For South Kilburn native Knucks, rhyme-based genres have been an integral part of both his childhood and artistic expression. Dabbling in grime specifically, he began MCing to himself at the age of 12, often downloading beats on sites like LimeWire and piecing together choruses and experimenting with his flow and cadence. In later years, Knucks would go on to study the careers of Nas, J. Cole and MF DOOM, finding conventional hip-hop to be more suited to his abilities as a rapper. On his debut mixtape, 2014’s Killmatic—an obvious nod to Nasir Jones—Knucks is tranquil and matter-of-fact in his approach, with a relatable London persona coupled with nostalgic, jazz-inspired beats.
As the years progressed, so did Knucks’ abilities; the artist went on to include more wit into his verses, quickly amassing a cult following through singles such as “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” and “21 Candles”. This momentum forshadowed NRG 105 in 2019, Knucks’ sophomore project. Packed with London and West African-inspired skits and even more satisfyingly full songs, NRG 105 saw the manifestation of Knucks—the 360 artist—who updates the nostalgic ‘90s hip-hop sound for contemporary UK listeners. He even manages to interpolate Gwen Stefani’s 2004 hit “Hollaback Girl” on the song “Gwen Stefani” (which is perfect for the post-quarantine link-up). He’s also gained a reputation for his alluring music videos, and “Rice & Stew” stands as the strongest example of this.
Although minimalist, he takes obvious settings—like the home—and incorporates integral cultural markers, filmed in crisp and clear ways and tying in the accompanying song seamlessly. His latest visual for “Thames” continues to spotlight his skill and attention to detail. “Thames” features on Knucks’ latest EP, London Class, which is more narrow than its predecessor: here, he’s inspired by the current happenings around him, especially gentrification. He was also inspired by the South Korean TV series Itaewon Class. “The restaurant in the series is almost a metaphor for my career,” he tells me over Zoom. Featuring contemporaries including Sam Wise, Shaé Universe and Loyle Carner, London Class marks Knucks as a young veteran when it comes to sculpting conceptual pieces.
Equipped with a Wretch 32 knighting under his belt (via his song “The Baton”) and two sold-out headline shows, Knucks is just getting started. In the meantime, though, he recently sat down with us to discuss London Class, British boom-bap rap, his ever-growing artistry and more.
COMPLEX: You were called Knuckles as a tag-name in secondary school, but what made you shorten it to Knucks as a stage name?
Knucks: It wasn’t a mad decision or anything. Basically, when I was releasing Killmatic, I was a bit older than I was when I first got the tag-name. I just felt like Knuckles felt a bit young. My friends were calling me Knucks for short anyway, so it just made sense.
You went to secondary school in North West London, right? Harrow, to be precise. How was your wider experience as a child and then a young man in the area?
It was fun. I feel like when people are all in the same struggle, it doesn’t seem like a struggle because everyone’s in it. There are a lot of young memories that I have of playing around on the blocks and going to school; it was kind of long because I had to take the train from South Kilburn to Harrow on the Bakerloo line. You had to go by all of the hoods, but all of my friends would come from these hoods, like Kensal Green, Harlesden, Wembley, and we’d all meet up at school. I enjoyed that part a lot.
How would you describe North West London to someone who isn’t from there?
The first thing I’d say is that it’s home to me. Even though I don’t live there anymore, it’s always where home is. I’d say it’s quite cultured too—very multicultural. My next door neighbours were Jamaican, then the door next to them were Somalian, then a white couple. A lot of different people mixing together. There’s just something about North West—we have our own type of swag. The epitome of it is when you look at Nines or J Styles: we just have our own ways.
Did you ever feel that as a rapper coming from that side of town, you had to assimilate into the wider London industry?
I don’t think so, to be honest. When it comes to art—to me, you kind of forget where people are from. You don’t label someone in that way; it’s all about the music. If anything, me coming from North West helps me to look at and understand the other areas more and they understand where I’m from more.
You’ve stated in previous interviews that you learned to produce in your early teens, using programs like Fruity Loops. How long would you say it took you to master song production?
All now, I don’t think I’m a master of it. However, I’d say I was comfortable after three or four years of playing with the software. I started when I was 12, then I was good at 14 or 15. That’s when I could make a beat and confidently rap on it.
It’s clear that you’re a huge fan of Nas at this point. What aspect of Nas’ artistry do you appreciate the most?
I think it’s the storytelling… The storytelling and the ability that he has to make people feel certain emotions. I feel like a lot of the things that he does are intentional; if you’re feeling sad at a particular point in a Nas song, it’s because he wanted you to feel sad at that particular point and he’s used particular words to evoke that emotion out of you. There’s a lot of literary techniques in his songs that I pay attention to. I try to do the same in my approach also.
You transitioned from making grime to solidifying yourself in UK hip-hop. How did you find your identity in the music as you evolved?
I’d say that at first, I’d imitate almost all the rappers I was inspired by. If you think about Youngs Teflon, he was my favourite artist so even on Killmatic, you can hear him in there too. Then when I started listening to US rap, I would take things from each rapper that I liked and formed my own thing blending all of that together. Now, I do the same with rappers who are new here.
Which three words define Knucks in 2020?
I would say classical, nostalgic, and smooth.
In previous interviews, you’ve mentioned that boom-bap rap doesn’t have a place in the UK industry. Do you still feel the same today?
If you’re saying that there’s not really a big market for it, then yeah: I still feel that way. I do feel that there’s a niche market for it, and I feel that way more now because of artists like Loyle Carner—someone who is selling out ridiculous shows, and people don’t even realise it. There’s a growing niche market now.
Last year, you held two headline shows at Hoxton Bar & Kitchen—now called Colours Hoxton. How did it feel to sell both dates out?
We were always hoping that it would sell out, but my main fascination was the fact that when I came out so many people sang the lyrics back to me when Nrg 101 had only been out for a week before the first headline date. It was something else! My mind was blown.
In terms of your stage presence, you were able to hold your own. How did you prepare for your performances?
It was very simple: just intense rehearsals. Weeks before the performances, I was tightening up some of my sets and also working on my confidence on stage. People fail to realise that being an artist and performing are two very different things—they don’t come hand in hand. A lot of artists are introverted, so you have to try and master the performances. I wanted to learn things so off of my head that I wouldn’t think about failing and then get more confident on stage.
You recently released your London Class EP. How long did it take to create?
It’s hard to say how long it took to create because a couple of the tracks are a few years’ old. But there was a period of time where I had a burst of creativity, then I collated the songs in the space of a year.
Conceptually, what inspired the themes of the project?
The ideas came to me when I was watching a Korean show that my sister put me on called Itaewon Class on Netflix. It’s about this kid that starts school and he stops this bully from bullying someone and the guy’s dad owns a restaurant. His dad tries to get him to apologise but he doesn’t want to, but the dad works for the other guy’s dad so he gets fired. The moral that I caught from it was that you have to stick to your morals. Then they make their own restaurant to try to overtake the original guy’s father, and the restaurant is in Itaewon and called ‘Itaewon Class’. I took the other restaurant as a metaphor for my career; it’s why I called my project London Class. The class elements are tied to the class part of the name, too. That’s why I made “Your Worth”, to make sure the themes were related to one another.
Talk to me about some of the songs that you had a hand in producing, as well as rapping on.
Apart from “Your Worth”, I had a hand in all of them, even if it was small. For example, on “Mothers”, I played the main instrumental at the beginning of the song and then Kadiata produced a beat around that. Some of the songs were just me on it; “Hugh Heff” and “Fxcked Up” I created alone, and then the rest were co-creation.
Jazz features heavily across this project, and across your discography as a whole. Where does your fascination with the genre come from?
I think it came from Sade. She was the first artist that I listened to that was in jazz, who took me to emotional places. Her music has that thing that moves you. It’s like how I was saying Nas knows to put certain words in certain places to make you feel something, Sade can do that with her tone and instruments. The saxophone has always been my favourite instrument as well; it has the ability to just sing and sound like a woman’s voice. No other instrument can do that to me.
How was your independent imprint, NODAYSOFF, conceptualised?
NODAYSOFF started off as an alias I would use when producing; I would use the beat tag on all the beats I sent out. Then I met Dir.Lx and formed a collective with him and my cousin, T, where we all shared an eclectic taste in old-school music, art and fashion. The mantra represents how routinely and effortlessly putting out work becomes when it’s not a chore but a passion.
Wretch 32 essentially passed the baton on to you and Avelino when he included you both on his song “The Baton”. How did it feel for him to feature you?
It’s nothing short of an honour. I grew up listening to Wretch and a lot of other people who I’m now rubbing shoulders with—it’s humbling! I just try to keep my cool, man. It’s very overwhelming, at times. It’s a privilege. No one else has the weight on their name as a lyricist, and for him to call us to feature was just amazing.