London MC interviewed…

It’s a fortnight before Justin Clarke kicks off his first national tour at The Deaf Institute in Manchester, and preparations have hit a buffer.

“I’m a bit nervous, because my voice has gone.”

Clarke – or Ghetts to the thousands of fans acquired across a career that has spanned over a decade – is tapping the dashboard of his ink-black Mercedes, parked by the rusting iron gates of a Hackney industrial unit. Streets away and markedly less busy than the nearby Kingsland Road, Ghetts has at last escaped the ticket wardens found stalking the streets whenever he pays a visit to the office of his publicist.

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Ghetts, ‘Rebel’ (2014)

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“I had a mixtape ready, it was meant to be released right this second,” he says, again tapping on the dashboard. “I’m behind schedule and I just had the finishing touches to do, so that’s upset me.”

First chancing his trade as an MC back in 2003, Ghetts is somewhat a veteran in a grime scene that is still deceptively young. Remaining relevant in a culture that, despite its promise, has not always paid well and in an age where music is consumed and then thrown to the side faster than ever has proved difficult for many. It’s this double-edged sword that Ghetts feels has been of detriment to the careers of handfuls of his peers: those whose sound succumbed to the allure of chart success, only for the artists to find themselves struggling to reconnect with their original fans once the commercial circuit had ran its course.

“You can get rich today, but you might not be able to make music eight, 10 years from now based on the music that you are making,” he says. “It’s being very careful and making sure that your brand is always authentic. I’ve made certain mistakes in my career that I shouldn’t have. I had to understand not every collab’ is worth doing, even if it’s worth a bit of change.”

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We’re just the outcasts, the kids that weren’t meant to be, but made it happen…

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“Some of us made the mistake of making music…” he continues, pausing to mull that thought over. “I’m not even going to say making ‘other’ music – I’m just going to say ‘not good music’. And what’s happened is they’re finding it hard now, because that commercial crowd switches so quickly, you know?”

Travelling the independent road at first proved problematic for MCs contained in a DIY genre that has notoriously lacked wider support – something Clarke feels ultimately sharpened his business acumen on the strategic side of things. It’s a turn of events that he feels aligns grime artists with a handful of Hip Hop acts from across the Atlantic, the most notable being Jay Z and Dame Dash who, in their earlier years, fended for themselves having been turned down by nearly every major label.

“We’re just the outcasts, the kids that weren’t meant to be, but made it happen,” he says. “That’s the way it’s going to be, but I thank God for those hardships.”

“I’m different from other artists that are signed to a label,” he says, before correcting himself. “Actually, I shouldn’t just say ‘me’. I should say ‘grime artists’. These experiences will ensure that we’re here 15 years from now. It’s like that saying, you know? Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

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I feel like doing a show without incorporating the earlier days is kind of a disappointment to a fan…

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It’s these career experiences that Ghetts intends to package when he hits the road later this month. The idea for the three-date ‘Rebel’ tour, he explains, is to provide the fans with a near complete run-down of his career to date, incorporating anthems like ‘Top 3 Selected’, ‘Don’t Phone Me’, and ‘Ina Di Ghetto’ – the latter his collaboration with Wretch 32, who along with Kano, Giggs and Devlin, is one of the many guests on the tour.

“I had to look at it from the fans’ perspective,” he says. “It’s my first tour, and what I want to do is really give people the experience of my career. Obviously the album’s sick, but I feel like doing a show on my first tour without incorporating the earlier days is kind of a disappointment to a fan.”

Clarke’s first album, ‘Rebel With A Cause’, was released in March via Disrupt, an independent label that Ghetts is eager to praise, quick to point out the relentless work ethic that they all share. That’s why the partnership, though only one album in, has proved successful. In cooperation with the UK Trade and Investment body, the BPI selected Ghetts as one of 15 emerging British acts to receive funding for the purpose of cultivating an audience overseas.

Domestically, the plaudits have also been forthcoming. Later this month Clarke will discover whether his three MOBO nominations progress into anything more, and in September he was crowned 2014’s ‘Hardest Working Artist’ at this year’s AIM Independent Music Awards

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Wretch 32 feat. Badness and Ghetts, ‘Ina Di Ghetto’ (2008)

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“That’s been crazy,” he starts. “Disrupt are the only people that who embrace and trust my crazy ideas. Creatively, I do what I want then I take the ideas to them and we sit down and see how we can bring it to life, how we can make it a possibility. That’s important for me, because we’re just doing what we want to do, not what he’s doing over there or what made him a success.”

‘Rebel With A Cause’ peaked at number 23 on the official album chart, the culmination of a decade’s worth of singles, EPs and mixtapes. And though he is quick to remind that chart success is not something he particularly chases – he’s more comfortable creating music than developing marketing strategies after that process is finished – Clarke refuses to downplay the importance of fans engaging and ultimately investing in the music.

“The album kind of changed my life, put me in a better position,” he says, “But with that being said, from here on out it’s just about me keeping it consistent.”

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Words: Aniefiok Ekpoudom
Photos: Courtney Francis Photography / @CourtneyFPhoto

Ghetts online. See him live as follows:

22nd – Deaf Institute, Manchester
23rd – o2 Academy, Birmingham
26th – Borderline, London

Tickets here

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