Grime and UK Drill music have arguably hit the mainstream in the UK over the last year and a half, with Skepta, Stormzy and 67 leading the sub-genres respectively. Whenever someone’s sound is seen to be successful, you generally have a myriad of artists attempting to replicate the sound, and jump on the trend. Flows, adlibs and general content normally sound quite similar, and although the music is popular, it does seem to lack originality. So when I first heard ’21 Candles’ by Knucks back in March of this year, I remember instantly thinking that he was different from other UK rappers out there at the time. His delivery and the production of the song were a breath of fresh air, and the video editing was exemplary. I could instantly tell that he was an artist who really focused on the art of music, rather than seeing it as a method to just make money. Listening to his debut mixtape, ‘Killmatic’, further confirmed my thoughts, with the jazz/soul feel, most notably on ‘The Streets’, where he samples one of his primary inspirations, Sade (‘Sally’). Throughout the year, Knucks has been consistently releasing music accompanied by visuals, including ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’, a breakthrough track of a sort, ‘Big Kahuna’, ‘From Rome With Love’ and ‘Turnover’. Not once has he disappointed, and by maintaining this high standard, he’s been able to slowly but surely grow his fanbase over the year, and garner more respect from established artists. We had the chance to speak with Knucks on a number of topics including his style of Rap, his collaboration and performance with Bonkaz, his inspirations, thoughts on his music breaking the USA, and more. Check out the interview below now:
TP: You can produce and you can rap, which one came first?
Knucks: Rapping…I started with Grime, we all started MCing, but I stayed on it. I began when I was 12… me and my boys had a clique called Y.O.R… ‘Youngers on Road’ (laughs). But then I went to Nigeria at the end of year 7, for a year, and when I came back, I didn’t go back to the same school so I wasn’t with the same guys anymore, but I still kept writing.
You then transitioned to Rap…how old were you when you made Killmatic (Knucks’ debut mixtape)?
I started with the production and writing when I was 15 I think…
The sound of the tape feels a lot more American than UK, what was the creative process behind it?
Originally I always listened to old school samples, but when I started doing my research on ‘back in the day’ rappers, I was looking at people like MF Doom and Nas, and their work is very sample heavy. So it influenced my style, and also, this was around the time I started listening to Youngs Teflon, and with his ‘Grown Man Ting’ series, those mixtapes are very sample heavy as well, so it helped me influence the sound.
Speaking about artists who have influenced you, you seem to be heavily inspired by Sade, what’s it about her that appeals to you?
Its just her distinct voice like… there are a lot of voices that can be replicated, but I just feel that you can’t replicate Sade’s voice. Like when you hear Sade, you know its Sade, and its not only her voice, its her sound as well which is very soulful and jazzy. And that’s the kind of music I’m into, so I’ve always loved it.
Yeah, I feel even on your catalogue, it has that jazzy, soulful feel. You’ve listened to old Rap, does that feel come from listening to the samples in that or does it come from liking Jazz and Soul music?
I think its both… originally, I’ve always liked soulful music, and because of that love for soulful music, I think those are the rappers I gravitated towards. And I’ve always been someone who likes to make what I like. Not in the way that “I do what I want”, but I make the music that I like to hear. So if someone asked me about for example ‘Big Kahuna Freestyle’, I vibe with that song. Like if someone else made it, I’d fuck with it, so I think I make soulful music, because I like to listen to it. I like MF Doom, I like Nas, I like when other people do the kind of things that I do.
That’s the thing, in terms of your style and sampling, you’re completely unique compared to other artists out there. Do you ever feel the pressure, to conform to Trap music, which is racking up views?
Not really, because I’ve already passed that stage. There was a time in everyone’s lyrics, everyone was a killer, everyone was dealing drugs, and obviously I felt I had to take on that persona, otherwise you weren’t respected, but it just got to a stage, where I had to feel comfortable with who I was as an individual and portray that completely in my music. That’s one of the things that people like about my music, when you’re authentic, it shows. So I had to learn to be authentic with everything I did.
Yeah 100%… so with ’21 Candles’, when you dropped that, I thought “shit, this is something different from what I’m hearing in the UK at the moment”, but I don’t understand why it hasn’t got the amount of views/plays that some other tracks do, especially given the cosign from Stormzy. Does that surprise you as well?
Kind of… when I really, really put my head to it and think about it, I wonder “why?”, but then I just put it to the fact that its different and people aren’t used to it yet. Or as you said, I am different from the “trap, trap in the bandos” and all that so, obviously if people are used to that music and something new comes along, they either really fuck with it or they don’t really feel it yet until its established properly. So I feel, I’m not really fussed about it, I just know eventually it will come.
So with ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’, was it hearing the sample first, or did you want to make a track related to the film, what was the process behind that?
It started with the…sometimes I go back on FL studios, which is the production software, and I go back and check old beats that I haven’t finished. So I found a old beat which had that sample, but it had a completely different drum loop to ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’. And I was listening to the sample, and thought “raa this sample is actually hard”. So I changed the drum loop to a trappier, modern drum loop, and the sample stood out to me more, and I got the vibe that I got from the film. So I felt the vibe I was getting from the sample aesthetically matched the film. But its very…what’s the word? Its very prestige…
I get what you’re saying… I haven’t actually seen the film, but when I heard the track and saw the artwork, automatically it matched with the iconic picture
You see what I’m saying?! But yeah, that’s what happened, and I just made the song around it…
The track has been very positively received, was that what led to the collaboration with Bonkaz?
Yeah, yeah with Bonkaz, I think I was on his radar from ’21 Candles’, because when I got the Stormzy cosign, not too long after, Bonkaz shouted me as well, but nothing really came of it. He just said I was good, and followed me on Twitter, but then after ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’, he actually reached out and said, “We have to do something”. So then the collaboration (‘Sleeping In The Studio’) came out of that.
So with “Sleeping in the Studio”, I remember you mentioning to me that it was written and recorded on the day in the studio, which is crazy… does that normally happen, that you can go into the studio and pattern something down or were you just inspired at that moment?
Up till then, I’d never written in the studio, so I’d make a beat at home, write bars to it and then go studio and lay everything down. But on that day, it was me and Jevon in the studio at first, and I was going through some beats I already had, and then I said let me make something fresh, so I found the sample, and pulled it from FL Studio, made the beat. And then Bonkaz came in the studio, and Jevon was like “show Bonkaz some of the beats you were showing me”, so I started with that sample and that beat. And he said “I don’t want to hear anything else, that’s the one, lets rap to this”, and he started writing on the spot, and came up with the ‘Sleeping In The Studio’ theme, and then we all went with that and started writing. Like I said, I wasn’t used to writing in the studio but… that experience told me I can do that. So in future, I’m going to be doing that more often.
So off the back of that, did he ask to support you for the show?
Yeah, and the thing is when he asked me to support him, I thought he just meant, he wanted me to come with Jevon to do our verses on ‘Sleeping In The Studio’. It was only a few days before, that I realized “raa, he wants me to actually do a set”, so I had to prepare and do a set. And when I did it, it was a lot of love. And he even shouted me out. After we did ‘Sleeping In The Studio’, he stopped the music, and kind of gave a speech about me. So I could tell it was genuine interest in the music, not just doing it for for the sake of doing it.
Yeah, I think when someone realizes that someone is sick at their craft, they will show love and try and elevate them, because Wretch 32 retweeted you as well right (for ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’)?
So with ‘Big Kahuna’, was it similar to ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ in the creative process?
It was different, because the sample didn’t make me think of ‘Pulp Fiction’. How it gelled together is beyond me, because I’ll do a lot of things just because I like it and it usually works, so with that, I know in the intervals, it was meant to be a freestyle, so there was no hook. So in the spaces, between the verses…
When Samuel L was talking?
Yeah exactly, that was blank, so I knew I had to fill it up somehow, so I thought “let me get a quote”, so I was thinking “What films….?” And then I thought of Pulp Fiction, because I like the film, and I found that Samuel L bit, because that’s probably one of my favourite bits in the film. Samuel L’s voice just matched so well with the sample, and when I went to look for an artwork for it, I found the Blaxploitation pictures of Samuel L with the cheeseburger, and the sample goes in with the Blaxploitation themes with the afros, and the 80s music, you know what I mean?!
Yeah man, I remember actually questioning whether the sample was used in Pulp Fiction, because the instrumental seemed to match the feel of the film so closely… so then you dropped ‘From Rome With Love’, where did the Italian inspiration come from?
I was actually in Italy, a few days before I recorded the track so a lot of it was written there. It was my friend’s birthday in Italy, and I said “Lx might as well come” (video director), so we can shoot something, so Lx came with me, and we shot the next video which should come out at the beginning of next year, ‘Turnover’, and as we were in Rome, I came up with the concept of ‘From Rome With Love’, so I recorded it and put it out the next day on my birthday.
Nearer the end of ‘From Rome With Love’, there’s quite a big gap at the end, with the just the sample playing before your last bars. What made you want to do that?
After my verse, the sample just plays innit, by itself, that was going to be the outro, but I felt I needed more bars, and that something else needed to be there. So when the beat came back, and it came back with the 808s, it was bare upbeat, I was going to rap on that bit. But I saved it until I got to the studio, in case anything new happened, for example, before I finished the song, at the time we didn’t know who’d got elected for President. So before that I couldn’t drop in a bar about it, I couldn’t really do it because it was before, but when I came back and I was recording, the election happened, a couple other things happened, so I had more material to talk about. So that originally was why I wanted to wait and drop that ‘sixteen’ in the studio. But when I got there and that bit played, my engineer was like “leave that empty”, because its more like a breakbeat, where the beat is empty, and he told me to come back when the sample mellows out a bit. Because he was saying that bit, in the beginning, was like a…they just liked that bit, so I just came back on that, and left the middle empty.
It almost feels cinematic… I remember you mentioning you’ve worked with Blade Brown before… are there any UK MCs, that you haven’t worked with yet that you’d like to work with?
I’d like to work with Youngs Teflon because I grew up on his music man. I think when I was 16 or 17, that’s all I was listening to, the ‘GMTs’, I really enjoyed those. I think I sent him some stuff when I was younger, but I don’t think he’s seen it, so it would be good to get in the studio with him. And yeah, everyone else who’s just making good music to be honest, and do what I can to elevate the scene.
You’re at university at the moment, but is music the number one goal for you?
I guess so (laughs), yeah… because its not like I’m doing it saying “ok this is what I want to do, this is a job”, I do music because I genuinely enjoy it, so if people are telling me, “raaa you can make money by doing this”, by all means that’s what I’m going to be doing, but I’d be doing music even if I couldn’t make any money from it. I can always see myself putting music out because, as I said, I make the music that I enjoy listening to, and it feels good when people enjoy it as well.
I think in music, that’s the successful mentality to have… and you need to be passionate, rather than looking at it as a tool to make money… would you ever have ambition to break the United States with your music?
Yeah, because its so big man, its so big… people sleep on how big America is. If you’re big in America, your fan base is stupid, because the UK is tiny compared to the USA and you can still have a mad fan base here. So imagine going over to America, and you conquer one state, some states are twice the size of the UK, so I think it would be stupid to not want to try and go over there with my music. And plus I feel like the similarities that my music does have to the US sound, I feel that if anyone can bridge the gap between UK and US, it would be someone in my kind of position, because they would be able to understand it a bit more. With Grime and that, obviously they understand it a bit more now, but I feel the tempo, just throws them off and even our accents. If I come with a tempo they’re used to, even though my accent is different, they’ll be able to understand it a bit more and gravitate towards it.
Yeah 100%, especially given like you’re saying, your sound is inspired from samples in American music… so your older sister (Tania Nwachukwu) is a spoken word artist, was she the one that got you into writing?
Yeah, I’ve kind of like…I copied her poetry and there was even one poem she had, and I low key stole it from her (laughs).
I memorized it, and told people I wrote it and shit
That’s hilarious man, what was her reaction?
I don’t think she was that fazed, back in the day she didn’t take it that seriously, so it wasn’t that deep. I think by the time she realized, that poem was mad old to her… but yeah she influenced me in terms of just having an interest for words.
What would you say are the three albums or projects have inspired you the most?
‘Illmatic’ – Nas has to be the first one… I want to say ‘Diamond Life’ – Sade, but there are quite a few that have influenced me by Sade, but I think ‘Diamond Life’ is the main one. And the third one… MF Doom – ‘Mm.. Food’.
I’m not gonna lie, I’ve slept on MF Doom… I only heard ‘Madvillain’ the other day
Is it?! I don’t even blame you man, he’s slept on a lot but his style is so different, its on a different level of lyricism. People really sleep on him.
Its nuts how some of these guys have such a mad underground fan base, I feel like I have a vast knowledge of music, but when I heard him for the first time, I was like “what have I been doing, how have I not listened to him?” Even with Jay Electronica, I’ve slept on him completely…
See, that goes to show how big America is, these man are fully established in America, but they’re still underground. They’ve got mad fan bases in America, but they’re still underground. When you’re underground here in the UK, no one knows about you, but you can fully be underground in America, but because there are so many states and so many people, you are thriving. Like there are people like Curren$y, who’s been underground for years, like, he’s not even in the main tier of rappers, but he’s making a lot of money and living off the music he’s making, because he’s just touring. He’ll make a bag of mixtapes and then tour. America is just enormous man…
Would you say you’re inspired by Curren$y as well, but because listening to ‘Killmatic’, the production feels very similar to his material?
Yeah, that’s another person I left him out still, I listened to a lot of Curren$y back in the day. He was actually the person who got me to listen to projects and bodies of work. Normally if someone would tell me to listen to someone, I’ll just go on Youtube and listen to a few tracks, but when I first listened to Curren$y, he got me into listening to mixtapes and albums.
What would you say is your favourite Curren$y tape?
…I don’t know, I think ‘Verde Terrace’ you know- but na I think there’s a better one, its just not coming to my head.
You’ve heard the one with Alchemist right, can’t remember what its called…?
Is it something to do with the bay? Something to do with boats and that?
Ohh that’s the Harry Fraud one, ‘Cigarette Boats’, that’s live as well
Ah ok, what’s the Alchemist one?
It’s got the tracks ‘BBS’, ‘Scottie Pippen’…
Ohhhhh the one with the James Bond (‘007’) tune?!
Yeah, yeah that one
Ahh what’s it called again? I had that one on my phone, I can’t remember what it’s called, but yeah that was hard as well. Na I have to get back to you on that one though, because I know there is one, but I can’t remember off the top of my head
What can we expect from Knucks in 2017?
I’m not going to say what it is, but something is coming. I want to release a project, I don’t know if its going to be an EP, LP, but its going to be a project, and yeah man, I’ve already started working on it, I got some songs that I want to put on it already. I want it to be a concept project, so I want it to have a theme throughout it, I don’t want to just put a combination of songs together and put it out. I want it to have a vibe, so I once I find a way to connect all the songs, I’ll put it out, but it should be out around mid next year.
Yeah the concept idea is live man, it adds identity and a message to the body of work…but Knucks its been a pleasure as usual chatting to you man