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Knucks is leading UK rap's new wave

A rapper, producer and head of the No Days Off brand, Knucks smashed into the UK album charts this year with his ‘Alpha Place’ project, presenting his ‘chill drill’ sound in all its evolved glory. His triumphant homecoming show at KOKO in Camden saw collaborators like Stormzy, SL, Youngs Teflon and Ragz Originale join him on stage. Here, Yemi Abiade meets the Londoner to learn how there are now no limitations on his future

It’s late May in North London. The sun is setting with a burning intensity that only a summer’s evening in this concrete jungle can provide, hugging the frame of one of UK music’s most hallowed halls: KOKO. The sight is blinding but bold and timely, given the white-hot buzz around the night’s headliner. Scrambling inside and reaching the balcony, we’re almost floored by the cacophony of noise. The air is thick with perspiration and excitement. The crowd is amped, watching in awe as the new prince of UK rap, Knucks, commands them with a performance fit for a king. Surrounding him are LED boards projecting the housing estate in which he was raised, Alpha House, a conceptual anchor and an emotional reminder. Home is where his heart is, now for the masses to see. “Welcome to my bits,” he announces to his audience, pulling them into his orbit one triumphant track after another.

Among the fans at KOKO are major players in UK Black music and culture. On the far right of the balcony, BBC Radio 1Xtra host and DJ Tiffany Calver is posted, vibing as excitedly as the crowd. On the left is Clint, visionary behind the streetwear brand running the streets, Corteiz. In the foyer, Alex Boateng — co-founder and co-president of the 0207 Def Jam record label — is stood beaming from ear to ear at the spectacle on show. This iconic moment in Knucks’ career comes with context: just one week prior, the 27-year-old rapper and producer released his latest project, ‘Alpha Place’, before going on the road for his first nationwide tour. The London portion, akin to a homecoming, was always set to be special and, for two hours at least, the city belongs to Knucks.

Strutting along the stage with the cool, calm and collected demeanour that fills his music, he glides through his new opus with a little help from UK rap’s elite. Stormzy comes through for his 18-bar verse on ‘Die Hard’; SL, balaclava and all, blesses the stage with his contribution to ‘Nice & Good’; road rap veteran Youngs Tefl on brings grit as he flies through his verse on ‘Bible’; muted MC Lex Amor exudes poise on ‘Checkmate’; the charismatic Ragz Originale finesses through ‘Far’. Though a celebration of his new release, there’s room for the older cuts, those that brought Knucks to the precipice of stardom. ‘Breakfast At Tiffany’s’, ‘Vows’, ‘Big Kahuna’ and perhaps his most recognisable track to date, ‘Home’, round up a dazzling set.

Knucks

“People forget that making music and performing doesn’t come hand in hand. I’ve only gotten confident [performing] because I’ve done it so much. I’m not scared of the unknown anymore”

“I’m less anxious on stage now,” Knucks tells DJ Mag over Zoom a few days later, his voice carrying the gruff of his now hectic schedule, stripping back his otherwise nonchalant persona. It’s a revelation that is initially surprising, given his smoother-than-silk presentation. “People forget that making music and performing doesn’t come hand in hand. I’ve only gotten confident [performing] because I’ve done it so much. I’m not scared of the unknown anymore.”

At KOKO, Knucks gifts a pair of Jordan trainers to a lucky fan and a portion of Bitcoin currency to another two. “That was a way to get into the cryptocurrency space and merging that world with music,” he says. “I’ve still got a lot of crypto I invested in a while ago, trying to take advantage of that!”

Such gestures speak to his appreciation for a fanbase that has not only grown with him since he arrived on the scene over eight years ago in 2014, but also diversified in ways he couldn’t have imagined. “There’s no one demographic anymore,” he reflects. “When I was doing smaller shows, it was just us. The underground, urban culture of Black people that supported me from the grassroots. Going on this tour, I now see Black people, white people, middle-class people, everyone’s there. It shows that there’s relatability in the music.”

 

The showcase receives glowing reviews from all corners of the scene, but WME booking agent Whitney Boateng has a rather apt summation, calling Knucks the “leader of the new school” in a recent tweet. Though the dust has now settled at KOKO, Knucks stays busy. Straight after his Zoom chat with DJ Mag, he has a soundcheck for another performance, a sign that the ‘No Days Off ’ tagline that showers his music remains a way of life. What does he make of his newfound fame, spinning through his life like a cyclone? “It’s been a lot,” he says. “I don’t see myself as a star, but I definitely see myself as the leader of something. The leader of this new sound, I don’t know what you want to call it — maybe ‘chill drill’. I know what I’ve brought forth to the scene and I know how long it took. I’ve been taking the stairs but I’m at a point where I’m at the forefront of that sound.”

It is through the sheer durability and adaptability of his artistry that Knucks has placed himself front and centre of the UK’s dynamic Black music milieu. The ‘chill drill’ he mentions, a sonic foundation first heard on his 2019 track ‘Home’ — clocking in at over 25 million Spotify streams at present — and blossoming on Place’, represents an evolution of the sound that’s been dominating the UK for some time. But, while his production retains drill’s crucial, often cold elements — from sliding 808s to turbo-charged drum sequences — Knucks softens the palette with a soulful exoskeleton, incorporating warm retro samples to put his own stamp on a genre now in the sun. But let it never be said that he settles for the bare minimum, particularly when it comes to his art.

Knucks

To understand Knucks is to understand his admirable patience: timing his every move with the deftest poise, no decision has been wasted — rather, calculated. Each step of the stairs he’s been climbing has been preparing him for what’s next. Each release — from his first musical forays in the first half of the 2010s to today — has served a purpose, to peel all layers of Knucks the rapper, the producer and the artist. “I don’t want people to think my style has only developed into what it is now,” he explains. “This drill-infused sound is something I’m trying but it’s just one of the sounds I’m doing. I never want to put myself in a box where I’m only doing one thing, whether it’s drill or whatever. That’s why I thought it was important after ‘Home’ did what it did, not to drop ‘Alpha Place’ there and then. I didn’t want people thinking that’s all I do. So, with ‘Alpha Place’ now, it kind of solidified that sound.”

Knucks is no stranger to transition. The man born Ashley Nwachukwu and raised in South Kilburn, North-West London, was a self-confessed troublemaker. Never far from local scraps, he earned the nickname ‘Knuckles’ for his combative nature. In a 2017 interview, he reveals the extent of his bad behaviour when he recalls throwing a table at a teacher in school. Concerned that their then-12-year-old son was falling off the rails, Nwachukwu’s parents made a decision that would soon change his outlook. He was sent to live in Nigeria, the country his parents originate from, for a year with extended family. Far removed from his antagonistic ends, his fiery characteristics soon mellowed as he gained perspective.

“Nigeria is slower than England,” he said in 2017. “In London, everything is fast-paced and when I got to Nigeria, the fact that it was slow gave me more time to think about what I was doing with myself. When I came back, I was enlightened.” On his return to England, though enlightened, adjustment proved difficult, especially as by then, Nwachukwu’s family had moved out of South Kilburn. Luckily, a desire to pursue music was set in stone before his time away.

Channelling his infectious energy and his earned nickname of ‘Knuckles’, he would spit on grime beats from a young age. By the early 2010s, grime was considered ‘dead’ in the mainstream consciousness, and Knuckles, by then shortened to Knucks, repurposed himself, making beats inspired by golden-age hip-hop, ‘80s soul, jazz and disco as he transitioned to rap. Self-christened as ‘the laid back one’ — just check his Instagram bio — Knucks distinguished himself early on with an endearing calmness and astute dexterity to his vocal delivery, offering up tracks that sounded like he rarely broke a sweat, a defining feature he has carried to his present incarnation. He breaks down version one of himself: “My sound generally reflects whatever sound I’m listening to at the time, incorporated with the soulful jazzy sound I’m kind of known for. The earlier songs were soulful but the sound at the time was trap, so I had the trap drum, 808s, hi-hats but with that soul. That period is a reflection of what was going on in my head at the time.”

 

With his mission carved out, Knucks went to work. The first taste of his enthralling lyrical and production chops came about with his 2014 debut mixtape, ‘Killmatic’, an ode to one of his idols, Nas, and the US rapper’s immortal groundbreaker of an album, 1994’s ‘Illmatic’. Here, Knucks revealed his origin story over a backdrop of beautifully crafted soul and jazz sample chops and hard-hitting drums, mirroring the imagery of Nas’ Queensbridge home with his own murky neighbourhood. Blending the very best of ‘90s boom bap hip-hop with a UK twist — even sampling ‘One Love’ from Nas’ original — the project is a time-capsule of an era when the second generation of road rap — from Nines and Fredo to Tion Wayne — were rising, pushing a grittiness that is on full display on ‘Killmatic’. It retains a special place in Knucks’ heart.

“That was my intro, my beginning,” he says. “An ode to my childhood, how I was living at the time. A portrayal of my creativity at a young age. That was my Youngs Teflon era; if you listen to ‘Killmatic’ with Tef’s ‘Grown Man Ting’ in mind, you’ll hear a lot of similarities because that’s what I was listening to. I wrote most of it when I was 14, so I was rough around the edges; I was trying to find where I was.”

Five years would follow before Knucks dropped another official project, but it was arguably his most transformative era. In that span, the singles ’21 Candles’, ‘Breakfast At Tiffany’s’ and ‘Vows’ would be released, drops that ushered in a different buzz around his name altogether. Suddenly, he was on radio playlists, in magazines and seen as one of the premier promising UK MCs. “Crazy times there,” he remembers with a smile. Now free to focus on music full-time after finishing a degree in Animation, Knucks soared creatively. In 2019, his long-awaited follow-up to ‘Killmatic’, debut EP ‘NRG 105’, would finally see the light of day. A highly conceptual project — a trademark for Knucks at this point — that plays out like radio station programming, it was packed with similar sonic motifs to its predecessor, but with superior production. Slowly transitioning to drill-flavoured vibrations (‘Blessings’, ‘Home’) via uptempo radio-friendly bops (‘Gwen Stefani’), it also featured a weighty assist by UK rap legend Wretch 32 on ‘Diddy’, as good a co-sign as any British rapper could hope for.

“I was playing a lot of Grand Theft Auto at the time which inspired me to go for the radio feel,” he remembers. “That nostalgic vibe is something I grasp onto even today still, and [‘NRG 105’] was that for me.” But ‘NRG’ holds a curious place in Knucks’ catalogue. For one, it holds great emotional weight as a tribute to his former manager, N, who passed away shortly before the release. But it also represents a somewhat incomplete portion of his career for reasons out of his control. “To this day I feel like it’s not gonna be seen in the way I saw it,” he surmises. “Two of the best songs didn’t make it on, they weren’t cleared at the time. Because of that, and because I’ve got skits on there, they sound a lot longer than they are because the tracklist is shorter. But at the end of day, it’s me taking my creativity to another level.”

Knucks

He wouldn’t dwell on this setback for long. Nestled seamlessly in ‘NRG’ was a track that would soon change everything. With its accompanying Ray Fiasco-directed video — now sitting at over 11 million YouTube views — ‘Home’ would prove the apex of Knucks’ compelling oratory skills to that point. Eloquently portraying the chaos of street life, culminating in knife crime, ‘Home’ zoned in on the intricacies of London’s streets, but its message can be transferred to any of the world’s ’hoods, giving it universal appeal. And even in the midst of the pending Covid-19 pandemic, Knucks was on schedule to make further waves.

He would quickly follow up ‘NRG’ with ‘London Class’ in 2020, an opus packed with his typical poise but utilised for piercing social and political commentary. ‘Your Worth’, for instance, shows Knucks, deeply affected by the tragic murder of George Floyd, venting: “Take your knee off my neck, what the heck / When did it become so casual making casualties.” Meanwhile, the skit titled ‘Under Class’ samples noted rapper and activist Akala’s summation of the Black underclass — the have-nots of British society, vilified since time immemorial — in relation to their position in Britain. This, along with lighter cuts such as the bravado-laden ‘Hugh Heff ’, display Knucks in full growth mode.

“[‘London Class’] was a transitional period,” he says. “I went through a period where something changed in me: it used to take me longer than it should to make a song because I was so inside my head thinking of ideas. I couldn’t just start writing, I had to come up with an idea first. When I started making ‘London Class’ and having conversations and working with [South London artist] kadiata, I learned that I couldn’t overthink things. Have more fun with my writing. My style has now changed since I came to that realisation. Some of the songs I’ve made since then that I really rate are ones where I didn’t think too hard; it unlocked a new stage for me.”

Enter ‘Alpha Place’, the latest chapter. A year and a half in the making, it’s named after the street in South Kilburn where he grew up and executive produced by Knucks and frequent collaborator, trumpet wunderkind Venna. Recording began in January 2021; Knucks recalls listening to “a lot of old music, a lot of drill” during the project’s conception, including upcoming artist and friend Bawo’s bouncy groove ‘Brasiliero’.

“That tune had me in a chokehold,” he remembers. “I was listening to a lot of Carns Hill; he’s a producer I’ve been inspired by for a long, long time. I was studying Headie One, Blanco, those guys for the kind of flow patterns you hear [in ‘Alpha Place’]. With me, whatever I listen to, subconsciously I’m learning and taking stuff in.”

 

‘Alpha Place’ was intended, in parts, as a reintroduction, or as a full-blown introduction for fans just jumping on the wave.

“[‘Alpha Place’] was meant to be ‘Killmatic’ but with the drill sonics,” he explains. “The same way ‘Killmatic’ is an intro to me, ‘Alpha Place’ is like an origin story too. For those who are just finding me, they might not know much about where I grew up, how I grew up. It was meant to be called ‘Drillmatic’ in relation to the first project, but it was too on the nose. I wanted something more subtle.

“I wrote ‘Alpha House’ first and when I listened back, I thought, ‘This is the direction I want to go down’. I wanted to keep the elements of my music that made people want to listen in the first place. ‘Home’ was my biggest hit at the time, so the aim was to keep the sonics of ‘Home’ throughout the project. ‘Home’ is a story, so I knew I was going to tell actual stories that related to where I’m from, but not glorifying what was going on.”

With production by TSB, M1OnTheBeat, Venna, Ragz Originale, Dotnic, Geno and Knucks himself, ‘Alpha Place’ is grounded by the deftness of storytelling the young MC exhibits, reaching back to the streets in which he was raised with an elegant and digestible style. Through him, the turmoil associated with certain aspects of inner-city living is examined in 4K, the emotional impact laid bare. Though Knucks has made it out the other side, he could’ve easily been the main character in one of these stories.

The opus carries a sentimental value that is typified by the earnest piano riffs and hustle and bustle of life that kick off opening track ‘Alpha House’, its nostalgic feel hardened by the metallic 808s and crunching drums. Knucks retells his upbringing, of being “10 years old in beef, mum thinks streets taking over me” — the behaviour that inadvertently changed his life. 

Knucks

“You know what I’ve realised about myself? I’m always telling stories... I didn’t realise how much I was doing it until people pointed it out. I leaned into that element more after ‘Home’ and depending on what type of song it is, I know how I’m going to construct it before I start writing”

This reminiscence carries into tracks such as ‘Hide & Seek’ — inspired, according to Knucks, by cult TV show The Wire’s character Bodie — ‘Leon The Professional’, ‘Bible’ and ‘Decisions’, extensions of the vivid picture he draws of his history with the streets. Later, loverboy Knucks takes full effect, with odes to the opposite sex on ‘Send Nudes’, ‘Playa’ and ‘Far’, transferring his suave steez from his once harsh reality to danceable cuts. “You know what I’ve realised about myself?” he rhetorically quips. “I’m always telling stories, bro. Even a song like ‘Far’, which is a little lighter, it’s still a story. I didn’t realise how much I was doing it until people pointed it out. I leaned into that element more after ‘Home’ and depending on what type of song it is, I know how I’m going to construct it before I start writing.”

Tying ‘Alpha Place’ together are a series of skits revealing Knucks in conversation with long-time friends, catching up and trading old war stories. They prelude the exquisitely executed anecdote of a vigilante hitman patrolling Knucks’ neighbourhood back in the day on ‘Leon The Professional’, the gritty blend of street tales and religious wordplay on ‘Bible’ and the ode to wellness that is ‘Checkmate’. “All of those skits bind the project together,” he explains. “The last session [for the project] was where I got my two bredrins into the studio, played them the whole project and to have the conversation you hear throughout. We just spoke; we don’t get to see each other as much as we would like these days, so we were catching up. I felt that was an important thing to catch on the project.”

 

It is this reunion that adds extra sentiment to ‘Alpha Place’, so much so that the project’s last skit, on the back end of ‘Three Muskeeters’ — the ultimate inside story of this social group — feels exultant. Like a celebration of their friendship in spite of their surroundings. “[‘Three Muskeeters’] was very important to me,” Knucks says. “It’s close to my heart. It was the last song I made [for ‘Alpha Place’] and I didn’t know how to do it justice. I didn’t know what beat to use, what kind of tone it should be. I’m still not sure what you would call it; it’s not a happy tune, maybe melancholic. But definitely triumphant.”

Rounding off the origin motif of ‘Alpha Place’ is a short outro on ‘Three Musketeers’ showing Knucks’ previous incarnation as a grime MC, spitting with the precocious intensity of youth. It conclusively exhibits his past as connected to his present, a symbol of the value of each stage of his life. It’s a move that lit up social media, now clamouring for modern-day Knucks to return to grime. “I’d never rule it out,” he says, giving fans hope yet. “If the time is right or if I’m in that mood. I’ll never write grime off."

‘Alpha Place’ reveals layers to Knucks that his previous work only teased at. It feels intensely intimate, exposing his conscience, what makes him tick, his fears, his humanity. Not once does the project wane in quality, nor overdo its messages. And this is all before we get to the features. When Knucks revealed the project’s tracklist one month before its release, it read like a who’s who of talent across the UK rap spectrum — Stormzy (‘Die Hard’), SL (‘Nice & Good’), M1llionz (‘Decisions’), Venna (‘Alpha House’), Shae Universe (‘Decisions’), Sainte (‘Playa’), Ragz Originale (‘Far’), Lex Amor (‘Checkmate’) and his idol, Youngs Teflon (‘Bible’) — certifying his status among many observers as a major player.

Knucks

From the alt underground to the cream of the crop of commercial acclaim, these guests showed out under Knucks’ banner. He breaks down their individual powers: “These are all people I fuck with. SL, M1llionz and Tef brought that authenticity to the project, along with the drill sonics. I’ve actually known M1llionz for years — he was at the video shoot for ‘Home’ — so it made sense to have him on. Ragz came through with a banger because he said he needed to be on it. Sainte brought that suave flavour. Stormzy reached out from time; he was gonna do a remix to ‘Turnover’ in 2016, but I respect that he gave me the space to grow as an artist. He brought that class to [‘Alpha Place’], that upper echelon. Shae has been a backing vocalist on my songs for years and this was her first proper feature, it ties in well with the R&Drill wave she’s on right now. And Lex Amor is a sick rapper, I needed a melodic, laid-back element to ‘Checkmate’ and she delivered that perfectly.”

Upon release, ‘Alpha Place’ would land at No.3 in the Official UK Album Charts, the culmination of his trust in the journey he’s charted for himself. Now no longer just a promising talent, Knucks is established in the eyes of wider British music, following the likes of Little Simz and Kojey Radical — so-called ‘alt’ musicians born in the depths of online forums and blogspots, now transcended beyond those confines — as an artist driven by his craft, carving out a lane for all to see — undeniable and omnipresent. “I think the authenticity has touched people,” Knucks says of his milestone. “I’ve had so many people tell me they can relate to ‘Alpha Place’. It makes the way we put it together worth it.”

Six days after his initial Zoom call with DJ Mag, London is in the midst of a welcome heatwave. Clad in a camouflage Stone Island jacket, white tracksuit bottoms and fresh A Cold Wall sneakers, Knucks poses for photos in a Hackney studio, presenting a blend of authoritative and laidback. He is uber-present; taking his appearance seriously, he quibbles with his stylist over the intricacies of his fits. His schedule is still unrelenting: he has a Eurostar to catch in a few hours to Paris Fashion Week, his involvement with which includes live sets for brands such as Daily Paper. This is on top of a slew of performances over festival season, including Dublin’s Longitude. But his playful side is never too far behind. Mid-photoshoot, the room degenerates into an age-old cultural debate of great importance among Africans and Caribbeans: how to pronounce plantain, a delicacy both hold dear. If you know, you know.

 

“We want [No Days Off] to have a foot in the door of Fashion Week, all of them. I wanna act, I wanna produce more for artists. I didn’t always have these wishes — growing up, this is the kind of stuff I liked — but music has opened up so much for me. I can move forward now knowing that there are no limitations”

Knucks’ longevity in the game feels thrillingly assured. But what’s next? Perhaps an official album, something he purposely didn’t call ‘Alpha Place’? He responds with his now trademark poise: “I want to be in the best possible position for that. The anticipation for ‘Alpha Place’ wasn’t the same as for ‘London Class’ or ‘NRG’, the fanbase has grown, I’ve grown. For me to drop such a body of work as an album, I would want it to be received in the best way and have the best reception. It should reflect wherever I’m at at that point, whatever that may be.”

Not one to feed a growing demand just because the iron is hot, Knucks’ levelled approach to his art is justified everyday, because it’s what brought him here. As an essential voice in the scene, his presence is now rubber-stamped. But his ambitions for his career illuminate his steadfastness to build, to become an influence beyond music itself.

“I’m trying to do more for No Days Off,” he says, referencing the clothing brand and creative collective of which he is head honcho. “We want to have a foot in the door of Fashion Week, all of them. I wanna act, I wanna produce more for artists. I didn’t always have these wishes — growing up, this is the kind of stuff I liked — but music has opened up so much for me. I can move forward now knowing that there are no limitations.”

Transcending his own harsh beginnings and traversing the underground to find comfort in the path he’s chosen, Knucks can stand tall as a tour de force in British music, permeating rap one eloquent move at a time. Day-one fans are vindicated by his climb up the ladder and artistic growth; new fans wowed by his completeness. A near decade-long stretch has come good.

Want more? Watch every episode of DJ Mag's Meet The MC video series, featuring Backroad Gee, BR3NYA and D Double E here

Yemi Abiade is a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @yemiabiade

Photography: Vicky Grout