To quote from the sample which begins Ghetts’ first studio album, Rebel With A Cause, “The rebellious spirit unleashes the strengths in passionate individuals. Their frustration, resistance and defiance formulate an uncontrollable, yet undeniable energy”.
To those unfamiliar with the genre, the suggestion of grime’s political or subversive content might be unexpected. Its culture of clashing, violent lyrical content leaves the genre open to the ubiquitous criticism of ‘glorifying’ criminality rather than analysing its motivations.
For some, a perceived over-emphasis on the egotistical MC and a love of wordplay for its own sake also superficially vitiate grime’s progressive agenda.
These are unimaginative criticisms which have been levelled at any movement which has its roots in urban, black, working-class culture, most notably hip-hop. However, since Chuck D’s famous description of rap music as ‘the Black CNN’ when Public Enemy were at the height of their power, the radical potential of US hip-hop is something to take seriously.
This praise of unflinching social commentary has rarely been accorded to grime or UK hip-hop by anyone outside its community: Ghetts’ album name, and repeated reference to Biggie, one of hip-hop’s most prophetic voices, shows that this is something he is determined to change. Perhaps this discrepancy can be attributed to grime artists such as Wiley only reaching wider public consciousness with commercial hits, or others like Dizzee Rascal abandoning the genre entirely. This is something Ghetts claims he’s always tried to resist.
“After Tinie Tempah dropped ‘Pass Out’, I was having meetings with labels and they were all saying ‘You need a Pass Out!’ You can combine both, Wiley combines both very successfully, but for me it compromises the music,” he says.
Ghetts is excruciatingly aware of the expectations and misconceptions of non-commercial grime. For this reason, despite being around since the heady days of early noughties grime, organizing the Fuck Radio DVD which is symbolic of the movement’s early energy, and releasing mixtapes, Rebel With a Cause is his first studio album. Ghetts has aimed to buck the trend of the MC whose commercial success – “making tunes for radio, for TV” – is removed from anything with more integrity.
Obviously, not every song or artist associated with the genre is concerned with bold social commentary. Grime is often less serious. But at its most thoughtful and meditative, as well as at its darkest, most violent and most nihilistic, the expression of rage against all forms of authority and of alienation from wider society becomes protest and creates a community of voices that are routinely ignored. So-called ‘glorification’ of violence, drugs and aggressive materialism is a myth designed to demonise grime culture. These themes exist because they are, for many, a fact of life. Often this anger is accompanied by the bitter awareness of being marginalized, as in Wiley’s cult-classic ‘Gangsters’, where “the Government tried to destroy my race, but them man turned into gangsters”.
The discussion of whether grime is politically detached or engaged has clear parallels with the debate about the motivations behind the 2011 London riots. The riots loom large in Rebel With A Cause, resonating in lyrics such as, “All I acquired from the riots/Is people sick and tired of being quiet/Dying to be heard/That’s why there’s fire in my words”.
The same perspective which condemns grime as apolitical would similarly see the riots as the ‘apathetic’ actions of an opportunist, criminal underclass. This ignores the fact that a section of society felt sufficiently alienated from their own communities to smash, loot, and burn them.
Ghetts speaks volumes about our political landscape: “At the time when I was making the album the riots was going on. And I felt like what the media focused on… was the looting. I was watching the news so much and it was drifting away from what all this was a reaction to. Don’t get me wrong, it got out of hand… but I was like, are we forgetting why all these people are rising up?”
It is for this reason that Ghetts tells me he is not a “political” rapper: I can almost hear him miming his own quotation marks around the word, to signify that he does not identify with any narrow, traditional sense of the term. He clarifies, “I’m a reflection of what I see… my surroundings are filled with violence and drugs.”
This is the true social force of grime – its ability to, in the rapper’s own words “reflect reality”. Ghetts says he’s “glamourizing nothing”. Rebel With A Cause is a highly personal experience of life and death on an East London estate.
Ghetts describes disillusionment – “living life like ‘fuck it’/living life like there’s nothing” – and of routine victimisation by the police – “before I ever stepped foot in the courtroom I was a victim of judgement/Man like me, I’ve been licked by a truncheon, sprayed by gas/Beat up, handcuffed, lashed in the van”.
When I ask him if he thinks there is a culture of fear around grime, he cuts me off before I’ve even completed my question: “There is, absolutely.”
We discuss the recent cancellation of the Just Jam event at the Barbican by the Metropolitan police. The day after our interview, Skepta is mysteriously barred from performing at the Indigo2 arena, despite having played there on numerous previous occasions.
Ghetts mentions a Sun article which referred to him, almost cartoonishly, as a ‘gun-rapper’, and more worryingly, as “a notorious rapper who rhymes about killing rivals in drive-by shootings”.
“It’s how the media portray us,” he says. “And in recent years we have not had the know-how to deal with that.”
However, he also sees Rebel With A Cause as an achievement of personal emotional maturity. The album describes fatherhood and redemption alongside the vivid portrait of his community. While Ghetts keeps the vitriol of early lyrics such as “I’m a greengate gunhappy goon/And before 2007 ask anyone, I never had one happy tune”, he can take a more detached and analytical approach, combining an aggressive flow with an intimate reflection on his content: “I put out certain songs that allowed [the media] to label me. As much as I blamed them for not digging deeper I blamed myself. This is one scene of a whole movie”.
Over the course of our interview, he constantly refers to grime as “our culture”. Ghetts humbly describes his own work as “just talking about the negative stuff that happens in my area.” But in doing so, he affirms his own power to powerfully focalize the experience of being alienated, demonized and feared.