Raps by digital design: Introducing Knucks
Limewire, FL Studio and Grand Theft Auto radio have helped build U.K. rap artist’s rising stock
Good things come to those who wait.
24-year-old rapper and producer Knucks has certainly learned this. His patience has moved him past moments where he felt like artists only wanted him for his beats. He would sometimes run into rappers who passed on rhymes in sessions, even after dropping buzzing singles like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “21 Candles.”
Now, Knucks is fresh off a new project, a performance at Glastonbury and a shoutout from Stormzy in front of thousands of onlookers. Still, he knows there’s still work to do in his own backyard.
“Stormzy was mentioning me with names of people who are very prominent in our scene, so it really made me know that what I’m doing is making an impact,” Knucks said. “Even though it’s not as big as certain people, I’m getting there and I’m on the right track.”
Knucks is a multi-talented North West London native, whose raps tread a line between cool delivery and clever lyrics. The artist has documented his life in the U.K. whose stories have folded over beats with ease since his first mixtape “Killmatic” in 2014. And it’s the past which Knucks like to dig into, as he exhibits a care for old school samples along with an East Coast flair, despite being across the pond. Knucks was born into a bloodline which flows with creativity. His father owns an African dance company, ADANTA, which performed at the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. His sister, Tania, is the founder of Black in the Day, a forum dedicated to archiving the black experience in the U.K. His brother, Ike, is a model and his grandfather was a musician.
“Just off the back of that [company] it has given us that kind of creative mind,” Knucks said.
“I owe a lot of my music taste, the fact that I have rhythm and can manipulate music, I feel like I got a lot of that from just my early years doing [shows] with my dad. I definitely do think my family has impacted the way I see music and art.”
In his youth, the U.K. Grime scene was sizzling hot. There were times, Knucks said, when kids his age would go onto Limewire and download beats to rap over on the train.
“Everyone was rapping back in the day. I feel like a lot of U.K. rappers would say the same thing,” Knucks said.
Another element Knucks admires is music out of Nigeria, a place the artist is familiar with. Roughly a decade ago, his father and brother went with him to the country on a summer holiday to visit his aunt. His parents told him they wanted him to go to boarding school in Nigeria and he wasn’t having it.
“I argued and cried the whole night, so it seemed like I won the argument, but then one day they just left me,” Knucks said.
It was around that time where he got hooked to a “certain sound” of sample heavy, high-pitched female vocals on top of Grime, a genre usually known for its dark and gritty nature. By the time he returned to the U.K. for Year 9, or secondary school, it was all about rap in the U.K., with artists like Giggs making waves in the country.
So Knucks threw his hat into the ring, focusing intensely on his production skills in FL Studio.
“I downloaded a demo version, I started watching tutorials and got myself to a stage where I could make these beats because when I was hollering at producers, they wouldn’t give me any beats,” Knucks said.
“I wasn’t taken seriously. But then, over time, I started to produce for other people, the U.K. rap generation had come up and all my friends I had known who were doing it before had stopped doing it now. Still, I just kept going.”
The artist admits rap “wasn’t cool back in the day” but eventually he and others around him got to a place where it was part of life.
Since Knucks dropped “Killmatic” five years ago, the rapper has exploded over a slew of loose tracks with an ear for vintage samples like Michael Jackson’s “Lady of my Life” and Mai Yamane's "Twilight.” He also has a knack for self-reflection, with introspective bars looking at the past on cuts like “24” and “21 Candles.”
It’s led up to his latest project in June, NRG 105, a grab bag of bops, melodies and meaningful bars alike. The project is modelled off of Grand Theft Auto’s Fever 105 station, as songs are folded “naturally” into one another while Knucks swims around tracks with laid back vocalizations.
The project is a flex for the rapper, at times, with tracks like “Gwen Stefani” which are cool as ice and smooth songs about love like the Bobby Caldwell interpolation “Wedding Rings.”
“At one point, I had six songs that all sounded different from each other,” Knucks said.
“As an artist, I like conceptual projects. So I thought about a radio station because the radio station would play ‘Gwen Stefani’ or a song like ‘Rice and Stew’ then another different song. It wasn’t really a conscious thing, it just happened.”
The radio concept spread to the world of video games, as Knucks sprinkles marriage counselling sessions and news segments into the project through a mix of skits, some which feature a mock MC “Reggie Black.”
“That’s when I started to think about GTA. There’s a radio station on GTA called Fever 105 and I went on Youtube, they had the whole radio play from the top to the end, the whole station plays so I listened to it,” Knucks said.
“I listened to the adverts, we put adverts on there, along with the dark humor. It’s funny, but funny through its parody, and that’s what gave me the idea for the skits. The radio guy’s deep voice had that 70s, 80s vibe to it, too, so it all came together.”
Knucks weaves a narrative into his fictional radio station about life in London, as well, which adds another layer to the GTA-like universe he creates as he makes the fictional station reflect the real world.
The project ends with Knucks showcasing premier storytelling on “Home,” which tells the story about a man whose built and pent up emotions lead to violence.
“The way the government and the way the media portrays certain things, it’s very brainwashing to people who don’t know better or don’t know where people come from,” Knucks said.
“All the knowledge about [black people] is from the media to most [people] and if the media portrays us in a certain way, it dehumanizes us in a way.”
Knucks said it was only right that he expressed his feelings toward the country through the project and to look at peoples’ feelings toward U.K. Drill music, which has led some artists to have their music videos banned from YouTube.
“It’s the next big thing and people are trying to ban it, so it’s to show people that these guys are humans, they aren’t crazy, things happen because of a certain environment where things like this can happen.”
“They aren’t killing each other because of this music, the music is a way they express what is going on in their environment so if we want to make a change we shouldn’t ban music, we should ban what is creating the circumstances which leads to that music.”
The project’s title has a personal tie to the artist, too, as it honors his late manager Nathan Rodney (or “NRG”) who died last year.
“Even though NRG is kind of a juxtaposition with my music, the opposite of energy, I was still happy because of all the songs on the project he was involved with,” Knucks said.
“Calling it ‘NRG 105’ was a sendoff to me, this is a chapter of my career done and he started that chapter, so it just felt right.”
The project dropped just before a headliner show, the rapper’s first, on June 17 at London’s Hoxton Bar & Kitchen. The artist will have another dig as a headliner at The Garage on Sept. 19, but he’s still coming down from the “surreal” experience as a main attraction.
“I had done four or five rehearsals in the weeks before to make sure I would have all my words down because, obviously, the raps are very lyrical so I needed to make sure they were on point,” Knucks said.
“When I went out on stage and I don’t even have to say anything, everyone is saying the words for me. It was surreal. No one had known the words at shows [before that], maybe a few people in the crowd if they did, but now everyone is there for me and everyone is saying the words to a project that came out the week before.”
As the new project and upcoming headliner continue to be highs for Knucks, he’s just a few months away from potential international fanfare. Knucks is scheduled to make his first musical mark on America during October’s A3C Festival in Atlanta, Georgia.
“I want to be someone that’s big in America, 100 percent, and to be fair I feel like people in America may like my music more than a Skepta or Stormzy, I feel like it has a more American influence,” Knucks said.
“So I do believe when I go over there, it will do me well. But, like I was saying before, there’s things here that I haven’t had the opportunity to do.”