Amongst all of 2004's hype and excitement around East London's grime scene one thing was conspicuous by its absence – a proper bona fide STAR. Someone who had the charisma – and the rhymes and songs - to take the sound of the underground out into the mainstream. Like Dizzee before him 19 year old Kane ‘Kano’ Robinson has the ‘kin lot. As an original member of the N.A.S.T.Y. Crew he is already veteran of the scene and after three years of underground guest spots, mix tapes and killing it at raves from East Ham to Fabric, just as 2004 saw him scoop Best Newcomer at the Urban Music Awards, 2005 has begun with him coming third in the BBC's increasingly influential industry poll ‘Sound Of 2005’ (lets give it some context: 2004's tips were Keane, Scissor Sisters and Franz Ferdinand).
19-year-old Kane ‘Kano’ Robinson: garage's lyricist laureate, the MC's MC, the street poet who knows it, a pirate frequency all of his own amid the scramble of the national garage airspace. He has talent, credibility and vision coming out of his pores, and let's not even mention his looks – handsome enough to melt knicker elastic at a thousand paces, he's currently out of love, and weighing out the options: ‘Single… yeah,’ Kano grins. ‘I'm happy about that. There's girls, but I seen people go through a lot of stress with relationships. There's nothing wrong with having a girlfriend, but… there's time for that.’
And there's time for a lot more, beginning with headline billing as Most Requested spitter on garage's underground circuit – for further details, just check the posters adorning any traffic lights near you. With not one but two alternative careers – he trialled as centre-forward for Chelsea and Norwich as a schoolkid, and then cruised through graphic design courses on the back of nine GCSES to win a place at Greenwich University, which he then spurned – music's gain is very much academia and sport's loss. He is native and resident of East Ham in far-East London, where garage is less a sounds than a way of life. And today Kano is ready roll out his new single ‘Ps & Qs’ and forthcoming debut album alongside a whole new mode of expression that threatens to leave the competition looking decidedly one-dimensional.
With Kano, it's really all about the voice. Commanding, convincing, compelling and effortlessly cool, he doesn't need to shout, scream or squawk like the ranks over over-urgent MCs behind him. Kano is in no hurry. The human Swiss Watch, Kano's delivery has more timing than a Panerai Luminor, more pace than a Rolex Oyster Perpetual. Mirroring garage's capacity to operate at two tempos at the same time, Kano knows how to keep it steady and make the point; and then, when the moment requires, erupt into double-time hype rhymes.
Additionally his productions - sampling from heavy metal, classical, rock and rave – reflect garage's growing palette of influence, while his lyrics illustrate just how far garage his come since its inception. On the rave banger ‘Reload It’, he says, ‘I make love music/and I make thug music/I make club tunes so DJs in the club use it’ – yet it's a modest perfect summation of the breadth of his range. ‘Typical Me’, set to a snarling Metallica-style backdrop, describe the ‘typical grief’ in the life of a young MC amid the raves and the streets. ‘Signs In Life’ muses on superstition, omens and the closely-felt anxiety of a the urban generation. On his muscular signature tune ‘P's & Q’s, he launches into a confident rundown of his considerable skills. Rival MCs take note
In the magnificently unblemished flesh, Kano is an affable, assured, unhurried, unafraid. He smiles at girls as they walk past, but holds his tongue. For someone who's making career out of hyperspeed chat, he's surprisingly quiet. Where others front, Kano reflects. His timing is nanosecond perfect. As a schoolkid he didn't approach garage with the blind zeal of the evangelist. Get this - he ‘eased into it.’
‘It was a mess-about really,’ he says. ‘Most of my friends in the playground would be battling each other. My brother got decks when he was 16, then I started in writing lyrics and making tapes in my bedroom, and started making beats on my computer, and then made a couple of songs.’
Neither did he have to look too far from his ends to find the music the best expressed how he felt about the world he was growing into. Kano's radio buzzed with to the sounds of East London pirate. There were no pictures of Tupac or Biggie on his walls. Instead his tastes bypassed the US and alighted directly on Jamaica, where the roots of both his own family and garage's embryonic new school lie.
‘I used to just listen to what was going on round here’, he explains. ‘My family is Jamaican, so I was also into Bounty Killer, Shabba and Buju Banton. I saw Elephant Man and Vibes Kartel in Jamaica. You can learn off them, the way they perform: the crowd just have to get into it. They give you a performance. They’re entertainers.’
The quiet ambition Kano nurtured between his bedroom walls paid off almost instantly. At 16, when he was still looking up to D Double E, the one-man garage industry who heads up eastside contenders N.A.S.T.Y Crew, he delivered ‘Boys Love Girls’ - a treatise on the politics of the sexual playground expressed in the language the playground best understands. As Dizzee's ‘I Luv U’ and Wiley's chilly ‘Igloo’ and ‘Ice Rink’ single were standardising UK garage's next genetic strain, the wavering melody lines and panic-button riddim of ‘Boys Love Girl’ gained a steady footing on the underground.
‘I was 16 when I did Boys Love Girls,’ Kano reflects. ‘When I made that I wasn't even into it properly. I just made it and didn't know what it was gonna do. It introduced me into this whole thing. And that's how people heard me first. It's my signature – I still spit that lyric at raves.’
Additionally, he still reflects a lot, a personal characteristic that defines Kano's lyrical themes and vocal style. Far more than a mere hype man for whichever DJ is rocking the rave or torching the local pirate station with 20 of his mates, Kano's agenda edges garage towards a far more ambitious level of articulacy. It's been said that he comes over as the quiet kid…
‘…But I'm just thinking,’ he notes. ‘I'm thoughtful. I'm quiet more than I speak. I got a lot of tunes with inside thoughts. It's thinking about what I'm getting into, if it's too late to turn back, if this is really what I want to do. That's the kind of person I am.’
That too illustrates the wider shift in the way garage and grime is incrementally developing from disposable dancefloor music into a far deeper and infinitely more subtle medium capable of expressing the turbulent inner life of Britain's excluded urban underclass – a demographic discovering their own identity and voice through microphones, cheap computer technology and the sawnoff idiom of pirate music.
‘The new skool thing isn't really about dancing, whereas with garage everyone dances to it,’ Kano says. ‘The MCs were just hyping up the crowd, but now the MCs have got a lot to say. Basically spitting verses about what's going on rather than just hyping the crowd. There are tunes to make you dance, but it's more about listening to the MCs.
A case in point is ‘How We Livin’, where Kano observes “I got this long intro and I got nothing to say…” - before filling the next three and half minutes with the kind of insight last heard on Grandmaster Flash's The Message’ and polemic you’d more closely associate with Question Time than Cosa Nostra of a bank holiday Saturday.
It's perhaps fitting that Kano's now spending less time battling for airtime on the pirates – he started on Flavour FM with Demon, before moving to Déjà Vu – and more time in the studio, honing his debut into what could be an outstanding chapter in British black music. What's abundantly clear in Kano's scheme that his strain of garage has now - literally - outgrown its roots.
‘A lot of station don't really play grime no more,’ he says. ‘And it's understandable. They play like old skool and R&B, but with loads of MCs in the studio it gets a bit mad. Too many people in the studios, fights and all that.’
Time is on his side, yet time is also paradoxically short, meaning there isn't a spare moment for a tedious debate on the lingering ‘what-do-you-call-it theme. ‘I can't be bothered to put a name on it,’ he declares. ‘The Neptunes don't sound like Kanye West who doesn't sounds like Dre - but it's all hip hop. That's why I just say garage. Grime is cool, but I don't call it grime.’
At Mike Skinner's personal request Kano has been busy working with The Mitchell Brothers, a pair of East London MCs championed and produced by The Streets. Along with D Double E and Lethal B, Kano recently detonated an evening of East London style over in Berlin. ‘No one knew us over there but we got them hyped cos we were enjoying it ourselves. That's the key – to enjoy it yourself. If I was at a rave and saw people on stage not really having a good time, not giving it their all, I wouldn't I give it my all.’
Kano's gameplan is clear – he's enjoying himself, and it's a safe bet a spin of ‘Ps & Qs’ will mean you will too. It may be a long way of, but if The Streets-style fame comes knocking on his door, Kano's tactics would be true to his rectitude.
‘Fame would p*** me off, I reckon,’ he concludes. ‘I bet Mike wishes he could sell as many records but not be so famous. Your face is just blatant and everyone knows who you are. It must be a nightmare… I’d probably stay indoors a lot. Some people get into this for the fame. I don’t. I just want to do it for the music.’
Kano ‘Home Sweet Home’
Released on 679 recordings 20th June 2005
“I ain't got punch lines, I got kick lines, I ain't commercial, but I got hit lines”
In the ever-changing, ever-accelerating world of the UK MC underground, 19 year-old Kane Robinson has been the hot favourite to blow the grime scene overground ever since he first cut underground favourite Boys Love Girls as a precocious 16 year old from East London's N.A.S.T.Y. crew. Now, after what he cheekily describes as an 18 year long wait, his highly anticipated debut album ‘Home Sweet Home’ has finally landed. Following five years of endless guest spots at raves and pirate radio stations, Kano has established himself as the one MC to dominate not only the East London underground, but also to move his fanbase's catchment area a few tube stops west, picking up fans from across the media from fanzines to broadsheets and a full sweep of 2005 ones-to-watch plaudits.
Kano's instantly recognisable flow and articulate lyricism has already put him streets ahead of most emcee’s, as well as establishing him as an artist unafraid to stretch the boundaries and reject the rule book. After signing with 679 recordings last year he ripped the competition apart with now-seminal chest big-up ‘P's & Q's‘ and the genre-bending ‘Typical Me’. So its no great surprise that ‘Home Sweet Home’ is a exhilarating, original but utterly East London mixture of grimey beats, old skool garridge and merky b-boy bass lines with hip hop lyricism and heart attack guitar riffs.
The fast-forward grime of his album-opening paean to the ‘Ends’ ‘Home Sweet Home’ is followed by the rawer but equally East Ham-centred ‘Ghetto Kid’. The thoughtful ‘Sometimes’ recalls the mournful beats and deep introspection of early 90s peak-period Tupac. Kano's trademark plus-16 fast lane vocals matches laidback melodies to tremendous effect on ‘Brown Eyes’, casually defining the incipient rhythm n' grime micro-genre along the way.
Next single ‘Remember Me’ (released June 6th) is an infectiously boozy samba rap and a clear future smash. Florida based hip hop producer Diplo (the man behind last year's underground killer Diplo Riddim) adds his talents to ‘Reload It’, set to tear up the scene and fill floors up and down the country as it blends Kano's effortlessly playful rhymes with furiously hyped-up beats.
Another kick-in-the-face track ‘I Don't Know Why’, a heavy collaboration with the producer du jour Paul Epworth. Kano rides a sample of Black Sabbath's midlands metal classic ‘War Pigs’ and cheekily states ‘you should know my name’ with the brash confidence normally reserved for his American counterparts. A razor-sharp dissection of scene dancefloor politics, ‘Nobody Don't Dance No More’ sees Kano reminisce ‘they don't dance like we use to’ over an old school garage beat, only for the track to pull up and rewind into the most brutal grime 2005 mash up.
The ghetto state-of-the-nation address ‘How We Livin’ shows Kano in a more reflective mood, rhyming over a mellower beat in stark contrast to the bolshier ‘Ghetto Kid’. Closing track ‘Signs In Life’ by contrast sees Kano displaying the roots consciousness of dreadlocked rastas twice his age.
Home Sweet Home proves that it is one of the most accomplished and significant debut albums of this or indeed any other genre you’ll hear all year.
Flow may not be your game but you definitely should know his name.