"A lot of what I made has influenced the culture, but I don’t think I invented a sound."
Ghetts is a grime icon if ever there was one. Known for his dynamic, rapid-fire flow and lyrical integrity, Justin Clark is a cult favourite among grime fans, hailed by the genre’s new generation as an influence as crucial as Skepta, Kano and even Wiley. His bars have been reused and referenced by other MCs for years; if you ever hear a grime MC telling you to ‘ask Carlos’, and plenty of them do, you’ve got Ghetts to thank.
While he may not have enjoyed the commercial success of Dizzee, Skepta or, more recently, Stormzy, he’s a lynchpin in grime’s history and although he argues otherwise, Ghetts has been as important to the genre’s development and progression as any MC: a member of the legendary grime collective NATSY Crew back in the day, alongside the likes of D Double E, Kano and Jammer, and a founding member of The Movement with Devlin, Wretch 32 and more.
On his debut mixtape, ‘2000 & Life’, he was Ghetto, a whirlwind of an rapper, riled up and ready to take on the world, the emerging grime establishment and anything else that got between him and a mic. A study in ferocious, wheel-up inducing grime, it’s still considered one of the most important projects in the genre by those who know what they’re talking about.
Then came ‘Ghetto Gospel’, a more mature, reflective mixtape that saw Clark musing on his relationships with the women in his life and delving deeper than the tear-out grime of his debut. Ghetts had evolved again, an unrecognisable MC from the man who just a year earlier had unintentionally made grime history by asking for Carlos. Well, almost unrecognisable – as well as playing host to a more thoughtful Ghetts, ‘Ghetto Gospel’ also helped launch his career, with tracks like ‘Top 3 Selected’ and ‘Stage Show Don’ taking off in the underground.
His latest album ‘Ghetto Gospel: New Testament’ is the follow up to that 2007 mixtape and sees the Plaistow MC on incredible form. An expansive project, it’s his second studio album and without a doubt his best project in years, tackling a diversity of styles and subjects with the help of a roll call of grime and British rap’s best talents. On tracks like ‘Black Rose’ and ‘Next Of Kin’ he gets political, exploring anti-blackness, misogynoir and inner city violence, engaging with each without getting bogged down in the mire of ‘conscious’ rap. Elsewhere, on tracks like ‘Pick Up The Phone’ and ‘Shellington Crescent’, he teams up with fellow veterans President T and Chip, respectively, for a case study in gas-up grime, switching into his old school Ghetto persona with a blink of his eye.
To celebrate the album’s release, Ghetts took over a railway arch in East London for the first-ever Ghettsibition, a collection of photography and art that mirrored the themes and concepts of the album and of Ghetts’ life. As if that wasn’t enough, he’s also just made his feature film debut, playing the lead in British crime thriller The Intent 2. I met him in Shoreditch after a long day, to let him do the talking.