Upon Reflection: Uncovering The Real Wretch 32
It’s like Christmas, this. That was my immediate thought when I saw Wretch 32, real name Jermaine Scott, walk through the door of an East London terrace house with an N64 under one arm, a SNES under the other and a smile to bridge the two. There’s grey in his beard too. The good kind of grey. The subtle flecks of silver which look as if they have grown through wisdom not ageing. For context, we should say that we asked Wretch to bring a few props to the shoot which mean something to him. Items from his childhood which taught him something or just things which instantly take him back to being a small boy in North London surrounded by his mother and sisters; the people who he regularly references as the inspirations and guiding lights in his life. Hence, the consoles. We did this because we hope to peel away the layers of a thirteen year career which is set to enter a new chapter with the release of his latest album Upon Reflection and the launch of his first book, Rapthology. It’s a year of passions for Wretch. Which is evident in him turning up to the shoot in a full Arsenal tracksuit. What he loves, he keeps close to him.
He walks in with the look of a man who’s pretty happy with his lot. Happy to be at ‘work’. Even though the weather outside is typical of a cold October morning and he’s been pulled in fairly early to be here. Regardless, he’s happy. The smile itself is an accurate representation of how things have been going for Wretch ever since he dropped Traktor – the single which properly introduced him to the world – back in 2011. It’s been a story of chart success, tours, freestyles, stop-what-you’re-doing-and-listen levels of lyrics and Fire in the Booth benchmarks ever since. He’s a pioneer.
He’s aware that he’s at the top of the game but doesn’t speak with any arrogance or self-entitlement. Quite the opposite. Though it is clear he has a hunger for constant improvement, the belief that there is always more to achieve. He is serious: reserved and contemplative, but with the kind of energy you feel from a mate who you haven’t seen in a while. He’s always looking for something new to capture his imagination and he does that by including you in everything. Throughout the shoot he’s open, candid, laughing, joking, singing – a decent rendition of Kojo Funds’ vocals in Kano’s Pan-Fried as it happens – as he asks you what trainers you think he should lace up for his next look. Or, mid-shoot, when he’s just been sent the first draft of a new piece of single artwork, he shows you. He asks what you think. It’s the power of listening, understanding, learning and storing these emotions and ideas which has given Wretch his voice. A voice worth listening to. So, this is Wretch on starting out, selling CDs, Ian Wright, new ventures and why all the world needs is you just being you.
“If you can be as brave as your heart’s feelings then that’s when you’re really who you’re supposed to be.”
So, let’s take it back to the start. When you first properly started out in this game back in 2006. How would you describe that Wretch, what was his biggest strength?
Hunger. Hunger. Hunger. I was always trying to have creative ideas, always trying to develop concepts for a CD and thinking how I could put a body of work together. What tracks sound good together, how can everything fit as one. I was just trying my best to make my version of perfect.
Was that all a process of self-education or was someone there helping you along the way?
I was finding my own feet. Of course, growing up listening to great musicians – you know, Bob Marley, Michael Jackson, Lisa Stansfield – there were so many different artists that my Mum would listen to or my older sister would listen to Brandy’s album, for example, and everything they did was seamless. Everything was well thought out. The production was incredible and everything mattered; the vocals mattered, the words mattered, the artwork mattered. I wanted to take that same principle and apply it to my own school. I took it upon myself to learn all of that.
Did you always have that way of thinking and was it always just music for you or did something else capture your attention?
Like everyone, I wanted to play football but I realised that wasn’t going to happen very early on. But music was different. It was fun. It always has been fun. I was just doing it. It wasn’t for reward. It wasn’t for merit. It wasn’t for finance. Even today, if money didn’t exist, I’d still be recording.
When was the first time music took you out of your comfort zone?
When me and my manager had to take CDs to different record shops which were all over the place; shops in Birmingham, London, everywhere. You know, you’re going to these shops with 100 boxes in your car and they are like ‘yeah, we’ll take 4’ or ‘yeah, we’ll take 5.’ I think that was the first point where I felt like I had created something, put time and effort into a good solid product, and I’m having to talk or force my way into a shop. It was like I was forcing my vision onto a complete stranger. You feel like a no one. Some shops said no. I didn’t even want the money, I just wanted it in the shop and they still said no. If you sell one, you keep it. That’s how we had to barter. So, you sell one, you keep the money. So then they would say ‘yeah, we’ll take one.’ We’d then send someone in there to buy it. We’d leave a number on the back of the CD for the shop for stock. So, sure enough, they’d ring back and say, can you bring more of those CDs down? It was just about being smart.
Did you ever doubt yourself at that point, or at any point in this journey?
Nah, I never have any doubts in what I’m creating. Sometimes I have doubts as to whether it will be understood. But, that isn’t a doubt. Not like an ‘oh no’ doubt. It’s more of a ‘I doubt that they’ll get it.’ It’s not a hindrance.
How do you look back on your previous work? Because you’ve got a beautiful and eclectic body of work out there now. Some songs which clocked chart success and some speak to people in different ways. How do you look back at it all?
I can listen to it. But I can hear mistakes. I think I should have said this or that, I can hear too many words. I can hear recording mistakes. I can hear so much. But, it is what it is. If I didn’t evolve, if I didn’t get better, if I didn’t learn and get better to get to the position that I’m in now then it would not mean so much. It’s part of the process.
Let’s take it to the new album. Is this the most significant – or even scariest – project to date? Because the whole process of reflection causes you to really look deep into yourself.
On a record called Upon Reflection on the album, I talk about a few things and I never really speak on things like that. You know when something happens and someone expects you to speak on things or have your point of view, I never really conform to that or speak on it like that. But, there’s a few things that I touch on that I talk on which is new. I’ve always been about depth but I take it a couple of metres down. If we’re normally 100 metres down, we go 110 metres deep for this album.
So, why now?
It just felt honest. I like to speak on things on my time, when I want to. It has to feel honest. It has to feel genuine. Depending on what the subject is, it has to have no malice in it. So, my heart has to be healed from the situation in order to speak on it purely and to not put fuel on fires that are close to being put out.
This album comes 3 years since FR32. Has this been a work in progress since then or did you give yourself a little hiatus?
It came straight away. I never stop. Even now, the last couple of weeks I’ve been in the studio. I was in the studio all day yesterday. Literally. You never know what you’re going to get or where it’s going to come from. Just because this one album is finished it doesn’t mean you’re not at the beginning of the next amazing album. For me, I’m always thinking, ‘how can I top it?’ I’m always thinking how can the experience be different.
David Bowie once said that he likes his music to awaken the ghosts inside of him. Do you make music to help understand yourself, to touch on subjects which you’re not too sure on, or do you make music as a way to tell the world about things you already know?
When I go into the studio, something happens. Sometimes I’m affected by things and I didn’t even realise. I hear chords, I hear drums and then the story which represents the emotion that I felt gets my mind twitching. Then, ideas flow. I start speaking about something. The song is always moulded from real experiences but I have no idea I’m going to speak about that before it happens. The music leads me down that avenue. Then I come away and I just feel like I’ve had a session with a therapist. So, more than anything, me making music is for me.
The reason why people relate to it is because it’s honest. I’ve been through the same shit as everyone has been through. I’ve been to school, almost got kicked out, had to behave, my Mum threw me out. It’s a normal story, so people can relate. It’s just about what parts you hear. It’s about what stage you’re at in your life and what stage I’m at in mine. When I go back and listen to my old stuff I can hear that I was just this confused little teenager that was just out here trying to hustle. Someone who was not sure what they wanted to do but was just trying to make it. But, when I listen to the music from today, you can just hear the journey of when things kicked in. My new aspirations and the changes.
“Be the point of difference, be different and say something that resonates with people and means something to people.”
Your emotional intelligence is on another level. The vividness in which you recite stories, memories and characters in your music is special. Where do you think that comes from?
I’m a feelings hoarder. So, if you stepped on my toe in Year 4 I can still feel it. The key is to always be able to draw back from that. Sometimes people will say to me, ‘you’ve made a love song but you’re not actually in a relationship, how did you do that?’ Mentally, I take myself back to all the relationships which I’ve been in and I take the highs from the good ones and the lows and I merge them together so I make it sound like one person.
Using an example from the last album, His and Hers, that came about because some mates of mine – both girls and boys – were at their house after a rave and I came back to meet them. It was a big argument between two of my friends and they are partners. She had a completely different story to him as to what happened in the club. All the men were in agreement with each other and so were all the women. I was just sat there looking on, thinking to myself, you’ve both watched the same film but taken a completely different narrative. That got my mind jigging. His and her point of view probably is different, so that’s what formed that. The content of it wasn’t about what they were saying but the idea came from that. It always comes from something which really happened.
You’re an album man. All of your tracks contribute to the narrative of the album and that paints a beautiful picture of your life. But, are you still precious of that album process and conscious that in today’s day and age, and the way in which people consume music, that it may get lost in translation?
100%. But that’s the fight, man. You have to understand and you have to be proud of what you are here for and what you represent when all is said and done. Just because everyone is on skateboards at the moment doesn’t mean I still can’t cycle. You know what I mean? That’s your thing. If that’s what everyone is on right now, that’s good for you. I’ll still be in the same bike park doing the same bike tricks. That’s just my life, that’s the way I want to live. I always say as a metaphor, ‘they can say I am stubborn but I at least want to die in my own outfit.’ At least let me pick what I am going to wear. That’s it. I’m always just going to represent what I represent.
So, on that topic, how do you ensure that you’re the best version of yourself?
For me, I’ve been trying new things and trying to evolve. Not just in the booth but in life. Trying things I used to hate and see no value in. Like going to the gym – I used to think that everyone wanted to go to the gym to be hench. I never used to think that it made sense for me. But, now, it has installed something new in me. It’s given me a bit of routine, it’s showed me that I can get through anything. The first 6 months in the gym is so hard. But, it’s showed me that I can get through that, go in hard and it just showed me something about myself. Again, a couple years ago, I decided I was going to be pescatarian. I was someone who was eating chicken four times a day. It’s something so simple but it just showed me that I can learn and evolve every day as an individual. So, that makes you think, what can I do in the booth? It’s forced me to evolve better musically and in my real life. That’s the challenge I like.
What would you consider to be your greatest virtue?
Warmth. I think my heart is always in the right place. Nothing is ever malicious with me, it’s always about doing what my heart says. Sometimes, following your heart in whatever you’re doing can be seen as the wrong thing to an outsider but my heart is always in the right place. It’s always from there. I’ve learned to always let my heart lead. I’d say that’s probably my strongest attribute. It makes me fearless. Your mind talks you out of a lot of things but your heart tells you ‘I love this woman,’ or ‘I love boxing’. But, then your mind tells you, you can go in the ring and concussion is a serious thing. Your mind talks you out of what your heart is telling you to do. If you can be as brave as your heart’s feelings then that’s when you’re really who you’re supposed to be. That’s what the world needs.
Let’s take it away from music for a minute and switch to another big influence in your life, football. Do you feel there’s a certain romance and immortalisation surrounding footballers because their careers are so limited? Effectively, musicians never retire so it’s a different pressure for you to deal with.
As a creative, you love creating. For me, it’s about creating music constantly, learning more to create more things in my videos. Even today, I have ideas for the photoshoot, so I can create in that way. Now I think, let’s see how far I can take it. I’m making a book now. Where can I go next? Let’s try and tackle curriculum in a creative way. Where can I go after that? Let’s try and write theatre plays. It’s about constantly challenging myself.
To touch on what you said, my love for Ian Wright will never die. It never died when he stopped playing football because of what he meant to me at that time. That’s what is significant: what you mean to people. There will be other players who don’t mean as much. They’ve still won the same trophies, they were still part of the same team but there’s something about that person that maybe you didn’t connect with as a human. When you’re watching football, you think this is my guy – he scores all the time. But there may be something that doesn’t enable you to connect with him on the next level. Once he leaves the team, your attachment to the team is still there but no longer the player. When you’re attached to the player that never leaves.
Do you remember the first time football spoke to you on that level?
It was Ian Wright, man. Just wanting to know someone. Wanting to be related to someone. Identifying with someone who looks like he could be your Dad, your Uncle, or live next door to you, and he’s making it and he’s just him. The whole way. That’s when it became more to me. He made my love for the sport bigger.
Has football ever directly inspired your work and made you jump straight into the studio? Not necessarily through creating a lyric, but just giving you that drive.
100%. When you see great comebacks, you see great goals or you see great stories like Bellerin’s injury. You know when someone’s injury is solid and you see them come back and score or come back like Cazorla, it’s a special moment. Understanding the back story and understanding what he went through. That adds a layer to your character. When you respect that and rate that you you can overcome anything. So, what if my tune came out and everyone thinks it’s shit? So what? That’s a minor compared to what Cazorla went through. So, watch what I’m going to do. I’m going to make 10 more tunes, put them all out and one of them is going to be the one.
“My love for Ian Wright will never die, it never died when he stopped playing football because of what he meant to me at that time. That’s what is significant: what you mean to people.”
You’ve moved into releasing a book – Rapthology – which is like a new age anthology. Do you hope this release will make its way into the curriculum too?
It’s exactly that. Well, that’s the dream for it. I’d love for it to eventually be used in an educational context. When I was in school we had to read and study from the Anthology, a big selection of poems which were great but they were just that; a big selection. There was no narrative or context given to help us understand them. So, that’s partly what Rapthology is about. But, for years people used to ask me to explain how my mind works, or to explain my journey in detail. This book is merging the two through complex simplicity – you get to understand my journey, my work and my way of thinking. It would be special to have it as an educational tool. It will be a big fight to take on but you never know. The book in itself has been a long time coming, there’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears which have gone into it. So, who knows where people will take it.
Mummy’s boy was the first song to drop off the new album. Why was that track that natural choice to announce that Wretch is back?
I’m a senior man, so I have to say something. I always have to say something. I never shy from it, I never devalue that responsibility. It was just right. I just thought this is where we’re at, there’s a lot of records which feel a certain way at the moment and there’s a lot of records that are coming out that are very similar. So, for me, my point of difference is me being me. So that’s what different. Be the point of difference, be different and say something that resonates with people and means something to people.
Wretch 32 Upon Reflection is out now.
Special pricing on early delivery.