Wretch 32: Ploughing on through
Recently earmarked by the BBC as one of the 15 rising-music-stars-to-watch for their ‘Sound Of 2011’ list, Tottenham, North London rapper Wretch 32 (born Jermaine Scott 25 years ago) has already carved out an enviable reputation as “the UK rapper’s rapper” - with praise being prestigiously heaped upon him from such credible Brit-MCs as Tinie Tempah, Professor Green and Devlin. All of which has now resulted in the breakthrough Top Five UK success of his current, compulsively-pounding single ‘Traktor’.
Indeed, having initially found underground fame by selling over 15,000 copies of his mixtapes in and around Tottenham (where he grew up the son of a local reggae DJ amidst the grim high-rises of the area’s notorious Tiverton Estate), prior to his current, new-found mainstream chart status Wretch had already collaborated on-record with such fellow successful UK rhymesmiths as Mike Skinner, Wiley and Devlin as well as supporting chart-topping Brit-rappers Tinie Tempah and Chipmunk on tour, while additionally appearing live at major British music festivals like Glastonbury and the BBC Weekender.
All of which has in turn paved the way for Wretch’s forthcoming, as-yet-untitled debut major-label album. Whose potent blend of tough, infectious beats, memorable melodies and searing autobiographical content promises to tell the no-holds-barred story of his life so far - from the bling-obsessed teenage bad-boy who’d think nothing of spending hundreds of pounds on a pair of Prada shoes, to the conscious rapper who these days regularly gives talks to school-kids about the right way to live.
… Cue for a talkative and ambitious Wretch 32 (famously dubbed ‘The Metaphor Man’ by Devlin) to hook up with ‘Blues & Soul’ Assistant Editor Pete Lewis from his Tottenham office, to discuss - in instantly-recognisable North London tones - his eventful life and career to date.
His current UK Top Five smash single ‘Traktor’, which has been acclaimed for its “lacerating dancehall beat and subsonic bass-line”
“It’s interesting, because ‘Traktor’ is actually about a dad talking to his child. Like on the intro the dad is saying "Hey, go get a job" and basically telling his son to get outta the house. Then the chorus is actually the son explaining what’s going on in his life. Like he’s quit school; he hasn’t got a job yet; his girl’s upset ‘cause she’s pregnant and - though his daughter’s on the way - he keeps on clubbing and raving... But yet through it all he knows that he rides the beat like a TRACTOR - that he’s a great RAPPER! You know, though everything is so wild in his life he literally does know that he has got a talent and he wants to stick with it… So yeah, it’s basically all about having a gift and taking a risk with the music and BELIEVING in it. Which, while we didn’t wanna go too deep with it, is pretty much how it is for ME! While my life can be crazy sometimes, I have got a gift.”
What in general we can expect musically from Wretch’s forthcoming, as-yet-untitled debut major-label album
“To be honest, ‘Traktor’ itself has actually got all the key elements of the album on it. In that we’ve got the excitement of the verses and choruses and then, when you get to the bridge, you’ve got the SOUL! You know, we’ve got exciting music, we’ve got soul - we’ve just got a fresh SOUND! I like to describe it as like a mash-up of cool and class.”
Why he describes his upcoming album as “a soundtrack to my life”
“I wear my heart on my CD, man! I literally rap about ANYTHING that’s affected me - from being born right up till NOW! So in that way it’s almost like being able to read my dairy, where you literally get to know everything ABOUT me! So you can definitely expect a lot of emotional tracks, a lot of exciting tracks… Plus a few deep ones as WELL! ‘Cause I do tend to scratch under the surface, and I have got a lot to talk about! You know, I definitely want to be one of those rappers that’s respected ARTISTICALLY! Where people listen and say ‘Wow! That’s a great concept!’ or ‘That’s a great verse!’… So yeah, expect a LOT, man!”
Wretch’s often-wild upbringing on Tottenham’s notorious Tiverton Estate (he’s previously described his old teenage self as “not very academic - the teacher’s worst nightmare”)
“Growing up here, man, is literally not a joke. Because what happens is, if you get thrown in the jungle, the only way you’re gonna survive is to become an animal TOO! You know, you just adapt to your surroundings. And there was years and years and years when I was literally just on the EDGE - ‘cause I never left the ESTATE! Because everything you needed was HERE - your friends were here, you made your money here… And you don’t even realise that there’s more to life than your immediate surroundings! So it’s almost like something tragic has to happen to get you to a stage in your life where you realise ‘Hold on! There’s more to life than just sitting on the wall, talking about tomorrow and talking about yesterday and doing what we’re doing’... And after my grandfather died from cancer, music was definitely the eye-opener for me. Because when I started doing music and doing shows, I suddenly found myself travelling to other areas and realising there was a bigger WORLD out there... So yeah, it was basically the music saved me, man. Because it’s kept me away from so many things I would have DONE, and so many places I would have BEEN.”
Why music had such an impact on Wretch that it turned into his full-time career
“Well, when your dad is a DJ you just kinda have music in you NATURALLY, because that’s all you’re hearing all day - different mixes, different tunes... To where it’s automatically instilled into your subconscious. So, when I was 16 and my mum basically said ‘Look, go out and find your OWN place to live’ and I was out on my ear, music became the way in which I could vent my FEELINGS… Which is when I started writing a lot and started thinking ‘You know what? I’m good at this, plus it’s keeping me on the straight-and-narrow! Maybe I should think about doing this full-time!’… And then, with the birth of my son four years ago, all that was solidified. To where I became the fully-grown adult with total responsibilities that I am TODAY! Because I now need to make sure that I’m a role-model for my child, and that I can definitely cater for everything he needs!”
His early days of working with local producers and selling over l5,000 mixtapes (including 2007’s ‘Teacher’s Training Day’ and 2008’s ‘Wretchrospective’) in and around Tottenham
“To me the mixtape scene is like doing your artist development without even noticing! You know, you start off working on a CD that could possibly be an album, but yet you know you haven’t got enough fans to RELEASE an album! So you end up just recording, recording, recording… Until you think to yourself ‘OK, I’ve got enough’ - and before you know it, you’re putting it all together on a CD and thinking ‘Sugar, I’ve got a MIXTAPE here! What should I DO with it?’… I mean, in the initial stages I was giving them out for free and just trying to build the buzz. Then, once the buzz did start building, it was like ‘OK, let me try and see if I can SELL them now. ‘Cause now I’m gonna spend more money in the studio, more money on the packaging - so I need to at least try and make back what I SPEND!’... Which is when I started selling them on the street and putting them in a few shops on sale-or-return… And I ended up being really surprised at how much an artist that’s not on the radio can SELL! So from there I carried on making more and more and more… Where to this day I’m STILL doing mixtapes1 Because to me mixtapes is one of the greatest entries into the business there IS! Because you’re developing yourself as an artist without even REALISING it!”
Wretch’s current and future plans in general
“Well, we’ve been hit-up by quite a lotta European countries about ‘Traktor’. So we might do a few licensing things there as well as in America… Plus of course we’re also working on the album; we’re going on tour with Example in February and March, which is like 17 dates… You know, for me the main thing literally is the MUSIC, man! I don’t go around saying I want to be the CEO of a record label or whatever, ‘cause that’s not my DREAM! My dream is just to make the best CD possible, to make the best MUSIC possible, and do the best I can LYRICALLY! I mean, if I get to a place where I’m big enough musically for my management or my team to be able to capitalise on owning a label, then so BE it! I’m HAPPY for them! But as I say, my dream is purely just to make good MUSIC - and that right there is my only focus!”
The single ‘Traktor’ is out now through Levels/Ministry Of Sound
Words PETE LEWIS