Jermaine Scott aka Wretch 32 is the new don of UK hip hop – the metaphor man, as fellow Brit rapper Devlin calls him – whose way with words and ear for a tough, infectious beat and sinuous, memorable melody are guaranteed to bring him to wider attention next year. The boy from Tottenham, still only 25, has for a while been a name to conjure within underground circles, but now, signed to Ministry Of Sound/Levels Recordings and with his first major label single, the awesomely insidious Traktor, due out in January, he’s about to make a giant splash in the mainstream.
If 2008-10 was all about the emergence of Tinchy Stryder, Tinie Tempah, Chipmunk, Professor Green, Giggs and Devlin, then 2011 is going to be Wretch’s year. Not that his peers will begrudge his ascension to the Britrap pantheon, because they all go way back, and besides, Wretch and Devlin and Chipmunk – and other legendary MCs such as Wiley, Bashy and Scorcher – have been collaborating and appearing on each other’s mixtapes since the mid-noughties.
“It’s like six or seven kids playing football, and five of them end up in the Premiership,” says Wretch of his former running mates from north and east London, a stellar group whose ranks he’s about to join at the top. “There’s no rivalry – that’s just the press making something of it. We see each other at PAs all the time, and me and Chipmunk have just done a mixtape together... It’s all good.”
Wretch brings a dazzling lyricism and poetic resonance to bear on UK rap, borne out of his experiences growing up among the grim high rises of Tottenham’s Tiverton Estate, along with Broadwater Farm the area’s most notorious urban sprawl. At Northumberland Park Community Secondary School, Wretch, born in March 1985, was, by his own estimation, “not very academic”. He describes himself variously as “the centre of attention, the class clown, and the teachers’ worst nightmare” – he went down “the foolish route”, in the words of My Life, a typically emotive track from his 2007 mixtape Teacher’s Training Day.
His father is a reggae DJ from a well-respected local sound system who used to fill the front room at home with massive speakers, which the young Jermaine would attempt to climb and then, when he was older, try and figure out how to rig up. His mother, the one responsible for his performing and recording soubriquet (basically, his naughty phase lasted for most of his childhood and adolescence, although the 32 doesn’t have any particular significance), is an imposing Jamaican who proved her mettle when she gave birth at home to Jermaine’s younger sister without any medical assistance, anaesthetic or drugs. “I remember my mum going, ‘Shit, my water’s broke.’ I’m like, ‘What the hell’s “water”? And what do you mean “broke”?’” It was down to Jermaine, only seven at the time, to call the ambulance, but it was too late, and his father had to cut the umbilical cord.
Wretch became a father himself at 21. He admits that having a four-year-old son has given him extra impetus to succeed, especially coming from the insular world of north London, where it is hard to break out and succeed. “Where I’m from, people never leave for weeks at a time. Everything you want is there – your friends are there, you make money there... You don’t even know there’s a world outside.”
When he was in his mid-teens, Wretch experienced death first-hand when he saw his grandfather waste away and die from cancer. “That introduced some reality, man,” he says, visibly moved. “Watching someone disintegrate like that... That was a big moment in my life. It made me realise it’s not a game.” Another reality check came when Wretch was 17 and his mother kicked him out of the house. It sounds brutal but he believes it was “the best thing that ever happened to me”: it forced him to face the harsh realities of life. So he got a council flat on White Hart Lane, which became the meeting point for Team Wretch a.k.a. Combination Chain Gang (“We would eat there, sleep there, and go – it was our headquarters”), a job in Sainsbury’s (the one where Lemar used to work), and a moped on HP. He also tried drama and stage management at college because everyone told him he was a character with a natural penchant for acting, then media studies, before it became apparent that music was where his heart was, and where his future lay.
He heard a lot of reggae as a kid, because of his dad, and his mum and sisters played a lot of lovers rock and R&B. Later, he discovered American hip hop – P Diddy, Ma$e, 2Pac, Jay-Z. “That’s where I come from,” he explains, alluding to his own approach. “It’s storytelling with heartfelt, sung choruses. I like hooks, music with the catchiness of R&B and the grittiness of hip hop with a touch of reggae in the rhyme patterns.” He found it hard breaking into the east London grime scene, being a north London boy, but he admired the sound, and still does, especially the sort that has broken through commercially of late, whose sound he pinpoints as having a “gritty polish – it’s slickly produced but it’s still got edge”. Wretch never wanted to just do grime, though, and on his mixtapes, which he produced while at college and sold to friends and fellow students - CDs such as Teacher’s Training Day and Wretchrospective (2008) - he has always been careful to mix up grime and hip hop. The CDs were full of vivid, poignant narratives delivered via an accessible, musical flow, and deployed over a blend of sampled beats and original rhythms courtesy a variety of local producers such as Chunky, Y.Wiz, Stik Man, Issues & L, Lefty, Bubbles and Merlin.
Not surprisingly, they got Wretch noticed. “People were, like, ‘Wretch is the best in Tottenham! When’s the next CD?’” Buoyed by the success of So Solid Crew and Dizzee Rascal, he continued producing tracks, attracting the attention of Radio 1Xtra’s DJ Cameo. “He heard me and went, ‘Who is this guy? How did he pop up? This is sick!’” Wretch proceeded to win a 1Xtra mixtape award called Most Street Heat, and there followed invitations to record with Davinche and Bashy, Devlin and Ghetto. A crew was formed called The Movement and they began to gain a reputation as “the best, lyrically, in the game”.
Inevitably, record companies got in touch. And now, after years of producing moving and powerful music, Wretch 32 has a deal that will earn him the respect of the wider world. His first track for Ministry of Sound bears the confidence of a man who knows he’s heading for bigger, better things: Traktor, the January 2011 single, has a lacerating dancehall beat and subsonic bassline. Wretch’s performance is the last word in louche as he drops coolly cocky lines like, “My life style’s terrible wild, but you’ll never catch me on The Jeremy Kyle Show”.
As opening salvos go, Traktor couldn’t be more explosive. It augurs well for his debut major label album, due out later next year. Asked to compare and contrast it with his US hip hop heroes, he suggests it fits alongside Kanye, Jay-Z and Common. But it will offer a uniquely British vision, with a Wretch 32 view of the modern world, full of pathos and humour, biting commentaries offset by moments of levity. It will tell the story of his life so far, from bling-obsessed bad boy who’d think nothing of spending hundreds of pounds on a pair of Prada shoes, to the conscious rapper who these days gives talks to schoolkids about the right way to live. His debut album will detail his journey “It will be like a soundtrack to my life,” he says of the album. “You’ll listen to it and know everything about me as a person.” And its searing autobiographical content will confirm Wretch as the next key spitter and lyrical big-hitter. And he knows it. “Devlin’s got the flow, Tinie’s quirky, Chipmunk’s confident and strong,” he says with a broad grin. Then he looks serious, because this is no joke. “But in terms of spitting talent and ability, I’m up there with the best.”