Born and raised in South Kilburn, rapper and producer Knucks has been writing music since the young age of twelve. His first mixtape Killmatic told the first-hand experiences of the North West London area, capturing an honest perspective from the UK youth as he was growing up. Ever since the mixtape went out on Soundcloud the demand has been building and in the past year Knucks has dropped a series of singles that continue to feature impeccably suave productions, lyricism and visuals. Causing a big stir on SBTV and Soundcloud, Knucks has brought something fresh to London, his Anglo-American sound is carved out of his stateside influences, a focused talent and self-belief that holds the keys to his ambition. As we spoke to Knucks on an autumnal Sunday afternoon, what quickly became clear is that when it comes to music he’s got the right ear for inspiration, a calm composure and concentrated vision.
First I want to speak a bit about Killmatic. It’s been 2 years since the mixtape dropped on your Soundcloud and listening to your latest releases the music's come a long way. A lot of people say they find it hard to emcee over their own beats, clearly there’s a natural bond between your productions and your writing process. Have you always tended to lean towards making your own beats to go with your raps?
Well at first before my beats were at a high enough standard that I felt I was able to go on them. I used to do what a lot of people do which was to go on YouTube and look for beats myself, but then, when my productions started to get better with practice when I was around fourteen or fifteen, I realised that I could start rapping on my own beats and I just went for it.
You sampled a load of old jazz and blues, where does the interest in that kind of music come from?
I think it’s my dad you know. My dad and the people around me, it brings a nostalgic kind of feel, like old school Sade and even like reggae and stuff as well.
You mention Sade a lot, what’s the interest there?
I’m just a mad fan of her voice man, I feel like you can mistake a lot of singers for other singers, but Sade to me, is a singer that when you hear Sade’s voice, there’s no other.
What do you take more pride in, producing or rapping?
I’ve never heard this question before you know, I think my rapping.
Where did it start out, were you producing first or was it like a collective process happening at the same time?
I started when I was around twelve doing grime with my friends, but this was before I ever made any beats. I always loved the grime beats that used jazz or old school samples with the high pitched singers voice on it but I couldn’t really find them, and when I would try to talk to producers online they like wouldn’t take me serious. So I started to play around with the demo version of FL Studio and eventually I learnt how to make beats I could rap to.
You can hear lot of stateside influence on the Killmatic mixtape, as you were saying you were pretty gripped by the grime scene we had at the time here in the UK, but were you listening to much of US rap and hip-hop when you were younger?
Not really. I think I only started to listen to the old school hip-hop when I was, I’d say, fifteen or sixteen. So while I was making Killmatic that was a period of time while I was doing my research and that’s when I went back and listened to like the Nas and the old Jay-Z albums. Before that I was just listening to Grime.
And how do those two cultures merge from your perspective now?
I feel like a lot of things are just the same with both cultures, it’s just subtle differences like obviously with the language barrier, the slang and whatnot but other than that there’s so many similarities. I think that’s what the beauty of Killmatic is, because I’m literally trying to paint the same picture that Nas was painting in Illmatic but just from the perspective of a young UK youth.
What’s so strong about Killmatic is its honesty and its storytelling, how you document the experiences you were having as you came of age? Why do you think you choose music as the medium to do that?
Music is what I love and I’m good at it, it’s one thing that I know I’m good at. I’m not the type of person that would do something that everyone else is doing - I wouldn’t do Rap just because everyone else is doing it - but I just feel like it’s me. I can’t not do it, I feel like I’d be wasting a talent.
On the After interlude on the mixtape, you wrote about a guy - Jamil Allen - who advised you to stick with music. Can you tell me more about that experience?
It’s actually a real person but obviously I changed the name, with a lot of my music I don’t put the real person's names in the scenario. It didn’t even happen exactly like that, the majority of it is like a metaphor, it’s like my older self almost telling my younger self to just stay out of trouble and stick to music.
So at twelve years old you were getting into grime, starting to write your own music and it was around about that time you acquired the name Knuckles, then you were sent away to a boarding school in Nigeria for a year. What did you take from that experience?
I feel the experience completely changed the trajectory of where my life was going man, honestly. It was needed, and it made me more in-tune with myself like when you’re out there. When I came back I felt like I went to prison, like I was under a rock for a year. So I had a lot of time to think. I think From that experience I gained the ability to just think in myself whereas before I wasn’t really a thinker, like I would just do things erratically which is what caused me to go there.
Since Killmatic, in the past year you’ve unveiled 21 Candles, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and most recently the Big Kahuna freestyle. There’s a real sense you’ve grown, discovering your purpose and direction within music. What in the past two years has affected the way the music’s heading?
I feel like it’s just influence. So from Killmatic times I was listening to a different type of music, I was listening to a lot of old school, a lot of Nas, a lot of MF Doom - I like MF Doom. So even though it kind of sounds a bit updated because I added the trap drum patterns in Killmatic, the flow and everything else is pretty old school. Whereas now I’m listening to more recent artists that are prominent at the moment; I listen to Currency and Quentin Miller. People like that have changed my perception of music and it makes me approach it differently. So that’s what has made me kind of adapt to recent times rather than still sticking with the old school kind of flow.
Who’s making good music in the UK at the moment?
Well I like Stormzy, I think Stormzy’s making really good music... I don’t really listen to a lot of UK music though, I can’t lie to you.
What is it about MF Doom that you took inspiration from when you were writing for Killmatic?
Everything man, his lyricism, he makes his own beats as well, I like the way he samples his beats, he’s just got a mad mind. I appreciate people who, when I listen to their work, I’m just like wow, I couldn’t do that.
Yeah, he’s a real enigma.
Yeah, I just think 'how did he think of that, how did he think to put that there or play that like that'. It’s crazy, so that’s what I appreciate about him.
You’ve got an eye for the visuals. All the recent releases have had really strong, slick videos. Are you styling them yourself?
Well I work really closely with the director, the director is my friend LX and we come up with the ideas together, we bounce ideas off each other. So for example in 21 Candles, that was my idea to have the balloons in the video but then it was LX’s idea to have them falling down in the elevator. So little things like that, we just pitch ideas together and then whatever works, works and whatever doesn’t, doesn’t.
The set for the Breakfast at Tiffany’s video is really similar to the original film, clearly taking a lot of inspiration. We’ve seen you feature Breakfast at Tiffany’s and more recently Pulp Fiction in your tracks, do you think there’s a relationship between film and your music?
Yeah, it wasn’t even intentional but I see it. Now that everyone’s talking about it and telling me about it I see it but I didn’t actually plan to do it like that. I get influence from things I see and go through, so with the Breakfast at Tiffany’s song, when I made the beat the sample, it just reminded me of the aesthetic of the film. So yeah, I just came up with the title and just thought of a way to bring the name Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Instead of me actually making it about the film I said 'rah why don’t I make it about me having breakfast at a girl called Tiffany’s house'.
So what’s coming next?
Next I’ve got a song called Used To, which I’m still waiting for the final mix of. I want to release it within the next two weeks, hopefully. After that I’ve got another freestyle which will do the same thing that Big Kahuna did; it was meant to be something to keep my name out there while the visuals for Breakfast at Tiffany’s was being worked on. So after Used To comes out and we start working on the visuals I’ll throw out the freestyle then the visuals will come out and we may do visuals for the freestyle as well. Then I have another song called The Jump coming out after that, hopefully still by this year and then next year I’ll be working on my project.
What can you tell about us about your project?
At the beginning of the year I came up with the Art of Nonchalance, I put it out on an interview. I was actually working on it but then I held it back and said let me try and build a buzz first by releasing singles before I release a project so there’s an actual demand for it, I see it starting to grow now. By next year hopefully that demand will be strong enough so that when I release it people will actually want to listen to it.
You’ve never used features in the past, and the music stands strong as a solo project. Are you going to be working with anyone else?
Before, I didn’t really do features. My management or people that were behind me said it'd be better for me to try and get out there alone, so that people will know that I’m able to do it on my own rather than trying to use other people’s buzzes to gain a buzz myself. It was difficult for me to actually get people to listen to my music, when I’d release a song on Soundcloud I would just tag a bunch of people and say listen to my new music, you know those people that are nags? I was one of those people. But now people are interested and they want to do features so I think I’ll be working with a few artists soon. I’ve started working with Blade Brown, that’s just production, but there’s a song that I have on the project and I think he would suit the song well.
Do you and Blade Brown go back? Didn’t you make a beat for him in the past?
Yeah. When I was sixteen I made Mr. Brown, it was on Bags and Boxes 2 and then he followed me on Twitter and we’ve had a relationship since then. Recently, he asked me to come down to his studio because he’s working on... I think it’s an album, I’m not sure but he’s making an album or another mixtape. He just told me he wants me to work on it because of the feedback from the other song.
Words: Charlie Fyfe