KSI: “A YouTuber doing music leaves a sour taste in people’s mouths. They despise it”

YouTuber. Boxer. Author. Actor. And now successful hip-hop artist too. 'JJ' Olatunji is the most famous person your mum’s never heard of

Four days following the release of his debut album ‘Dissimulation’ and KSI is on Twitter delivering the usual spiel you see artists doling out when their record is hovering close to top spot: stream it, buy physical copies, tell all your friends to do the same!

But there’s a catch. You see, it’s not his own album that KSI is promoting. In fact, he’s actively discouraging his fans from listening to his album at all. Instead, he’s talking up the music of his chart rivals for the week: The 1975, who just dropped their fourth LP ‘Notes on a Conditional Form’, and Agust D, better known as Suga from BTS.

KSI makes his instructions clear: “Don’t buy/stream anything to do with [my] album please… STREAM AGUST D AND THE 1975.” Soon, his tactics shift, the tweets becoming more caps-happy, the pleading turning to stan-shaming: “SWEAR 1975 AND KPOP ARE MEANT TO HAVE A HUGE FANBASE?!? HOW ARE YOU LOT LETTING THIS HAPPEN!!!” In another post, after ‘Dissimulation’ takes peak position on various streaming services, he writes wryly: “Imagine being a 1975 fan and not buying/streaming their music? You gonna let a Youtuber overtake a well established band? Smh.”

KSI at the 2020 NME Awards. Credit: NME / Dean Chalkley

It must seem a pretty perplexing situation for anyone out of the very-online loop to fully digest. Here’s a guy who’s one of the most prominent figures on the internet – with 30 million YouTube subscribers (combining his two accounts), 8 million Instagram followers, almost 6 million followers on Twitter, and whose videos have been viewed more than five billion times – but who’s still not quite a household name yet when it comes to mainstream recognition. Just go bring his name up in a family group chat – your mum may not have heard of him, but your younger cousins will definitely be fans.

Yes, it’s this same KSI, whose CV also boasts his extracurriculars as a pay-per-view boxer, best-selling author and sometime actor, who is now releasing an album that includes guest spots from Offset, Rick Ross, Lil Pump and more. Confused at how we got here? Don’t worry, the Watford-born 26-year-old (whose friends call him “JJ”; his web moniker standing for “Knowledge, Strength, Integrity”) is a bit bewildered himself too.

“A lot of times, I’m like, ‘how did I get here?’”

Speaking to NME mid-way through album release week over Zoom call (which, in perfect lockdown fashion, begins with KSI double-checking what day it is), he freely admits: “A lot of times, I’m like, ‘How did I get here?’ I was a gamer who played FIFA [online]. I would just edit videos and put montage music and score goals online. Now I’m competing against The 1975. It’s a very surreal time.”

It isn’t a clear-cut case of ‘YouTuber-turned-rapper’ though. While KSI’s YouTube presence has evolved from FIFA video comps with some rather jejune humour to irreverent skits to an endless stream of bedroom-bound reactions, all along the way he’s been making music on the side. His grime-leaning 2016 EP ‘Keep Up’ featured the likes of JME and went to No.13 in the UK, spawning a Top 40 single in ‘Lamborghini’. Last year, he reached the Top 20 again with ‘New Age’, a collab album with fellow YouTube personality Randolph.

Despite his reasonable success with music over the past four years though, KSI’s aware that his output hasn’t always had great quality control. Recently posting a video to YouTube where he ranked every one of his pre-‘Dissimulation’ tracks, a self-critical KSI deemed more of his songs as “stinkers” than God-tier classics – although he did give himself a pat on the back for having a fair few bangers too. “Fucking hell, I’ve come a long way,” he exclaimed at the end of the video.

“I’ve definitely progressed when it comes to music,” he tells NME. “And I definitely get embarrassed [about the old music]. On YouTube, you can see everything about me. You can see where I’ve started from, all the way to the point where I’m at today. Obviously it’s a blessing and a curse. With other musicians or artists, a lot of people don’t see the previous work that they’ve done. They only see the best thing they’ve done and from then on.”

“For me, people have seen the bad, the good and me slowly improving over time. I do amazing stuff and people go, ‘but look at all this trash!’ But it shows that I’m human. I think that’s what helps with a lot of my fanbase. They can relate to it more because they go, ‘Oh, wow, he really was bad at music. He really didn’t know how to make music and now he’s at a point where he’s really good.’ I think people look at that and are inspired by it.”

There has been a noticeable increase of hype around KSI’s music in the build-up to his album release. The boost in his cross-Atlantic profile thanks to his heavily-publicised boxing match against YouTube rival Logan Paul last year will obviously have helped, not least in securing the various big-name features.

But the growth on ‘Dissimulation’ is plain to hear too. It sees KSI hop between intoxicating, Future-ish trap (‘What You Been On’), hyperactive mumble rap (‘Poppin’) and pumped-up hip-hop (‘Domain’), with the odd bit of Afroswing (‘Houdini”), Afrobeats (‘Killa Killa’) and even a fight night anthem (lead single ‘Down Like That’, which was performed at KSI’s aforementioned Staples Center fight in Los Angeles).

It’s a disparate-sounding album that still somehow manages to make sense. KSI likens his weaving of genres to his multifarious career as a whole: “There isn’t really a ‘KSI sound’. I’m someone who doesn’t do just one thing… I do whatever I want to do and just make it work… I like just bouncing around. I don’t like being put in a box.”

“I didn’t actually realise I’d be able to compete for No.1”

It’s a collection that’s been successful in winning people over, KSI says: “I feel like a lot of people who wouldn’t normally watch me have listened to the album and gone, ‘Oh wow, there are actually songs that I would put in my playlist.’” And while there’s still some left to be desired in what makes KSI’s sound unique or stand out from the rest of the scene, even the more negative reviews saw some cause for optimism with the degree of potential shown.

KSI understands, though, that the bar would have been set quite low for some: “When the general public sees a YouTuber wanting to do music, it just leaves a weird, sour taste in their mouths. People just despise it.”

So why, given the positive response his album has received, has KSI been rooting for his chart rivals? Maybe he’s a big 1975 or K-Pop fan? He must be if he’s backing them over his own chart plight, right? Actually, the back-story relates to a seemingly off-the-cuff remark KSI made a week earlier, two-thirds into a 16-minute YouTube video that otherwise mostly consisted of the internet star reacting to funny memes that his followers had sent him.

After lamenting over his bare-headed appearance in a photo from when he was last bald some three years ago (itself the result of a bet with fans), KSI suddenly weighed things up in his mind for a few seconds. “Oh, do I do this? Fuck, okay… If I get a No.1 album on the official charts, I’ll go back to Baldski.”

He says today: “I was talking to my girlfriend and I was like, ‘Should I do this? Is this a bad idea? I don’t know. Then I was like, ‘Screw it, you won’t get to Number One. It’s The 1975.’ Then I saw that there was a K-Pop artist [with an album] dropping so I was like, ‘I’m good, I’m good’.”

You might argue that shaving your head isn’t that big of a deal – hair grows back and, after all, it’s something that many of us are resorting to right now in this barber-less world. But KSI says the toss-up between chart success or keeping his locks had an easy winner for him: “The win-win situation is if I get second [place] and keep my hair. That’s what I want, that’s my prime thing. I’m trying to push that but people aren’t listening. People are quite adamant on making sure I’m bald. I know my fanbase; they just love trolling me.”

“I know my fanbase; they just love trolling me”

It’s often difficult to read someone like KSI, whose whole currency of online stardom (video views, likes, followers, mentions) is so tied up with being a more extreme version of one’s actual self, so you never really know how much is part of the act. Indeed, he openly refers to his online self as being a character and often differentiates between KSI, the persona, and JJ, the person.

So it’s easy to see the whole bald saga as a nifty marketing scheme, a strategy that’s somewhere between reverse psychology and prime fodder for becoming a trending topic. “How can I prove it’s not?” KSI replies in slightly feigned protest when I raise this theory. “I’m literally telling [people] to stop buying my music!”

His tone suddenly switches, though, like a magician who knows his trick is too good to not reveal its secret: “But hey, I guess it is a great marketing ploy. It’s unconventional – I’m literally telling people to not do what I want them to do. I’m telling them don’t stream and they’re doing it. Like reverse psychology. Then I’m doing reverse reverse psychology.”

In the end, KSI got to keep his hair. Days after we talk, the albums chart is announced and ‘Dissimulation’ is sitting comfortably at second place with 27,000 combined chart sales (70 per cent coming from streams) compared to The 1975’s 34,000 (71 per cent from physical sales). Despite falling at the final hurdle, though, KSI is technically still able to call himself a chart-topper by the week’s end. His album managed to reach top spot in Ireland, a fact that you just know many of his millions of fans will be constantly reminding him of in an attempt to get him to pick up those clippers.

Whether you buy into KSI’s claims of wanting second place all along or not, he does seem genuinely surprised at the position he’s found himself in. “I didn’t actually realise I’d be able to compete for Number One,” he tells NME. “To even be in the Top Five would be incredible. Not that many people do that… I never thought I’d be able to be anywhere near it.”

There’s no denying that KSI’s ability to rub shoulders with some of music’s biggest names owes a lot to the vast and dedicated fanbase he’s garnered on YouTube. His chart success underlines “how powerful the YouTube fanbase is,” he says.

“A lot of people say YouTubers don’t have what it takes”

“Obviously I’ve been doing this for 10-plus years so obviously I have a huge fanbase, and I’ve been through highs and lows with them. Through thick and thin, they’ve stuck with me. This is another chapter of my life.” He goes on to add: “A lot of people would say YouTubers don’t have what it takes, but this kind of proves [the opposite].”

Of course though, it could be argued – cynically or not – that KSI’s stature in music is a direct consequence of his online fame, that his chart success is simply a scaled-up popularity contest, and that perhaps it wouldn’t have been an avenue he would be excelling in if it wasn’t for his locked-in audience. After all, KSI may be a competent boxer, but he himself would surely admit that he wouldn’t be getting paid $900k a fight if only talent alone was taken into consideration. Can the same be said about his music career?

KSI performs live. Credit: Joseph Okpako/WireImage

It might come as a surprise but KSI’s pretty open about the extent of his musical talents – or, in his own opinion, lack thereof. As he recently told daytime TV favourite Lorraine Kelly: “I’m not talented. There’s so many other people who do way better or are way more talented than me… I just work so hard, constantly, to get to the point where I’m seen as talented.”

It’s rare – and interesting – to hear someone speak about music this way: as a craft rather than a gift, going against our commonly-held idea of artists being individuals blessed with creative genius. But KSI sees things differently, and judges his progress in music as “showing how far work ethic can get you”.

In fact, he sees his YouTube stardom as more of a hindrance than a help when it comes to his music career. Asked whether it’s opened doors or pigeonholed him, he replies: “The latter. I definitely have to work harder than the average musician to prove that I can do music… It’s just one of those things where you have to change people’s mindsets. Eventually we’ll get there, it just takes time. But it’s definitely happening.”

“I definitely have to work harder than the average musician”

KSI’s dual status as a YouTube-musician makes him unique one in that many who juggle both disciplines tend to go from one to the other: a YouTuber who breaks into music and then leaves the vlogs behind, or a musician who dabbles with the platform when their album cycle dies down as a way of connecting to fans. Rarely are people active in both mediums simultaneously.

“There are plenty of YouTubers who have become artists, but there hasn’t been a YouTuber that has become an artist and then still does YouTube,” he says. Citing the examples of Troye Sivan and Joji, he continues: “They don’t do YouTube anymore. There’s definitely people who have gone from YouTube and then done music and forgotten about YouTube. But YouTube is my home, it’s my core, it’s what’s allowed me to do everything I’ve wanted to do so I’m not just going to ‘peace out’ and leave. I want to do everything.”

KSI fighting Logan Paul. Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Part of the reason there are fewer artists straddling both YouTube and music, you suspect, is that we like a degree of mystique around our pop stars. It may work for KSI, but you probably wouldn’t want to see a Beyoncé or a Frank Ocean doing vlogs; it might be pulling the curtain back a bit too much. But KSI says it’s actually music that allows him to reveal more of himself, rather than his YouTube videos. There’s plenty of the cocky ‘KSI’ side on the album (‘Domain’, in particular, sees KSI paint himself as the Don of the Internet), but there are some pretty personal ‘JJ’ moments too.

The closing track ‘Millions’ and ‘Complicated’, from the deluxe edition released last Friday (May 29), each address the star’s relationship with his family, including his strained relationship with his brother Deji. When he’s asked what he wanted to get off his chest with these songs, there’s a momentary silence. “I’m not gonna…”, his voice trails off. “I’m not gonna say, sorry.”

“YouTube is my home… it’s allowed me to do everything I’ve wanted”

Given how personal an outlet his music is to him, you wonder how KSI handles criticism of it. By this point, he must have long learned how to deal with online trolls in terms of YouTube comments and the like, but is it a whole different thing when it’s about his music? “I’m very defensive when it comes to music,” he says. “But I’m learning to take criticism.”

It’s perfectly meta, of course, that he’s recently been posting reaction videos of himself reacting to people reacting to his music. One bears the title: “PEOPLE THINK MY NEW SONG IS TRASH!?!?” But KSI tells NME: “On YouTube, I may look pissed off, but at the end of the day I know that not everyone is going to like my music. My audience is so large that I can’t please everyone. I kind of just try to please as many people as possible.”

You begin to sense that this is where the main difference between KSI and JJ lies. While KSI’s videos are marked by their high energy and cocky rambunctiousness, JJ comes across as a lot calmer, reflective and level-headed than you might expect. This especially shines through when our conversation concludes with talk of what’s to come next.

KSI names the likes of Slowthai, A$AP Ferg and Tyler, the Creator as artists he’d like to work with. He wants to perform festivals once the world resumes some sort of normality and also teases his next boxing match-up. Of his next challenger, Logan Paul’s brother Jake, he says: “I know exactly how I’m going to beat him”. As to what lies ahead after that: he’s less concerned about the gritty details.

“I don’t really know,” KSI says. “My whole life has been just… random. I just capitalise on opportunities that come and make the most of them. But I don’t have any goals and I think that’s why I’m so successful. I don’t go, ‘This is what I want to be’. If I got to that point, I would then realise, like, ‘I’m good, I’m done, I’m sorted.’ And I would just want to stop. Whereas I always have stuff to do… I want to make sure I’m playing hard and working hard.”

The deluxe edition of KSI’s ‘Dissimulation’ is out now