VIPER’s founder Lily Mercer spoke to North West London rapper, Knucks, on the set of the JD King of the Game Christmas campaign. We’ve got interviews with the stars of the advert dropping on site every day until Christmas, stay tuned for chats with R.A.E, Ethan Matthews and more…
GQ called you Britain’s most progressive rapper, how would you describe yourself?
Authentic, creative, laid back and classical. I definitely try to keep a lot of the old ways but where creativity comes in is, I like to mix it with aspects of what’s new. That’s how I make my style, it’s a combination of the old and the new.
Do you think nowadays there’s more of a home for real Rap?
I think UK music or rap in the UK was very one dimensional and it’s not just the artist’s fault, it was the consumer’s fault as well. Because anything that’s outside of that one dimensional style was too weird or too different so people didn’t really accept it. But definitely now more different styles of Rap and music are being taken into consideration and taken seriously. So I definitely think the UK is in a better position now than it was five years ago; it’s the best; it’s been 100%.
You released ‘Alpha Place’ earlier this year, what was your favourite part of the recording process?
Probably working with the features, getting in with a lot of the features because with a lot of the people on the project, that’s my first time working with them. That was my first time meeting SL, I’ve never met him before. We just spoke on socials and got in a session together. We made ‘Nice & Good’ in the first session, which is a similar story with a lot of the other [artists] like Sainté, that was the first time I met him. It wasn’t the first time I met [Young] Tef, but it was the first time I was in a session with him. So definitely just meeting these people, a lot of the people on the project were people that I grew up listening to, or I’ve been listening to for a while and I was like, “Alright, I want to work with them.” So getting in with them was definitely one of the best parts and highlights.
You have a range of styles and sounds, is that also reflected in different facets of your personality?
Yeah, I don’t think it was an intentional choice, but obviously because of the way I am, my music is a reflection of myself. By sticking to that naturally the people that are gonna come around me are gonna have some sort of element of me, whether it’s Tef coming from a rough background like I came from a rough background, or someone like Sainté who’s more cool as a reaction to the way he grew up, so I feel it definitely had a part to play in that.
Did you feel that you avoided sounding a certain way because of where you’re from?
Definitely growing up before I started taking music really, really seriously. I feel like a lot of us came up the same way so we were writing the same crazy violent bars, that didn’t make any sense. I can’t even count the amount of guns I had in my lyrics but you grow out of it, I was 12, 13 then. The things I learned from leaving the ends and experiencing stuff and going to Nigeria as well, it definitely played a part in me deciding to have a style that’s a bit more authentic where I’m talking about things I’m actually experiencing, not just to sound cool; or what I thought was cool at the time.
What’s the best feedback you got about the project?
I don’t think I have one particular best feedback because a lot of the things are just positive things. It feels good because I’m being told that the project makes them feel things that I’ve intended them to feel. When I write certain things, I might put a word here so I want you to feel this here. After it came out and people told me what I intended them to feel, they felt. That’s the best thing, because it’s worked, I’m saying that what I’m trying to do is connecting and this is working.
Your new single with Kwengface dropped recently, are you working on a new project?
Yeah there’s a few videos that we’ve shot, the song with Kwengface is actually going to be a Deluxe of Alpha Place with a vinyl. Another song that isn’t out yet is going to be added to that so we’re going to reel off those videos. We shot a video for ‘Far’ with Ragz as well. So that’s going to come out then I’m locking back in with a few artists and producers.
You were working in LA on new music this year, do you get a different vibe from the music you create out there?
Definitely, it’s funny because a lot of the sessions I had were with Kenny Beats and obviously I’ve gone there saying, “cool I’ve done the Drill sound now, I’m coming here to rap.” But all the beats Kenny makes for me are 140 BPM, they’re all Drill-ish beats. They all have a texture or feeling that is very LA, very soft, very palm tree-ish. I could be biased because a lot of the songs I made there, I would listen to them on the way back, and I’m seeing all the palm trees. So when I listen to them now that’s just where my head goes, so it could be that or they just have that kind of vibe embedded in them.
Who have you been working with from the US scene?
You know how these things are, you talk and then it might not happen straight away, but then when you see each other again something will happen. There’s a lot of people that I’m trying to lock something in with.
You tend to mostly collaborate with a close network but if you were to pick a superstar to make a song with, who would you pick?
I’d say Sade, who else? It just has to be Sade, I’ve always listened to her and I feel like a lot of elements of her music and her production especially formed my vibe, formed my sound, the type of laid back jazz sample heavy sound. She was one of the first singers I really started going back and listening to, so definitely Sade.
Growing up in north west London, which artists inspired you to get into rapping?
I started off doing grime but I don’t think there was a Grime artist that made me want to start rapping. It was basically my friends. We started making songs together in year seven when it was a back to back, everyone does an eight bar each kind of thing. There were a few guys in my area that rapped or did grime. But when it came to rapping, there were a few people. NaS made me want to rap, Wretch, Dot Rotten was a big inspiration for my early years. I got onto Dot Rotten with Grime, but with his style, a lot of that transcended to when I moved over to rap because he raps as well. The style in which he did grime was very lyric heavy and the flows were complex. A lot of the stuff I learned from him listening to his grime, I carried that over to rap when I did rap. Ice Kid as well, I used to listen to him a lot back in the day.
The only grime from NW London was Flirta D with SLK.
I would hear them man when I was young but I didn’t know anything about Grime when I would hear them. I remember when my older sister was in secondary school, she started bringing back those small mp3 players like a USB. There were bare old school grime songs on limewire, that’s how I was introduced to grime. That’s when I found Flirta D and all of them but I don’t think that inspired me to want to do grime because the grime that fascinated me was a more lyrical style, not what they did, but big them up.
Did your heritage influence you to get into music?
It must have, whether or not I see it or I’ve acknowledged it, it definitely helped with the sense of rhythm I’ve got. A lot of the music that my dad used to listen to back in the day, I think that instilled that in me. My dad also owns an African dance group and I used to dance with them when I was younger. I feel like from young, I’ve just had rhythm and that’s obviously translated now that I’m doing music. I maybe understand musicality a bit differently because of those experiences.
Do you feel in any way surprised by the changes that have led to you being in a mainstream campaign like JD’s Christmas advert?
I understand that for me, because I feel like I play a weird position, I’m kind of in the middle of stuff. So I’m not too alternative, I’m not fond of the alternative word even though I get what people mean when I say it. I don’t think I’m too far that way, I don’t think I’m too far the other way either. I’m kind of in the middle so I can wear a Nike tracksuit and it doesn’t seem weird, but then I can wear something else a bit more stylistic and I still fit in with that. How well my project did, I think it makes sense but I can understand why people would think ‘Knucks in a JD ad, that’s kind of mad’.
Were you always sure that real rap music like yours would reach these heights? Or does it surprise you sometimes?
Yeah I guess and to be fair, I think even what real rap is, is subjective because I feel like street rap was called real rap for a very long time. I definitely think it’s standing on its own and music right now is a free-for-all. It’s just all up in the air right now because so many genres are crossing. No one knows what Pop music is now because drill was that music that was almost banned a few years ago. Now the biggest songs coming out of the UK are like Tion Wayne Drill songs. So it’s all over the place. I’m told I’m alternative but then there’s tunes that I have that are reflective of drill, which is the most popular sound right now in the UK underground.
Do you have an overall goal in your career?
Put doing well financially to one side, my overall goal is to change that landscape. What we were talking about, how UK music was just one dimensional. It was one sided, one perspective that everyone heard and wanted to hear and it’s kind of opening that. That’s what I’ve wanted to do, opening that up so that more people have an alternative perspective of growing up in London. Just so that’s respected as well, because I feel like there’s more people who are normal, and aren’t gang bangers, than not. I feel like more people can relate to someone like myself or Sainté. I want my music to help open it up so that more people can look up to someone like me and say, “Rah, he’s himself, I can be myself.” Because I know what it’s like growing up, I was one of the youts seeing what other people were rapping about and I said, “I’m that guy as well,” eventually I learned that’s not who I am and I felt comfortable to be who I am. I want other youth to do the same thing to feel comfortable. So if I can be one of the people up there being the guy that you look up to and say “rah, I can do that.” Then so be it, that’s what my goal would be.
First thought when you were asked to shoot the campaign?
‘Mum I made it’! I was watching the campaign from last year and I was just like, “Yo!” It’s so star-studded, everyone’s there; it’s sick. So the fact that now I’m part of that and I’m seen as a peer to all of these sick artists, it’s a sick feeling, humbling.
Are you a competitive person?
Yeah some would say that, I’m not mad competitive but I definitely have that side to me.
If you had to beat someone to win a prize and you could pick the game, what game are you picking to win?
There’s not a game that I’m that sick at but I’m learning about myself – ask CR Blacks as well, he will tell you because we were playing ping-pong upstairs – the first time me and him played ping-pong, he washed me; it wasn’t that simple. Also I played pool with him and I was battering him and before he was embarrassing me. I’m somebody who, once I do something over and over again, I’m very good at learning it. There’s a few games that I play that I’ve gotten better at, I might play blackjack or charades.
Any games that you can’t play anymore because the loss was way too painful?
It was almost pool until I started improving because someone did me dirty, I think it was Kadiata. At first he was winning and then I was on a mad run and I got everything. Then I had just the black left and he had the black and two others. Then he caught up and I was like, “No, I’m not playing this game again man.” I was just missing, like a missing man, but then I started playing again.
What is your earliest memory of JD as a kid?
Huaraches, I must have been in year six or year seven and I just wanted them. I never got everything I wanted like that but I eventually got them. I remember going into JD and really wanting the Huaraches. On Twitter when they put pictures for a starter pack, it was the JD duffel bag, Huaraches, Just Do It bag and I think Kickers; eventually I got everything in the starter pack.
Worst gift you ever gave someone?
Probably a jumper or something, I’ve given someone clothes when it was last minute. It was a day or two days before and I had to quickly find some piece of clothing, like socks. I’ve definitely done that before.
If you were a trainer, which style would you be?
I wouldn’t be a Jordan one, I definitely wouldn’t be a one even though I love ones. I might be a six or a four. Maybe even a five, I don’t know, there’s too many to pick from. I could be a five, I’m kind of five-ish. The hi-top thing, a lot of the colour ways are very plain but then they’ll have a loud tongue. So the whole trainer will be white and then the tongue will be bright purple like the grapes. Yeah, it could be a five, four or five? Yeah, four or five, just put four/five.
What colour do you think your aura is? Would that be the trainer’s colour-way?
I think my aura is orange, orange or yellow but maybe orange. I want to say it’s cool but I don’t mean cool in the sense of blue. Blues are cool but I mean cool in a sense of calm, orange just reminds me of warm sunset, palm trees. That’s my whole aesthetic, my vibe and that’s what I relate to.
Any personal fashion disasters that you can’t forget?
The GRM Gala, I looked back at some of the photos and I think I should have undone an extra button. I should have shown a little bit of chest, I think it was an injustice that I didn’t do this. Because every time I took pictures my collar was doing a weird thing. It was too high up, I think two buttons would have been good for that shirt. It’s not really a disaster, it was a little mishap, I think I could have done better with it. It wasn’t as bad as Young Teflon.
Interview by Lily Mercer