Exclusive Interview: Knucks talks about early beginnings, latest release ‘Rice & Stew’ and forthcoming EP ‘NRG 105’
Knucks is ready to take things to the next level
In terms of UK rap, Knucks is in a lane of his own, reminiscent of an early Kanye West, in the way that he utilises soulful samples. This penchant for capturing the golden age of hip-hop was first felt on his debut mixtape, Killmatic, where he self-produced the project, sampling the same tracks that were sampled on Nas’ Illmatic.
At the time of the mixtape’s release, Knucks was doing a difficult balancing act; in one hand becoming a recording artist and in the other hand studying an animation degree at University (which he graduated from last year). Things were at first manageable when his music was super underground, but he was then catapulted into the music industry after the release of breakthrough video ’21 Candles’ at the top of 2016. From his magician like wordplay, to his signature laid back flow, Knucks oozed a frosty coolness on ’21 Candles’ and he has continued to showcase this artistic prowess over the years on standout cuts, ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’, ‘Frostbite’ and ‘Vows’, with the culmination of good music leading to him landing a deal with Island Records.
So as he prepares to drop his debut EP, NRG 105, I caught up with Knucks over a naked burrito at Tortilla Dalston, to chat about his early beginnings in music, working with prolific artists such as Swindle along the way, his latest release ‘Rice & Stew’ and future hopes for the forthcoming project.
You’ve recently been working with Swindle, featuring on his album, No More Normal and also supporting him on his European tour – with you being on his latest project which mixes so many different musical styles, did this inspire you when putting your forthcoming EP together?
“Yeah, I mean I’ve always kind of been someone who likes experimenting with different styles. I don’t think I’ve said it in an interview before, but I used to produce dubstep and drum & bass as well. But yeah working with Swindle did add another element to my music – the live element – and now when I make music I try to incorporate live instrumentation into my beats. That’s pretty much what he does when he co-produces with me.”
So the EP is called NRG 105, what is the concept behind it?
“I initially had 5 songs that I was going to make the EP with, but there was nothing that connected the songs together. So I thought to myself, how am I going to make these songs into a project? Then it came to me to make the project concept into a radio station, because if you think about radio, there doesn’t necessarily have to be a distinctive theme with the music that’s played. You can hear something that’s more of a club song, then after that you may hear something that is more of a chilled out vibe. Then from there, I started thinking about inspirations from games and I remembered on Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, there was a radio station with a host that sounded like Barry White called Fever 105. I wanted to make a parody of that with the skits on my upcoming EP, so it’s like a UK version of it where everything happens in this universe I created, from comical interludes in a restaurant to adverts for marriage counselling. I named the project NRG 105 in dedication to my manager, NRG, who passed away last year.”
‘Rice & Stew’ is the first taster we got from the project – for someone who also grew up in an African household, I remember opening the tub of ice cream and finding stew instead – what are you trying to capture with that song title?
“It’s meant to represent that same feeling of disappointment, when you think something is one way, but then you find out what it’s really like. With this song I tried to apply it to people around me and the social media age. In the first verse, I’m talking about mandem who act like they are bad boys, but they’re not really about that life. Then on the second verse I’m talking about girls who portray themselves a certain way on Instagram, but they’re not really like that in person. You get that same disappointment, when you might meet the girl in real life, you see her and think ‘rah, you don’t look like how you looked on the gram’.”
What was the idea behind your family being white in the video?
“I got the inspiration from a video by American rapper Comethazine called ‘Walk’, where he’s the husband in a white family, and I thought to myself imagine a white family eating rice and stew – for me it really drills in the message that I’m trying to put across about things not being as you expect them to be in life.”
So in terms of growing up in your household, what sort of music was being played early on?
“The first project I remember getting into was Now 46, there were quite a few songs off there that I loved. There was ‘Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love)’ by Spiller and then there was Modjo – ‘Lady (Hear Me Tonight)’, tunes like that man, when I hear songs like that they really do something to me because they are so nostalgic, those are the types of tracks I was listening to when I was younger. Then when I got a bit older, I was listening to a lot of Missy Elliot. I feel like she inspired me to have a sense of humour in my rap and show character with the lyrics, instead of rapping for the sake of rapping. Even with the visuals I try to keep things fun and light-hearted, because with music it’s not just about hearing the message, people want to have fun as well.”
From listening to the music around you, what was the initial inspiration to start making your own tracks?
“Initially in my early teens, me and my people all used to spit over grime instrumentals. We’d be coming back home on the train, then someone would fling on the ‘Ghetto Kyote’ beat and we’d just spit an 8 bar each – that’s how it started. From there, me and my friends formed a group called Y.O.R (Youngers On Road) and we started recording tunes at school, as we had a studio. But at that time I weren’t really taking it serious, I was more so doing it for fun. I started taking music seriously when I began playing around with production. At this time, I was around 12/13 and at my school they had FL Studio which is what we initially recorded our music with, but then when I found out you could make beats on it as well, I downloaded the demo version on my laptop and I would just play around with it creating grime beats. I would also watch tutorials to get better and eventually it got to the stage where I thought they were actually good enough for me to start rapping on, so it was around the age of 14 that I actually started using them.”
From being a grime head, what pushed you into committing yourself fully to rap?
“When I was in my early teens, I went to school in Nigeria for a year and then when I came back everything was different. Grime wasn’t really the thing anymore, Giggs came out with ‘Talkin’ da Hardest’ when I was out in Nigeria, so when I’ve come back everyone is rapping now, but I was still doing grime. Then eventually I started listening to old school hip-hop, like Nas’ early stuff and that’s what inspired me to do all rap on my first mixtape Killmatic.”
How did that project come together?
“Well I started working on it whilst I was at university in 2014, but at that time I didn’t have a studio to record at, so that’s when I shouted my cousin Mark Henry as he was always in the music industry and he introduced me to my manager NRG who passed. At that time NRG was a sound engineer and had a studio, so that’s where I recorded Killmatic. I feel like whilst we were recording the project he noticed there was something more to me and that’s why he chose to get involved in the management side. In terms of the concept for the project, I sampled a lot of the tracks that were sampled on Nas’ Illmatic, so that’s where the name Killmatic came from.”
What was it like being a recording artist and going to university at the same time?
“It was long man, I can’t lie. You know when you’re in a situation, and it was what it was, so you just deal with it. But now that I think of it, it was mad and I actually thank God that I was able to graduate and finish university. Also I had to repeat a module and I was really tempted to take a gap year, because really and truly I wanted to finish university and then start doing music, that’s how we planned to do it. But then I made ‘21 Candles’, which was the track that got my name buzzing and it threw me into the music industry.”
From there, you released a slew of bangers including ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’, ‘Frostbite’ and ‘Vow’s’ and all of this work led to you landing your deal with Island Records; how did it feel to get the deal after the years of grind?
“It felt good man. As I’ve got older, my perception of what a deal means to an artist has changed, but I still felt validated. Even though I might not get the numbers that everyone else gets, it just made me realise that they recognise that there’s talent there. It felt good man.”
With you being on the label is there pressure to achieve chart success with the music from this upcoming EP or do you still handle the music with the same mentality as before?
“I’m not thinking about the charts at all at the moment, I’m more for the critical acclaim than having mainstream success. Obviously I want money as well, but I really care about the music and how people feel about it more.”
Overall, what are you hopes and aims for this year?
“At the moment my mind is tunnel vision on the project coming out and trying to gauge the reaction from people when it’s released – because I feel like I’m currently underexposed – but then when the EP drops, with the major behind me pushing it, that should give it the exposure it needs. Then after the tape is out I’m going to do my first official headline show, which I’m looking forward to!”
Follow the artist’s journey @Knucks_Music
Interview by Denzil Bell
Photos by Blaow