For those that have only just recently jumped onto the grime bandwagon, Kano may not be a name that's as familiar as Skepta's but it's one that's no less important. As one of the scene's stalwarts, he's been around since it first spawned on the streets of east London at the dawn of the new millennium, and is widely considered one of its most talented and charismatic figures. Many MCs have blipped in popularity then faded into insignificance over the years, yet Kano has endured, diligently releasing albums in the intervening period when grime wasn't so fashionable.
After a five-year barren spell since the release of his previous LP, a period that sits in stark contrast to the half-decade prior, which bore four albums, Kano made a full-length return in March with the release of Made in the Manor. Currently in the midst of a European tour promoting said album, we sat down with Kano on the Berlin-leg of the journey to talk about life, evolution, spirit rappers and Drake.
It’s interesting to me, as someone from London familiar with your music, to see you perform in Berlin. It’s a city so associated with techno that it often feels like no one listens to anything else. What’s it like performing here?
I’ve played here before [at an adidas Originals NMD party for Mercedes Fashion Week] and that was good… obviously that was a corporate event but there was still people there that knew the music and that, it was all good. But this is obviously my own show… throughout this whole European tour, because I haven’t done it for a while, it’s been interesting to see people singing the lyrics –to the older stuff, to the newer stuff– a guy two days ago wore an England shirt… like an England football kit when I was doing “This is England,” he made his way to the front and he wasn't even English! The response has been good.
Your new album is very grownup from what I understand, it’s got a real coming-of-age vibe. Have you got any pearls of wisdom to share with your readers that you’ve learned since you came up in the game?
Errr.. things just happen naturally, everyone’s experience is different. When I speak to young MCs and they’re like “how’d you do this, how’d you do that…” it’s just different now. Our thing back then was jumping on pirate radio, that kind of shit. There’s just completely different ways of getting out there now. So the main thing is persistence and just conviction and belief in yourself because I’ve just seen people grind it out and grind and grind and years later reap the rewards. So it’s just that: belief. People are going to tell you no along the way, you’ve just got to keep doing you.
I meant more from a life perspective.
Life? Oh nahhh…I ain’t lived long enough to give life advice. I need life advice myself!
You do make an interesting point though: grime is enjoying a massive resurgence right now after being so long out of the spotlight and Skepta has become a bit of a major star off of the back of that.
Yeah. If you think about it it’s quite normal, if you were to look at other genres. Hip-hop in the early stages in the Bronx, then you see it 10 years later, and then 10 years later than that. It does take a while. So maybe Wiley is the Afrika Bambaata, rather than the Dr. Dre. And maybe 10 years down the line it’ll be even bigger and we’ll get our Eminems… you know what I mean?
If Wiley is the Afrika Bambaata of grime, who are you?
If he’s the Afrika Bambaata then I’m the… KRS-One [laughs].
What would Wiley say?
I don’t know what he would say but… I’m not going to say he created the scene, because it’s too much of a job for one person to “create a scene,” but if you had to credit anyone it would be him. I was working on music, he’s the one who encouraged me to make the album, he was putting on a lot of raves back then. Y’know Eskimo is his thing but even before then. He was just like a big brother to everyone but also an organizer while being a producer and an artist. Yeah, he’s definitely that guy.
After Dizzee Rascal’s success a few years ago a lot of people thought you were going to be the next big mainstream crossover star, but it kind of feels like Skepta’s taken that role.
Into the mainstream? You see I don’t think Skepta’s actually crossed over into the mainstream like that. I think part of the mainstream has come to us. Dizzee definitely crossed over into the mainstream – there was a time when every song he dropped went to #1, he was selling hundreds and hundreds and thousands of albums. That’s yet to happen for Skepta. Or anyone on that level. Dizzee never really crossed over to the mainstream with his first album either. It wasn’t really until his third album, I believe, that he started having his huge, huge success. So it took a minute, but he definitely made a lot of noise.
I find it interesting looking at the trajectory of grime and of east London, where it came from, over these years. Grime is enjoying a resurgence, reaping the rewards of what was sown years ago, over a period that east London has become one of the trendiest places in the world. Are those parallels that ever go through your mind?
Not really. When you’re from East you only ever look at it one way. It’s hard to see how an outsider looks at it like a “cool” place. To us it was always a good place to be from, something that we repped even when people didn’t want to pay £2,000 to live there. Even if it wasn’t for that shit it would be cool to us still.
Drake has shown a lot of enthusiasm for grime and London recently, with his wearing of Stone Island and what not. Is he being a bit too keen?
I wouldn’t call it that. Not keener than we were wearing Akademiks and that back in the day! Doing that American clothes thing and all that. I think that he’s just a fan of the music. I don’t know if it’s a fascination with the culture or if he identifies with the culture, understands it, wants to be a part of it – Canadian people in general do understand English culture.
And you know, he’s from Toronto, so he always felt like a bit like an outsider, from what I hear, to the whole American hip-hop thing. So I can understand why he could identify with our struggles, but wearing the Stone Island and that, I don’t think that’s him trying to get ratings. I’m not going to rate a guy for wearing Stone island, it doesn’t mean anything to me, or English people. We’re not that naive. But it’s good to have a fan of that kind of level, it’s a good thing.
It’s an interesting point, one I haven’t thought about before. America has a really domineering presence in relation to Canada, which no doubt extends to hip-hop and its many subgenres.
It does, and it’s quite elitist, isn’t it? It’s like anyone that’s from here isn’t “official,” in a way. You had to be from New York otherwise you’re not official, you’re not a rapper. Then West Coast music started to pop and they, even, was outsiders because hip-hop started in New York and they had to fight their way. It’s all down South now and that’s all popping.
Now people just look at American hip-hop as a whole and if you’re not from there it’s hard to break your way in. He’s done an interesting thing going over there and breaking it. So maybe he identifies with our struggle or maybe he just took some trips over to London and became a fan of the music. There’s many other rappers that are, they’re just not famous like Drake – I know Styles P comes over and does tracks with Giggs, and many others.
Can you see grime getting more emotional with Drake’s influence?
[laughs] Maybe he came at a time when hip-hop wasn’t emotional, or maybe it just wasn’t real, all about stuntin’ and frontin’... it was kind of a fresh air when he came in. But hip-hop has been emotional in the past: from LL Cool J to Eminem, at times. It ain’t always about love, but it’s about wearing your heart on your sleeve, showing your true feelings.
Will grime become emotional? I assume there’s probably been emotional tracks over the years, but I don’t think that grime’s just going to change over what Drake does.