Watch That Man: A Conversation With Kano

March 04, 2021 by Elliot Aronow

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Armed with more charm than most, and a loyal fanbase that has followed him from stage to screen and back again, London-born multihyphenate Kano has created a lane for himself that few can touch.

Ever since he emerged as one of the breakout stars of the U.K. grime scene in the early ’00s, Kano has been someone to watch. In music, he’s both a living legend and a forward-thinking songwriter and emcee. On screen, he’s familiar to millions — thanks to his role playing Sully on the hit series "Top Boy."

Elliot Aronow recently caught up with Kano during some much-deserved downtime to chat about everything from Gucci loafers to dancehall parties.

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Aronow: You’re from East Ham. What are some of your earliest memories of the music that was coming out of the streets?

Kano: When I was really young, like 7 or 9, I really looked up to my uncles. They had big stacked sound systems. Seeing them partying and playing those deep, rattling basslines awakened something in me.

When I was a teenager, garage music was how my generation tapped into that spirit. We were too young for jungle, and drum and bass, but garage hit at the perfect time.

Let’s talk clothes. What fits were you and your friends popping off back then?

The garage look was very clean, and that was attractive to all of us. Instead of the hip-hop tough vibe, garage was about Gucci loafers and Moschino belts. You would save up your money and put a lot of effort into going out.

Later on, as my friends and I started emceeing and taking ownership over our own music, we took stylistic elements of garage — but pushed it further. We started to mix the hip-hop fashion looks in. For us, that meant tracksuits, Avirex jackets, and Akademiks shirts.

I think British people always wore tracksuits better. I was born in Staten Island, New York in 1980, so I’ve really seen a lot of tracksuits in my day.

London is such a melting pot that we couldn’t help but be informed by that Jamaican element. It crossed over to the way our music was styled and performed back then too. Everyone would get on the mic and spit over the same rhythm, which is way more dancehall than it is American hip-hop.

Because of the rebel energy, I think of grime as an analog of punk rock.

I definitely agree. And it was more noticeable in our early days. Nowadays, a lot of indie artists go on stage and do a show just like Jay-Z. But back then, the way we performed at those early places like EQ Club and Sidewinder and all that, it was definitely a unique experience — with everyone battling on the mic and going back and forth all night. It was nothing like what anyone had seen before in hip-hop. The energy was crazy.

Even before your acting, you had a rep for being a crossover artist. Was it hard when you were first starting out to not fit in with any one genre?

When my earliest tunes like “P’S and Q’S” came out, I remember the grime guys were like, “That's not really grime.” And it obviously didn’t really fit in hip-hop. But to me, that’s perfect. That’s where I want to be. I don’t want to be boxed anywhere.

Did you have people who you look up to as wayshowers — artists who have credibility, but also achieved some mainstream success?

I probably didn’t look at it as in depth as that, but I just genuinely did gravitate towards people that were doing their thing and didn’t seem compromised.

You never know what people are thinking when they are in the studio, but I always felt like Nas and D Double E and Bounty Killer were true and authentic. They didn’t run away from success, but they definitely didn’t chase it. What I took away from being fans of theirs is that they didn’t repeat themselves by riding a certain sound for their entire career.

Now that I am well into my own career, I try to share a feeling in new ways, rather than repeat myself. Trends come and go, but it’s always the feeling that people will come back to.

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Photos by Olivia Rose

An extended version of this interview was first published in a print issue of the Downtown Journal, which is available to read in full on the Downtown Music Holdings website.