Sam Cooke famously sang that a change was gonna come. For East London rapper Ghetts, change has been gradually manifesting for the best part of 20 years.
The trappings of a misspent youth landed him in prison at an early age – a series of relatively minor offences related to car crime resulted in concurrent sentences – and he was released in 2003, at which point he embarked on a road of crucial self-discovery. After manoeuvring many of life’s obstacles, occasionally tripping and falling but getting straight back up again, he found his stride, picking up fame and fortune on his way to becoming a key figure in the UK’s thriving Black music scene.
“Sometimes I look back and think to myself that I must be here for a reason because there were definitely times when I could have thrown it all away,” Ghetts, now 36, tells NME ahead of the release of his new album ‘Conflict Of Interest’. “Navigating through life is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do, and me being in the position I’m in now, I don’t take it lightly.” That position sees him at the top of his game, revered as one of the UK’s most gifted wordsmiths.
The rapper formerly known as Ghetto (his real name is Justin Clarke) has come a long way since his days of trading bars in pirate radio stations as part of the N.A.S.T.Y. Crew, alongside grime luminaries Kano and D Double E. His achievements range from sell-out headline shows and consistently high-quality projects to being involved in some of grime’s greatest clashes (his back-and-forth with P Money is essential for any rap fan, though on new song ‘Audiobiography’ he takes a cheeky swipe at NME for missing it from a list of grime’s best diss tracks). In short, he’s amassed quite the résumé.
But while Ghetts is celebrated, there have been times when he’s felt overlooked. “I used to think I was underrated,” he admits. “But my perspective changed once I started purposely engaging with a variety of different consumers on social media. It gave me a different type of understanding about who I am as an artist.”
The rapper is renowned for his dense lyricism, but today concedes that the once-dominant art form of technically brilliant, state-the-nation rhymes isn’t as greatly heralded as it once was. “A lot of people don’t even know what lyricism is,” he says, shrugging his shoulders. “But anyone that does understand it, they rate what I do. And that’s enough for me.”
Armed with this newfound disposition, Ghetts has a new pep in his step. His luminescent smile wider than usual, he grins from ear to ear, fully engaged, excited about ’Conflict Of Interest’, his third studio album and first on a major label, Warner Music.
“I started working on this album straight after I finished my last,” Ghetts says, referring to 2018’s ‘Ghetto Gospel: The New Testament’. That sequel to his 2007 mixtape ‘Ghetto Gospel’ showcased a more refined Ghetts. As he stripped away the fragmented mayhem of its more grime-focused predecessor, what emerged was a widely celebrated, cohesive body of work that brought light to his unyielding, three-dimensional storytelling. “I really wanted to outdo [‘…The New Testament’],” he says. “People kept questioning whether I actually could, and the whole time I was thinking, ‘Yeah, I can.’ There’s so much more in my locker that I wanna speak about.”
As the title suggests, the themes on Ghetts’ latest offering centre around personal conflict. The 16-track album, a composed audio biography that plays out like a three-act epic, was whittled down, he says, from “maybe 65 to 70 songs”. Evidently, Ghetts had a lot to get off his chest.
“At first I was trying to present just one version of myself,” he explains. “But then I got halfway through the album and realised that I’m a very conflicted human being. I had a real moment of clarity where I realised that all these different qualities make you who you are, from anger to joy to pain. This album helped me learn to embrace that.”
The sweeping, fully bespoke production on ‘Conflict Of Interest’ complements the deeply personal subject matter that Ghetts explores on the record: individuality, heartbreak, fatherhood, the Black experience, past transgressions. And there’s a good reason it sounds as good as it does.
“Prior to this album, all the people I’ve ever worked with, from my mix engineer to the producers, to the executive producer – none of them knew each other. I felt like it was time to bring everyone together,” Ghetts says, revealing a more unified creative process this time around. “I wanted us as a group to talk about everything we wanted to achieve sonically and message-wise.”
Guests on the album include some of his most respected peers in UK rap: Stormzy, Giggs, Skepta, Wretch 32, Dave and recent NME 100 star Pa Salieu. Another big name on the tracklist that sticks out is Ed Sheeran. The ‘Shape Of You’ hitmaker and Ghetts are no strangers to working with one another, having previously collaborated on 2011’s dramatic ‘Drown Me Out’. However, it’s been 10 years since they last teamed up for Sheeran’s ‘No. 5 Collaborations Project’ album, and a lot has changed – most notably the demand for Sheeran’s time.
“Out of all the people on the album he was the one who turned his verse around the quickest,” Ghetts reveals, still surprised by the singer’s rapid response. Sheeran was actually on his way to Japan when Ghetts reached out to ask if he would be a part of ’10,000 Tears’, a candid, mid-tempo ballad on which the pair express regret over lost loves. “I really wasn’t expecting much,” the rapper says, “but then he hit me back and said he’d found a studio in Japan, during his break.”
“If you’re still alive, there’s an opportunity to find your genius”
Sheeran continued to go above and beyond even after he’d finished laying down his vocals. After a studio engineer made a mistake with the files of the track, meaning it was difficult for Ghetts and his team to piece it together, Sheeran made sure the issue was rectified immediately. “I was a bit hesitant to hit him back up but he got it sorted for me within an hour,” Ghetts says. “He’s the busiest guy in the world yet he still made time to do that for me.”
Ghetts had vowed to carry this good energy through into the next chapter of his life. He’s been down some dark tunnels in his life, but his tenacious spirit has brought him out the other side stronger, wiser and with a better understanding of his purpose.
“I just wanna let people know, young, old, it doesn’t matter your age, if you’re still alive, there’s an opportunity for you to find your genius and be what you’re meant to be,” he says. “Sometimes I’m a catalyst for somebody else’s opportunity. And I’m totally fine with that.”