Wretch 32: slicker than your average

As Wretch 32 Jermaine Scott paved the UK hip-hop route to success for the likes of Stormzy and Skepta. The North London MC hopes his book will open up the road to even more talent

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“If what you’re after is a celebrity memoir, full of glitter and sleaze, then you’ve got the wrong book,” warns Wretch 32 in the introduction to Rapthology, his autobiography-cum-inspirational guide to making it as a rapper. “I’m showing you how you can approach life to turn it into art,” he writes, underlining his point.

Speaking to Big Issue North from his home in North London a few weeks after the book’s publication, the chart-topping musician, whose real name is Jermaine Scott, is quick to reiterate his lofty, unashamedly highbrow aims.

“Once a record goes to number one, if one goes to number two, you’ve gone backwards.”

“I hope it inspires people who create in whatever capacity and encourages people to look at art from a different perspective,” he confidently says. “I knew that I had two choices and it was to either write a book in colloquialisms or use this opportunity to show how academic I can be. I think everyone would have expected it to be the first one, so that’s what made me go down the second route. Whenever people expect a certain thing from me, I like to surprise them.”

Rapthology certainly does that. Taking its cue from Jay-Z’s memoir Decoded, the 300-page book serves up a revelatory mix of traditional autobiography with a step-by-step guide to how Scott wrote some of his biggest songs, taking readers from the first flash of creative inspiration to the final studio edit.

At times, it reads like a self-help guide to navigating the pitfalls of the music business. At others, like an academic essay on the hidden layers, complexities and self-proclaimed brilliance of Wretch 32’s songs, which he doesn’t shy away from extolling.

Most of all, Rapthology is an interesting, easily digestible read that shines a light on the hard work, dedication and thinking that goes into making music, as well as some insight into the background of its hyper-assured 34-year-old author.

“If you believe that you are exceptional in a specific field then you should be able to take on a surrounding field,” he says about making the seemingly easy transition from MC to writer. He also has a serious point to prove.

“I always feel like [hip-hop] is a genre that’s frowned upon. People often turn their noses up at it and think you’re just stringing together words that sound similar. There’s actually a lot of thought that goes into how I use things like similes, metaphors, prolepsis and syllable rhyming. It was important to show that the thought process behind that is deeper than it sometimes appears on the surface.”

For anyone not familiar with Wretch 32’s music, a quick listen to any of his five studio albums, numerous mixtapes or multiple appearances on BBC Radio 1Xtra Rap Show DJ Charlie Sloth’s Fire in the Booth series will leave you in little doubt of his skills as a thoughtful, multifaceted rapper and lyricist.

Long regarded as one of the UK’s finest technical MCs, he’s routinely dubbed “your favourite rapper’s favourite rapper”, with everyone from Stormzy to Giggs hailing him as one of British hip-hop’s true greats.

Commercially, his career peaked with his second and third studio albums, 2011’s Black and White and 2016’s Growing Over Life, both of which broke into the top five and spawned numerous hits, including the dancehall-inspired Traktor, Stone Roses-sampling Unorthodox and number one single Don’t Go.

The two albums that followed sold in smaller numbers, but continued to demonstrate his evolution as an artist not afraid to push at the boundaries of UK hip-hop. His most recent set, Upon Reflection, was released late last year and dealt with gender and mental health issues.

“I’m always trying to do better than what I’ve done before,” he says. “A lot of people are either not able to surpass their early work, or they can become lazy. People respect me because that hasn’t been the case.”

As Rapthology vividly testifies, Scott’s high standing in the British rap scene hasn’t come easy. Born in North London to Jamaican parents and raised in the high rises of Tottenham’s Tiverton Estate, he started rapping as a teenager and was a member of grime crews Combination Chain Gang and The Movement before setting out on his own.

A series of underground mixtapes and an independently released debut album followed, showcasing his rich blend of hip-hop, grime, reggae and R&B, and laying the foundations for his later crossover into the mainstream charts. That fact that Stormzy, Dave, J Hus and Skepta have now surpassed him and his rap contemporaries at the top of British scene is a source of pride, not resentment, he explains.

“Stormzy will openly say that he grew up listening and watching what we were doing. That’s what’s supposed to happen with evolution. You can’t ever allow yourself to be bitter because this is all we ever wanted. We’ve always wanted to be on the biggest playing field.”

He says rappers like himself and Ghetts “spent many years chiselling off the door” that stood in the way of British hip-hop artists receiving mainstream exposure. “I think it’s safe to say the door is definitely off the hinges now,” he says with a chuckle. “More than anything, it’s good to see the next generation of artists come through and be fearless and not need as much assistance as we did. It’s good to see the scene flourish and blossom… I don‘t see it falling off any time soon.”

The flipside of a healthy domestic scene, he cautions, is that artists have to quickly learn how to cope with overnight fame and, in most instances, a just-as-rapid fall from grace. It’s a lesson Scott learned the hard way shortly after scoring his first number one single.

“You become a victim of your own success. Once a record goes to number one, when the next one goes to number two, you’ve gone backwards. It can have an effect on some artists if they’re not confident in their ability. For me, at that moment in time, everything was just so new to me, I didn’t know how to react. It was just like: ‘How come I feel like a failure?’”

By documenting his experiences in Rapthology he hopes others benefit from the lessons he has learned, not just as a lyricist and rapper but also as a son and now father, who grew up in a tough part of London surrounded by crime and gangs and found his way out.

“I would love the book to be something that they look at in schools. When I was young, there was a lot of disconnect from what I was learning that made me feel that I wasn’t clever. Maybe if I’d been learning something from Jay-Z my interest would have been a lot deeper
and invested.”

More books will follow, Scott says, as well as a new Wretch 32 album later this year. He’s also keen to try his hand at something in the theatre. Whatever he does, his fascination with storytelling, self-expression and the English language will be at the heart of it.

“I really believe that I do different things with words than other people and that puts me in my own lane,” he states. “I’ve always stuck to what I believe in and that’s why I’m still here.”

Upon Reflection is out now on Polydor. Rapthology is published by William Heinemann (£14.99) 

‘He was just Brother Mark’

Jermaine Scott’s connection to the 2011 London riots went beyond him being a product of Tottenham, where the disorder started. Mark Duggan, the man whose fatal shooting by police sparked the riots, went to the same school as the rapper and was a personal friend.

Years earlier, Scott’s father, a reggae DJ, took part in the 1985 Broadwater Farm disturbances, which was also triggered by the death of a black Briton, Cynthia Jarrett, while in contact with the police. In the below extract from Rapthology, the rapper evocatively describes his upbringing on the Tiverton Estate and his close ties to Duggan.

“He wasn’t ‘Mark Duggan’ to me – he was just Brother Mark. He was a friend. At the time he was killed, I was approached for interviews constantly. My label pushed me to talk publicly too. What these journalists didn’t understand is that what was a news clipping to them was a real person to me.

“I know the family and what they’re going through, I know his kids. How could I be capable of sitting down and having a filmed conversation about it? I found it so distasteful even to consider the idea that I’d be up on London Tonight talking about it, just when my album happens to be out, looking like I’m taking advantage… That’s why I shunned the whole thing…

“During the riots it felt like being at the eye of a storm. It was as if Mark’s life being taken created this hole, and around it was a swirl of chaos just getting bigger and bigger. I felt weirdly separated from a lot of what was going on, while at the same time being jolted by seeing my neighbourhood in flames.”

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