Knucks has just come off stage and sat down in what is normally the VIP area of Shoosh, a Brighton nightclub that’s hosting the GRM Daily stage at this year’s Great Escape Festival. Today it’s the backstage area for the artists playing, and instead of champagne in the cooler there’s a pile of Red Stripe cans open to anyone who wants them.
The North West London rapper is surprisingly calm and collected for someone that’s just finished playing his first ever festival set, especially considering the interview microphone has to basically touch his face for his words to be audible over DJ Ruff ‘n’ Tuff’s (admittedly fantastic) grime and hip-hop set, happening on stage just a few feet away.
When asked to give a bit of background about himself and how he got into music Knucks leans forward and thinks for a moment before answering “I started making music when I was twelve, around 2007, and back in the day everyone was doing grime. So me and my year seven friends all started doing grime too, and I kept on doing it until I got sent to boarding school over in Nigeria for bad behaviour.” He pauses and grins at the memory, showing his gold grills. “When I came back the whole music scene had changed, grime wasn’t popular anymore. It was all about UK rap, people like Giggs were about.” Right on cue the sound of Giggs’ 2008 hit “Talkin’ the Hardest” filters through from the stage. “I started to do my research on the old school rappers like Nas and MF Doom, and that’s really where my love for lyricism grew.
“I started producing after I started rapping, when I was 15… no, 14. And around that time I started working on a project which I eventually released when I was 18, something called “Killmatic” which was obviously pretty influenced by Nas’ “Illmatic”. Then I carried on working on things all through university, which I actually just finished last week! I was at uni when “21 Candles” came out, and I put it online because it was my birthday and suddenly it was getting traction, I was getting interviews and people were taking notice. So I thought “OK, I’m doing music properly now” and here I am.” If he’s only decided to do music “properly” now, his amateur efforts haven’t exactly been unsuccessful. “When I was like 18, 17, I produced for Blade Brown, I produced for Fekky as well.” He says, listing achievements off hand that most producers would be more than happy to shout about.
Knucks is also keen to talk about his influences, within music and outside of it. “Everything influences me.” He says, shifting in his seat. “I like to incorporate everything in my life into my music. Big Kahuna samples Pulp Fiction because I love that film so much I had to make a song about it. That’s how I like to make my music. I love Air Force Ones, I’m wearing them right now and in a lot of my songs I talk about them. I use everything outside of music to influence my songs.”
Musically he also draws from a wide range. “I can’t say who inspires me most, but I can tell you a few: Sade, obviously,” he says, referencing “Breakfast At Tiffany’s”, a song which name checks the singer multiple times. “Nas is a big one, UK wise I really like Young Teflon. Curren$y too, his whole laid back style really influenced me.”
A lot of what Knucks says comes back to Nas, the US rapper whose debut album Illmatic is often ranked as the greatest hip-hop album of all time. “I feel like today rap has been watered down, the lyrics don’t really mean much. But back in those days telling stories and painting pictures with your words was really important, and I think Nas is the epitome of that. His storytelling and lyricism… I really respect him for that.” Nas may be the inspiration behind a lot of what Knucks does, but when it comes to contemporary festival headliners he’s got no hesitations about who he’d want to be performing under. “Drake, because he’s the biggest.” He says simply. “It would just make me think “Rah, I’m actually doing something big!”
Speaking of festivals, Knucks doesn’t seem too worried about the different vibes to a normal gig. “To be honest I couldn’t really tell the difference, I thought it was gonna be outside like Glastonbury.” He laughs as he looks around the darkly lit VIP area of the nightclub. “Only difference is it’s daytime outside. I was just so focused about getting my performance right that I wasn’t really thinking about it. I think I’m gonna stick around for the night though, see some other acts and take it all in.”
When the conversation turns to his trademark gold grills he just laughs and says “I think my first set cost like £10 or £20. The grills I’m wearing in the video for “21 candles”, I’m pretty sure those are the ones, I got them on eBay or something!” You really get the sense that he’s just a normal guy, straight out of uni and ready to give music a go, but not taken in by the glamour of it all. Maybe that boarding school in Nigeria was a good idea after all.