INTERVIEW: Grime legend Kano gets in-depth with HNHH about the direction of "Hoodies All Summer," the success of "Top Boy," U.K.'s drill scene, and more.
Kane Robinson, better known to the masses as Kano, has been a pivotal force in U.K.’s grime scene since the early 2000s. He shaped the culture from its days being an underground genre you could only hear through pirate radio and clashes, and now he's championed for his artistry as both an actor and MC. In 2016, his fifth studio album, Made In Manor, earned him a Mercury Music Award nomination and a MOBO Award for Best Album.
Three years later and Kano’s having one of the most exciting years of his career. Within a matter of weeks, he released his critically acclaimed new album, Hoodies All Summer, and the long-awaited third season of Top Boy finally launched on Netflix. Hoodies has been a work in progress for the past three years with speculation of a new season of Top Boy swirling since early 2017. His role as Sully has earned him rightful credibility as an actor but his foray into the world of television and film has also influenced the way he approaches music. Hoodies All Summer perfectly exemplifies that. Over the course of ten tracks, with features from Kojo Funds, Popcaan, and more, Kano sheds light on relevant topics that are affecting the most silenced communities.
Kano admits that Made In Manor was rooted in his personal experience. When it came time to approaching Hoodies All Summer, he realized that this project was bigger than his own life stories -- it was about common experiences that aren't necessarily heard in the mainstream media.
A still from Kano's "Can't Hold We Down" music video - provided by the artist for HNHH
"I believe that became the direction because my last album was so personal. A lot of personal stories, and vulnerability, and it just revealed a lot," he told HNHH. "So when it came to starting this next one, I was almost like, “What else can I say?” I realized that maybe this album isn’t about me. Maybe I just have to turn that perspective. Maybe it’s about we, about all of us, and about what I see. That became the story. I realized that opened up so many things to speak about."
That also aligned with Sully’s character development in the latest season of Top Boy. In the first two seasons of Top Boy, Sully was a violent and volatile character who, on numerous occasions, didn’t think twice before pulling the trigger, figuratively and literally. In the third season, Top Boy uses Sully as a means to explore the topic of mental health, especially among young Black men in the U.K. There’s a vulnerability to his character that wasn’t seen in the past, and that also impacted and influenced the direction of Hoodies All Summer.
Following the release of Hoodies All Summer, Kano chopped it up with HNHH over the phone where he discussed his new project, UK Drill, and the possibilities of Top Boy season 4.
HNHH: Yo Kano, what’s good bro?
Kano: I’m on a telephone. I haven’t been on one of these in years.
Wait, like a landline?
I didn’t even know they existed.
*Laughs* What’s happening? You alright?
Yeah, I’m good bro. How are you doing?
I’m well man, I’m well. In NY, enjoying it.
That’s what’s up man. I wanted to start off by congratulating you on all the success you’ve seen, this year alone. How have you been feeling about the reception of Hoodies All Summer?
Amazing man. It’s something I worked on for three years, on and off. When you work on something for that long and you’re passionate about it, and you’re meticulous about it, and you’re in every detail and what not, sometimes you’re so in it that you can’t enjoy it. So now to have it out and finally release it to the world, and to go on tour and play the music in front of people and get that instant feedback, it’s just cool man. So yeah, a bit overwhelming but it’s what I work for.
One thing I appreciate about the project is your ability to adapt to the current sounds coming out right now, even with collaborations with Kojo Funds and Popcaan. I know that you’ve said a lot of sounds on it go back to nostalgic sounds when you were a kid. I was wondering, what type of music were you listening to throughout the project? How did you dictate the direction of the project in that sense?
I wasn’t really listening to much. I tend to make music in a little bit of a vacuum. I wasn’t really searching for inspiration musically in that sense. Plus, you don’t want to be subconsciously influenced. I don’t listen to the radio every day and try to make a tune. But it goes to what you were saying before, staying relevant to me isn’t necessarily just jumping on the wave of what’s new. There’s a U.K. drill thing happening at the moment. So for me to try and jump on a drill tune to keep a bit relevant and all that shit, I just think that is so see-through. People can see through that, it’s fake to me. The way to age well and to stay relevant is just to stay true to who you are in that moment. That’s the way I see it. But musically, the aim was really to, as you said man, draw on my musical DNA, which I think is the Jamaican roots, U.K. garage, grime, and hip hop, and just really blend those in a way that I’ve never really done before, or heard before. That’s why you get songs like “Pan-Fried” that sound so fresh, the one with Kojo, because it’s got him on it and he brings that afro-thing to it, plus you got the bass which is a bit of a dancehall thing, and you got sped up vocals which to me is like Garage. That’s everything I grew up on. So the aim was to represent my life. Like musically, just make the score to my life.
Nah, definitely. As your position in UK grime and the UK music scene in general, why was it necessary for you to use this album as one to really address some serious issues going on in the UK right now, especially among minorities?
Yeah, it’s just what I see every day. That just fed its way into the music. But I believe that became the direction because my last album was so personal. A lot of personal stories, and vulnerability, and it just revealed a lot. So when it came to starting this next one, I was almost like, “What else can I say?” I realized that maybe this album isn’t about me. Maybe I just have to turn that perspective. Maybe it’s about we, about all of us, and about what I see. That became the story. I realized that opened up so many things to speak about.
It’s definitely interesting you say that. On the Popcaan joint, it’s called “Hold We Down” --
Yeah, and the last line “If we don’t hold each other down, we won’t make it.” That’s the last line of the album. To me, that’s the community, and togetherness, and unity. It’s about all of us. So much of rap is “me, me, me” and “look what watch I got” and “look what car I’m driving.” That’s cool for the moment, but that’s not inspiring. That’s not what everyone can identify with. It may be aspirational, but it’s not what the regular person is going through. When you tap into those real emotions, it’s timeless to me.
It goes back to even the hunger in your voice in the opening track. In every word you say, you can hear that emphasis behind that. I think that’s what makes this project that much more compelling. You touched on the UK drill scene. I was wondering what your thoughts were about the controversy surrounding UK drill.
I don’t know, I’m not a big UK drill guy, I don’t know everyone. I just.. I still root for those guys. I’ve seen this story before, that used to happen with Garage, shutting down raves. It just feels like it’s the new one. It happens with black music all the time. I don’t know why but when -- well, I do know why. Obviously, there’s a race element to it, as well. But, when I see those guys, I’m like, if you are speaking your truth, and your truth is rooted in the streets and that’s where you come from, and you speak about what you experience and see, then you should be allowed to do so. And just on a professional level, guys coming off of the streets and getting into the professional world and making something of their life, that should be something that we celebrate, right? It should be commended. So on that level, it’s ridiculous to ban people’s music and cancel their shows so they can’t earn a legal living. What do you want them to go back and do? It’s regressive, it’s ridiculous. If you don’t like the content, that’s fine. If you got something to say about that, cool, you can have your opinion. But you can’t tell somebody to censor their art. It’s ridiculous. I don’t believe in censorship within art. So I don’t know the resolution, but I think there’s something to celebrate in these young kids making something out of their life.
Yeah, definitely. For me, it’s crazy because at one point I remember reading something about drill artists that started uploading their music to porn sites because their songs were being removed from YouTube. With your experience coming up in grime, did you see it as aggressive as it is now, even back then?
It’s hard to compare. When you’re in it, you’re in it. Maybe not as aggressive because social media wasn’t a thing. So I guess it spread a lot further now. You can make a song and shoot a video and that could be everywhere tomorrow. What we were doing was underground. Pirate radio station, which was illegal, but we were doing it. Police used to come there and shut it down. It was all underground, now it’s above ground. That’s why people seem to have a problem with it. So yeah, maybe it’s worse now because it’s more visible.
A still from Kano's "Can't Hold We Down" music video - provided by the artist for HNHH
I was really impressed with this new season of Top Boy, especially with the topics it addressed. But it also seemed that a lot of that subject matter overlapped onto Hoodies In The Summer. I was wondering if the recording process and the film process influence each other in any way?
I don’t know, there’s nothing I can put my finger on. Maybe subconsciously they do, but it wasn’t something that I noticed or was aware of while making the album and making Top Boy. But one thing I would say about what acting does when you learn to do it, you have to allow yourself to become vulnerable in order to act properly. All those barriers we put up every day, you have to pull those down. When I started doing that, for acting reasons, when you record music after that it’s like it unlocks a thought. Rappers are looked at like fuckin’ superheroes. They even have a different name or whatever, a persona. That kind of thing. But when you are comfortable enough in your own skin and with your creativity to pull those layers away and to really get to the heart of the matter, I think it leads to great music. I guess what I’m saying is that regardless of Top Boy or the new album, I think acting has influenced the way I story tell in music.
Your character, Sully, touched on a lot of important subject matter especially pertaining to mental health. I was wondering how you felt about the way this season picked up and how your character went on in comparison to the first two seasons?
I was real happy for the opportunity to portray this character because the arch, the journey that he goes on is interesting but it’s also powerful. There’s a lot of teachable moments in there. It’s part of the reason I wanted to do this again because I know from the first two seasons in terms of Top Boy as a whole, I think the balance was great in terms of the topics covered. But my character was the one who brought the raw streets, violence, aggression, you know what I mean? I was responsible for most of that, well, Sully was responsible for adding those elements. But this time I wanted more of a challenge. I wanted to see a well-rounded human being and to humanize this kind of character that does these crazy things, but there’s always a reason why people do this stuff. So I think with the ten episodes, we have the ability to dig deeper into everyone’s characters. We can follow these people home so we get to see Sully’s home life, and the connection he has with Jason, and the family that he’s longing for, and the daughter that doesn’t recognize him anymore, and he’s trying to get that back but the streets is all he knows. The loss he has to deal with. It’s a lot to play, but it’s what you wish for as an actor. So I was blessed to have such a great storyline. I was challenged as an actor to be able to tell that story in a real way. I think it’s touched a lot of people. Showing these other sides of him has touched a lot of people.
That was definitely one thing that I appreciate about this season. Especially when the third season dropped, I binge-watched the first two just so everything was still fresh on my mind. From Sully’s stint in prison with the Modie plotline and Ashley Waters in Jamaica to seeing you guys together again and how your respective lives have changed. How do you prepare for a role that’s that heavy?
You prepare for the work, but you don’t prepare for the mindset that it’s going to put you in. When you’re so passionate about it, it definitely follows you home sometimes. It’s not something that you can just click in and click out of. So it kind of stays with me for a minute when you’re playing this character day in and day out. So a lot of times I would get in early and sit there while I try to get onto set early, in terms of where we’re shooting. So if we’re shooting in a house somewhere I like to be in the house beforehand. That scene on the train, I wanted to have makeup ready before everyone and just sit in that seat for a while, while they’re kind of dressing the thing around me and getting the cameras ready. You just like to get in early and put yourself in that zone. So it’s not quite a method where people stay in character all day but definitely a little bit beforehand and try to get into that zone. It’s some heavy stuff, man.
Honestly bro, I just wanted to thank you so much for your time, I know you have to go. One last question, what can we expect from you in 2020?
2020, I guess will just be more shows. I’ll be going on tour in February, the end of January and into February, I think. Then hopefully I’ll get to do some festivals in the summer, which I haven’t done in a minute now. So, yeah all the festival shows in the U.K. and Europe, I’m going to tour Europe, get to Australia as well. Just more performances, to be honest, that’s what my years looking like.
Any word on season 4?
Not official yet, but if I was a betting man…I’ll say it’s probably going to happen, yeah.
Excellent, I’m looking forward to it man. Once again, I appreciate your time.
Big up. Respect bro.