I’m sat in the dining room area of a central London hotel with rapper and actor – nah, actually, legend – Kano. It’s been three years since his last (MOBO winning, Mercury nominated) album Made In The Manor. So we’re here, with the sun beating through glass windows, for his first music interview in a good couple of years, and to discuss his next step. Ostensibly, that’s a 17-minute video directed by Aniel Karia (Top Boy, Lovesick, Pure): a mix of new tracks “Trouble” and “Class Of Deja”, in one long visual that offers a first taste of his upcoming and sixth album, Hoodies All Summer, due out on the 30th of August.
We chat a few weeks before the video’s release and Kano’s been up late, signing off artwork, looking at grading – working very close to the project. He remembers thinking it a long shot that Aneil would take on the video. “He was surprisingly into it,” he says. “But when we came to fully fleshing it out, there’s the challenge of reconciling the difference between an artist reeling off scene descriptions stored in their head – aesthetics, energy, narrative etc – with an actual director seeing the vision, getting all that, knowing what kind of time it takes to pull this kind of thing off properly.” Kano's a perfectionist, see; the kind of artist who wants to make sure everything is on point, if the time he’s taken between albums in the past is any indication (six years between Made In The Manor and 2010’s Method To The Maadness). He’s come a long way from those earlier, and iconic, Lord Of The Mic sessions with Wiley, when he was a teen.
These days, at 34, he says, he lives for moments. Fuck a loosie single release or a quick jump on a remix. “You know how music is now – people throwing shit out?” he asks. Well, Hoodies All Summer isn’t that. It’s ten tracks that demand your attention. Several core ideas underpin the album’s feel, energy and overall message, he says: “the directness, the urgency about it, the no-bullshitting”. You’ll get some of that in the video below, which Kano would prefer you take in, in full, no explanation.
As for the rest of the record, Jamaican dancehall star Bounty Killer was an influence. Not musically per se, but through the feeling the “ghetto governor” instilled in his tracks. “I liked how he spoke about what was happening. You know what I mean? There’s a song of his called ‘Poor People Fed Up’. There was something about that tune…” Kano recorded an album track in Jamaica too, with Popcaan, where “he took me– fucking hell, he took me to the ghetto-est raves.” Small nods and connections like this – or how “Class Of Deja” was recorded with Ghetts and Kano going back-to-back on one microphone in the same studio – seep into the presence felt throughout Hoodies All Summer. It’s a record that lives and breathes, right in your face.
VICE: Congrats on the album man, it’s banging. It’s one of those ones where someone’s gonna remember the first time they listen to it all the way through. It’s a special record.
Kano: [Laughing] I’ll take that! Nah, for real. That’s good to hear. We worked on it for so long. I knew if the record came earlier, coming off tour [from Made In The Manor], making a new record, going back on tour, capitalising on the momentum… All of that’s great but I was like naaaaaah. It weren’t flowing like that for me. Nah nah nah. I can’t throw something out. This is a special piece of work for me.
It feels like Made in The Manor was autobiographical whereas this looks outward.
Yeah yeah. That album was about me, this album is about ‘us.’
Like on "Trouble", where you’re addressing the situation facing London’s youth today – particularly knife crime?
I’m very cautious to word it in a way like ‘tackling knife crime’ and that.
How would you word it?
It’s a tough one. To me “Trouble” is a direct conversation with people from the areas I’m from. Because a lot of times that conversation has been played out on the news where they talk about an epidemic and da-da-da-da-da and blame the parents and all that kind of shit. And that just does my head in. But it does break my heart to see what’s going on, because I know the potential in people, especially getting past that phase where you might go in a negative direction. I’ve seen so many people come out of that. But my thing isn’t ‘put down the knives’ because at the same time, I get it. I’m from there. I know why people would want to carry a knife.
People really fear for their lives. Some people really would rather be caught with a knife than without one. That’s the mentality they have. It’s hard for people from outside of that world to understand that mindset because it’s so complex.
It is deep. And it’s not like it can be solved through music, or a lyric, or one conversation. But that’s the stuff that’s been flowing through my head when making this album.
There’s a bit of gospel singing in “Trouble” – are you religious?
Nah I’m not religious. It’s not a hymn or nothing. It’s a vibration. There’s an energy in people coming together and singing. Then, the beat is so uplifting, then bam: you’re shocked with this thing you’re not expecting.
You’re talking about the sample of the aftermath of a kid being stabbed?
Yeah, I wanted people to not be able to turn it off. It’s not at the end of the song, not at the beginning, it’s right in the middle, right as you were having fun – because every day, as you’re going through your life and having fun, this is what’s happening. It’s easy to turn away when it’s not you or not your kid but there you go: it’s in your face right now. It’s sad, man.
Tell me about the shoot, and how you wove this story of grief into that performance scene with D Double and Ghetts.
We shot over two days towards the end of May, in a few different places in London. Initially, we saw loads of houses and none were quite right for what we wanted. Generally, the areas where it was easiest to get local permission were not necessarily the “London-London” I talk about in my lyrics, so it felt wrong. Then, literally the week of the shoot, a producer’s mate – a young black woman from south London who clearly wasn’t too put off by the party element – kindly offered up her house. We wanted a modest family home – lived-in – but were also conscious of not making commentary in terms of financial status or anything like that. Ultimately, it just had to feel real and familiar to my upbringing. We did have long deliberations about the red walls though. I hated them. We almost painted them but we didn’t because three coats wouldn’t dry in time. Funny enough, now I love them on screen.
With the performance element, it was really inspired by my own family functions – christenings, weddings, birthdays. When a DJ annoyingly plays one of my tunes purely because they know I’m there, my cousins and aunties sometimes will try and get me on the mic. Once every ten years it may work. So on set day, I was confident I could gauge in the moment what felt authentic. The MC in me knew that, for vocal performance reasons, having two mics would help a lot with the overlaps, especially in the back-to-back verse with Ghetts, but I also know there’s never two mics in real life! That would have felt too convenient so that’s why we decided on passing one mic around, surrendering to the narrative. I didn’t want it to feel like we came here to do a live PA, hence why it was also important to establish D Double E in the garden as just another guest and family friend.
In terms of the wake chapter, I was sure that any viewer that had attended a Jamaican or African funeral before would understand how, post-church, it becomes about the celebration of life. But I was also aware of how it could be perceived by viewers who hadn’t been exposed to that before and didn’t understand it, culturally; seemingly having so much fun and partying after someone has just died. However, it was very important to gradually build to that point and bring the viewer in on this journey using the mother as a vehicle. And we still kept that sense of sadness, initially among Nate’s friends, and then by following his little brother upstairs as he struggles to come to terms with his house being full of people enjoying themselves – he’s too young to understand. And then ending on the raw emotion of the sister was an important reminder of what’s at stake.
Without spoiling the rest of the record, you’ve got a few similar tricks up your sleeve – where things switch. I’m into it. I’m also into the pairing of “Trouble” and “Class Of Deja”.
My reasoning for that, and for putting “Trouble” first, was the visual. All that single shit – I don’t even know what that means anymore. It wasn’t a decision based on “Trouble” being a good radio song, it’s a terrible radio song! I’m not editing it, it’s too long and I’m not taking that sample out – which is what the radio will want me to do, but I feel strongly about keeping it in. So “Trouble” came out first, because it’s what I wanted to represent visually and “Deja” is weaved into that visual.
Whether it’s your debut, Made In The Manor, this video or this new record, it feels to me that you’re increasingly wanting to make defining, full-bodied pieces of work.
Ah, yeah – that’s what it’s about for me. The more and more you go on, you want to make things that are memorable, impactful. If you’re going to do something, it should be fresh and it shouldn’t have been done before. I feel it’s important to create moments, especially in a time where things are so throwaway. It’s fine to keep releasing tune after tune if you can keep up with that pace but I can’t. I’m not the guy that will have the hot tune every month. That’s not me! Drake can do that well, he can have the hottest tune every summer for the next 20 years, and that’s how he does his things. But naaaaah, I might go away for three years, you know what I mean?
You’ve still got bangers, though.
Yeah – when you come you’ve got to have that as well. But I’m not dropping freestyles to keep my name buzzing. That stuff means nothing to me. When you come out, and if you’re saying something work taking note of, then people will give you their ears. If you’re not, it’s whatever.
What do you feel people will think about your career when they look back on it?
I don’t know. But I do know I didn’t want to look back in ten years’ time and to have not made a record like this. If I looked back on 2019, in ten years’ time, and I’d only made club tune after club tune, what’s the purpose? Especially in this time. To me – and I’m hard on myself – to have not made this record would be an embarrassment to the creative songwriter in me.
It’s very admirable to stick by your guns.
I was in two minds starting this record. There’s so much to be down about, should I only make music so people can forget about those things for 40 minutes? Or do I go the other way and address it all?
I feel you’ve addressed certain situations but it’s not a downbeat record.
Yeah, to me there’s optimism in this record, there’s hope in this record – it’s not ‘Ah, this is shit.’
Yeah: it would be terrible if it was like, Kano has come back with a record and he says ‘Everything is shit, fuck everything, this is terrible!’
You’ve got to have a bit of goodness in there too.
Yeah, because not everything is shit, you know what I mean?
'Hoodies All Summer' is up for pre-order on Kano's site now, before its release on the 30th of August. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.