back to the east end with kano
The grime great's new record Made In Manor is an ode to Mission FM and Moschino, Yankee’s Chicken, PG Tips, Zippy and Bungle and Super Cat, Wagon Wheels and free school dinners.
"Sully! We look up to you, man!," the gobby Year 11 kid from nearby Langdon Academy shouts in the general direction of Kane Robinson who is leaning laconically against a wall on the corner of Nelson Street and Park Ave, a kick and a push from his East Ham childhood home on St. Olaves Road. Robinson snaps to attention and shoots the teen a sharp look. "Nah, nah, don't be influenced by that guy. Not that guy."
'Sully' is of course reference to the mononymous character he plays in Top Boy, Channel 4's Drake approved series that went off-air in 2013. The brooding, impulsive drug dealer couldn't be more diametrically opposed to Robinson, 30. Better known as Kano, the East London MC (slash actor/ producer/ director) is polite, thoughtful and considered. Reckless and quick tempered he is not. But don't be mistaken, Kane is still from the manor. Dressed entirely in Y3 with a pair of black Yeezys (street value £1000+) on his feet, you wonder aloud if he will be, well, safe dressed in such luxe in these parts. "It's ok round here," he grins. "I'm good round here."
It's been well over a decade since he last roamed these streets with regularity, but Kano retains strong ties to East Ham and Langdon Academy, where he went to school and where his mum, Melrose, still coaches netball.
Robinson was a good pupil, never bunking off and rarely getting into trouble. "I was one of them kids who got in early and played football," he remembers. "I'd play football at breaktime, then at lunchtime I'd run to the canteen, get two Ribenas, run to the playground and play more football. I had my odd occasion here and there, but I was pretty good. I got decent grades." If things had been different, Kano might have been a footballer, or an artist possibly - he studied Graphic Design at college - but it was music that really commanded his mid-teen imagination. "I don't know where this creativity came from cos it's not really like anyone else in my family was that way inclined," he frowns. "Music was always there though. My uncles always said that when I was small, I'd hear a song and sing it straight away. I understood melody and lyrics really quick."
Robinson and his older brother were bought up in a house full of cousins, aunties and uncles by Melrose - "I haven't seen my dad in… 10 years?" - and would regularly visit his mum's family in Jamaica, where he really fell in love with music, making songs with his cousin, Karis, in a place called Salamander Inn in the tiny seaside town of Runaway Bay. Kano was 14 when he first MC'd in public. "It was in a beatbox circle in the playground at school. Everyone went mad, like, 'Rahhhhh'," he pauses, slowly summoning the reverie. "I think I dissed my brother or something," he laughs, "It must have been, like, a battle, yeah. The walk home weren't too sweet!" His mum actively encouraged both of her son's musical inclinations; buying his brother some decks, Kano a mic from Jamaica and for Christmas one year, a brand new Casio keyboard for them both. "The second or third record I made on that keyboard was Boys Love Girls," he says, referencing his 2002 break-out classic, an early grime standard that showcased his extraordinary and innate flow that was intricate, complex, and ever-evolving. He called Dizzee, who he vaguely knew, and Diz took him on the DLR to a studio in Greenwich to vocal Boys Love Girls. "I remember giving it to Jammer and him listening to it on his headphones at [pirate station] DéjàVu, and then [N.A.S.T.Y Crew DJ] Mac 10 played it later on in that show. I was probably about 16 by that point." He got a bit gassed hearing his track played on one of the biggest pirates at the time, but it wasn't until a few weeks later that Kano realised how big a deal Boys Love Girls was becoming. "I went to [notorious grime venue on Hackney's Lower Clapton Road] Palace Pavilion with N.A.S.T.Y. I remember stepping on the stage, Mac dropping it and - duh-da-duh-da-duhhh - the crowd just went mad." Shortly afterwards, Kano and Jammer decided to press up some white labels. "We ended up selling a good few thousand of them. That's the first time I ever earned any money like that."
Kano would end up leaving N.A.S.T.Y., going on to sign to 679 Recordings/ Warner and creating his seminal grime/ hip-hop balancing debut Home Sweet Home with Mikey J, DaVinChe and Terror Danjah as well as a pre-Bieber Diplo, a pre-Adele Paul Epworth, Mike Skinner (who was, and remains a key influence) and Fraser T. Smith who began life as Craig David's guitarist and went on to write and produce for Plan B, Florence and Adele. It was 2005 and he was 20 years-old. As important as that record was, Kano remains, to this writer's mind, one of the UK's most-undervalued MC's, a poet of epic proportions who snaps and crackles on the mic, delivering flow after flow punctuated with punchlines. He has always been, it seems, slightly ahead of his time; had Kano released Home Sweet Home in 2008/2009 when Tinchy and Tinie were exporting a much wider musical palette, his debut may have had a much more mainstream impact. 'I ain't commercial but I got hit-lines," he foreshadowed on P's & Q's. But while number one albums and Mercury Prize awards may have evaded him, Kane has had far from a quiet career. He got his first acting role in the South London-set Rolling With The 9s, which later led to a starring role as Sully in Top Boy. He's worked with everyone from Damon Albarn to Vybz Kartel, been co-signed by Jay Z and Andre 3000, toured the world and signed off lucrative advertising campaigns with Mercedes Benz.
But it's the early days, the times leading up to the release of Home Sweet Home that Kano focuses on - to great effect - on his fifth album, Made In The Manor. This isn't a record obsessed with opulence and proving his prowess. It's funny and warm and brimming with energy; D Double and Wiley show and prove on 3 Wheel Ups, Albarn on Deep Blues, JME on Flow Of The Year. Made In The Manor is cluttered with memories of MCing at Eskimo Dance and Ayia Napa, making beats and writing bars at his mate Ginger's house with Stormin' and D Double E, raving in the West End and skunk-smoked barbeques in the ends. He reflects on the changing face of the East End (Seashells in the East End/ See Shells In The East End), the endemic racism that existed before he was born and the social problems that persist. He talks about beef at the Fit But You Know It (remix) video set, a shooting at the album front cover, 'up by the shops/ We just wanna rep the manor right, give it props… And I just wanna make an album, mind my business/ All this gangster shit, who wants to sleep with the fishes?' He spends one whole song, Strangers, detailing the falling-out with his best friend, the MC Demon, best known for his 16 on Lethal B's Pow! (Forward Riddim). "Yeah, Dean, a lot of people don't know that me and Dean were proper mates before music, from playscheme days we were proper tight innit. If you really analyse [our falling out], it's not anything that's worth losing a friendship over." What does Kano think Demon will think of the song? "I don't know. There's a couple of moments like that on the record where I said what I said, and I don't know what it will bring." Another revealing record is Little Sis, which talks about his half-sister, who he hasn't seen since she was three years-old. Does he hope the song reopens their relationship? "I wasn't even saying it for it to achieve that. That wasn't the goal. I don't know. Maybe it would be nice to be cool, for her to know I'm here. For us to know each other. Even just a call or a text or come to a show, maybe she's aware of what I've been doing. Probably so."
Adulthood is complicated right? He laughs. "It seems so! I used to talk about boys loving girls. And now it's like all these complexities and just… life."
Mostly though, Made In The Manor is warm and affectionate; it's Mission FM and Moschino, Yankee's Chicken, PG Tips, Zippy and Bungle and Super Cat, wagon wheels and free school dinners. There's classic sounding grime tunes and songs not so easily categorised by genre. What you get a really strong sense of though is Kano. Kane 'Kano' Robinson. "It's definitely my most personal album to date," he nods. "It's entirely autobiographical. This is the album where I let people in. And you know, it's my first one in five years. I had to make something worth listening to, something important. It's important for me, and important for the listener as well. I always want more from MCs. I want to know more. I think as a scene we need more seminal albums; that's the way we're going to get respected on a bigger level."
As he goes to cross the road, briefly interrupted by the excited exclaims of two women - "Yes Kano! I knew it was him!!!" - he considers why he makes music. "I don't know. Sometimes I ask myself why I put myself through this. Through the process, the frustrating times. I'm miserable when things ain't going right, musically, and then you put yourself through the scrutiny. I don't know why, I think it's just who I am. It's definitely not for hype or any of the shallow things that come along with it. I just love it."
Surveying the streets that made him, the hundreds of kids pouring out of the school gates and crowding into the newsagents to stock up sweets, crisps, and fizzy drinks, he reflects on the next generation of young, black, brown and white British, working class kids, the next Kano's, Wiley's, Dizzee's. "I like to be optimistic and to feel hopeful for the future of young kids," he decides. "A lot has changed, especially where I've grown up. It's probably harder in some aspects, but in terms of young creative people, hopefully it's becoming easier. The more that we can kick doors and break ground and inspire the next generation - well, we're already seeing the next generation that we've inspired," he says. "Maybe that will be our legacy. Hopefully we've encouraged a generation to be creative and live through our mistakes and triumphs. Long may that continue."
Text Hattie Collins
Photography Olivia Rose
Photography assistance Tessa Griffith.
Kano wears all clothing model's own.