Top Boy might be set in London but we’re sitting in a photography studio in Manchester awaiting the arrival of one of its main stars, Kane Robinson, better known as Kano. He’s in town for a signing event to mark the release of his sixth studio album, ‘Hoodies All Summer’, though, up here at least, it’s not feeling too summery right now.
As he walks through the door, it almost feels strange seeing him outside of London. It’s been his home since birth and to most UK rap fans he’s the epitome of what it means to be from the nation’s capital, whether it’s his sometimes exaggerated cockney accent, his love of jellied eels and pie and mash (honestly), or the titles of his previous albums (‘Home Sweet Home’, ‘London Town’, ‘Made In The Manor’). He couldn’t be more London if he were propping up the bar in the Queen Vic.
“I swear, every time I come to Manchester it rains,” he says on arrival. “No seriously, all the times I’ve been up here I can honestly say I can’t remember a time when it hasn’t rained.”
For the uninitiated, Kano is one of grime’s most respected artists. He’s a top-tier lyricist who played a huge part in the genre’s rise to prominence, arriving on the scene soon after Dizzee Rascal, Wiley and Lethal B in 2005 with his debut single ‘P’s and Q’s’. Noted for its intricate wordplay and alternating flows and heralded by fans as an instant classic, it helped turn a scene recognised more for its beats into one loved for its bars.
Kano turns up for his NME photoshoot in an unassuming uniform of dark cargo pants, fresh white kicks and – aptly – a zipped black hoodie.
‘Hoodies All Summer’, Kano’s 10-track LP, is the much anticipated follow-up to 2016’s critically acclaimed ‘Made in the Manor’. Recorded over the past three years, Kano’s latest audio offering is a powerful homage to the victims of a broken society, reminiscent of a UK take on Kendrick Lamar’s ‘good kid m.A.A.d. city’. Through a combination of soul-stirring strings, neck snapping beats and captivating storytelling, the East Ham MC lifts the curtain on some of society’s most woeful situations – sometimes offering a solution himself.
On ‘Trouble’, the album’s lead single, Kano shares commentary on the rise in knife and gun crime in some of London’s inner-city neighbourhoods. Opening with a powerful clip of the late activist Darcus Howe calling out police and politicians for failing the black community, Kano then spits, “All our mothers worry when we touch the road / ‘Cause they know it’s touch and go whether we’re coming home / And either that’s for shit that could happen to us / Or the shit we might do if you violate the code.” It serves as a chilling wakeup call to the harsh realities of families living in low-income areas.
Accompanied by an 18-minute short film, ‘Trouble’ follows Nate, a teenage boy with musical aspirations who, after popping to the shops to get his mother some rice, is stabbed and killed in broad daylight by a group of attackers as his friends watch on, unable to help.
“It was difficult making that video,” Kano explains. “I wanted to impact people, especially with the scene in the middle.”
The scene he’s referring to is the one that depicts Nate’s wake. As the family are gathered around, the boy’s uncle addresses the room. “[The] streets are saying it’s wrong place, wrong time,” he says, before urging those who might be plotting a revenge plan to think otherwise. “I just want you lot to think and understand, that when you go out there and do what you feel you need to do, they’re gonna come back and do what they feel they need to do. And that only ends up in gatherings similar to this – and the cycle continues.”
While it might not be the popular option, calling a truce could be necessary in order to break that cycle – or so the bars from one of Kano’s verses would suggest: “Any beef can be squashed if hands could be shaken / Any hand can be shaken when the blood dries / I guess that’s not a thug line.”
Addressing numerous other social and political issues across ‘Hoodies All Summer’ – including the encroaching gentrification and swelling violence in his birth borough of Newham – is this version of Kano one we can expect to see more often now?
“I don’t see myself as a political artist, but certain issues mean a lot to me,” he says. “So I felt it necessary to speak about them on this album, but I wanted to do it in a way where it didn’t come across as overtly political or like I was talking down to certain people. It needed to feel like a conversation, like we understood each other. I’m not silly enough to think that one song can stop [the violence], but I’m planting seeds. If that seed grows within someone and helps them then I’m happy with that.”
From making music about postcode wars to starring in a TV series about the very same thing, Kano’s turn as Sully in crime drama Top Boy has earned him a heap of praise from fans of the show.
Armed with no real acting experience, the 34-year-old initially turned it down. But it first came at a time when he was battling a lull in musical inspiration that saw him uncharacteristically attempting to fit in with the autotune led electronic wave that was taking over the UK’s black music scene.
“I think during that period there were a lot of people achieving mad commercial success with different styles of music and so I tried to fit in,” he says. “I quickly realised it wasn’t for me and then I became uninspired to make music for a while so I just fell back. And then after falling back that’s when I started doing Top Boy.”
Easily put, Top Boy is like a UK version of The Wire. It follows two drug dealers on their pursuit of money and power. As they attempt to walk the line between family life and street life, there’s a host of people praying on their downfall: rival gangs, crime lords, the police.
Originally airing on Channel 4, the show was cancelled in 2014 after just two seasons. Brought back for a standalone 10-episode run that aired earlier this month, Netflix – with some help from Canadian superstar Drake – resurrected the show, and it’s currently sitting on top of the streaming service’s UK trending charts.
As Sully, Kano plays a very convincing stone-faced drug dealer with an itchy trigger finger and a penchant for starting shit. He begins the tale as an ally of Dushane (played by Ashley Walters), but becomes his enemy; in the latest instalment of the series the pair reform to face off against a new threat.
It’s already the subject of awards talk, and many fans and critics have taken to social media to single out Kano’s individual performance. Surprisingly, though, as good as he is in the role, he’s actually not a big fan of acting.
“Sometimes when I’m on set I actually think to myself, ‘I don’t even like this’,” he admits, shaking his head. “Ash will tell you. Sometimes he’s like, ‘Fucking hell – why are you even here?’ I just have no interest in the industry of acting, I don’t want anything to do with it. But I respect the craft. I really respect it – that’s why I won’t film the show and make an album at the same time.”
Kano’s disdain for the TV and film industry appears to be deep rooted in a lack of control on his part. “I’m just used to having so much control in music,” he says, “and in acting you have to give that up a bit. Sure, our voices are heard on set, but at the end of the day you can lose an argument. Whereas in music, if I feel the second verse needs to be changed I can change it. I find it really hard as an artist to give up some of that control.”
Understanding that he’s blessed to be in the position that he is, Kano isn’t ignorant to the fact that there are thousands of aspiring actors who would do anything to be in his shoes. Acknowledging them, he also points out that while many might think he got the job because he was already established within the entertainment industry, he works “extra hard to make you realise why [he] got the gig.”
Be it in acting of music, Kano’s success didn’t happen overnight. The path he took to get here began at his childhood home in West Ham – the famous 69 Manor Road mentioned in the opening lines of his 2016 single ’T-Shirt Weather In The Manor’. It was here that his uncle introduced him to his record collection, which was rich with ragga and dancehall artists.
During family trips to Jamaica, he and his cousins would switch up the lyrics to familiar reggae songs and perform them in front of their parents, aunts, uncles and whoever else was willing to listen. But a pivotal moment came when his mother bought him and his brother a keyboard for Christmas. It was this same keyboard on which he made his first proper song, ‘Boys Love Girls’, which ended up on his debut album, 2005’s ‘Home Sweet Home’.
“For me, [grime] was always bigger than being on pirate radio or being at a rave,” Kano says. “I always wanted to make an album. I was making songs for that very reason, which was not how everyone was thinking at the time. I always saw myself as an artist not just as an MC on the radio. I used to always think that I wanted to be here for a while: it’s a marathon not a sprint, that was my mentality.”
In the mid 2000s, he may have had a marathon in mind, but he didn’t think that grime would ever get as big as it did – look at the fact that Stormzy triumphantly headlining Glastonbury this summer. “The first time I ever played Glastonbury I would have never have thought that a grime artist would have ever headlined it,” he says.
The East Ham MC thinks back to the recent past, when rappers were but a footnote on the Worthy Farm line-up. “We were always on some stage over there,” he says, gesturing vaguely. “It would just be a bunch of indie bands and me or Dizzee or Lethal B. It was pretty much just us three.”
Kano put the ground work in early on so that today’s artists can prosper. As the UK scene continues to get bigger, it becomes more evident that his fingerprints are all over it. From Wretch 32’s slick delivery to Little Simz’s intricate wordplay, there’s no denying Kano’s influence on the current crop of UK talent.
But even after Stormzy shouted him out at Glastonbury, Jay-Z called him one of the UK’s best rappers and Wiley said he was sent from God, Kano won’t accept his irrefutable status as a patriarch of grime, shrugging off compliments one after the other. And that’s before we even mention that he sold out his upcoming Royal Albert Hall show in just 90 seconds.
He might believe he doesn’t deserve them, but we want this true grime pioneer to have his flowers while he can still smell them.
Enjoy them, Kano, if anyone should have them, it’s you.
‘Hoodies in Summer’ is out now on Parlophone Records. Listen below
Kano plays the Royal Albert Hall on October 7, 2019