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A Quietus Interview

Refusing To Play The Short Game: Kano Interviewed
Ben Hewitt , September 23rd, 2010 11:51

Kano tells Ben Hewitt about broken promises, the pitfalls of chart rap and whether he really is a "foul mouthed rapper"

"I'm fucking shattered," sighs Kano, groggily, as he answers his phone. The Quietus has just awoken the London-based MC and elder statesman of grime (if one can be bestowed with such a title at the tender age of 25) from an early morning slumber; accordingly, he slurs his words as his brain struggles to keep pace with his tongue. It's not often you'd expect to catch Kano lost for his words. Ever since his 2005 debut album Home Sweet Home, he's carved out a reputation as one of the UK's most prolific rappers, and an artist responsible for pushing grime further into the mainstream. His second album, London Town, arrived in 2007 while his third effort, 140 Grime Street, followed just one year later. Right now, though, he's struggling for eloquence. "I don't know if this is a good time, I'm just getting up," he says. We offer to phone back, but he manages to muster some enthusiasm from somewhere: "Nah man. I'm good."

Kano's just released his fourth album, Method To The Maadness. As the title would suggest, it's a step away from the London-centric focus of his back catalogue; whereas previous titles betrayed an obsession with life in the nation's capital, Method… moves beyond the borders of the City both musically and lyrically, with the words based around a loose theme of madness and the beats more expansive than ever before. It has a stellar supporting cast - collaborators include Damon Albarn, Hot Chip, Ghetts and Wiley - but he's eager to impress that it's an album that should be regarded as a "body of work", rather than a disconnected string of hit-singles. It's important to play the long game; just playing the short game, he says, "is very scary" - but more on that later.

He starts our conversation by apologising for the gap between Method… and his last album, which is rather odd considering only two years have elapsed. Nonetheless, by his standards, it's a lengthy pause…

So you say there was a lengthier gap between records this time. Why was that?

Kano: It wasn't planned to be that way. It just took so long to make, and the date got changed and changed again - partly because the album wasn't ready, and I didn't want to put out anything that I wasn't 100 % happy with. And I'm kind of independent now, so I don't have anyone on my back telling me 'The album needs to be out done next month' [Kano left 679 Recordings, his previous label, in 2008]. It's kind of good and bad, because it means I can keep pushing it back… But I think it worked out for the best, because I'm so happy with the music I ended up with. And the album wouldn't have sounded as good if it was released earlier.

Well, it's better to wait until you're happy with it, right?

K: Yeah. I think your fans will always forgive you if it's late, but they won't forgive you if it's not up to the standards they expect of you.

Method To The Maadness seems to be have more texture and variety, both lyrically and aesthetically. Do you feel it's an album you'd only be capable of making now and it's a sign of progression? I mean, would you have been able to make it five years ago, say?

K: No, I wouldn't have been able to make this album five years ago. A lot of it was in me then, but I was still - and am still - learning how to put things together. I think five years ago, when I made Home Sweet Home… although I think it was a great album and people think of it as a classic record in the genre I'm from, I don't think it works as well as a body of work as this one. It's got a lot of different styles and flavours on it, some that might not work so well together on one record, but you can hear the rawness and the influences and inspirations, and what I was trying to do. I think I've executed it better on this one. And that's just through learning more about music, and growing up, and getting older. And getting better.

That's interesting, because I think this record sounds more outward looking - is it a step out of the London, or grime, scene?

K: I think it was. It was easy because I feel like from the first album, I've stepped out of my comfort zone quite a bit. Whether it's working with Paul Epworth, or…

Kate Nash?

K: Yeah. Or working with Diplo. Just taking chances, you know? With this one, I've just done that even more. This time I brought a lot to the table. I've got my own style and my own sound. The collaborations aren't so one-sided: it's two heads coming together, and they're both stepping out of their comfort zone rather than one stepping into another's world. Whether I'm working with Boys Noize or Damon Albarn, we're both making something different and we're not scared to do so. I just think for me, it's something that's important - to progress and move forward, to make something different. I never like to recreate past material.

So if past collaborations weren't always 50/50 splits, is it different now?

K: Yeah, I think so. I'm not new anymore; [in the past] a lot of the time, if I liked someone's music… [for them] it must have been like: 'Do you want to work with this guy? He's called Kano, he's an East London MC'. But now when they get the call, they probably know me and my music, and what I'm about. So when I put the call into Hot Chip, for example, I initially thought I'd be explaining to them who I am, but they were fans of mine and I was a fan of theirs, so that makes for a proper introduction to seeing if there's a vibe in the studio.

How important was it for you to make sure this record was a coherent whole, rather than just a stream of singles?

K: It was very important. My ambition is always to make an album that you can play from start to finish, and I think that's become harder and harder as time has gone on, with the iPod shuffling generation picking songs and putting them on their own playlist. They might play Kano next to Kasabian next to Gorillaz. But I think this album does the job of being a body of work, but also gives you a lot of different flavours within the 45 minutes. So it gives you the feel of having your own playlist. That's something I set out to do.

Why did you choose madness as a theme?

K: Madness? Well, initially it wasn't going to be about that. Most of my albums - Home Sweet Home, London Town, 140 Grime Street - it was always like an address, all London based [laughs]. With this one I was going to go the same way, but it didn't feel suited to the music. And then I wrote the song 'MAAD' and I had the song 'Crazy' and I just thought, 'Method to the madness'… it just gave me that feeling, you know?

When the album was about to be released, you spoke about wanting to avoid the 'East-End cheese up' direction that British rap seems to have taken recently…

K: Yeah. Basically, someone asked me if I was inspired by any other music that's been going on in our kind of genre. He expected me to say no, but I said 'Yeah, maybe I was - but in the other way'. Kind of running away from it, rather than making music like everyone else is - being cheesy and making music that might chart well or be current on the radio. I wanted to stay away from that. I didn't want to go down that route.

Sometimes, I'm really scared for our music, because I feel the longevity in that type of music [cheesy chart-rap] is not really there at all. And I think we need more artists that are pushing the boundaries and making real music, and who have ambitions to have 10 albums our one day, rather than a couple of hot singles before nobody cares about them again. I think that's a really scary game to play with music so young.

I think it's OK in America, maybe, where you've got Jay Z, and you've got Nas… so many people that have been around for so long making good music. They've made great albums, so it's OK to have Chingy, Flo Rida - people that may not be here in a long time. But here, when you've only got a few people at most, and they're playing the short game? That's very scary.

In America there's the backbone; the canon, almost…

K: You've got the backbone, yeah. You've got the backbone of about 50 artists. Our backbone's only got about three in it.

The last few Dizzee singles sound like they were tailor made for fucking Butlins or something.

K: [Laughs] Yeah, yeah.

But that doesn't appeal to you?

K: It's very important to me to play the long game, and I think it's very important for us - although, I don't try and do anything for 'us', because you end up trying to please everybody and end up pleasing nobody, including yourself. But I feel like I'm looked at as that person to always address the balance and do what's best for the scene. And I feel this is best for me, but at the same time it's best for the scene as well. As I say man, a lot of the music out there is not genuine enough and it could easily just become a phase.

Well, there's a specific lyric on the album that ties into that, on 'Dark Days', about hip-hop going from "vulgar to soulless/ Money's taking over".

K: Yeah. When we started out, we were very naïve. We didn't know much and weren't expecting to go anywhere. We were just doing it as a hobby. We were passionate about it. And I think every day and every year is about trying to remember that, and keeping that same mentality while making music. I think a lot of that has gone. That line is… "Hip-hop went from party to political to vulgar/ From vulgar to soulless/ Money's taking over". Really I'm talking about hip-hop when it started out: from partying in the parks and the Afrika Bambaataa days, to the political Public Enemy days, to vulgar with the Jay-Z's - although he's a great artist. Hip-hop across the world is all about money now. Every song you hear: money, money, money.

We basically did it over, a whole new culture with grime. We did our own thing. We didn't do the American thing. But it went from art (which it was) to the hearts (because people loved it), and now it's broken. We need to try and fix it.

How do you fix it?

K: [Pause] I think it can be fixed just by putting out real music. Quality music; just treating it like it's a marathon.

I guess the early material resonated because people can relate to it, and once it's about wealth, and money, and power, it loses that resonance.

K: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

There was another specific line I wanted to talk to you about: "Foul mouth rappers, no fucking manners".

K: [Laughs].

That was a reaction to the controversy over you being involved with the Diploma scheme, right? [After Kano helped promote Diplomas amongst young people for a Government campaign, The Times labelled him a "foul mouthed rapper" when reporting the story_.

K: Yeah, the headline called me a "foul mouth rapper" [pause]. "Foul mouth rappers, no fucking manners" [laughs].

What do you make of headlines like that?

K: It's just very ignorant, you know? They don't really know anything about me. They ain't got a lot of time to explain it, so just use the headline "foul mouth rapper". Am I a foul mouth rapper? Do I swear? Maybe, but it's not really telling the back story. It's not really telling anybody who doesn't know me what I'm about. I think it's wrong in that way. But then for them, it might be right.

It's bizarre double standards, though; in 2005 Ken Livingstone proclaimed you as a 'Hero Of London', so sometimes people want to you to communicate a certain message. And at other times, the way you communicate isn't deemed good enough.

K: Exactly, exactly. When you want to get through to young people, we're the ones you need to do it through, because we're the people who speak their language.

Does it make you uneasy, to be used - perhaps even manipulated - like that?

K: I just think it's how it is. You just have to pick and choose carefully what you do.

Most of Method To The Maadness was made with Boyz Noize [aka German producer Alexander Ridha]. How did that come about?

K: He made the backbone to the album. Working with him was wicked; I think it's one of those things that was destined to happen. He used to send me beats I never ended up using, but I knew there was something in there - it just wasn't there yet. So I took a chance and went to Berlin and stayed there for a while, and we just hit it off in the studio. We made some songs very quickly - he's great to work with. We didn't know what it was going to sound like, but it was just us taking a chance and not being afraid in the studio.

What was Berlin like?

K: I love it. Outside of London, it's Berlin where I'll be. I just love the vibe, man. It's very arty, but I like going out there, I like working there. It's just nice.

How was working with people like Wiley and Ghetts again?

K: It was cool working with Wiley, because we haven't worked together in a while - well, we've done a couple of songs that haven't been out. But Ghetts, he's still a good friend and I always see him, so when we get to the studio it's always the same vibe. We just know each other so well. He's like my partner in grime [laughs].

And how about people like Damon Albarn and Hot Chip? You said earlier that your collaborations had become more equal, so what do you think all the concerned parties took out of working with each other?

K: Well Hot Chip… when I set out to work with them, I have to say: I really didn't know if we could connect. But the more and more we started speaking, talking about garage… Joe's a big fan of garage and loves people like Wookie - people I grew up on - so we weren't as far away musically as I thought. I don't know what they took from it, but I just know that I have a newfound respect for what they do, and we made some wicked tracks.

Damon is different. He's always cool to work with. In the studio he just inspires you so much; he pushes you to the limit and helps you do things you don't think you could normally do. He's got a way of making you trust him, and you'll try something and you'll like it. So he definitely makes you be more experimental.

Is it just a working relationship, or are you friends as well?

K: It was cool - a lot of the time we weren't making music, I was just playing him music that I had and he'd just give me his opinion on it.

Like a sounding board?

K: Yeah, yeah. He was cool for that. And he's not scared of saying: 'That's shit' [laughs].

Did he end up saying that a lot?

[Laughs] Nah, he didn't say that a lot.. he's not scared of saying 'That's great' and encouraging you either.

What are your plans for the rest of the year?

K: I'll be going on my UK tour from September 23. And I'll just be trying to get started on recording a new album as soon as I can, hopefully. And with Method…, I just hope that people will receive it well. I understand it might take them a little while to get into, but hopefully my fans that buy it will love it.