Wretch 32 knows what he’s done is outlandish. He knows, on the whole, rappers don’t explain their own lyrics, let alone write entire books about them dissecting every simile and source of inspiration while making references to Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Proust; blazons, iambic pentameter and metaphysical poetry. But then he also knows no dentist would condone drinking tea with three massive sugars in it and right now, he’s loading up his cup with the energy of a child who's just been told Halloween is cancelled.
‘When I first said, “I wanna write a book,” he says, flumping back into his chair and crossing his legs, ‘people went, “Okaaay, what do you want to talk about? You want to write an autobiography?” I’m like, “Nah. I want to help young people. This is going to be taught. It’s gonna be in the GCSE curriculum.”’
Wretch 32 – aka north-London rap superstar Jermaine Scott – is not a man short of chutzpah. Since he first began releasing music under the alias in 2006 (as a child, his mother called him Wretch, a Jamaican slang term for ‘skinny’, while 32 is his lucky number), the 34-year-old grime pioneer has developed a reputation as one of the most gifted and articulate lyricists British rap has ever produced. After honing his sounds in the London grime scene, his mainstream break came with an appearance on the BBC's Sound of 2011 poll and the release of ‘Traktor’, a catchy club banger that soared straight into the top five. A string of hits – and major awards – later, he has amassed a legion of dedicated fans and inspired dozens of upcoming rappers hoping to ride the wave he helped create.
He arrives alone for our chat in central London wearing a two-piece Lakey tracksuit, a Dsquared2 trucker cap and trainers, and is soon soul-searching on subjects ranging from masculinity to mental health to grief to the ‘commodification’ of the female body. That’s part of Wretch’s appeal: he prefers reflective observations to the aggression and self-aggrandisement often associated with grime. He says he’s never been completely comfortable being known purely in those terms. ‘I don’t see myself as just a rapper,’ he says. ‘I’m a musician.’
And a poet, too, which is why, five studio albums and a slew of major music awards behind him, he’s written Rapthology: Lessons in Life and Lyrics.
‘If what you’re after is a celebrity memoir, full of glitter and sleaze, then you’ve got the wrong book,’ he declares in his foreword.
Put it down, pick up another one. I’m not a gossip columnist, I’m a lyricist. What you learn about me in this book is never intended as a shock revelation. Everything I tell you is in the service of songwriting… I want my readers to be inspired to write; to do what I do, and then do it better.
Of course, he could’ve written an open-heart biography about growing up in Tottenham’s tough Tiverton estate; his brushes with violence and crime; his reggae DJ dad who took part in the 1985 Broadwater Farm disturbances; fame’s pain, the loves he’s lost and the friends he’s left behind. But he didn’t – or at least, not directly. His lyrics cover all that, and more.
‘I want people to understand us, for people to see that there’s intelligence and a thought process behind what we do,’ he says. ‘[Rap] is sometimes seen as a genre where we’re just stringing words together, that it’s about “f**k b*****s, get money”. But even content like that, there’s always a backstory. The greater goal for me is to educate.’
The result is a compelling masterclass in lyric writing, taking readers behind the curtain of Wretch’s creative process from the first flashes of inspiration to the literary techniques he employs (‘some,’ he writes, ‘come from the Ancient Greeks and Romans; others are my own inventions’) to the final edit.
‘My thought process was always different from my peers,’ he reflects. ‘I could sit in meetings with a whole record label talking about how I see things, and all the while I’m thinking, “How come you just don’t see it the way I see it? How come you don’t understand me?”’
It sounds a bit lonely, I say. He pauses. ‘It is lonely, man. Sometimes I feel like I’m on an island on my own.’
It’s this kind of honesty which resonates particularly with young men – particularly, he says, young men like the one he used to be: ‘As a young boy there’s so much perceptions of what you should become and how you should be. You don’t cry. You don’t show emotion. Society says tears are a sign of weakness. Is it a sign of weakness? Why?’
This is not intended as an attack on men, but a culture which teaches young boys to be embarrassed about their emotions and bury them at source – unless that emotion is anger.
‘These boys are reacting to their environment,’ he continues ‘You can’t ask the lion why he’s roaring. He just has to roar. We have to teach them how to purr.’
Lately, drill music has become the focus of the kind of media hand-wringing that accompanied the early days of grime. ‘In the absence of an alternative, these teenage boys have created their own version of Lord of the Flies,’ The Spectator magazine concluded in a 2018 article entitled, Drill, the brutal rap that fuels gang murder. ‘Our inability to give them what they need to thrive within law-abiding society has consigned a generation to nihilism and bloodshed. ’
‘Look,’ Wretch says, with something like a sigh, ‘The music drill artists are making… this is their first introduction to writing. They’re speaking about their harsh realities because they’re living with them now. Right now, they’re all about “I want, I want.” But when they grow, the good ones at least, will be about “I am, I am.”’ Their maturity will kick in.
‘Growing up in the estates, the only thing that the older boys before us had been through was the prison system, the drug game and possibly had a few trials at a football team. That’s the only advice you can get from that community. Until, that is, somebody like me and my manager [childhood friend Zeon Richards] steps up and moves out. Then we can go back and answer different questions.’
Last May, national charity Youth Music called for schools to ‘shake up’ the way music is taught and swap ‘Mozart for Stormzy’ after conducting research that revealed teaching grime, hip-hop and electro better engaged hard-to-reach young people and improved their attendance.
Wretch agrees, but believes rap has far more to offer young people than just more relatable music lessons. His sights are set on conquering the English Literature curriculum. ‘If I had had a book of Jay Z when I was in Year Seven, it would have made me understand [the English language] a lot better,’ he says. ‘When I go into schools, the response I get from teachers confirms that theory. They say they’ve never seen the kids engage so much.’
He adds: ‘Poetry anthologies in schools are just collections of poems with no explanation; you have to imagine and guess what the writer was thinking. Whereas with mine you have the lyrics written out in form with the backstories to each song there. So, it’s a forward step for English literature. That's my hope, anyway.’
Wretch is far from the first artist to believe in his power to change the world. But sitting across from him as he drops another three sugars into his third tea of the interview, his self-belief does have a gravitational pull.
Not, you sense, that he could care less what I or anybody thinks. Necking what’s left of his tea, he uncrosses his legs as if about to stand and adds: ‘I know a lot of people will be reading this, saying, “Who does this guy think he is?” But somebody has to think they’re that person. They say it’s a big fight. It’s supposed to be a big fight. And if I’m able to make English literature a lot more palatable, more enjoyable for kids, that’s a fight I should fight to the death. Otherwise, what’s the point?’
Rapthology by Wretch 32 is out now. Join Wretch 32 on the 1st December at Southbank Centre as he shares his personal story, discusses why music has always meant both protest and progress, and performs a few live tracks along the way.