Some will undoubtedly have heard of Kenny Knots through his work with a wide range of UK and European producers from Mungo’s Hi Fi to Manasseh, Cultural Warriors to Jah Warrior. Others may know him as the one-time singjay on northeast London’s Unity Hi Fi where he recorded digi dancehall hits like “Run Come Call Me” “Watch How The People Dem Dancing” and “Ring Up My Number“. I met Kenny Knots in June of 2008 at his studio in Leyton, Northeast London, where we talked for an hour or so about his music, London sound systems, sound-tapes and videos, and a range of other topics. Joining me on the bus ride to Leyton was Pras who is responsible for taking these photos. There is some talk online of a solo album coming soon on Scotch Bonnet records, so keep an eye out for that along with any other Kenny Knots releases and please do enjoy the interview.
How did you get your start in music?
I spent some time back in the day in the first studio producing Unity music which was Must Dance International–which is Jah Bunny, Ruddy Ranks, Redeye, Elroy from Black Slate. You know all these kinda people around so I got a pretty early insight to wha gwan inside the studio environment, so it was always kinda good on that behalf. And I always had ideas, I could go to a dance and not, like–you have some singers and some deejays they rehearse very hard even to go to a dancehall, you know. But I be the kinda man that don’t do much rehearsing, like on that department. You know, just go in a dance, hear something ina your head, you know and say bwoy a dat me a go with and you just spit off a thing–like you just sing a thing or you deejay a thing, because I do a bit of both, you know, inside of the music industry I sing, I singjay, I do a bit of deejay, I do a bit of this, do a bit of that. I try to fill my life with the music still, no matter how it a come from, you know, even a guy give me a link the other day who does dubstep and stuff like that and some minimal kind of beats. And, you know, to be a artist would you only paint houses, or would you only paint cars, you know or would you only do drawings and never do paintings–so I look at it in that perspective. For me, music is an all around thing, when I first started working inside of this place here and doing my little thing its like, people were sent to me that done r&b and stuff like that. I could have turned them away and said I’m a roots purist, or try and learn from the experience and I chose to deal with the experience and find out what comes from it. And it was fun I done about seven months of recording, like trying to create beats in a different style–which is nothing to do with where like perhaps I eat my bread from, but it was all very good and I cherish them moments. So, a so it go .
Who were the big sound systems in your area and what artists were you influenced by?
Well, influenced by, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, D Brown, you know. The one that really give me the kickstart was I heard Nitty Gritty, and I never heard any kind of singing like that in my life! I said bwoy me haffi try that style deh–and I tried it, and I went down to the Must Dance studio, I kept singing this song over and over and over: watch how the people them dancing, watch how the dance crowd dancing and the man say you know something, mek we voice a tune. And, my first time really in front of a microphone, you know like, in a studio with headphones on it was new, different to like just singing outside–there was a few people in the studio at the time and there was words coming–put in that word there and put in that word there. You know, and we put them in and Redeye and Ruddy, who really kinda arranged the music for Must Dance, they say alright then boom–sing that piece twice, sing that piece once, come back with that piece deh thats a nice likkle phrase try that one deh again. And it was about maybe five, six hours, seven hours and the tune was voiced up, it was sounding good. I struggled badly on harmonies, didn’t know anything about harmonies and stuff like that, but they said come on, you can do it. So thats how “Watch How The People Dem Dancing” was created, and I felt more confident in myself as an artist coming along, you know, young fresh and green. Obviously at the time it wasn’t very much like–you know you had like Johnny Osbourne and them and Tony Tuff and they was releasing their music like conscious ites, but you also had the other side which was like, very dancehall–light, about girls and stuff like that, you know. And I went ahead with that like “Ring Up My Number” and stuff like that and, you know, same thing, just moving up the fire every single time. And even around here–because that was kinda Hackney, Stoke Newington side–like this side, Leyton, Leytonstone, Walthamstow, there was a few little sounds from round this side deh. As a youth I had a sound called Boss Intruder, with a brethren called Beefy, you know and so forth, it was a lovely time. We never had many speakers, we never had many amps, and we used to play like in house parties–them times it was alright to have a house party and like, you jam for the whole night. Now you’ll get in trouble straight away with the police and rae rae. So even at that time deh, buying a preamp, we got a guy called Reese to build us a preamp, and it was silver and it looked like a bomb, it was sloping like that. When we was on the bus with the preamp someone said to me, like, what is that thing you’ve got in your hand and me say bwoy its a thing to play music. Ohh its a thing to play music okay, so what’s this button do? And at the time I didn’t really know what the button done yet cause we just picked it up I was bringing it home to go and play it, so I was like I dunno that ones the bass, that ones the treble. You know, long time inside of the sound system thing.
At what point did you hook up with Ribs and Unity?
Ribs and Unity was like about ’83-’84 times. I used to go to Unity every friday, you know, they used to play in a club called Four Aces in Dalston–you’d go down there you could see Brigadier Jerry, you could see Josey Wales, you could see Charlie Chaplin, you could see any of them, you know what I’m saying. Sometimes Saxon would come there, you would have Killamantaurus, you’d have Java, lots of sound, Exodus. There was lots of sounds at the time. It was Unity’s residence, Four Aces, and it was like, you come there, you just take in a whole night of like selections, some of them you heard before, some of them you never heard before, you know but you was guaranteed to have a really good time for the night. Outside there was a guy called Spirit, and he had like a van, and he sells food like corn, hot corn, bun and cheese, you can get carrot juice, you can get pineapple punch–things to make you feel strong after the session, you can go home and you don’t have to go look for some beans and some toast or nothing you did eat something ital and vital outside of the place. It was a really good time, you know, and at that time to hook up with Ribs and them, its like they didn’t even really know that I existed, I was just a guy in there with my brethren, go there with my woman, whatever the case might be, and it was like one time my brethren Leroy, nicknamed Scientist, cause him can do some amazing thing with like electronic equipment–we done, like a kinda dubplate for Gemi Magic, which was a sound that was around at the time, but they didn’t even get to hold that tune there, because I didn’t even know who they were. We went to a dance and Gemi Magic was playing and so like the saturday morning now we roll by Leroy and start do our thing and it was like a dubplate for Gemi Magic. So I went down to the Must Dance studio and we had it on a cassette, a metal TDK, and we give it to the man and he heard it he said wha? me hear like a little bit a Tenor Saw, little bit a Nitty Gritty, yea man, come in man, come in, and just kinda opened up the relationship from there, but it was more with Ruddy and Redeye than with Ribs. Ribs was really the sound owner, you know. And when they make their productions, Ribs bus’ it pon the sound, get response from the people, and they just kinda took it from there whether to release the song or not, because Unity was a big sound. If you drop the tune in a dance and it get a pull up, like one pull up, then its like the tune a play some more, pull up and it play again, and then it pass like the first verse, then boom, now them a pull it up again, cause the lyrics so dread. Come again! Three pull ups, that must be a released tune. And thats what it was for “Watch How The People Dem Dancing.”
Who were Unity’s main rivals in those days?
Saxon and Coxsone. We could play with Saxon or Coxsone North London, we could play them South London, West London, you know, People’s Club, West London. There was loads of clubs accepting sound systems at the time. Unity had a good connection with Prince Jammys, so when it come to getting like, chune before everybody else Unity was one of the top dogs, Saxon was one of the top dogs, Coxsone was one of the top dogs, Java was even a top dog. Those were the kinda main rivals. Lots of wars between Saxon and Unity back in the days, lots of wars as who was the best sound and blah blah blah. Philip Levi, Daddy Colonel, Tippa Irie, Sandy, Junior Sandy, it was a lot; Unity you had Demon Rockers, Flinty, Specky, Navigator, Roy Rankin, Charjan, Jack Ruben, even Riddler, who passed away, General Boogie, Mikey Murka, Wayne Marshall, there was a lot. Errol Bellot, Selah Collins–he was a main singer on Unity even more than me, you know, because I had my brethrens around here and we has sound system already, and I’d just done some work with Unity, got a release and whatnot, but I spent most of my time with my brethren them. And I would go to a lot of Unity dances, like Unity Killamanjaro, Saxon in a place called Hastings–big session back in the days, big big session every man get a rental and drive up there whether you had a driving license or not you’d find a way to get a nice criss looking car to drive up to the session, cause it was all about that.
Did you mainly follow UK sounds or were you also listening to Jamaican sounds on cassette?
Yea man we used to like Jaro, Gemini, Stur Gav, Metro Media. Really and truly it was like, any time when fresh tapes came, you take part in it. You listen to Charlie Chaplin and you can hear, even bout the way how them throw down the lyrics you can hear the weed that them smoking and them elements around them–if its an outside session you can even hear that the man dem feel free outside and stuff like that. It was amazing, to get them dances, and even after a while we started to get the video tapes so we could see the artist who we’re listening to on the cassettes and say whoa thats what Lieutenant Stitchie look like, thats what Papa San look like and so forth. It was dread like that.
Tell me about some of the more recent work you’ve been doing?
I took a long break, really, from like music at all. I didn’t do no music for a while, I’d lost love with the producers and the way they dealt with me as a child, as a child artist. You know, I had a number-one “Watch How The People Dancing”–I think it was about eight weeks at number-one. “Sweet Reggae Music” Nitty Gritty was number two, number three, number four, going down and it couldn’t rise above me. It was a very special time for me because it was my first release, and, you know, not to get payed for them big kinda tunes when reggae was selling, like dynamically, like D Brown, them man and Sugar Minott a come pon Top of the Pops, you know, thats how big reggae was. “Watch How The People Dem Dancing” went ninety-nine in the national charts. And I think something was supposed to happen, like some kind of revoicing, I think maybe to take out Heineken and spliff but it never happened, and the tune could have forward more into the charts, but it never happened. You know, it was a dread time. But moving away from that, I feel the vibes again, I feel the fire, I wanted to take part in the music scene. i wanted to be amongst people that were honest, and were generalizing on being pleasant. It wasn’t even like a searching, it was something that kinda happened. I was working with a band, and we had done like about a year and a half of rehearsing songs and writing and stuff like that, and then we wanted to record the album. I called Ruddy Ranks and said to him like yea me a look fe your studio brethren. and he said yea? call this man yah Dougie. So when me call Dougie it was Dougie Bush Chemist. So went down, record the album, it was very nice, you know the album never get release–something that bands do, you know, they record some albums and they never release them. One day, just passing through the area, me say let me check Dougie and see what him a deal with. Checked Dougie and he said Yea whappen Ken, rae, wanna voice on this riddim here? So I listen the riddim, it sound nice and thing, I voice a track and he put it out, you know. From there its like, as the name, Kenny Knotts from back in the day, it still rings a bell with a few people so people start to call me and then I start to link with like Russ Disciple, Jah Warrior, Zion Gate, lots. People from like Switzerland, Cultural Warriors, Alpha & Omega, Jonah Dan and Christine. The door just kinda swing open where I could see that my musical career, if I would like it to, could start again quite easily. So i didn’t really look the gift horse in the mouth, I just forward on, and if a man ask me to voice something, he wants to pay me some money, blessed love lets do that, because right now in this society everybody needs a penny. And if you can get it for being joyful as well, you don’t have to rip nobody off or nothing like that, it’s a joy.
For some artists they could feel like maybe they never get everything what they supposed to get, like at one stage in their career. Like you done a big tune you didn’t get no money, okay then, but ten, fifteen years down the line you’re living something completely different, and then you start to get paid for this tune like in a different kinda way. You didn’t get it through royalties, you didn’t get it through other things, but you get it through some shows, some people want some dubplate–a man want a dubplate but he want it a little special from anything you ever done from anybody else, and you give him that and he pays you money. Its part of the thing because its like, you can’t hope to work and not get paid, and look at being paid as like a wrong thing or something like that. It’s hand in hand, it’s parcel, you know, like if you’re a decorator–like you see the ras out deh so, a scrape up the thing–to him thats his everyday food, and if he doesn’t get a house like that to do then he doesn’t eat no food. Then maybe he have to go and try his hand at some plastering or something else, you know? and thats how it is.
I saw back in the day, we would like, we load up we self, we have some marijuana to sell, you know what I’m saying, maybe me have a knife on me, in case anybody chose to take my marijuana, my cannabis or anything like that, so I can defend myself. And as well as that there was other people around who load up themself with other stuff and them have a gun pon them, and I see that this culture has grown and risen more over dancehall side of things–this is where a lot of hard drugs and all them things deh sell. I prefer the other side where it’s just like the music, we have ganja, keep it normal, keep it natural, and I see that–back in the day, you’d have sound like Channel One, you’d have Wasiffa, Jah Shaka, you know, keep their dances. And at one stage those dances became quite empty, and a lotta people went to the new kinda dance which was Saxon, Java, it was Unity, it was Coxsone, Jah Tubbys even did partake inside of the dancehall thing, eighties digital vibration. There was a lot of sounds, so its like even when I look back now, and I say yea man, Jah Shaka and them man deh keep the fire for how many years, twenty eight years or something like that–just keep on pumping the same vibration, a give thanks and praises to the Most High and a deal with people reality, not people fantasy, you know and that is the difference between dancehall and a roots rock reggae dancehall session like with Aba Shanti and so forth. We deal with people reality and not people fantasy, and I enjoy that about the songs that I now create. Ring up my number, my number is zero zero zero zero, zero zero zero zero–that is people fantasy. Is my song, you know and I love the song because of what it was for I at that time, it was a wonderful thing–girls thing, you know, nineteen years old, its all the rage, and its good to bring in certain forms of gimmick into the music those ways. But to me, even though it’s my song zero zero zero–a people fantasy that and not people reality. And I prefer people reality.