Chris Kelly ventured to the freshly refurbished KOKO, to witness Knucks live for the first time. Not only did she find the stage show firmly on lock, but fans were welcomed to the crypto market in this, an all-new concert experience for 2022...
Last Wednesday, Knucks delivered the hardest show of 2022 thus far, with a pure gasoline performance. If you have followed his career, you will be familiar with his ‘No Days Off’ mentality and producer tag, which started off as a rallying cry between Knucks and his cousin (Tomzilly) at the start of his 10-year career. This motto has now evolved into a physical, creative business collective. That diligent work ethic has paid off, cementing him into the ranks of the UK rap elite. And it’s a well-deserved status for the South Kilburn native, whose rise was a slow-paced ride for his fans. He has earned the title of the UK’s most progressive rapper by creating his own idiosyncratic lane. Praised by his peers, Stormzy shouted him out at Glasto and contributed to his current album ‘Alpha Place’ on the ‘Die Hard’ track, and Wretch 32 describes his flow as ‘smoother than butter’.
Knucks has commanded my attention since his debut mixtape release ‘Killmatic’ dropped. His 2014 homage to the iconic NY skyscraper of hip-hop Nas and his seminal album ‘Illmatic’. The mixtape was a combination of raw storytelling, and old-school sampling bridged to contemporary genres, drill and trap. This was something that had not been done before, and this hybrid approach hooked me. Something about his intrinsically sharp wordplay and the creative direction in which he takes his music sets him aside from the pack. I knew from the offset that he would change the narrative for UK rap, but could he potentially forge a new blueprint for it in the process?
When the headline show was announced, I knew it would sell out. So I bagged my ticket straight away. There would be no need to do the cringy social media beg to my contacts to see if they could pull strings to get me in.
As the night approached, I became anxious. I’d never seen him live before, and having placed him on such a high pedestal, would he meet my high expectations? It’s an age-old scenario. Some artists’ are just better in the studio than live. I hoped this wouldn’t be the case for Knucks.
When gig night finally arrived, I was beyond excited. Being a north London local, I’m always pleased when gigs are in proximity, and KOKO has always been one of my all-time favourite venues. I haven’t been to the iconic venue since it had fallen silent for a revamp in 2019, during which it was engulfed by fire which brought the historic building to its knees. After construction started, the legendary site was struck by biblical misfortune. Work was stalled by a fire, a colossal flood and an actual plague in the form of COVID-19. Music fans rejoiced when it was announced that the music meccas doors were to be thrust open in May 2022. Knucks is amongst a handful of top tier talent to perform in its opening month.
Walking down Camden’s bustling High Street, KOKO came into my peripheral view. The sight of her made me smile. It was like seeing an old friend you hadn’t seen in a long while. Due to my rule of never getting to a gig too early, the queue was short-lived, as most fans had already entered the building. We were encouraged (although we weren’t told why) to take special wristbands by staff upon entry. Once inside, I gasped at the red and gold paintwork and stunning interior, stepping through the doors. Doing a quick reccy around the inside perimeter, looking for the perfect spectator position. I headed up to the balcony tiers, finding my ideal observation point.
The ground floor was packed, the crowd was pulsing, and mosh pit circles were already forming. It was an intoxicating sight to behold and showcased that live music post-Covid was back with a bang. The warm-up DJ played a mixture of dancehall, drill and trap. It struck me that this gig was already unlike any others I had attended. I had never seen a crowd filled with adrenalin so early on in the night. As the support act took to the stage, I was gassed that it was Bawo. He had been on my radar for a couple of years. The audience jumped along to the 2020 release ‘No Sleep’. His silky vocals, mellow style and metaphor rich bars were the perfect aperitif.
It was a little after 9pm when the stage wholly blacked out. The ‘No Days Off’ tag started to echo across the vastness of the theatre. Digital screens suddenly flickered with a VHS static crackle. An iconic scene from Tarintino’s cult movie ‘Pulp Fiction’ played. Knucks stepped on stage with a laid-back swagger, dressed in a grey tracksuit donning a ‘No Days Off’ beanie. He opened with his R&B vibe throwback ‘Big Kahuna’.
“London, what you saying?“
The energy in the room rose. It was quite the kick-off.
Digging further into the vault, serving up ‘Beg to Differ’ and ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’. The limelight shifted to the ‘Alpha House’, released earlier this month, with the debut album landing at No.3 on the UK official charts.
“I wanna take you to ‘Alpha Place’. I wanna show you where I grew up.”
The audience bounced simultaneously and recited line for line. The stage design was minimalistic, but it delivered a cinematic punch. Visuals showcased Alpha House. A reoccurring image and nod to his South Kilburn estate roots.
When the fan anthem ‘Leon The Professional’ dropped, Knucks turned the mic to the audience. “I said, “Leon?” “They said, “Leon.”
‘Home’ was reenacted comparatively, with Knucks this time directing the room to raise their phone flashlights. “Even the ones on 12%…” being part of the low phone percentage crew, it was nice to be recognised for one of my toxic traits.
The lyrics of ‘Home’ were figuratively brought to life.
You could see that London was burning, the smoke was impossible to duck, and Knucks was holding the matches that ignited the flames.
The album’s guest features were brought to life with Youngs Tefflon, Ragz Originale and Lex Amor jumping on stage. Saxophonist and producer Venna received the biggest ovation when stepping on stage. And Loyle Carner treated us to an exceptional rendition of ‘Standout’. Heavyweight Stormzy donned the set with a chemistry-fuelled duet of ‘Die Hard’. The relationship between Knucks and Venna produced the most goosebump-inducing moment. The inclusion of the saxophone in Knucks musical direction showcases a nostalgic appreciation rarely portrayed within the UK rap. Could this pave the way for the genre’s newfound integration of musical instruments?
The show took many surprising turns, but one of the biggest was for two lucky fans whose wristbands (the one’s staff had urged us to take upon arrival) turned red under the lights and walked away with the share of a Bitcoin currently worth £23k. Each winner received a third of the coin alongside Knucks. In a first of a kind partnership with Luno, the winners will be educated by Knucks and the cryptocurrency platform in investing within the crypto space, have the option of cashing in or using a portion of the prize with Knucks to create a fund in which they can invest in NFTs and cryptocurrencies.
Although my wristband, unfortunately, didn’t turn red. I can’t forget to shout out props for the dope free exclusive one-off ‘Alpha Place’, a T-shirt with a QR code preloaded with a £10 bitcoin from Luno was given to everyone as they left the show, which has now entered me into the exciting world of crypto.
Mics down, Knucks just raised the bar and dropped my favourite gig of the year so far.
YouTube live-streamed the exceptional show, which you can check out here too.
Words: Chris Kelly
Photos: David Levene
Chris Kelly is a freelance music journalist and feature writer with a focus on emerging and established artists, subcultures, the art world and mental health. Chris has multifaceted expertise as a media and creative specialist working with your favourite brands and helping them to embed themselves within the culture through strategic and entertaining content for brands, businesses and organisations.