Ghetts review – a founding father of grime commands the stage

<span>‘Lickety-split delivery and dextrous wordplay’: Ghetts performs at Outernet in central London.</span><span>Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer</span>
‘Lickety-split delivery and dextrous wordplay’: Ghetts performs at Outernet in central London.Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

If there’s one thing that did not seem likely during grime’s ferocious eruption into life in the mid-00s, it’s that an MC such as Ghetts – back then, fresh out of jail as the volatile teenage MC Ghetto – might be stepping on stage two decades later to a sellout crowd in a glitzy venue in London’s West End, backed by live guitar licks worthy of Mark Knopfler. Opening with the spooky dark side g-funk of Anakin, the line “I just want my flowers/ Before you lot see me leave” hits with a thudding poignancy.

The 39-year-old Justin Clarke has had an arduous journey to get to this point, but his overdue recognition from the music industry – not least a string of rave reviews and a Mercury nomination for 2021’s Conflict of Interest – makes him the perfect embodiment of grime’s own trajectory. Accepting the Mobo Pioneer award last month, he pointed to his schooling in the tower block pirate radio boxrooms, underground raves and kerbside MC battles, “before legal radio would play us”. One of the tensions grime has faced is the idea that “evolving as an artist” means putting down cherished things, such as the frantic hype of dancehall-style MC-ing and hard-edged minimalist beats Ghetts gained a cult following for – and in exchange, slowing things down and smartening things up.

Now Ghetts is performing the second of two dates at the new 2,000-capacity venue “HERE at Outernet”, the vast, tacky afterbirth of the Elizabeth line redevelopment of Tottenham Court Road that saw the London Astoria demolished. Described by its chief executive as “the world’s largest, most advanced atrium of content”, the Outernet might be – and there’s a high bar to clear here – the ugliest building in London, featuring floor-to-ceiling digital screens and clad in gold; it is like a spaceship beamed in from a dystopian near future where AI has banished taste.

Fortunately, Ghetts has a bit more class, the sound quality is what you would hope for from a brand new live music venue, and his four-piece live band fits tightly to his dense lyricism. For a full 45 minutes, he takes the packed crowd through his recent, fourth album proper (his 10th, really, if you count underground mixtapes, which you should), On Purpose, With Purpose, and it’s clear that years of practice at stagecraft has not dimmed his fire. A duo of sombre political tracks, Double Standards and Street Politics – the latter backed with a black-and-white video montage of Black Lives Matter protests – see his flow clear as day and rising in anger, his eyes and arms reaching out to the back row.

Switching rapidly from one classic old-school instrumental to another, Ghetts gleefully chases after each beat like the old master he is

Comfortable and commanding at the centre of the big stage at last, Ghetts emanates a sense of gratitude and vindication for his persistence; for 15 years he has had a cult reputation for his lickety-split delivery and dextrous wordplay, but with little to no reward from the mainstream. In 2022, he arguably stole the show performing at the Brits with Dave and Giggs – not to mention a full choir – on Dave’s epic In the Fire. His late-career success is all the more satisfying given the brief but unconsummated flirtations the industry had with figures such as Ghetts initially – there was a Mike Skinner remix tagalong in 2004, several collaborations with his longtime friend Kano and even a single with The X Factor’s Cher Lloyd in 2011; but he’s got this far without ever having a big radio or chart hit.

The Black British diasporic sound has expanded and splintered in many directions in the years since grime’s chaotic heyday, and Ghetts has continued diversifying his sound, now drawing on Afrobeats, soul and the zeitgeist South African house sound of amapiano. The percussive, slinky shuffle of Tumbi and Gbedu are more than just exercises in cross-genre showboating and get the dancefloor moving nicely tonight. Album highlight Mine, built around the syrupy sweet sample of 90s UK garage anthem My Desire, brings an irresistible romantic energy and Ghetts clearly delights in the call-and-response singalong.

After an hour, he takes off his jacket, the band steps aside and DJ Rude Kid takes over, and a section of glorious grime MC-ing raises the temperature again. Switching rapidly from one classic old-school instrumental to another, Ghetts gleefully chases after each beat like the old master he is.

For an encore, he brings out fellow travellers Kano and Wretch 32 for another new track, Mount Rushmore, the portentous production building its own monuments to three of grime and UK rap’s founding fathers. The song finishes and the trio stand in silence for a lingering moment. A lad declaims with tremendous earnestness behind me: “These three! These are the best MCs in the world. The best!” For a genre famed for violent lyrics and fractious beefs, it’s all quite sweet.

His peers leave and Ghetts closes with the driving, bass-led momentum of On Purpose, With Purpose’s lead single, Laps. It arrived without a music video because he donated its budget to the Newham and Essex Beagles Athletic Club, paying the dues for 150 youngsters from his neighbourhood. So much has changed since Ghetts was one of the most fiery teenagers in sprawling east London underground legends Nasty Crew, all darting eyes and vented spleen. But he’s paid his dues, too, and you’d be churlish to deny him his flowers.