The scene of the grime
Kano comes to Stradbally fresh from his Mercury Prize nomination. The MC and actor talks to Shilpa Ganatra
Six years for an album is a wait by anyone’s standards, let alone in grime: an adolescent genre with the growth spurt to prove it.
Not that Kano is worried. After 2010’s Method to the Maadness was suitably commemorated, he side-stepped into acting for two series of acclaimed Channel 4 drama Top Boy, set on a fictional housing estate in East London, where Kano grew up (the show counts Drake as a fan).
“I don’t think people advise having breaks in music. Everyone thinks if you don’t do something for a couple of years, you’re forgotten about,” says Kane Robinson. “But I was confident enough in myself that I could take the break, and then come back and do another album.
“I hated the acting process at the time, with the lack of control, but it was a wealth of knowledge in a different area. And I’m proud of how it turned out, it was like two classic albums.”
Free of a record company and the pressure that brings, it took another three years to create his actual classic album, Made in the Manor. This was “not because I spent that time chilling and f**king about”, he’s quick to point out, rather because it was an arduous process to figure out.
The turning point for his fifth album was T-Shirt Weather in the Manor, a then-and-now reflection on his success (“I buy the same Mr Whippy 99/But now I got just as much problems and a Flake ain’t one”). As suggested by the title, the theme carries across the album, from Strangers (a touching open to letter to his estranged friend) to Little Sis (on his half-sister) – it’s even found in the videos he directed and the cut-out childhood pics on the cover.
“It was a difficult album to make,” he says. “It was a tough process, and to be honest, it was frustrating at times. It wasn’t ever a party in the studio. But I took my time to get it right, and it’s come from the heart.”
His perfectionism has paid off: released in March, it delivered his first Mercury Music Prize nomination five months later. Vindication for the blood, sweat and tears?
Body of work
“Yeah but the validation came when it came out and it went down well,” he says. “But yeah it’s cool. I felt like a dinosaur, making a full album. I was trying to make a body of work that was [a] cohesive and proper piece, and then you see a bunch of people that put a track every week or so.
“I feel like people don’t give a f**k about albums any more. It’s part of our throwaway culture, with TV and that, that they make other things but not a full album. But it’s what I do. So I’m happy for this nomination, it feels like there is hope.”
Both he and fellow grime leader Skepta are in the mix this year, along with strong contenders such as David Bowie and Radiohead – it’s enough to prompt questions about a rebirth of the genre.
While Kano doesn’t consider Made in the Manor to be strictly a grime album (“it’s just an album, man”) he believes there’s something in it. “It does feel like we’re getting more attention. Looking back over the years, Dizzee Rascal won it in 2003, and since then I haven’t thought, Oh my god, why hasn’t this album been nominated for the Mercury?
“Maybe the attention is because there are a couple of good albums now, and you’ve just got to make good albums. And make more albums, people aren’t interested in them any more.”
At the very least, the mere talk of rebirth suggests that grime is a long-standing fixture in the UK’s music scene, as some questioned when Kano, Dizzee and Wiley emerged in the early 2000s. For Kano, it was never going to be a fad.
Not going away
“From the outside looking [in at] it, you might think it’s a fad but everyone in it knew there’s a whole culture and scene around it and it’s not going to go away,” he says. “The thing is it’s only around 10 years old. You’ll get questions at the start of any genre – soul, rock’n’roll, hip-hop – but they’ve grown and developed, and grime’s going to do the same.”
Indeed, the first signs are appearing that it’s finally spreading internationally; aside from Drake and Kanye West’s sup- port, Electric Picnic represents Kano’s first Irish show, and he’s planned his debut Australian tour too.
“There’s the start of an audience in a lot of places,” he says. “People find ownership in their own way. It was like that with Nas talking about Queensbridge [the public housing project where he grew up] and Jay-Z on Brooklyn – you don’t even have to go that far away, even when Mike Skinner [The Streets] showed a completely different life to mine – you’re brought into their world and you learn about different places and different experiences. In terms of language, the slang, it is what it is,” he says. “You’re going to have to figure that out.”
While wedefer tourbandictionary.com, we wonder if we’ll see him return to the screen? “If I was a betting man, I’d say we’d see another series of Top Boy,” he says. “But I’m not doing anything else while I have this album. I want to constantly get better at acting, so I want to have the time to do it.”
Could he see himself in the director’s seat in the future? “Yeah, I’m half-dreading it because I know I want to do it, but I know what it takes,” he says, with trepidation. “I liked doing the music videos I directed, but it stressed me out every time, and I know a programme or a film will be on a whole other level. But it’s something I definitely see happening.”
I feel like people don’t give a f**k about albums any more. It’s part of our throwaway culture, with TV and that, that they make other things but not a full album. But it’s what I do
“It was a difficult album to make . . . I took my time to get it right, and it’s come from the heart”