If Kano really thinks about it, he can just about remember his first ever lyrics. He was 14 years old and, like a lot of 14-year-olds, he’d fallen in love. He’d fallen in love with sweaty men in underpants.
“My first bars were about wrestling! That was basically all I knew back then,” chuckles one of Britain’s finest MCs as he reminisces about an attempt to make rhythmic poetry out of a testosterone-raddled gent in overly tight pants. “It went: ‘Start from the bottom / Rise to the top / Give you Rock Bottom / Just like The Rock.’” He pauses. “Rock Bottom was one of The Rock’s moves.” He pauses again. “I was 14!”
He’s improved a lot since then. Kane ‘Kano’ Robinson’s latest album ‘Made In The Manor’ has seen him hit heights that he’d never thought possible during the days when his main creative forum was his school rough-book. He’s been shortlisted for the Mercury Prize, it’s been his first ever Top 10 album (number eight – pipped to seventh place by Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Untitled Unmastered’) and it’s given him such clout that the Brixton Academy date on his current tour sold out months in advance. The thing that’d excite his 14-year-old self most, though? “The Rock got in touch! He was gonna fly from Barcelona to Glastonbury to watch me, but we didn’t get the email until after the show,” he says. “Maybe he read my name wrong. It’s Kano, not Kanye!”
It’s a sign of how far he’s come that today we’re not in the grimiest of grimy locations. He’s lunching inside a chichi fish restaurant in Buckhurst Hill – an upmarket suburb in the leafy borderlands between Essex and London – keeping it particularly real with a piece of pan-fried sea bass. Partly we’re here because this is where he lives now (Buckhurst Hill, not the fish restaurant). But we’re also here because on ‘Made In The Manor’, Catch (for this is the eaterie’s name) is the subject of a lyrical reference that sees him announcing: “Might go Catch, grab a likkle sea bass”. So here we are.
“We’re literally living the album,” he chuckles as he prongs a fishy forkful and tells us where it all began.
It all started very differently. So differently, in fact, that Kano even despised his own name. Thanks to ’90s beat-em-up Mortal Kombat, his school friends christened him ‘Kano’ after a character with a penchant for pulling out opponents’ hearts and squeezing them like an executive stress toy. Initially, it didn’t make him sing with joy (“I used to hate it. HATE it”) so when his mum bought his brother a set of decks and he begun writing lyrics to freestyle over his brother’s garage sets, he tried “to choose basically anything else as an MC name – but it just stuck”. Within a couple of years, he’d recorded a song called ‘Boys Love Girls’ in his bedroom, which, on the advice of a very young Dizzee Rascal, he then touched up in a studio. It ended up getting heavy rotation on pirate radio station Déjà Vu, leading to him joining one of grime’s premier collectives: an east London crew called N.A.S.T.Y.
What most people know is that he then went on to become one of grime’s most celebrated MCs, developing a flair for intricate wordplay that saw him fêted as the scene’s cleverest wordsmith. It’s common knowledge that he started regularly spraying lyrics on stage at grime raves across the capital, despite the police’s apparent desire to hospitalise the crowd (“Most raves used to end by getting CS gassed. It wouldn’t be like: ‘Last orders! We’ve gotta go!’ It’d be: ‘Sigh, it’s been CS gassed, we’ve gotta leave.’”) Everyone’s aware that he signed to Warner subsidiary 679 Recordings, released gold-certified album ‘Home Sweet Home’ and became a close friend and collaborator of Mike Skinner (“I just gelled with him, man. We got kicked out of a lot of hotels together on tour”). But what people don’t realise is that in his early days he just didn’t feel like he fitted in with grime.
“I just felt different,” he sighs. “I’d be out with all the other MCs doing all the pirate radio stuff, spitting together, but then I’d go home and write these social commentary tunes with a slower tempo. I was just too nervous to play the other MCs all the tracks I was working on with my first album.” Why was he doing it if he was so worried about it? “I don’t know. I’ve always just wanted to do something a bit bigger.”
Over the years, the difference has become more pronounced. Whereas most grime MCs made a name for themselves with killer one-off freestyles or tracks intended to tear up raves, Kano decided that he was “about the art of storytelling – and nothing showcases storytelling like an album”. While his peers were busy engaging in angry lyrical battles over pirate radio, he was trying to make his own version of Jay Z’s ‘The Blueprint’, putting out LPs of songs that felt like classic songwriting which happened to feature a grime MC.
Between 2007 and 2012, most grime MCs caved to record industry pressure to make a quick buck by popping on sleeveless vests and jigging about to a chart-house beat. Kano, however, decided to take some time out from making music altogether. He accepted a request from Gorillaz to join them on their world tour after an earlier collaboration with Damon had made it on to the cartoon band’s ‘Plastic Beach’ album, despite Kano not exactly being an expert on the group. “When we first arranged to meet I didn’t even know that the guy from Blur was the Gorillaz,” he remembers.
Kano travelled the world, ended up hanging out with Lou Reed and Bobby Womack shortly before their deaths, then came back and launched an acting career. For two series, he starred in Top Boy – Channel 4’s critically acclaimed state-of-London urban drama – whose presence on Netflix continues to rack up shedloads of unusual fans (“When I met Noel Gallagher, the first thing he asked was: “When’s Top Boy coming back?”). In the last year, no lesser a name than Drake has personally stepped in to fight for it to be recommissioned. “He’s proper into it,” reveals Kano. “I think it’ll come back, but I’m just an actor. They never tell me anything until the last minute.”
After we’ve finished eating, Kano pushes his plate to one side and tells me about the decision that changed his life. “After three years of not recording I decided to ask myself: ‘What can I tell people on a fifth album that I haven’t told them before? That’s what led to ‘Made In The Manor’.” The answer, he decided, was to give them the most open, honest lyrics he could find within himself. He started laying himself emotionally bare, penning songs that range from a forensic analysis of the sadness he feels at falling out with his old friend, grime MC Demon, to an introspective ballad about a long-lost stepsister via bouncy feelgood tunes chronicling his youth. Tales of childhood squabbles with his cousins sit alongside laments for friends who’ve lost babies and acquaintances who’ve struggled with their mum’s cancer diagnosis.
So honest and personal a record was it that Kano toyed with not releasing it. He began to worry that people would say: “This is too personal – you should’ve just made this for your friends.” Partly, he was genuinely scared that it was going to damage real-life relationships. But when he did put it out, he quickly realised he’d made the right decision. Suddenly the estranged stepsister he hadn’t seen in a decade got in touch and he was on the receiving end of a phone call from Demon ready to rekindle their friendship (“He said: ‘I had to phone you,’” smiles Kano. “He’d had so many phone calls about it. Even his mum called him and went: ‘Son – phone your friend!’”). He’s even had fans getting in touch to tell him that it’s inspired them to reunite their own broken families. “It’s that track ‘Strangers’,” he says. “I’ve had people tell me that they’ve played it to family members who haven’t spoken in years to bring them together.”
In a way, though, it shouldn’t have worked. Between the inception and release of ‘Made In The Manor’, grime had undergone a renaissance and suddenly Kano seemed to be at odds with everything it stood for. While the genre was fiercely rejecting the idea of working with major labels, Kano was signing a deal with Parlophone. As grime shunned polished productions for rough-edged beats, Kano was opting for piano-strafed epics, strings and backing vocalists. But instead of destroying his cred within grime, the opposite has happened. The leader of grime’s renaissance, Skepta, has been quick to heap praise on Kano.
“Legend,” “greatness”, “respect”: all words he’s tweeted in support of Kano’s latest work. Somehow he’s avoided damaging his cred, instead cementing his status as one of grime’s most talented sons. How the hell did he manage that?
“It’s really important to me to still spend time in the ends – I’m there all the time,” he offers as an explanation while we wait for the bill. “I do my videos there, I still talk about it. It’s important for me to be an inspiration to the youth of the area and not just leave now I’ve blown up.” We pay and stand up to leave and he adds: “I have to admit, I did think: ‘Oh f**k, this isn’t really grime. What if no one gives a f**k?’ But I like making life difficult for myself.”
A few days later, I get to see the truth of this statement first hand. On his upcoming tour, Kano has decided that he’s not content to just appear onstage with a DJ. Instead, he’s decided to try to re-create the album with a seven-person live band, and so I find myself in a Bermondsey rehearsal studio while he talks about the one thing that he’s not entirely sure how to replicate: a rewind. “We’ve got to have the wheel up,” he tells his musical director Blue May. “Those brass instruments can make some crazy sounds, right?”
“Erm, we’ll figure something out,” says Blue, with a confidence that sounds slightly misplaced. After all, how on earth do you go about making an analogue instrument re-create the noise of a track being played backwards? “I’ll tell you how we’ll do it. Kano will just yell: ‘Pull it up!’ and we’ll all bash at things trying to figure out how to do it,” he laughs, before going off to tune a bass guitar.
Kano now looks totally knackered. In the couple of days since we lunched he’s flown to Russia and back for a gig, via a festival in Kent. As instruments are set up around us, I start to wonder whether he’s even capable of taking time off. We begin talking about the videos for the singles from ‘Made In The Manor’, initially chuckling over the fact that one of them cost £35 to make. But I stop laughing when I realise that the reason it was so cheap is because he literally storyboarded, filmed and then edited the entire production himself.
When he decided that the video for ‘Garage Skank’ should be a compilation of footage that fans had sent in, he spent two days in front of a computer personally editing the video. When it came to thanking the 500 fans whose video footage was used, he stayed up until 5am, emailing each one individually. “But this way it’s me telling the story every step of the way, from the music to the video,” he says. “I think people appreciate that.”
The staff around the operation are now joking about what Kano’s live rewind is going to sound like. There’s talk of involving a humongous euphonium. Kano is explaining that he doesn’t want the band to know when it’s coming. “At any given time I wanna be able to shout: ‘Wheel up!’” he laughs. Then, finally, it’s time for me to leave the band to practice.
I turn to exit just as Kano jumps on the drum kit to see if he can play a live version of the digital drumbeat he created for one of his first singles, ‘Typical Me’. I’m at the door as he’s crashing around under the tutelage of his tour drummer, watching as he nails the part in about five minutes flat. Then, as I open the door, there’s a loud cry. “WHEEELLLL UPPPP!” and Kano bursts out laughing, smashing every single drum on the kit. “That’s musicianship right there!” he yells. Of course: if I was going to see the live rewind, how appropriate that it wouldn’t be his band I saw attempt it but Kano himself. After all, “personal” is his watchword.