Packed inside a smoky basement belonging to Jammer, members of two prominent crews on the burgeoning UK grime scene are gathered to witness a clash between the biggest MCs on the circuit. Stood at the bottom of the stairs representing their respective groups are Wiley of Roll Deep and Kano of N.A.S.T.Y, both preparing to launch into a battle which would go down as one of the most significant moments in their genre’s history.
‘To be honest, we didn’t know it would become such an important moment at the time,’ the East London MC, full name Kane Robinson, admits over the phone to Exposed almost 12 years later. ‘Obviously, it was a big deal – possibly more to me than Wiley because he was a veteran and I was just a kid.’
And the kid from Newham, not long out of his teen years, took on the rapper he and many others looked up to, whose instrumental beat ‘Eskimo’ the young MC would have honed his trade spitting on, and matched him round for round in a contest which would inspire a generation of youths in the UK to start jumping on tracks themselves, blaring out tunes from their mobile phones and trying to emulate the quick-witted lyrics and jibes exchanged between the two artists.
The first Lord of the Mics had landed – and with that, grime truly started to take off. To this day opinion is divided over who won the clash in the basement, and rumours of a much-anticipated rematch began to circulate towards the end of last year after Jammer posted a text from Wiley on Instagram seemingly seeking a second round: ‘not a disrespect war, just a rematch’ were the words sent from the Bow E3 man. When asked, supposedly not for the first time in his career, whether this is a realistic option, there’s light laughter and a resolute response. ‘Nah, that’s already been done. It’s best to leave it in the past, man.’ And for an artist whose career was propelled off the back of a highly successful clash, it is somewhat surprising when he struggles to answer the follow-up question of who his dream Lord of The Mics opponent would be. ‘Do you know what? I’m not too sure about that. Wiley is more of a clash man than me. For me, I see a clash as a form of defence; I wouldn’t actually choose to clash anybody unless I felt I had to defend myself,’ he explains.
A year following the LOTM appearance, his debut album Home Sweet Home was released containing the celebrated tracks ‘P’s & Q’s, ‘Typical Me’ and ‘Nite Nite’ and quickly joined the likes of Dizzee Rascal’s Boy In Da Corner and Wiley’s Tredding On Thin Ice as game-changing albums for British urban music. That was 11 years ago, and following a six-year hiatus from releasing an album, during which he built up a name for himself in the acting world with a lead role in Channel 4 drama Top Boy, he’s now ready to drop fifth studio album Made in the Manor.
Though a decade ago even the uber-confident young artist who was turning heads with energetic live sets and bouncy British hip-hop tracks had no idea of the success which was heading his way; the 30 year old, now seen as an elder statesman of the movement, speaks with a slight hint of wistfulness about the excitement of those early days. ‘It’s unreal that the first album was 11 years ago – sometimes it only feels like yesterday. Back in those days it was much more pure and you were doing it for the love. Like, I’d go to a rave and only make 50 quid, but it was still a big buzz for me.’
It’s a rare chance to get nostalgic for someone who admits to spending far too much time with his mind on the future: thinking about where his career will take him next rather than learning to enjoy the moment. He claims the best piece of advice given to him was from his good friend and regular collaborator Mike Skinner, who told him early on not to read his own press or pay attention to what the reviews say. It’s a philosophy which has seen him branch out with his work, collaborating with a wealth of talent from a range of musical backgrounds – with Damon Albarn, Hot Chip and Kate Nash being just a few of the names he’s worked with over the years.
Writing material for the new album involved more delving into the past, and in particular revaluating where he came from: his upbringing on Manor Road, Newham, and how it shaped him. When I suggest that not many artists feel comfortable with letting their guard down and opening up in this way, it’s accepted with a shrug but followed by a claim that he’ll never hold back when he picks up a microphone or a pen, a justified statement which has seen him often acknowledged as one of the most dangerous lyricists to come out of the UK. ‘I had the opportunity to dive into myself and pull out things I didn’t even know was there. The main thing for me was telling stories that people hadn’t already heard; I wanted everyone – whether they’ve been fans from the start or listen to me for the first time – to learn something new about me.’
Kano’s return has come at a point when the UK scene is arguably the strongest it has been in a long time, with a new generation of artists like Stormzy, Novelist and Krept & Konan rising up alongside the seasoned regulars and a new grime track dominating the increasingly mainstream airwaves every month. For someone who helped to lay the foundations for the movement, watching it blossom has been nothing but enjoyable for him. ‘It’s incredible. I think that we’re seeing another generation of grime artists inspired by the first generation: Dizzee Rascal, Wiley, Lethal B and myself. We all grew up on American hip-hop, but the current crop of MCs grew up listening to us and have taken it from there. It’s lovely to see, man.’
The strength of this movement hasn’t escaped the north, or Sheffield for that matter, and we’ve seen local MC Coco finding his way onto Radio 1Xtra Playlists on more than one occasion over the previous months. Grime music, though certainly originating in the capital, has become a nationwide phenomenon with artists and fans representing strongly in the larger cities such as Manchester, Birmingham and Nottingham.
He’s just in the process of praising the rise of certain MCs and crews across the UK when our interview is cut short by the press officer.
‘Go on, give me one more,’ he says quickly.
‘Erm,’ I reply, frantically scanning my questions. ‘Best track to play in the rave?’
‘Garage Skank. All day.’
Made In The Manor is out now, and Kano plays Plug Sheffield on March 26th. Tickets and more info here.