- Words Nicola Davies
- Photography Beni Fundr
- Fashion Jermaine Robinson
- Fashion Assistant Louis Frimpong
South Kilburn rapper and producer, via a short stint in Nigeria, Knucks is spreading his London-shaped lyricism through his debut EP, NRG 105.
Having broken onto the scene in 2014 with his Nas-influenced mixtape Killmatic, Knucks has been gathering a following ever since. Continuing to show his respect for hip hop influences before him, Knucks is a master sampler.
His breakout single ‘Vows’ received massive radio play in 2017, and last year, the rapper/producer signed to Island Records. The narrative-heavy and polished NRG 105 follows an American-style radio broadcast, complete with skits and spoof ads sprinkled between tracks. Knucks’ associations are amongst some of the most respected established and emerging artists on the UK scene, with features from Wretch 32 and Oscar Worldpeace. Having produced most of the album, and written all of it, Knucks is a multi-talented artist channelling his own sound.
How do you defend North West London to people who claim their neighbourhood is the best?
We’ve just got the best swag, man. There’s something about us. When you look at the big North West rappers, we’ve got Nines, Skrapz. We’ve just got sauce.
You lived in Nigeria between the ages of 12-13, which are quite formative years. How did this period affect your journey?
If I didn’t go to Nigeria I don’t think I would’ve went to uni. You know when you hear yourself think? You usually do that at an older age when you actually hear your voice and you start to learn about your morals. I feel like I learnt that stuff early because I spent a lot of time by myself. When I came back, I was just more mature. When my friends were trying to get me into silly little things, I wouldn’t get involved.
You went to university at the same time you were trying to build up your music. What did you study?
Do you still use those skills in any way?
I try. When I realise I haven’t done something in a while I try to sharpen my blade. I was always artistic, I liked drawing with biro, pencil, anything, but I wanted to do Pixar quality animations. My last uni project was a 3-minute animation and it took a whole year to do.
You graduated last year, but your career had taken off before then. Are you glad you finished the degree?
100%. It wasn’t easy. I spent 4 years doing it when it should’ve been 3. The first time around I failed because I missed a deadline rendering an animation. I wasn’t listening in class so I didn’t realise how long it would take. I wanted to take a gap year because my music was taking off, but my manager at the time said, ‘If you don’t finish it now you’re not going to come back.’ So I did it again, and I’m happy I did.
Your lyrics are so smart in terms of wordplay and delivery, but you don’t lead up to it – you’ve removed the ego, which can be hard to do. What is your approach to writing?
Sometimes I’ll just be freestyling over a beat, I’ll think of a good metaphor and save it for when it’s needed in a verse. I feel like every line needs to do something. Either the line is building up to a metaphor, or I’m telling you something to make you understand a bit better. I didn’t waste any lines in ‘Home’, every line is to tell the story or make you understand the character, like: “Made in the manor / I take off my DSquared2 top that I rock and I place on a hanger.” You would think that I’m just saying, I took off the shirt I wore and put it on a hanger. But I said DSquared2 for one, I’m not talking about myself because I don’t wear DSquared, and two, to let you know what kind of person I’m talking about.
You produced most of this album and a lot of your previous music as well. What do you prefer, producing or rapping?
I make music when I’m bored, but I don’t really rap when I’m bored so maybe producing. But I feel like I’m more gifted as a writer than a producer.
You have a solid amount of classic artistic references throughout your work — Nas with Killmatic, ‘Gwen Stefani’, ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’, and you’ve talked previously about Missy Elliot’s influence. Do you think it’s important to pay homage to these artists?
No one is obliged to do anything, but I do think it is a good deed because you’re keeping the music alive. If it’s something you appreciate, you’re showing that to a whole new generation. A lot of the old school samples I listened to, like Sade and Anita Baker, I only know them from rappers that sampled them. I think it’s important to let your music reflect what you really like.
Do you find it easier to write over a sample or make a beat from scratch?
I would say it’s easier, only because when you sample something, a lot of the work is already there. You just need to add the drums. You know that song ‘Lady’ by Modjo? When you listen to it, that’s a soul sample. But the producers added the drums and other things to make it the genre it is.
You’re now signed to Island, who are known in the UK for letting artists do their thing. Do you feel like there’s a stigma nowadays for artists to sign?
I feel like it’s now cool to say, “I’m independent”, which I understand because it means you did things on your own. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being signed either. Artists are different. For me, I need the support, I’m not going to pretend that I don’t. Whether it’s connects in the scene, money for videos, it helps.
Your fan following is so dedicated, almost cult-like. Your headline show had 4 crowd-sourced wheel-ups of ‘Vows’ with the same energy every time. Do you see that they’re a bit different?
I love them you know. I don’t even like to call them fans, they’re just like me. They’re the type of people who look for music and they find new artists. It’s funny how my music is attracting the type of people that I want to be with anyway, I’m one of them.
What’s your first memory of music?
I was having this conversation yesterday with someone, talking about a music video that used to scare me. I can’t remember the name but it goes, “doo-do-doo-doo-do-do-do…ah, oh”. Every time I heard it, it reminded me of the video. If I remember correctly, it was grown middle-aged men in ballerina costumes.
What was the first song you ever wrote?
This is a tricky one because you have to really define the word ‘song’. When I was younger I wrote 8 bars on a beat. DJ Ironik was a grime producer back in the day, and we used to find his beats on LimeWire, and my first ever song I recorded was on a DJ Ironik beat. I can’t remember what I called it but his beat was called ‘Flawless’ and I remember being so young I didn’t know what ‘flawless’ meant. Maybe I just called it ‘Flawless Riddim’.
What’s your favourite line that you’ve written?
I don’t want to sound big-headed but there are so many lines I listen to and I’m like, ‘Who wrote this?’ In ‘Cake’…wait let me not get it wrong [plays track to check]…”Baby said she loves to grind / Hit the bar / Change a dirty Sprite into a dutty wine.”
Describe your sound in 3 words.
Eclectic. Smooth. Thought-provoking.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
“Stay in school.”
What has been your biggest achievement?
Selling out my headline. It sold out in 9 hours, even before the album came out. The weird thing was, the album came out on the 10th [June], the show was on the 17th, and everyone knew all the words. That’s what got me, I’ve never done a show like that before. It’s funny because I do the rehearsals to make myself feel comfortable that I’m not going to flop, trying to make sure I was saying every lyric. But when I got to the show, I almost didn’t have to say any lyrics.
Who is your current internet crush?
Doja Cat, I don’t know what it is, she does something to me.
Who was your first celebrity crush?
When was the first time you had your heart broken?
Year 7. I remember it so well. It was on MSN, there was a girl that I liked but I didn’t want to tell her. So I told my friend to tell her, and he messaged me back saying she doesn’t [like me]. But later that year she said she did like me, so then my heart un-broke.
When was the last time you cried, and why?
My manager passing, but when it happened I didn’t cry for bare long. Funnily enough it was not too long ago, it was random. It wasn’t even a full cry and then when I realised what I was doing and where I was, I snapped out of it.
What’s one album that changed your life, and why?
Illmatic, because it introduced me to being very honest. I could tell it represented what was going on in his life, and it made me do that for my own life, which allowed me to make Killmatic. It was my trying to tell stories about what was going on, and that’s when I really knew I had an ability to do that.
What was the first live show you went to?
I don’t really go to live shows, but my sister took me to see a producer, Ryan Leslie. That was in about 2014.
What is success to you?
Doing what you love and getting paid for it. Nothing better.