Wretch 32: UK success “isn’t about words; it’s your chorus, your beat, how you flow”

The infectious dancehall inspired, Pulp Fiction theme-tune sampling cut “Traktor” swiftly catapulted Wretch 32 into the consciousness of mainstream pop consumers as soon as it impacted radio and online late 2010, and he became many people’s ‘one to watch’ for this year. SoulCulture sat down with the rapper, real name Jermaine Scott, to discuss the importance of lyricism, Team UK, and why he isn’t planning to open a supermarket any time soon.

In what he describes as a pretty normal upbringing, Wretch grew up in Tottenham, North London. He was exposed to music from an early age as his father DJed locally with a popular sound system; however, Wretch didn’t discover music as a creative outlet until he was 17. Drawing his name from a childhood moniker (“my mum and my family were calling me a little wretch”) and his favourite numbers (“I used to write 32 bars, and when I spit people would have to listen to it 3 or 2 times to get it”), the rapper released his first mixtape, Learn From My Mixtape, in 2006.

Following his debut mixtape, Wretch joined forces with fellow up-and-coming rappers Scorcher, Mercston, Ghetto and Devlin to form The Movement. After a few more mixtapes, Wretch released his 2008 independent debut, Wretchrospective. The 16-track album provided an intimate introduction to the rapper, and saw him delivering emotive and thought provoking lyrics on personal topics including his (now) four-year-old son.

“It’s really important [to be open in my lyrics] because that’s what I’m about.” Wretch says. “I think every artist has got their lane; some people are about hits – I’m about emotion and feeling, concepts, lyrical ability, and just a bit of swagger sometimes,” he laughs.

A major critique of rappers transcending from the underground to the British music mainstream is that their lyricism stops being a priority. However, the lyricist is confident that such criticism will never reach him.

“What I’m saying is the most important thing. At times I think it’s more important than the beat; but at times that’s what’s held me back, because whereas someone else would just hear a beat that people would want to dance to, and just say some catchy stuff, and throw it out, and have a big hit, I’d want to have a CD with some tracks that weren’t hits but touched the people.”

He muses over why it’s been seemingly easy for some other emcees to evade their lyricism for a catchy hook in the bid for chart success.

“We’re not in a country where they care about your words that much. If I be deadly honest with you, it isn’t about words, it’s about your chorus, it’s about your beat, it’s about how you flow on it.” he laments.

“So taking all that on board, you’ve just got to understand where you’re trying to get to and how long you want to be here for. The worst thing you can do is make something that you think is going to work that you hate, and then it get’s you a number one, and you hate it, but the [public] like you for doing that. So now when you’re trying to be yourself, they’re like ‘what is this?’ That’s the worst situation you could be in.”

“I think it’s about finding the balance. If you’re going make a tiny compromise to get to where you need to get to, then that’s cool. We’ve got to understand that we need big choruses; if you’re prepared to get a big chorus but you’re still going be you in the verses – you’re just prepared to sit on a beat that’s a bit different (that you like), and you know where it’s going get you and you know what part of your journey you’re at, then [I’m] all for you.”

“Me personally, I’m just about, if I feel the beat, I feel the beat, then that’s it. The beat could be classical, it could be reggae, it could be grime, it could be anything. As long as I feel it, I’m on it.”

Simply feeling the beat is how Wretch happened upon his potential hit of 2011, “Traktor”. Receiving the beat via email from a producer he’d never worked with before, Yogi, he found himself intrigued with the track which samples cult movie Pulp Fiction’s theme music, “Misirlou” by Dick Dale and His Del Tones.

“It’s one of them tunes where every time I listened to it I liked it a bit more, and I couldn’t understand it, it made no sense! I listened to it the first time, because I had the chorus on there already, I listened to it the first time and I’m like, ‘this is weird’. Press play again and I’m like, ‘this is weird but it’s good’, press play again I’m like, ‘this is weird but it’s good, but it sick!’”

He laid vocals on the song, and after the emcee and producer sent the track back and forth, Wretch felt like the song needed something more.

“In my head I could just hear pianos, and a soul voice. I could just hear it slowing down. And I was thinking, ‘I can’t explain this over the phone’, so we went over [to Yogi’s studio], we called the vocalist L back, they played what I could hear [in my head], then L put down some vocals and that was the bridge done. That’s when it felt like a finished song to me. It’s got dynamics and it takes me through a journey; it makes me feel hype and then I cool down and then I get hype again, and that’s what I wanted.”

The rapper hopes to bring a similar eclectic approach to the composition of the tracks on his forthcoming album. “Sometimes I’d have a mad, crazy, dark beat, and I’ll be saying to the producer, ‘yeah this sounds sick, but when we get to here, can we just have pianos and violin?’ and he’ll [respond], ‘you just can’t do that because the beat’s too dark! Why’d you wanna make it so nice?’ I’d say, ‘I just need to smile.’”

He grins widely. “When it gets to 3 minutes on that tune, I need to smile; my face is screwed up for too long, I just want to smile at someone. I kind of want to mix it up, and I just want to push boundaries, man. Any ideas I like I throw them in.”

The rapper has also considered the name for his first major label release, tentatively titling the forthcoming record Black & White. “I feel like I’m coming from the dark, going into the light, and I feel like black and white are the colours of life, so I almost feel like, if I’m making a soundtrack to life, [Black & White] visually goes with what I can hear.”

The end of 2010 saw Wretch tipped hotly as one to watch for 2011, featuring on MTV’s Brand New for 2011 list and BBC Sound of 2011’s long list, on which he was the only rapper featured. With the new music scene in an interesting place, Wretch lists Calibar, G-Frsh, Little Dee and Kay Young as just some of the other emerging artists he is paying attention to.

Speaking beyond rap he says, “Also I like Daley, I like Yasmin, I like Labrinth and I like Emeli Sande. I think Labrinth is a very important artist for us. I think it’s very important that he does well because there isn’t anything like it. I think Emeli Sande is another one of those as well, it’s really important that she does well, so I’m behind them 100%.”

As he expresses his support for his peers, I question his thoughts on the oft-used term, ‘Team UK’.

“[Imagine] Skepta’s album is coming up, and we know that we want to support this and this is going benefit all of us, then we all get behind it. I feel like we do that a lot. People say ‘Team UK, people only use it when they want to get released’ but I feel it a lot.

“For example when you’re on Twitter, and [British comedy series] Misfits is on, it’s like something that we feel is ours, so everyone get’s behind it. Everyone’s tweeting ‘Misfits is on, don’t miss it!’ everyone’s retweeting and all that, I think THAT is what Team UK is. When everyone just gets behind something that we want to see do well. It’s a good thing, man.”

Wretch expresses hopes of success for his peers and himself this year, and whilst in the season for resolutions I ask if he’s made any specific goals beyond music.

“My focus is music. I don’t even want to get sidetracked. My managers will tell you, my business is shit, that’s why it’s great that I’ve got a good team because, personally, I just want to make great tunes and throw them straight on the internet, and people tell me if they like it or not. That’s what I’m into, but obviously that’d be ridiculous, you’d never make any money, so that’s why you need to have the whole business infrastructure.”

“The goal is just make the best album I can make. Only I can mess up on that front. I don’t want to make a goal where it involves other people, because then I’m relying [on people]. It’s literally, literally just about music. I just think everything will come. I can’t think, ‘Okay, I wanna rap, and I wanna open a Tesco…’ Some people [work] like that, and it works for them!

“Personally, I need to focus on what I know I can do; it’s just about making great music, and with good music you make good moves!”

“Traktor” is out now on Levels Entertainment; buy now from iTunes.

Follow Wretch 32 on twitter / youtube / website

Photography by Neil Raja for SoulCulture.

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