The year's fastest selling UK rap album doesn't come from the underground, or from an established talent - in fact, it comes from a YouTube star.
The conversion of KSI from gaming commentator through to MC maestro has been enormously successful, with his debut LP 'Dissimulation' smashing into the charts at No. 2 on the first week of release.
A record that featured a flurry of huge guest spots - AJ Tracey through to Trippie Redd and Offset - the ease of its success brought out some online detractors.
At its heart, though, is a rap fan living their dream. KSI used to pepper his video uploads with rap line, and this is an arena he's long harboured ambitions towards.
New single 'Lighter' features production from Nathan Dawe, and it could well be a summer smash, a clinical banger for those looking to unload lockdown energy.
Speaking to Clash, KSI opened up about the deep roots of his love for the art, the making of 'Dissimulation', and why his new single could be a No. 1 hit.
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How have you been spending lockdown?
I’m just making good of a bad situation! Obviously, doing a lot of exercise, working on music, and doing YouTube videos. I’m always working. I’m always putting my focus on to something.
I still also make sure I find time to relax, as well, just so it’s not work-work-work otherwise I’d burn out!
YouTube is a very demanding platform, isn’t it? There’s scripting, preparation work, editing, promo…
Anyone who says ‘YouTube is easy’ I always tell them: go on and do YouTube, and see if you can be successful at it…! And a lot of them try and fail. They don’t realise how consistent you have to be, how innovative you have to be, and how much hard work actually goes into creating YouTube videos all the time. It’s not something like, you post one… and that’s it. You actually have to keep going and going and going! I see YouTube as an area where people consume content really quickly, and you always have to make sure you supply the audience with something. A lot of people can’t keep up with that, and then they struggle.
You mentioned burn out, which is of course a huge issue for YouTubers – how do you avoid that?
A lot of times you’ve just got to turn off, man. You’ve just got to know when you’re reaching a point when you’re getting exhausted. Don’t be afraid to turn your phone off. Don’t be afraid to hang up on the whole internet! Don’t look at your notifications. Maybe exercise. Do something else other than work.
It’s funny… my girlfriend is here, and she’s staring at me, like: you don’t do any of this! But I know I do, she just doesn’t see it! I find time to just relax. When I’m with her I find time to chill with her, watch Netflix or Amazon Prime.
Your album has been named 2020’s fastest selling album – how does that make you feel?
It’s insane. It is insane, man. I don’t really know what else to say! I’ve worked hard. I’ve been doing music for years and years, working on my craft… and I’ve done a lot to create and build this audience that I have. It’s not easy to just bounce around and have an audience that are interested in my YouTube videos and then jump to my music. It was a slow progression… and it took time.
A few EPs later, I was able to release a solo album that my audience responded well to. The songs I have in the pipeline are going to show that progression, they’re going to break boundaries. It shows that, as a YouTuber, you can literally do whatever you want. Obviously people are going to say ‘you can’t do this’ or ‘you can’t do that’ but ultimately, if you just stick to your guns and believe in yourself then you can do anything.
People have seen that from me – whether that’s boxing or YouTube or music – and I think that’s why a lot of my audience is inspired by me. They think it’s cool! Because I feel like we live in a world where people tell you that you can’t do things… but this new generation are seeing that this isn’t the case.
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The album’s success did seem like a bolt from the blue, but music has been a part of your life since childhood, hasn’t it?
Yeah. I’ve been doing music for almost 10 years. It started as a kid – I would use it to help me remember things at school. I made chemistry raps, physics raps… but beyond that, I would play around with it in my videos on YouTubes, putting little raps in there. Nothing too serious!
Even ‘Lambourghini’ - which is one of my biggest songs – that wasn’t a super serious song, it was just a song that I wanted to do because I had a Lambourghini… and I thought it was cool! But once it took off, that’s when I was like: OK, let’s focus on this music thing, and actually improve as an artist. And over the years, I feel like I’ve done that.
A lot of people see me doing YouTube and then they instantly go: oh OK, he’s a YouTuber. And they’ve set it in their heads, so they can’t think of anything else I can be. So then when I pop off in boxing, it’s like: what’s going on?! But they don’t understand that before I fought Logan the second time, I’d already done it the year before, and then I fought someone else before that. No one sees that! They only see the big things.
Same thing with music. They see a number two album and it’s like: I don’t get it, I thought he was doing YouTube videos?! But I’ve been doing this for a while. It’s been slowly building. And I think that’s why my career has been successful, as it’s not a huge spike, which then drops – it’s all very gradual. Everything has been extremely gradual. It’s taken years. And now obviously it’s reaching a crescendo, and people are now seeing that.
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The album has some colossal features on there, what the process behind bringing these people in?
It depends on the song. We make the songs, and decide on who would fit on these types of tracks. When I made ‘Poppin’ it was me and SmokePurrp. SmokePurrp actually wrote first, and he left it because he didn’t really know what he was doing with it. I heard it from a producer, and I was like: this is sick, lemme do something with this! I put my chorus and my verse on, and SmokePurrp liked it a lot.
I went back to my team, and thought about how to make it even bigger. It made sense to have Lil Pump on there, because we wanted something playful. It’s not a super serious song, and – personally – it made sense to have him on the track. Same with Trippie Redd. His vocals are very, very different to mine. Mine’s laid-back and chilled, whereas he’s singing properly. It worked.
We tried a few things and it didn’t work. I wanted a track with A$AP Ferg, but it just didn’t work so we scrapped it. There were other tracks that I made that I just scrapped because it didn’t make sense. All the songs I have now are the ones that made sense for the album that we wanted to create.
It’s a nice balance of US and UK talent, too. Do you feel British artists can hold their own with Stateside rappers?
Yeah! I think UK music is poppin’ off right now. It kinda shows with the whole drill movement. Even Americans are starting to get really interested in London drill. It started in Chicago, but Britain put its own twist on it and made it what it is now. And that’s why people like Pop Smoke jumped on it. They see what we’re doing over here, and they think it’s fucking sick! It’s a shame Pop Smoke died, because I feel he was going to move the whole drill movement in a much bigger way, especially in America. But UK music is poppin’ off and we can definitely hold our own.
For me, I’m a person that… I don’t just do what anyone else does. I’m not a normal person – I can do whatever I want. If I want to make a song with Offset I can make a song with Offset, if I want to make a song with Tion Wayne I can make a song with Tion Wayne. I’m in a space where I’m my own person. I’m in my own lane. And no one can really say otherwise because I have the track record to show for it.
For me, I put our songs with people no one’s gonna expect… and that’s what excites me. I like doing stuff that people don’t expect. When it comes to music, it’s very exciting where I’m going.
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The new single is a collaboration with Nathan Dawe, what was it like to work in the studio with him?
Oh very easy! Nathan just hit me up, and said: do you want to jump on this? I heard the track and said: yes, of course!
For me, when someone asks me to jump on as a feature, my first thing is about hearing the song. If I hear the song, and I like it, I’ll jump on it. It’s all about how the song stands. When I heard it, I thought: this is a smash! I knew instantly what I needed to do to elevate it to another level. I went on it, it took me a couple of hours to write the verse, and then that was it. We went to the studio, it took less than an hour to lay it down… seamless stuff.
Even the engineer was amazed at how fast I was. So I told him, I’ve been doing this for years! I’ve been doing it for so long. People don’t realise that I’ve been doing this whole music thing for a long time now. I honestly believe that me, Nathan, and Ella Henderson have created an absolute masterpiece. I genuinely think it could be a number one!
Laying down your marker!
That’s what I’m aiming for, anyway.
It’s a summer hit, but it’s a shame our summer is moving in such a strange way, isn’t it?
Oh yeah. But for me, I’m always trying to make the best out of a bad situation. And I think it’s important to show how adaptable I am, and I can easily manoeuvre when there’s chaos going on. I can still find an area where I can still succeed, and do well. A lot of people could never have even thought about releasing an album in a pandemic.
A lot of people would say 2020 is a write off, to just wait for next year when it’s all back to normal. But for me, I’m like: nah… whether there’s a pandemic or not I’m still able to succeed in my craft, and my area of work. And that’s just because I’m able to adapt to situations so easily. For me, 2020 has arguably been one of my best years ever! In terms of music, in terms of YouTube… it’s just been crazy.
You mentioned that you’re working on new material, will that be Album No. 2…?
Already working on it! Next album will be next year, just before festival season. Literally, I need to show the world that I’m a force to be reckoned with. But it takes time. This first album was just the foundation. Best believe that people are going to be seeing my name a lot more! It’s exciting. I’m working on another album, I’ve got tonnes of features ready.
All it takes is hard work. All it takes is to be consistent… and you’ll succeed. But I know how the game works: you can’t release something and then sit on your arse for a year. That’s not how it is! I’m part of a new generation where people just want more and more and more… so you’ve got to give people more and more and more. That’s where I’m different. I’m able to give the people what they want.
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'Lighters' is out now.
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