Made in the UK: Kano Interviewed
The MOBO and Mercury Prize nominated MC tells The Skinny about the collaboration, competition and multiculturalism at the heart of his music
In February 2015, Kanye West brought twenty five British grime MCs on stage for his performance of All Day at the Brit Awards. Skepta, Stormzy and Novelist – to name but a few – joined the American rapper, all dressed in black tracksuits, hoods up, assisted by flamethrowers, for the unprecedented moment. The Brits, an establishment award show, has snubbed grime artists for as long as the inherently outsider genre has existed and naturally the complaints from disgruntled viewers rolled in.
West’s tribute to ferociously creative, underground British talent and its influence on US pop, hip hop and trap was a long time coming, but, even more importantly, it threw a veritable fuck you to the British music industry having ignored and refused grime on its own terms for so long.
Kano wasn't in West's impromptu posse, but he didn't need to be; Kane Robinson’s moniker has been kicking around the scene longer than the genre’s had an official title. Despite lines about ‘Brits not getting credit’ on Made in the Manor, his 2016 Mercury nominated album, Kano didn’t consider Kanye’s showmanship as a particular milestone – “I think with people like Drake, and obviously Jay Z [who named Kano as his favourite rapper in 2005] – US and British MCs, we’re all inspired by each other.”
From pirate radio to the Mercury Prize
With much of the mainstream media claiming some kind of “grime renaissance,” The Skinny called up the man who’s been consistent since the start. Kano’s seen grime grow from a baby subgenre, an offshoot of garage – from when it was sometimes referred to as nu shape (a reference to its complex 16 and 32 bar patterns), or sublow (due to incredibly low baseline frequencies). Then, DJs like Wiley and Slimzee would play antagonistically harsh, dark, minimalist rhythms while MCs such as (a then teenaged) Kano, Dizzee, Lethal B and the Roll Deep, Ruff Squad and N.A.S.T.Y crews spat fast, witty rhymes on pirate radio stations, sometimes for hours at a time. Inherently anti-establishment and anti-commercial, grime was born and performed in the clubs, illegal gatherings and broadcasts of East London.
Then in 2003, with ‘grime’ as we now know it barely a year old, Dizzee Rascal won the Mercury Prize out of the leftfield – garnering grime some short-lived critical acclaim, and giving black MCs some limited cultural visibility. “I didn’t know what a Mercury was at the time,” Kano laughs. “I'd just see Dizzee on TV and everyone was rooting for him so it was good. I didn't really know what it was going to become, I didn't even know it was going to be a career. I was just young and wanted to express myself and have fun, just doing what I loved to do.”
We speak to Kano just a few days after he performed at the 2016 Mercury Awards. Although he’d have made a thoroughly deserving winner, his friend and fellow grime MC Skepta scooped the prize for the #2 charting Konnichiwa – and Skepta didn’t hesitate to thank Kano in his acceptance speech, showing collaboration and camaraderie is still at the heart of the genre. “It was good, man,” he reflects. “It’s definitely a win for us all. Skepta's a good man. Kinda like when Dizzee won back in the day...”
Kano on Made in the Manor
Take a trip through Kano’s discography, and his maximalist, most recent LP in particular, and you’ll find a melting pot of grime (Hail, Endz), autobiography (T-Shirt Weather in the Manor) and hip hop mixed with affecting pop (A Roadman's Hymn). It's clear you're listening to an artist who really grew up with his genre, who was moulded by grime's unique sound and talent, and in turn has come to define grime – as well as British music and multiculturalism – through his work.
“It’s not just a grime album – it’s just my record,” Kano emphasises. “My music and my sound, what I think sounds cool. It’s just exactly what I want to say, and the kind of music I want to put out. Because of the way I’ve grown up – I am in East London, so it will always have a grime essence, and that Jamaican influence will always come through in my sound. Hip hop, too. It’s the blend of my musical upbringing.”
Made in the Manor stole the top spot on the R'n'B charts, and has subsequently earned Kano four MOBO nominations, but the MC remains unfazed. “I’ve never really made albums for the charts,” he says. “It’s important to me that they’re good, and it is confirmation that people have bought into and loved the work – but it’s when I meet people and we speak and we talk about songs, and people tell me online how it’s affected them. When you’re performing and people are singing along, and you can really feel that they’re touched by this music. It’s important that I make an album that’s deeper than a couple of hot tracks that make the crowd go crazy.”
Kano was one of the few early artists, alongside Dizzee, who managed to bridge the rampant anti-commercialism of grime with the modern pop song. Songs like Ps and Qs (2005) managed to condense the essential rawness of the genre into a three and a half minute track. The MC reflects that his songwriting sensibilities stem from the fast-paced nature of his pirate radio training ground, rather than any intentions for mainstream radio.
“I released my first song when I was fifteen,” he says. “And it was played on pirate radio. It’s something that I always did. Dizzee was as well, Lethal B, but not too many other people were. Most other people were just MCs – I was doing both. Pirate radio prepares you for a lot; that competitive spirit, that freestyle element, performing for a small audience, writing lyrics every single week to come in fresh next Monday.”
The future of grime
This “survival of the fittest” ethos is perhaps why so many artists from the early 2000s like Kano, Skepta, JME, Giggs and Wiley are still going strong today – but a focus on the fostering of young talent, as well as regional scenes outside of the capital keeps grime fresh. “When I went on tour last time, Tempa T, Daps, and Scorch [Flow AKA Scorch] were with me and they're from Birmingham, just MCs doing their thing. I think they've really got something going on. I rate those guys. It's a growing scene, as well.
“At first, grime did feel very East London, then [all] London... and now I think the UK is going to merge a little bit. I was always waiting for someone like Bugzy [Malone] to come along and represent for a whole city [Manchester]. Being from London is like being from New York – there’s loads of MCs. But if you’re one of few rappers and you can get that whole city behind you, it’s going to be something special. I think there’s more to come.”