They say K, where you been, I say I been about
A million miles from here, that’s where I’ve been at.
Following three albums that gave voice to his east London upbringing, Kano’s gone travelling.
Though each different in their own way, Home Sweet Home, London Town and 140 Grime Street were all recognisably the work of a young man reared in the early noughties mutations of London’s grime scene. In contrast, such is its bold variety of colours and brazen innovation, Method To The Maadness is an album that’s almost impossible to pin – or put – down.
It marks an extraordinary move for an artist who’s always been the odd man out in the capital’s emcee culture. When most were busily aping Dizzee Rascal’s brilliant blizzard of rhymes, Kano debuted in 2002 with a slow, deliberate flow that immediately set the young Kane Robinson (he was just 17 at the time) at odds with the prevailing mood and tempo of the time. But the single Boys Love Girls was an instant classic, despite his lack of grooming. “It wasn’t trying to do anything different, it was just the best I could do,” he smiles. “It was very sparse because I didn’t know how to play anything else or do anything else.”
Eight years on, and on the evidence of Method To The Maadness he can do pretty much anything. There’s the playful cyber-dancehall of Crazy; the yin/yang introspection of bookends 2 Left: Topic Of Discussion and Dark Days, one defiantly optimistic in the face of trouble, the other brooding and tortured; the 21st- century melting pop of Upside and Slaves; the lubricious Lady Killer or the soulful All + All Together.
It would’ve been the easiest thing in the world for Kano to follow his peers into the East End cheese-up that’s swept the UK charts in the last few years. But that served only as an example to avoid, not emulate. He says, “I was influenced by all of that music, that cheesy stuff you hear, in so much as I don’t wanna be like that. I went the other way.”
Method To The Maadness is emphatically not a step back to his hardcore roots (he took care of that on 140 Grime Street), but an embrace of new horizons. German dance producer Boys Noize, more generally associated with the Justice/Digitalism school of nu-rave, provides four tracks which vary wildly in sound and intent, with only Get Wild, which marries grime’s energy to fervently funky electronic beats and powerhouse Anglo-Jamaican rhyming (featuring East
End legend Wiley and dancehall star Aidonia), coming remotely close to anything Kano’s done before.
“I know how it goes when people just send a track and they’re not bothered,” says Kano. “So I went to Berlin to work with Boys Noize. A lot of the time you work with producers and they’ve got their sound that is of the moment and they don’t wanna do anything else. I didn’t want any of that. We both went out of our comfort zone. No one was afraid to do something different.” Just how different can be heard on, say, Jenga, where Kano spars with old collaborator Vybz Kartel (“he’s a magician on the mic”) over an air-cushioned, spacious beat. Here Kano reflects on the declining music industry and how you have to “grab what you can while it’s on the way down”. Perhaps that explains the line: “I move with the times, Steve Jobs on the vox”.
But perhaps the biggest boost for this chapter of innovation and experimentation comes from Kano’s experiences as part of Damon Albarn’s African Express and Gorillaz (Kano featured on White Flag from the new album). The tours have taken him around the world, to Ethiopia, Nigeria (where he was rapturously received), Syria, Beirut and a headlining appearance at Glastonbury. Albarn was originally slated for an executive producer role, but Gorillaz commitments encroached. “Even though he’s not executive producer he gave me the chance to borrow his ears, gave me his opinion on certain tracks,” says Kano. “A lot of the time when you’re working with people you’re trying to impress them. ‘You think you’re good, I think I’m good.’ I was trying to spit lyrics I thought he’d like. I came through.”
Breezy melodies and risk-taking abound throughout, not just on Bassment, which Albarn co-wrote and produced under his A13 production alias. “Everything is so formulaic,” says Kano, scanning the current music scene. “You gotta do this and that, have a big chorus. I was just, ‘We’re not gonna do that, we’re just gonna have a bassline, a kick and a snare.’ Damon put that effect on it while we were doing it. I like it, it’s like something Mos Def would do.”
Bassment also makes light of recent attempts to embroil Kano in controversy, when a well-intentioned campaign to promote diplomas was criticised for using a rapper said to be “famous for his violent and obscenity-strewn lyrics”. “Foulmouth rappers/No fucking manners/Cockney rhyming slangers/Sweet,” he raps cheekily by way of reply. Kano smiles, “What if I wasn’t a foulmouthed rapper? Then I’d be shit, I’d be Will Smith. Every rapper is foulmouthed. It’s about saying the shit you’re scared to say, that you’re not meant to say.”
Kano doffs his hoodie to the Asbo kids on Maad, a playful show of support for those who torment their fellow bus passengers. But elsewhere his serious side comes out. Slaves, one of three collaborations with Craigie Dodds, was inspired by conspiracy documentary Zeitgeist. It began life as a track for Dodds’ group Why Why Peaches, but he ceded it to Kano on condition he watched the film. Closer to home, 2 Left: Topic Of Discussion and All + All Together reflect on Kano’s disappearing friends, people who’ve misunderstood him and his music career.
The latter features Hot Chip, who also produced Lady Killer. Although yet more evidence of Kano experimenting with cutting-edge dance, the partnership was less of a leap then he expected. “We were recording in Joe Goddard’s old
bedroom where he grew up and there’s posters on the wall of Wu-Tang and he knows all about old garage records by Sticky and Wookie. I could see why we connect, as a kid he was listening to everything I was listening to.”
Kano has never been afraid to try new ideas. His Home Sweet Home debut was immediately hailed as one of the pivotal grime albums, though in hindsight it was a great deal more. Its successor London Town was criticised by purists for collaborating with indie and pop artists like Kate Nash, Craig David and Damon Albarn, a practice that soon became the norm as UK emcees reached beyond their base. “A lot of things I do people find surprising and then as time goes on it becomes normal,” shrugs Kano. “I worked with Kate Nash, then you get Dizzee and Lily Allen. Ps & Qs, people said it wasn’t grime, it was too slow. As time went on it grew into this phenomenon, it’s still played in clubs now. Typical Me, with electric guitars over it, that was different. Later one it became cool for indie bands to have grime MCs.”
Kano’s career has been one of hard work, bold moves and restless innovation. He addresses rap music’s history, the birth of grime and his own disillusion with it on the sombre closer Dark Days. He raps, “Hip hop went from party to political to vulgar/Vulgar to soulless/Money’s taking over, so we did it over/Whole new culture/ But it went from art to the charts/Now it’s broken.”
“It’s about not being in love with music at the moment but still needing it. It’s my therapy for all the dark times I have in my life,” he says. From darkness to the light, the boy from East Ham has just made something dazzling and groundbreaking, accessible but challenging. He may have had to go a million miles from here to discover his method, but now he’s returned with everything a British rap album should be. You’d be maad as hell not to take it.