When Wretch 32 dropped his debut project, Learn From My Mixtape, in 2006, everything changed—not just for him, but the entire British music scene he was about to disrupt.
Here we had a grime-inspired rapper from Tottenham, North London, whose very first release was packed with the kind of penmanship US rap’s Mount Rushmore—of every era—would highly likely salute. But while most didn’t know where to place him—was he rap? Was he grime?—being able to flit between the popular sounds of the day only worked in Wretch’s favour, soon joining powerful lyrical forces with Ghetts, Devlin, Mercston and Scorcher in forming The Movement, a short-lived grime-meets-rap outfit whose members continue to make it into GOAT conversations today.
Six studio albums, countless mixtapes, and a number of pop-laced-but-credible-rap singles (“Don’t Go”, “6 Words”) later, Wretch has earned his OG stripes in more ways than one and is now helping the next generation of artists become great as the Creative Director of Universal’s 0207 Def Jam. But is the hunger to push his own, highly-revered pen still there? “Listen,” he says. “Until I feel like I’m not the guy, they’re still going to hear me. I’m in the lab currently, just adding finishing touches to the album. The substance provider has to provide substance! I always aim to enhance English literature, to add my stamp on English literature and be looked at as somebody who did something different with words whenever he put pen to paper in whatever capacity,” adding that he sees himself as more of a “messenger” these days: “I don’t know what that means or what the word is, but I know that I’m here for something.”
As well as being a top-level rhymesmith and an oracle for an exciting new label—whose roster includes none other than star-boy Stormzy—Wretch is also the co-founder of Green Machine, a chain of stores on a mission to spread the gospel of CBD oil’s many health benefits. “We’re coming to be the main franchise and the main chamber,” he says. “Green Machine is coming to take over.” We caught up with the future mogul to find out more.
“The key thing for anyone, for any artist, is to always remain challenged. If you’re a top lyricist, why not write a book? Then you’re a top lyricist and you’re an author. It shifts. Write a play! Challenge Hamilton.”
COMPLEX: Wretch, my guy! Happy New Year. Let’s kick things off with 0207 Def Jam: how has your first year as Creative Director of the label been for you?
Wretch 32: You know what? I think it’s been everything I expected, but at the same time, it’s a whole new process. I was bringing my expertise to the label before I had an official title, so stepping into the role was really an easy transition—working closer with artists, having a lot more ideas around full-rounded campaigns, and things like that. It’s a great place to be... I never, ever saw myself working in this type of infrastructure, but with this team, it’s perfect and it works.
You and the label’s Co-Presidents, Alec and Alex Boateng, go way back. But how did you initially connect with them back in the day?
Whenever I think back to early memories of me and Alec, it’s always long conversations on the phone about music. I remember being introduced to [BBC Radio] 1Xtra, where he worked, and everything being so new and the building being so polished; the security guard met you downstairs, you go upstairs and everything just felt so, like, wow! It was refreshing to have someone like Twin around—who became a friend and then a brother—knowing that there are people that love music just as much as I love music. There were so much nights on the phone, like: “How are we going to make the game grow?” And, of course, once you know Alec, you come across Alex. With Alex, it was when we were looking after George The Poet and he was at Island. It was like a similar thing to what we’re doing now; he understood that I’d been in a label situation and I understood how it works. We were trying to get the best out of George and just spark different ideas, and that was probably the first time working for a label ever crossed my mind, like: “I could actually add value in this building.” That was one random thought years ago and it probably just re-manifested again.
You’ve kinda got a US counterpart now with Snoop Dogg joining Def Jam as Executive Consultant. What do you think it is about rappers—like yourself, like Snoop—that label heads are drawn to? It’s very common in the States to have rappers in high positions at labels, but I can see it becoming more of a thing over here in the next few years.
Definitely! I think it boils down to understanding the artist because we are artists, and being a perfect bridge. No one can speak for an artist like another artist can. If the artist is at the centre, whatever arrow you stick out of it, it would still feel better coming from an artist. And someone like Snoop, you don’t survive two decades in the most cutthroat industry by accident. So there’s something you understand how to do very well, and if you can give 20% of that to newcomers, up-and-coming rappers, singers—whatever—then it can only be beneficial for our company.
Have you had any conversations with Snoop yourself?
Yeah, he did a Zoom with the whole team and we had a good chat. We all chopped it up, asked questions, got some game from the guy, and he told us about what his plans were and how he sees things playing out. I just think it’s strong, man. It shows the company’s trust in the rappers because the beautiful thing about it is we’re not the highest on the radio airplay chart—I doubt we’ll be the highest on the TV airplay chart—but there’s something that we’re doing where our views are higher or our streams are higher and we’re connecting with more people with less resources. There’s some elements of genius there that needed to be worked with.