Knucks: Classically Educated
Words by Sam Butler
Images by Rosie Harriet Ellis
Fashion by Francesca Pinna
“One day I was just looking around on YouTube, and I saw someone had made a beat and called it ‘Knucks Type beat’. That was amazing to me, I was like ‘rah, someone is trying to make beats that sound like me?’” It’s clear that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but what pleased the 22-year-old producer and rapper was that it was validation that he has built a unique and instantly recognisable sound across his expanding body of work. “I do feel like all my work has got a similar vibe throughout” he states proudly, as we meet in Hoxton, an hour or so later than planned – it’s a Sunday, and the train journey to East London from his native North West has taken way longer than it should have. It is representative of his lofty ambitions that he highlights the YouTube moment – measuring his success not by Soundcloud plays or appearances on “Ones to Watch” lists, but by his growing influence on other beatmakers.
Not that the Knucks formula is one that is easily replicated. His sound has been crafted over the course of a decade, making his first beats at the age of 12 for him and his schoolmates to spit their self written grime bars over. “I liked when there was a strong sample in the track, but those type of grime beats were rare and hard to find, so I tried making my own and I started playing around with FL Studio.” He threw himself into learning his craft with a relentless determination, honing his skills through a combination of online tutorials and pure trial and error. “I just kept doing it until I got good enough to create beats that were actually usable. I started using my own beats to rap over when I was 15.”
As his abilities developed, the BPMs dropped from the frantic pace of grime to the laid-back jazzy vibe that is now his hallmark, influenced by his discovery of American artists like MF DOOM, who he cites a major influence. Knucks credits DOOM with introducing him to the work of Sade, another key inspiration who he namechecks in the hook of his track “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. “I was listening to one of his songs and noticed the sample sounded familiar. I thought ‘who is that?’, so I went back and did my research and found it was Sade. From then on I started listening to her old tapes and developed a real love for her music.”
While we’re talking about influences, I mention that the closest comparison I can draw when listening to him is Curren$y. He lights up at the suggestion, saying “it makes me so happy to hear people say that. He’s definitely one of my favourites. Even though he’s probably not the best rapper, he’s not the most lyrical guy or whatever, I just like the vibe.” With Knucks’ output expanding to include a number of storming collaborations, I ask if the former Young Money man is a dream collaborator. “When I have someone I really rate, I sort of don’t want to meet them, in case it damages my image of them. I’m not even sure I’d want to meet Sade, because I’d probably just faint.” He does share one item on his personal bucket list – to work on a song with Kendrick Lamar, saying that hearing the stories that the Compton rapper weaves across his albums leaves him with “goosebumps”.
For the past four years, Knucks has been balancing his music with school work as he studied for a degree in animation. His relief to have finished his studies is palpable, and when I ask him how he managed to live the double life of diligent student and precocious recording artist, he slowly shakes his head as he says “it was long, man. It was really long.” The plan had been to focus on finishing his university course before turning his attention to releasing his music, but the temptation to share his creations with the world proved too strong. He released “21 Candles”, a freestyle recorded on his 21st birthday, “on a whim”, and was surprised at the attention it received. Encouraged, he enlisted his friend Lex to shoot a video, which is when he says the track “really blew up”, garnering praise from all corners of the UK scene.
He acknowledges moments of self-doubt earlier in life, admitting that he was “one of those guys who would always tweet at other artists, like ‘listen to my mixtape’. No one really cared, so you start to think ‘rah, maybe I’m not as good as I thought I was. But when ‘21 Candles’ came out and got that reception, it gave me the faith to do what I do.” It’s not hard to understand the splash that the track made, a bold statement of self-reflection and braggadocio featuring razor-sharp punchlines that demand a second listen, effortlessly delivered in intricately multi-layered rhyme schemes that make his DOOM influences plain to hear.
“Before uni I was kind of lazy, but being forced to be on track definitely prepared me for the hard work I’m putting in now.” He says he has worked on music, whether making beats or writing, every day for as long as he can remember, but his studies have taught him to bring a focus to his work and approach it with the same seriousness he would any other job. “That’s how No Days Off became the mantra, just working really hard every day.” No Days Off is the name of the small creative collective assembled around Knucks. Besides from himself, it features the aforementioned Lex, who is responsible for directing his music videos, and his cousin, T, who does graphic design work and also acts as Knucks’ hypeman when performing live. After years of his solitary pursuit to become a better beatmaker, “just sat in my bedroom working it all out for myself”, it’s clear that he enjoys representing the team, all members motivating and inspiring the others in equal measure.
Knucks says he has enjoyed the process of stepping into the studio with other artists, learning more about their styles of production and in turn more about himself. He’s been behind the boards with grime polymath Swindle, bringing his musical journey full circle – when he would be sat in his bedroom learning his trade as a teenager, he would pick up techniques from listening to Swindle’s production. It turns out the respect was mutual, as each had been following the other on Twitter for a number of years before finally meeting. The two immediately established a strong connection, Knucks explaining that they’re on the “same musical wavelength”, to the point that he says that musical ideas even he struggles to articulate with are subconsciously shared and explored. “I was thinking this is sick, I’ve just met this guy and everything that’s in my head, he’s playing it out and it just works.” It’s a powerful partnership that looks set to continue, as Knucks reveals there are plans for the two to co-produce an upcoming project.
Knucks had reached a whole new wave of listeners in the couple of weeks before we met, having been played out on OVO Sound Radio as the opening track of a guest mix by Tiffany Calver. With his typical laid back style, he says he “felt happy” to be featured, and makes a point of expressing his gratitude to Calver for the look. As we talk about his aspirations, he makes no secret of his ambitions to make a splash in the U.S., seeing an opportunity to be an ambassador for the U.K. sound across the pond. “I still feel like Americans don’t really understand us but I feel like they may get me a bit more, because of the whole sampling thing. It sounds a bit more familiar so it’s easier for them to digest than grime. I feel like I can do my bit by getting them to understand the U.K.”
Before I wrap the interview, there’s one more question I have to ask. Knucks had arrived ready for our photoshoot with a bag containing a few pairs of Air Force Ones, picked from his extensive personal collection. He wears the iconic Nikes almost exclusively. When I enquire as to their lasting appeal, he explains, “I’ve been wearing them for as long as I can remember. Growing up, everyone wore them, even for school uniform. There’s nothing more classic.” Just the same as with his music, the kid from South Kilburn takes pride in the consistency of his style.