Future Icons Knucks and Olivia Dean front special edition digital covers of Notion, in collaboration with Gucci at Flannels. Knucks speaks on his MOBO nomination, how Nas’ 'Illmatic' album changed his life, and taking ownership of his music.
2020 has been an unforgettable year, and for all the wrong reasons too. From the unlawful killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd that revived the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement to the global pandemic, this year has been abysmal. But for South Kilburn rapper and producer Knucks, 2020 has been the start of something new. From releasing his EP ‘London Class‘ to celebrating his 26th birthday as one of the hottest rap faces making a cultural impact within UK music in GQ Style’s Liberation Issue, Knucks is in a league of his own.
His home of North West London has played an essential role in the birthing of his come-up, one filled with humbleness and blessings. After being nicknamed ‘Knuckles’, he began pursuing a career in rap that saw him bring his gritty flow, characteristic voice and astute lyrical ability on his debut mixtape ‘Killmatic’, an ode to Nas’ 1994 album ‘Illmatic’. “His first album changed my life. It played a huge part in me being the rapper I am today. Hearing him talk about growing up in Queensbridge inspired me to start making music at 12 and talk about my life growing up in Kilburn” he tells us over Zoom.
Proving that hard work, consistency and a genuine love for your craft pay off, he continued to channel his influences, society, the environment and his Nigerian heritage to deliver strong freestyle performances as previously seen on Radar Radio, LDNRBS and GRM Daily. After graduating university with a degree in animation and graphics and taking centre stage at Tiffany Calver & Friends, the North West London trailblazer continued to go from strength to strength, releasing his breakthrough first full-length project NRG 105 last year. Effortlessly launching him as one of the prominent rappers on the rap scene, tracks like “Big Kahuna Burger” and “Rice & Stew” emitted the brutal rawness of what it means to be Black and British.
Last month, the MOBO Awards announced Knucks’ Video of the Year nomination for his 2019 hit Home. Hitting a notable milestone, he tells us of the moment he found out from the comfort of his bed and how that moment felt. “I woke up bare discombobulated with my phone blowing up. I didn’t even know what was going on” he tells us. Citing the nomination as his most significant achievement thus far, he continues, “It’s an amazing feeling. I didn’t expect to hear that they had nominated me for Video of the Year, but in all honesty, it makes sense. Everything that has happened this year has come from Home so it makes sense that if there were anything I was going to get a nomination for, it would be for that video”.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve made it but being nominated for a MOBO is me ticking something off my things to-do-list. I grew up watching the show with my family as a kid and even in my adulthood. It’s crazy to think that if it weren’t for the pandemic, I would be one of those people sitting in the stadium at the table dressed to the nines with my mum next to me wearing traditional clothing accepting the award”.
Directed by Ray Fiasco, the visual for “Home” tells the anecdote of a young man stabbed during an altercation at a house party. Using the video to address the increasing issue surrounding knife crime in London, the gritty cinematic video became one of the most-talked-about visuals to be released from a rapper this year. Talking to me about the production and why the treatment was paramount especially in this climate, he explains. “It wasn’t just about making a music video. We knew what we wanted to do and how we wanted to tell this story and bring it life so that each scene was important. Each scene was cleverly put together and thought through thoroughly. Most people don’t know that the backdrop in the video was shit in my old estate where I grew up”.
“This was my first time stepping away from my usual director LX (pronounced Lex) who had done all my videos before and working with someone new. It was easy working with Ray because I’ve known him for so many years. The way he based each scene on a line in the song, so it fits perfectly made the whole experience sick. It’s very self-gratifying to see and hear the responses to the video because it shows me that people understand what I’m doing. There’s a real nice feeling that you get when you put together a piece of work that has a specific intention behind it, and people pick up on it”.
Releasing his sophomore EP ‘London Class‘ back in September, his latest body of work sees him sonically take his artistry to the next level whilst paying tribute to the city that raised him. “London is my muse,” he explains. “That’s my environment. I’ve always wanted to tell the story of where I grew up and what it means to me”. Fusing elements of signature jazz with hip-hop, ‘London Class’ delivers twenty-four minutes of polished beats and braggadocious lyrics. Title tracks like “Thames” and “Duchess” fuel the concept behind London life whilst the skits like “New London – Intro and Under Class” present perspicacity into the links between capitalism, blackness and classism echoing the title of the EP.
“South Kilburn is so multicultural. I grew up on a block where there were so many different cultures around me; it was enriching. My next-door neighbour was Jamaican, a couple of doors down was a Somalian family, then the door after that was a white family. My ends were very cultured, and I feel like it rubbed off on me. I couldn’t help but pick up on these things and regurgitate them, in my way, into my music. In “Wedding Rings” I say ‘East Africana, talking in Somali, shorty say she love me, I told her say Wallahi’, which was my little ode to Somalians. It’s little things like that that I do to show that I’m part of different kinds of communities. Being from North West London helped me with that.
In the last five years, UK lyricism has peaked in popularity, becoming a perennial influential genre to rap fans around the world. Alongside a host of other young Black UK rap stars like Dave, Stormzy, Fredo and Headie One, Knucks is on a mission to continue being a driving force behind what it means to be young, Black and thriving in the UK. Asking what success means to him, he tells me “Ownership. Being able to make the music you want, own the right to what you’ve made and then making the right amount of money that you’re supposed to be making off your work. That’s the main size of it”. With more artists now than ever before gaining control over their master rights to their recordings, he explains why having any intellectual property in the music industry is a big deal and what advice he would give to artists coming up.
“I feel like a lot of people come into the industry and aspire to have what the record labels and big corporations have and in their mind, that’s what success looks like to them. That side of it is so far away and unimaginable, and people don’t grasp that because success is all they want. The best advice I could give is simply this – make sure that you own everything you do and do your research. Do your diligence when it comes to making deals and signing contracts. People are very naive when it comes to the business side of music. That’s how people get taken advantage of people higher up in the industry. We’ve seen and heard over and over again throughout the years. The best advice is to stay clued up and if you can try to do it on your own”.
Asking how his creating process has been during the pandemic and whether or not it changed his approach to creating, he tells us, “I was lucky because I had back up music that I recorded from before just in case we needed to release anything on a whim. For me, my creative process right is just to let my thoughts run on a beat and make magic. I think now is the best time for any artist to be real and relatable, especially in their music because we’re all going through the same thing right now. So, if you’re being authentic and genuine in your music and talking about something that everyone can relate to, there’s a higher chance that you’re going to be relatable because we’re all in the same boat right now”.
Using iconic figures and moments in pop culture to title some of his tracks like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “Gwen Stefani”, he details why paying homage to his idols through his music is the best way to educate a whole new generation. “I feel like as a musician; it’s our right to keep the legacies of our icons alive. It’s important to pay homage to the people that came before you because some people have no idea who these people are or the bars they set for us”. Studying the stylings of Sade, Missy Elliott, curren$y and Anita Baker, his admiration for those who inspired him has influenced him to inspire others.
“I was listening to Anita Baker when I was 12; she wasn’t on the radio when I was growing up. If it weren’t for people like Nas, who are doing what I’m doing now by resharing classics, I wouldn’t know about a lot of artists if it wasn’t for them. I feel like the young audience who listen to me have no idea who Nas is”. He continues, “I do almost feel like it’s an obligation of mine to keep the legacies of our greats and the people that you consider to be great. That’s what I try to do with every song of mine”.
Despite being an established artist, he’s still huge fans of the artists that came before him and his sound. Praising the likes of Nines and C. Biz, he tells me of the artists he’s been listening to recently for inspiration. “I’ve been listening to a lot of Baby Keem, this group from the 90s called Intro – they have this song called ‘Funny How Time Flies’ – it’s amazing; also I got put onto this singer from the UK who passed a while back called Lynden David Hall. His song ‘Sexy Cinderella’ has been on repeat”.
In collaboration with Gucci at Flannels celebrating the cultural construction of embodying your identity through fashion, Knucks is proud to represent the styling of a true North Londoner. Describing his style as wavy, open-minded and trendsetting with his three fashion essentials being Airforces, Grillz and a laptop bag, he tells us why Kanye West was his fashion icon growing up and what fashions means to him. “[Kanye] has always been ahead of his time when it comes to fashion. He’s always had an imaginative sense of fashion and been putting out crazy designs. From the shutter shades, he used to wear to the Yeezy’s. He’s always been weird, and it’s funny because it’s only now that people are catching on and when he set the trend years ago”.
Building his fashion apparel No Days Off, heavily inspired by the skater aesthetic, Knucks is making sure that his brand is accessible to everyone. “No Days Off is open to everyone, there are no limits on who can wear it. Man in the ends can wear it, women can wear it, it’s about being comfortable and free”. Speaking highly on the up-and-coming fashion brands and designers he’s been keeping his eye on, he tells me “There’s this brand I’ve been looking at called w00dw00d, and there’s this brand in Ghana called FREE THE YOUTH that I’ve been working with who I think is sick. They’ve been working with Virgil Abloh, doing some stuff for the future”.
As this year comes to a close with Christmas and 2021 around the corner, Knucks is excited to gift his fans and the rap scene with the new collection, collaborations and future projects he’s been working on this past year. Closing this month with a special live performance of “London Class”, partnered with YouTube, he ends our chat by expressing how grateful he is for his friends, fans and family. “I’m so blessed to have such supportive people beside me, that’s what keeps me going”.
Check out Knucks and Olivia Dean’s Future Icons campaign with Gucci at Flannels here: www.stylenews.