Mike Atkinson

Interview: Kano

Posted in interviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on September 29, 2007

A considerably shorter version of this interview originally appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post. This is more or less the full transcript of my conversation with Kano, who clearly hadn’t been briefed to expect my call, when I rang him at home on Tuesday lunchtime (September 25th).

In fact, I’m fairly certain that I woke the poor guy up, so all credit to him for accepting the call, after I gave him the option to decline. As the recording demonstrates, his replies progress from half-asleep mumbling to full alertness, in the space of just over 15 minutes. Ah, the resilience of youth!

The new album London Town is selling well, and the single’s your biggest hit to date, so congratulations for that. 

Yeah, I’m kind of pleased. It’s always a bit nerve-wracking after you’ve worked for so long on a project, when it could be that no-one likes it. But I’m quite happy with the way it’s gone. I’m starting the tour tomorrow, so that’s when you get the real feedback, the crowd reaction and stuff.

This one definitely sounds different from the debut, Home Sweet Home. The collaborations cover all bases: from Craig David to Kate Nash, and from Damon Albarn to Vybz Kartel. Maybe some people might see it as a move into the mainstream. 

It’s really nothing that I intended. Craig David was someone that I originally knew through a producer, so it was just a case of us getting together in the studio. As for Kate Nash, I worked with her before she was considered mainstream, and before she had a Number One album. That was me trying to find an unknown singer on Myspace, but as it’s turned out, she’s blown up. If was looking for that, I probably would have went for Lily Allen, but I wasn’t looking for that. And with Vybz Kartel, I’m just really into dancehall reggae music. He’s not a massive worldwide known artist. It was just a mixture of stuff that I was into – like I was into Gorillaz, and so I thought I could do something with Damon, and got the opportunity to do so.

Arguably, there’s a darker, more serious side to many of the tracks on this album. There seems to be less joking around then there was on Home Sweet Home.

In terms of music and lyrics and writing skills, it’s definitely progressed. I think I’m in a whole different space. Even having a little bit of success with Home Sweet Home, you have to deal with a lot of a lot of things that come with it. You have to deal with a lot of stress, and a lot of the time you’re pissed off, like it says on This Is My Life, where I’m just fed up with the whole industry. So a lot of the tracks are quite serious. Then there’s just the whole street culture, the kids and the violence at the moment, so that’s where you get songs like Fightin’ The Nation. It’s just maturing, I suppose. I wouldn’t really have spoken about a lot of that stuff before. The things that are happening around me are what my lyrics are.

There are those lines on This Is My Life: “I’m fed up of promos, fed up of press, I’m a product to be sold now, a marketing plan but I can’t slow down.” Do you find that too much of your time is spent on days like today, when you’ve got to do these interviews and stuff? How much of your time do you get to spend on the creative side, on the art?

I think that the balance, for me, definitely works out OK. I get enough time in the studio, so it’s not like the label was rushing me for the record. I got to spend a year and a bit on it, so I really just had to go to the studio every day, and even take time out to be inspired. So I’ve got time to relax. But it’s when the record’s finished that the other stuff really kicks in, and you’ve just got to accept that. You’ve got to do that if you want people to hear your music – but I would never let it get to a stage where my music is suffering because there’s so much other stuff going on. That actually kills the art.

Is everything we hear on the album directly from you – from Kane Robinson – or as Kano, do you adopt characters to tell a story?

Not often, not often. Some tracks, like Fightin’ The Nation, were a story I had in my head. It’s nothing that I’d gone through; it wasn’t somebody that I knew; that was something that I made up. But everything else is me.

I was wondering about Bad Boy, actually. Was that a character that you took on for the song?

No, that was just speaking for boys in general, or just a type of boy. It’s not a story.

It was a surprise to me, hearing that track. I’d come to you through tracks like Brown Eyes, which was a very tender love song – and then here you were, going to the strip clubs, and I kind of thought: oh, right…!

You might get the impression of me from Brown Eyes and Nite Nite that I’m a bit of a romantic, a bit of a ladies’ man. I’m not really, you know. (Laughter) I’m not really! I’m maybe speaking of one relationship that I’ve had, and that one relationship out of the year that we’re living in is not much. I know there’s been times where I’ve wanted a girlfriend and I just don’t care, and I’m just being young, and I’m going out and doing these things and enjoying my life, you know what I mean? It’s a different mentality.

Rap music is a very confident, assertive art form, which can express many emotions: joy and pain, love and hate, tenderness and anger. But you don’t often find a rapper expressing lack of confidence, nervousness, anxiety or fear. When you’re away from the microphone and the studio, does that affect you? Do you get feelings like stage fright, forgetting your lines, that kind of stuff?

Sometimes I’ll forget lines… but I don’t know, I just like to be real as a person, but with an audience; that’s how to deal with it. I get a little bit nervous before I go on stage, especially when it’s not really my crowd; that’s just a normal thing. I feel a lot of things deeply, I get emotional, and I think some music’s best when the artists are vulnerable.

I mean, everybody likes to show their best side – or what they think is the best side, like the hard side – and bulwark off the rest of their personality. But every person’s complex, and I think everyone should show every side of themselves.

That’s what I try to do in my music, and that’s why a lot of rappers are fake… or not really fake, but they’re just portraying an image. It’s a little part of them, but it doesn’t make the whole of them. And I just like to show every side of me.

That’s interesting. When a rapper does forget the lines on stage, then I guess you’ve all got tricks that you can use to cover up. I mean, you’d never know, so there must be stock lines that you can go back to. Or when rappers go “Make some noise!”, is that when they’ve forgotten the line?

(Laughter) When I forget lines, I like to start the track again.

Oh, is that it? “Can I get a rewind”… that means “I’ve forgotten the line”?

Yeah, that’s the best way.

You seemed very confident on stage at the MOBOs, at the London O2 Arena. That was a massive gig. Was it the largest audience you’ve ever played to?

I think I’ve done a bigger one as a support act, when I played with Jay-Z at Wembley Arena. There were a lot of people in there, but there was added pressure because the cameras were there too, and also people in the industry, your peers, and other musicians.

But I don’t know, you just… it’s like yesterday, I went to Thorpe Park, and I never go on rides like that, that go upside down, I’m scared of that shit, I really don’t like heights too much. But I went on there, and they strapped me in and started counting down, and it was like: that’s it now, you can’t go back, you can’t say stop or whatever.

It’s the same when I’m on stage. When you step on stage, that’s it. You ain’t got time to be nervous, you’ve just got to get on with it, and make it look good. (Laughs)

You came out of the grime scene; do you still feel part of that scene, and connected to that culture?

I definitely feel connected to that culture. It’s something that I did come from, so I respect it a lot. It’s something that I’m still in touch with: I know what’s going on, and who’s the hottest guy of the moment, and there are people who I still work with, and who I still speak to, and I still drop mixtapes, and all of that stuff. But it’s definitely time for me to do my solo career, and make music that feels right for me. But yeah, I’m still in touch with the grime scene.

I guess that a close scene can sometimes pull you down. People want you to stay within that scene, and they get suspicious when you try and do things outside it. I wondered whether that was part of the thinking behind the hidden track at the end of the album – which I loved, I must say – the Grime MC track. I thought that was hilarious; full of energy. Did you have particular people in mind when you were doing that?

I didn’t have people in mind, but I just had the whole scene in mind. I was trying to be on that cliché of the grime MC, dressed like a grime MC dresses, with the cap on top of the hood. I’m saying that’s just how people are. That’s how I could be, if I wasn’t as strong and creative as I am.

People think they’ve got to be one thing. So it’s hard when you come from somewhere, because everyone just expects you to keep doing that. But it’s Catch 22. If I kept doing that, everyone would be like: one-trick pony, you can only do that. That’s been said about a few MCs before, but I’ve just got to do what I do, you know what I mean?

I’m with you. Going back to early days, obviously you’ve got a love of words, but what came first: the realisation that you were good with words, or was it the love of hip hop which led you into it?

I think I was kind of good with words. I always used to make up little lines. I was one of them people that could just hear the song, and then just spit the lyrics back out, and learn words really quick.

Did they recognise that ability at school?

No, there was nothing at school that anybody recognised. It was just at home with my brother, and my cousin recognised that I was alright, and a few of my family members.

I used to go to Jamaica a lot, and it was really a love of dancehall music at the start, and then garage music. And just me getting in the playground, and gaining a little bit of respect amongst the other kids, and the battles in the playground and stuff, and then I started making my own songs.

And then you actually went back to your old school for the choir on the track Feel Free. How did that come about? That must have been strange.

Do you know what, it wasn’t that strange, because I go to my old school quite a bit.

Do you?

Yeah, yeah. We made the track, and I was like: it sounds like a lot of people could sing this, it would be great if there was kids. My mum works at the school. So I just asked her, could you get a few kids down, and she said yeah. I said, I need ten, and ten turned to twenty, and twenty turned to thirty-two. So loads of kids came down; it was good.

I didn’t have to go to school to do it – they came to the studio – but I go back to my school a lot. I’ll come and hand the Records of Achievement out at the end of the school year. Little things. It was great to give something back to them, as well as get the sound right for my track.

So you’ve gone from teachers saying, oh, you haven’t done your homework on time, to teachers using you as a role model.

It’s a funny thing, that. Because all the teachers that I see when I go there, they didn’t like me. (Laughs) They were always putting me into detention; I was always getting into trouble. And now they see me and it’s like, yeah, Kane was a great kid, and he loved us, and l’m like, no I didn’t like you! (Laughs)

“Work hard, children, and you could grow up to be like Kano!” 

(Laughter)

The tour starts tomorrow, and it’s coming to Trent University next week. What can we expect to see?

You can expect to see me perform old and new stuff, and you can always expect a lot of energy. You may hear some songs a bit differently. I’m taking a live band out on tour as well as a DJ, so I’m going to mix that up,

Oh, good stuff.

Yeah, and do something different, you know? Quite a lot of it is going to be different to any other Kano show that you’ve been to. It should be interesting.

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