17 On The Frontline: Knucks

“I stopped doing Grime years ago, if I did it now it wouldn’t be authentic. I like to talk about…

In a weird way, Knucks didn’t have a very busy year musically in 2016. The 22 year old, North West Londoner released a sprinkling of tunes, yet received over 300K plays, co-signs from his favourite rappers and supporting slots with the likes of Bonkaz. So what is it about Knucks’ music that has caught the attention of many of London’s musical tastemakers and artists alike? Well he’s not making grime for starters; he’s entirely in his own lane. With his laid-pack, self-produced beats, Knucks creates a nostalgic sound, harking back to the days of 90’s hip-hop and inspired by the likes of Nas, MF Doom and Curren$y. So what does this very laid back, very chilled and calm artist have in store for 2017, and why exactly is he on our frontline?

Meeting with Knucks in his recording studio in Manor House, he was at his most relaxed. Born and bred in North West London, it was when Knucks was going to school in Harrow, that he started to create music; “While I was at school I started to do grime and make music. We would have dubs and I would do like 8 bars on a dub.. And then I just started to make a name for myself, and that’s how I got my name”. Like most producers, Knucks began on Fruit Loops, messing around on his laptop creating beats, “I downloaded FL [Fruit Loops] as a demo on my laptop and just messed around with it…. Then when I was like 14/15 I started to rap and make hip-hop instead of making grime, it was then I started to make and write ‘Killmatic’. I was in school when I was making ‘Killmatic’, and it was then I met up with N, my manager and engineer. So, together we started to record and make ‘Killmatic’, which I finally released at 18, which was 2014”.

‘Killmatic’, the first mixtape from Knucks, was released two years ago, and, yep you guessed it, drew on influence from Nas’ 1994 debut studio album ‘Illmatic’. “When everyone started doing rap, I wanted to do my research. Nas was the first rapper I went back to, and of course the first body of work, I listened to, was Illmatic. Yeah of course I’m inspired by Nas and a fan. I liked the sound of Illmatic, it was authentic and it inspired me to tell my story. I just wanted to tell my story how he told his, but through my eyes, through someone from North West London. I liked the way he told his story about growing up in NY and I drew on parallels from where I grew up”.

I’m still at uni… It’s difficult, it’s all a bit peak to be honest, and I’m in my final year.

The 10 track debut project, entirely produced by Knucks was released in the summer of 2014, and quickly showcased Knucks’ versatility and gave him solid grounding as an artist. Yet, after the release of ‘Killmatic’, Knucks were on a hiatus. “I’m still at uni… It’s difficult, it’s all a bit peak to be honest, and I’m in my final year. I was in my final year last year, but I had to re-do some bits. It’s hectic, because now I commute, it’s a lot of travelling on the trains re-doing some bits, but it has been hard balancing the music with that education side of things”.

After a year of nearly no music, Knucks released his stand-out track, ’21 Candles’. Released on his 21st birthday, according to Knucks, it was released off a whim: “It was off a whim…I said let me do a freestyle because 21 is a special age, so I did. It was just a lil freestyle, I didn’t think it would be what it became… I was always planning to do music seriously after I finished university, but ’21 Candles’… The feedback  I was getting from it pushed me into doing music more now… And now, I’m kinda on the scene early, without me even trying to get there. So now I’m in a position where I have to juggle school and music together… It’s mad”.

’21 Candles’ was released without any real plan. There were no PR’s sending out releases or anything like that, it was entirely off the whim. Now it’s received 131K plays on Soundcloud, not bad for a Birthday freestyle released off the cuff. “The right people heard it, Ralph Hardy heard it and he put it on radio… I think with my music, it misses the audience, and goes straight to the people who need to hear it, and then they play it for the listeners… Sort of the other way round”.

Not long after Knucks randomly dropped ’21 Candles’ he followed it up with the smooth and catchy ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’. Inspired by the classic 1960’s film, the visuals to accompany the film further etched Knucks as an artist set on establishing his own lane, “I like the film, it has a nice feel to it. Even the music in the film is nice. So when I made the beat I wanted to incorporate that too, the same with the visuals. I wanted it to show elements of the film. I came up with the idea of having a girl in the video to dress up like to Audrey Hepburn… Just small little touches we added into the video to make it more authentic. But overall the video was collaborative, all of us were putting in ideas”.

I just make it and put it out and if people want to listen, they’ll listen.

60’s RomCom’s aren’t Knucks’ only film vice. He’s also a big fan of Tarantino and in his ‘Big Kahuna Freestyle’ he again embodied elements of the film. “I like songs where there’s audio from a film. Nas does it and other people I listened to… even Young Teflon, he used to do stuff like that. I like Pulp Fiction, and the Big Kahuna part is my favourite scene… I just find that part funny. I like the fact he’s just talking about a burger”. The way Knucks is able to take his listeners back to a familiar place, whether that be through film reference or through the embodiment of older hip-hop styles, is arguably, what makes his music resonate with so many listeners. But Knucks doesn’t have any particular listeners in mind when he’s making his music, “If people want to listen to it they’ll listen to it, I just make it and put it out and if people want to listen, they’ll listen”.

The internet has been integral to Knucks’ come-up so far, which if you think back to when Nas was making music in ’94, platforms like Soundcloud, Twitter and Spotify didn’t exist. So what would Knucks be doing if he didn’t have the internet to get his music out? Would he revert back to the old school ways of handing out mixtapes? “Probably. But then again, when I make music, I don’t have a certain person in mind. I literally make what I like to listen to. So I don’t know if the mixtape thing would be for me, as I don’t want people to listen by force, I just put it out for them as it is”.

While the ears and eyes of a lot of the U.K. scene are firmly planted on Grime, Knucks is content where he is: “I stopped doing Grime years ago, if I did it now it wouldn’t be authentic. I like to talk about things I get up to in my day. When you do Grime, it’s almost like you have to speak about something violent. Grime is very hard hitting. When I did Grime I was chatting about shit about stuff I didn’t do, because it sounded good. Grime is really a tempo. Maybe I could do something over a 140 beat, but it would still be in my style”. 

For now though, Knucks is living by the mantra ‘No Days Off’, something you’ll hear as a tag on his self-produced beats and  on social media. It’s not just a figure of speech for a type of unfathomable work ethic, it’s a group. But how it came about takes Knucks back to when he was 15. “I haven’t said this in an interview before. I was making a beat one day, and I got a soundpack online and downloaded it onto FL studios. It had vocals too, and one was a Wale vocal saying ‘No Days Off’ and I put it on the intro of the beat, and it sounded sick. I put a reverb on it so it echoed. It just stuck with me. Then I put it on every beat I made… It almost made it like another name for me… I would make beats for Fekky and Blade Brown so I put these on my Soundcloud and I was ‘No Days Off’ the producer. Then I made my own music, but I kept ‘No Days Off’ there”.

After this, No Days Off became a frequent saying for Knucks and his team: “We would all just say it [no days off], me, my cousin and Lex. Then one day I suggested we make it a group, we all have different ideas and have a similar taste in music, fashion and collaborate and work together from there”.

But what’s next for Knucks for 2017? It’s been nearly two years since Knucks has released a full project, yet his two follow up tracks have continue to maintain momentum. “I’m not sure exactly what form it will be, whether it’s an LP or EP or mixtape. I’m definitely going to do something this year. I don’t want to put out just a compilation of songs; I want it to mean something”.

As our conversation draws to a close, I’m quietly confident about Knucks. He’s focused on himself and his own lane, and the goal is clear; no days off and just good music.

Catch Knucks performing on the 19th February at Birthdays in London.