for me yet and then, with “Tumbi”, I was like, ‘This is the fusion of everything I love. Enough for me to still find it experimental and not a rip-off.’ It was organic, for sure.”

What is perhaps most surprising isn’t that Ghetts has comfortably slid onto the dominant sound of this era, or that he’s consistently sought out by new talent to work with, or even that he’s actively embraced responsibilities in his life—both personal and publicly. It’s the fact that he remains not just relevant sonically, but he has bucked the trend of his peers and is still improving his craft over twenty years into his career. It’s something he realises himself and puts down to both his passion for the sound.

“I’m still very much in love with the music,” he says. “I’m still trying to find out how far I can push my ability of painting a picture. I’m grateful for having the platform that I do and for growing and adding more value over the years that’ve gone by. I kind of should be in a decline according to stats before me,” he philosophises before abruptly declaring: “I’m not. And I have to look at this and say, ‘Once again, God, I thought I knew it all; I thought this should be the time. I was wrong. Cool, I understand. I leave it in your hands. Tell me what I should do; I’m just a soldier.’ So that’s how I’m trying to move now.” What’s clear is that he doesn’t intend to stop here, not when he’s still raising his game whilst also somehow defying time with a Benjamin Button-like quality to look younger as years go by.

“Within rap, there’s so much untouched territory, it’s scary,” says Ghetts. “It might not sound cool sometimes; sometimes you’re gonna get it wrong. But when you get it right, it’s like, ‘Wow!’ I’m still growing artistically, becoming more fearless in what I do. Being fearless is a great feeling for me because it gives me the freedom of being super-authentic. Some people, a lot of people, want artists who gave them their best childhood memories to return to that form, their former selves. What we fell in love with was their authenticity, but the fact that we sometimes want them to return to that version of themselves is the least authentic thing they could do at this point after seeing the world.” And what is authenticity if not purpose in action?

Ghetts’ album, On Purpose, With Purpose, is out right now.

Posted on March 01, 2024