Tottenham-born rapper Wretch 32 exploded on the music scene this year with a hugely-successful debut single as well as becoming a nominee for the BBC Sound of 2011. Tipped for huge victory when his debut album, Black and White, crash lands this summer, we talk to Wretch 32 about his childhood, inspirations and ambitions.
CM: Hey, how you doing Wretch 32?
W: I'm good man. I'm recovering from the worst bug ever, so every day above water is a good one I suppose [laughs].
CM: You were raised amidst the high-rises of the notorious Tiverton Estate in Tottenham. How was that for you and how is it reflected in your music?
W: It's weird because, for me, it was normality. But I suppose that if you're an outsider looking in, you'd think it was a jungle, because it is a jungle. A lot of things that I rap about, and my inspirations, are just a struggle of growing up in such a harsh environment. But it's not entirely all negative, because to be honest, it was all normal to me. So I just speak of my upbringing and what's made me who I am today.
CM: Is there an example from your childhood that stands out for you?
W: Yes, there was a lot of crazy stuff. I remember my youngest memory was where a guy got his stomach cut open. We were just young kids in an off-license and he was just holding parts of his intestine. That was pretty crazy considering the age we were. But when a baby is first born and is thrown into the water, it has to swim. You don't get a chance of saying 'I can't take this' or 'I don't want to see this' because what are you going to do? [laughs]. You have to live. We saw a lot of weird stuff.
CM: Your father was a reggae DJ. How did his music influence your upbringing?
W: Growing up, I didn't even realise how much my dad had influenced me. Just listening to him playing music was special to me. Obviously when you're a little boy, your dad's Superman. My dad was into music, I was into music; so that's where it started for me, even without me knowing it.
CM: How did the name Wretch 32 come about?
W: Everyone called me a wretch when I was growing up. I was a skinny, naughty little kid hence I fit into the criteria of being called a wretch. As I got older, 3 and 2 were my lucky numbers so I chucked them on at the end. It was never super specific; it just sounded cool I thought.
CM: You have been MCing for five years now. When were you first interested in it?
W: I was about 14. At school I used to mess around so it was never anything that I took seriously mad. We just used to mess around doing bits and bobs. I remember recording with a cousin at my house when my mum would go out. If you plug headphones into the microphone socket on a stereo, it can actually turn into a mic, so we would rap over any beat that we could get our hands on. We never took anything seriously; we just went with the flow, not thinking anything of it. A couple of years later, I went on a pirate radio station and I thought that I really liked expressing myself this way. It stopped me from being violent - another form of therapy to be honest. So I stuck at it and started making a CD. The better I got, the more of a love for music I achieved. Every time I evolved as a writer, I thought that I liked it better as I was getting what I wanted released out.
CM: Did you find the journey to becoming commercially recognised a difficult one?
W: It's extremely difficult. It's probably as difficult as the journey of working at somewhere like on the shop floor of Sainsburys and working up to becoming a manager. We've been going for ages now so it takes a long time. One thing we always knew when we went into the game in 2006 was that it's all about conduct and behaving in a professional manner. All the radio stations that were playing us then were also playing some of the biggest artists in the country and US artists. Those artists were acting professionally so we had to match that. Anything that anyone was doing with a label we had to compete with. We couldn't use an excuse that we're independent, young or new.
CM: Your first single Traktor did amazing for you, peaking in the Top 5. What were the influences behind it?
W: The inspiration behind Traktor was me wanting to touch upon all the types of music that I'm fond of. So I've got a reggae mixed flow, rap, hip-hop, but also a bit of grime and soul. I tried to incorporate all of that and create an exciting record. In terms of chart numbers, unfortunately, it's the be all and end all - it's everything, which is sometimes disheartening because sometimes the best artist might not sell the most. It's really important because the game goes by numbers. I was number 5 because I sold more than number 6 and less than number 4 [laughs]. It's as simple as that. It can't be broken down any other way. You really have to deliver. Man United don't player strikers that don't score any goals. You have to score.
CM: Have you ever felt like you have had to compromise your music for the commercial scene?
W: To be honest, not really. I think that you evolve as an artist. I haven't compromised. Traktor was very gritty and with Unorthodox, I just wanted a different vibe. I didn't want to make Traktor again or I didn't want to show too much of an emotional card too early. I just wanted something that would go with the times and that was Unrthodox.
CM: You were nominated for the BBC Sound of 2011. There are no bad feelings towards the winner Jessie J?
W: No, not at all. I love Jessie J to bits. I admire her. I watch her on stage and I think I've got a little bit of a crush on her. I have never said that out loud [laughs]. She's cool and is deserving of everything she's getting. She's extremely talented; a great writer and performer. You come in this game to get amended and sometimes it's nice to get a pat on the back. Whilst it looked like a competition, I didn't see it as one; I just saw it as one of the biggest organisations known ticking off all the good acts this year.
CM: Your album Black and White is due this summer. How did the production go?
W: I worked with the same producers as I had done before because there is a certain sound that I got that I wanted to stick with. A very cool and touching sound. We got some new people as well because the bigger you get, the more options you have for working with people so it's always nice to try new stuff. When you try new stuff and it works, you go with it. The process was just me doing a lot of work with producers in the studio. I actually did a session the other day with a producer and now I have to get in touch with him to finish the beat. It's a difficult process because it's so hard to get so many people on the same stage. I've got a lot of ideas; I just can't create them myself. They always appreciate my ideas. I hope I'm not one of those artists who say 'do that' and it's not good - I'm just trying to make the songs the best that they can be. I want every song to stand on its own legs so that if you only heard two tracks off the album, which I certainly wouldn't recommend, each track would mean something to you or that you could respect each track.
CM: You've been described by the likes of Tinie Tempah and Professor Green as one of the greatest lyricists of our time. It must be amazing to receive support from your fellow artists. Are there any artists you're lined up to work with this year?
W: There is nothing booked in at the moment but the game is so small that anything happens. I have ended up in sessions just coming out of a show and someone saying 'I'm going to a studio, come down' and then something has just happened from it. So we don't plan - we're very spontaneous. I have tracks that I would put a hook on and then I would think 'that's very Katy B' so we would get her on the phone and go on from there.
CM: What are you looking most forward to this year?
W: The festivals. I've been to a lot of festivals and I've enjoyed watching them all so I'm really excited going to play at them. I have the BBC Big Weekend, Wireless, Belsonic with Dizzee Rascal, Ibiza Rocks with Plan B - a lot going on [laughs].
Thank you Wretch 32.