Chris Kelly ventured to Somerset House on the 14th July to see iconic east Londoner Ghetts – the first grime artist to headline the Somerset House Music Series. It doesn’t get more iconic. Read all about it…
As grime artists go, it doesn’t get more iconic than Ghetts.
And as music venues go, it doesn’t get more iconic than Somerset House. So when it was announced that Ghetts would be the first ever grime artist to make history by headlining Somerset House Music Series. I knew this would be an unmissable sell-out gig – I swiftly secured my tickets.
Ghetts (real name Justin Clarke), hailing from Plaistow, East London. Started as part of the grime collective N.A.S.T.Y. Crew (Natural Artistic Sounds Touching You), widely considered pioneers of the grime scene and one of the most popular acts on the underground.
Ghetts went on to form another faction, The Movement, which featured Wretch 32 and Devlin. His first release was the 2005 mixtape ‘2000 & Life’, while his first Top 40 collection was his 2014 debut studio album ‘Rebel with a Cause’. Ghetts scored his first UK Top 40 hit on the UK’s Official Singles Chart in March 2017, collaborating with fellow featured artist J Hus on Stormzy’s song ‘Bad Boys’. Ghetts’ major label debut came in 2021, Conflict of Interest, featuring Emeli Sande, Giggs, Jaykae, Stormzy and Skepta.
Ghetts has become a cult icon renowned for his accelerated flow, razor-sharp satirical wordplay, and lyrical candour. Whether you know him as Ghetto, Ghetts or J Clarke, the energy he emits is not only unequalled, it’s untouchable. No one even comes close to his intensity on the mic. Ghetts calling card is his choppy energetic style, which encapsulates the essence of grime in a way no other artist does. He is grime, and grime is him. His finely honed multi-layered pen game fused with incredible technical abilities have cemented him as a scene-shifting pioneer. That has positioned him at the top of his game for almost two decades.
In the week that led up to the show, I found myself thinking about his evolution and how far he had come since first hitting the scene with his moniker Ghetto. Creating a wave of copycats in its wake, all of whom attempted to emulate his stylistic sound. Before I knew it, I was stuck in a YouTube wormhole, reminiscing over old Risky Roadz and Lord of The Mics clash footage. Including one of grimes most infamous battle, Napper vs Ghetto, which has left us still pondering grimes biggest rhetorical question, ‘Where’s Carlos?’
As the Y2K decade closed and the traditional grime sound popped, diluting and becoming palatable for commercial mainstream audiences, grime fans criticised artists in the scene for chart chasing and abandoning their roots, a criticism that never befell Ghetts. It would have been easy for Ghetts to follow his peer pack and water down that trademark ferocious street sound. But in typical Ghetts fashion, he chartered his own waters. Ghetto evolved into Ghetts, a more mature version of his sobriquet. And by 2013, Ghetts gave us a J. Clarke, an abbreviation of his name Justin Clarke. Bravado was swapped for sophistication and showcased his growth as a man, musician and father.
Even as his mainstream success grew, it felt like he still belonged to the underground scene he had come from. One of the things that struck me when deliberating his evolutionary journey is just what an anomaly he is. The laws of physics state that two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time; it’s against the laws of physics. Yet Ghetts occupies three with, Ghetto, Ghetts and J. Clarke, all of which exist simultaneously. Ghetts is out here defying science with his alter-egos. I cannot think of another artist in any genre at any other period that has done that? Each of his doppelgangers has independent discographies and can be viewed as separate artists with bodies of work. In a similar vein to his writing prowess, it’s not linear. Some of his releases have seen him impressively switch between the three personas. His 2013 track ‘The Cypher‘ is probably the best song to compare the three personalities alongside the 2021 release of Conflicts of Interest. His most commercially successful creative output debuted at number two on the UK album charts.
The weather was on point when gig day arrived, and it was a perfect summer evening for an open-air concert. I was determined to break my trait of getting to gigs late. I wanted to get a front row position, plus sultry Mancunian songstress Pip Millett was the support act, and back in 2018, I spent a lot of time with her debut song, ‘Make me Cry‘, murdering it with my shower renditions, which should have seen me catch a life sentence (luckily enough for me, Shampoo bottles aren’t snitches).
Whilst Somerset House is conveniently just a bus journey from my flat. North London’s traffic gods conspired against me, and I knew shortly after setting off that I would miss Pip Millett’s set. Cussing, disappointment aside, I reached the West End. As I hopped off the bus, my feet touched down on the bustling Strand. Somerset House struck my peripheral, and I skilfully weaved around the international tourists. The indistinct chatter from West End sightseers filled the air until a familiar voice broke through the white noise. Digga D’s track ‘Woi‘ blasted directly from the neoclassical venue, which dates back to 1796. I smiled at the inner city sound infiltrating and echoing down one of the city’s most epochal streets.
Being a regular attendee at the annual Somerset House Music Series, I was shocked at the size of the queue. I had never seen it stretch so far. I cursed myself for my inability to break that lateness curse. To the door security’s credit, I have also never seen a line reduce as quick. Walking into the capital’s coolest cultural open-air venue, I was in awe at the majestic Georgian architecture. The audience in front of the stage was already swelling. There was no time to mess about if I wanted a decent spectator position. Quick drink at the bar before diving into the crowd to claim my spot. Drink in hand, I did a quick crowd scan. There was a mixture of all ages and races. I wondered which Ghetts they’d come to see?
A few minutes before the clock struck 9, Ghetts arrived on stage, donning a two-piece black Prada suit and black shades. The audience saluted his entrance with Gun fingers raised to the blue sky overhead, a sight that is probably not all that familiar to Somerset House. The show opener was ‘Listen’ from 2019’s Top Boy original soundtrack album. As Ghetts started spitting bars, he moved like a boxer swerving the beats. When ‘Hop Out‘ dropped, the G-Funk West coast whistle and D Double E’s catchphrase ‘Oor Oooor‘ waved through the air. The crowd bounced like a lowrider, and Marley smoke wafted through the air embracing the hot summer evening.
“Wagawn, who is having a good time?”
“Today, I feel overwhelmed; when I look out, I see people of all ages, all races. Here at Somerset House with me, I wanna say thank you. From wherever you’ve been on this journey with me, whether it’s been the start, the middle, or whether you’ve just found out about me, I appreciate you guys.”
A humble, authentic interaction set the mood for Ghetts emotionally vulnerable and mature alter-ego J. Clarke to take centre stage. Performing songs from his Conflicts of Interest album. First up were ‘Sonya’ and ‘Proud Family’, which caught me emotionally off guard, and my eyes welled up. It was a poignant moment and one that I didn’t expect to experience at a Ghetts show. Much to my delight, Pip Miller entered the stage to perform ‘Running‘, their vocals and chemistry perfectly aligned.
As darkness fell over Somerset House, the sound of grime began to rise. Rude Kid dropped beat shifter banger ‘You Know my Ting’, which combusted, consuming the crowd who sang along ‘Fam, you know my ting, fam, you know my ting‘. The only thing more extensive than the sound of the audience chorus was the smile from Ghetts. When the combat call to arms, ‘Artillery’ drums marched out of the stage speakers. The energy emitted from this beast of a track electrified the crowd. I looked around me, and the song was recited word for word by fans who were in an almost hypnotised state.
When ‘One Take’ dropped, things got rampant. Grime instrumentals; after grime instrumentals were slammed down, wheel-ups and clickety-clack fingers were plentiful. But it was ‘Who’s Got a Problem’ that received the most significant reaction from fans, as everyone in the surrounding vicinity started grabbing at each other’s T-shirts, screaming, ‘You got a problem with that.’
You could visibly see Ghetts feeding off the energy it produced, and he announced, “Power me up! I need powers and energy! Power me UP!”
When ‘Skengman’ was released upon us, Ghetts was at his most wild and uncontrollable, grinning like the Chesire Cat. He paused to reassure a woman who had caught his eye in the front row.
“You looked scared. I’m not possessed or anything! I think she liked Ghetts, not Ghetto.”
As the night drew to an explosive finale, it crescendoed with a rapturous rendition of ‘Mozambique’; Ghetts young daughter joined her dad on stage for a skanking session. It was a beautiful sight to behold, and as someone that’s followed his career since he first hit the scene as a baby-faced 19-year-old, it was emotional to see the transformation of Ghetto, Ghetts into J. Clarke, the family man that closed the show.
His final curtain call moments were gracious and sincere as he thanked the Somerset House crowd and prayed for their safe journey home.
Ghetts tore down Somerset House and delivered an energetic show filled with grime nostalgia that plunged me back in time. Watching a legend still at the top of his game, displaying the same hunger as he did as that fresh-faced 19-year-old. Ghetts isn’t just the hardest in the grime scene. He’s the hardest in the entire British music scene.
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Words pictures and videos: Chris Kelly
Chris is a freelance music journalist and feature writer with a focus on emerging and established artists, subcultures, the art world and mental health. Chris has multifaceted expertise as a media and creative specialist working with your favourite brands and helping them to embed themselves within the culture through strategic and entertaining content for brands, businesses and organisations.