Strange, but true: Kano’s new album ‘Made In The Manor’ was partially recorded about ten feet away from the Clash office.
Utilising a small space at Hackney Downs Studio, the rapper was able to keep himself hidden, working privately on some of his most personal material to date. Curiously, ‘Made In The Manor’ was actually made in our manor, with the odd spot of audio leakage tumbling down the corridor.
Kano's manor is real, but it’s also imaginary. It's a recollection, one rooted in emotional truth, rather than physical. It's one that mirrors his own career, his own status – at once fuelled by grime, he also has roots in UK hip-hop; too big to be underground, but also never fully accepted by the mainstream. 'Made In The Manor' is the sound of an artist re-tracing the culture that first sparked his imagination, and in doing so underlines the continuing vitality of this culture.
“But really, I just see it as my story,” he says at one point during our conversation. “My truth. And just me being as open as I've ever been. So that's how I see it. That's what it is, really.”
But let's rewind. In many ways, Kano's discography reads like a statement of place, a bass cartography that charts a unique career – opening with 'Home Sweet Home', the theme continues with 'London Town' and '140 Grime Street'. 2010's 'Method To The Madness' breaks the spell, leading to an extensive period of silence from the rapper – a period ended emphatically by 'Made In The Manor'.
“It probably took about four years. That's on and off, to be honest. It started three years ago, and it's dragged on there, from that long ago,” he explains. “But it's definitely been a long process, and I would have loved it to have come out earlier, but it wasn't right. I just wasn't really into putting out music just for the sake of it. So my thing was, look: it's taken my three years, it might as well take me five. Let's get this right, and make it something that I can really be proud of.”
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In many ways 'Made In The Manor' feels like the definitive Kano record. It simply works as an album – the hype tracks are in place, but the tempo never becomes static, with the MC continually moving, dropping down and moving back up. Moving around London, work began in a Fulham-based studio with Fraser T Smith.
“I went with Fraser at the beginning, and he initially took up a role as producer but was also able to help me create that backbone that others can build on, but he was still there, obviously, in a kind of executive role,” he says. “So I reckon it was shaping the skeleton of it with mainly one person, and then elaborating on that. The music was very important, but the lyrics was the main thing. And the music just acts as a soundbed for that. I was choosing to spit on music that would allow me to tell a story, and not cloud me, and not get in the way of what was being said. So a lot of the time the lyrics came first, to be honest.”
On his day, Kano is almost peerless as a lyricist – and 'Made In The Manor' utilises this to emphatic effect. Lyrically dexterous, the rapper can shift from braggadocio to introversion, intense anger to light humour with just an intake of breath. His most personal record yet, it's one that was largely created in private, far away from prying eyes. “For this process, I didn't really do much writing in the studio, I did most of it at home,” he says. “Normally we go and make the music, and I'll familiarise myself with that. I'll write most of the lyrics while the beat was playing in the background. It was like, normally at night, a lot of times waking up in the middle of the night, in bed, just jotting it down in my phone. Making little voice notes.”
“It's weird, you try and find that balance where you want to let it come to you,” he insists. “So you want it to naturally happen, and that's how it worked with this process. It wasn't really sitting down with a beat in the background for hours on end. And I think that maybe comes across in how personal it is, because a lot of times it was just me, by myself, at night, silence, not in the studio with a bunch of people – maybe that wouldn't have been a comfortable environment to say a lot of the things I'm saying in.”
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I'm an album person...
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Interweaving references from his childhood and adolescence, to his current status in the game, 'Made In The Manor' is a uniquely meta album; utilising recollection and fast, absorbed memory and reality, it tells an incredible story in an incredible way. Remarkably, it all sits together, too – a unified body of work, an album in the most classic sense.
“That was definitely the goal,” he admits. “And I'm an album person. I know that as time moves on, it seems like people are more conscious of having music out all the time, singles, a club thing here and there. But I'm a big fan of the album, and I think that's how I like to hear my favourite artists. Something I can listen to from start to end. That's the artists that I want to be. And I always was, to be fair. I'm a CD buyer, I read the booklets, I read the credits. I'm that guy! So I want to give that to my audience, as well.”
If music is all about timing, then Kano has certainly timed his return well: the current creative flux within grime is producing some stunning music, but little of it has settled into the album format. 'Made In The Manor' then, feels perfectly tailored for these times. “It's nothing that I could foresee,” he says. “Although at times I've been frustrated because I wanted to release it early, I wanted to be in a position where I could be finished and have it out, but – in a way – it kinda does feel right, right now. It's just something that has lined up. The general feeling out there, British music is doing great things – it feels like we have a strong identity at the moment, people are gravitating towards our music. The energy just feels right, so maybe it's the perfect time.”
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Set to head out on tour with rising rapper Jammz, DJ support will come from Butterz’ lynchpins Elijah and Skilliam. ‘Made In The Manor’, though, is an almost exclusively solo affair, with just two noble exceptions: Damon Albarn contributes, while lead single ‘3 Wheel-Ups’ boasts guest verses from Wiley and Giggs. Curiously, though, that wasn’t exactly the way Kano planned it. “There wasn't anyone on the album, no MCs,” he reflects. “I was waiting for an opportunity for that to come along. I thought it might not come along, I was happy with me being the only MC on there, but when that came along I was like: Yeah. This is the time. We can have some lyrical sparring, some fun, some energy and just bring it.”
“Obviously Wiley was a massive part of my career from the beginning - starting, pioneering grime. And I thought, Giggs has been the same but on the hip-hop side of things,” Kano insists. “I've been a fan of his for almost ten years now, and he's just on fire. Just to hear him on the beat like that, as well – doing the double time flow, because usually he doesn't do that. I thought it was mad interesting, and it was nice to have that big club tune, that big release. It'll help me for the shows, it'll help the listeners. A lot of the other stuff is deeper, but you need those moments where you can just let loose, as well.”
One of the record’s most intense moments, ‘3 Wheel-Ups’ re-connects Kano with that primal MC sense of competition. “It's always a part of MCs,” he says. “It's in our DNA. We always want to compete against the best. I think it really comes across in that track but it's just definitely something that’s a cloth that we're cut from. It just reminds me of those deja vu, pirate radio station, going back to back, friendly competition. Those kind of times. That will always remain in us, and in me, definitely.”
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I've always been keen to experiment, keen to cover new ground...
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Damon Albarn’s contribution is something quite different. The pair go way back, and their collaboration ‘Deep Blues’ is one of the album’s more personal moments. It’s the chemistry between them, evidently, that allows Kano to take things a little deeper. “He's just someone that I highly respect as a musician, I'm always keen to see what he'll bring to the table. He always surprises me with his approach. An all round good guy. So I like to get in with him and get some music down with him.”
“It's amazing, man,” he reflects. “I've seen him work with all sorts – the Syrian National Orchestra to Mark E Smith. That versatility is definitely a string to his bow.”
Is that versatility something that Kano himself aspires towards?
“I've always been keen to experiment, keen to cover new ground, keen to do something that hasn't been done before. Push boundaries,” he argues. “Something that I've always tried to do from my first album. I don't think anyone can really listen to my albums and think it's, like, a grime album. Do you know what I mean? I never want to feel restricted to a BPM, like a certain tempo. I always try things.”
A studied, complex, studio work, ‘Made In The Manor’ has been trailed by Kano’s sensational appearance on Charlie Sloth’s Fire In The Booth. It’s an electric moment, with the MC firing up a freestyle that simply demolishes the opposition. Despite the layered, often reflective approach on his new record, the rapper has never lost his hunger for the freestyle, with ‘GarageskankFREESTYLE’ making its way on to the expanded edition of ‘Made In The Manor’. “That's just lovely to let loose, and just go for it. Not think about it too much, and have fun,” he says. “And I think – at times, during the process – I'm making all these songs, re-connecting with stories from my upbringing, and speaking about deeper subjects, so it's always nice to have that moment of release, and just fun! Just the beat, and one mic, and just flow.”
It really is as simple – and as complicated – as that.
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'Made In The Manor' is out now.
Catch Kano at the following shows:
16 Brighton Concorde II
17 Norwich Waterfront
18 Bristol Marble Factory
19 London Troxy
22 Nottingham Rescue Rooms
23 Cambridge Junction
24 Birmingham Library
25 Manchester Academy 2
26 Sheffield Plug