He may well have spent much of the past year being heralded as the future of British music, but right now Kane "Kano" Robinson looks anything but. The night before I meet him, this rangy, super-laconic 20-year-old put in several hours at the studio working on new material that may or may not see the light of day this year, depending on current promotional demands. Bedtime arrived some time around dawn, and the cup of tea he has just requested is all the breakfast that's on offer here in a backroom of his London record company's HQ. Right now, at a little after 12.30pm, he is collapsed across a low green sofa, legs sprawled out in front of him, his torso lolling off to one side as if it were a tyre with all the air expelled. Everything about him is slow motion: his lugubrious, deadpan voice, the right hand that moves intermittently towards his cuppa, his heavy-lidded blinks. His smile, though, is bashful and ready. The hooded Adidas top, meanwhile, lends him the air of necessary menace his reputation as a street-smart east Londoner demands.
"Have I had trouble with the police?" he asks, at one point. "Well, let's just say I haven't been to prison. But, look, that's not the kind of vibe I'm going for here. I'm not just another bad boy. There's more to me than that." His debut album, Home Sweet Home, certainly suggests that. Released in the middle of last year, it was promptly hailed as a new benchmark in grime, the musical genre that's an offshoot of urban R&B, but grittier, its fangs exposed. Home Sweet Home, a lyrical snapshot of a young man with clubs, aggro and sex on his mind, was unusually fluent, mixing hip hop with Latin and even rock riffs. Kano exhibited not just an ability to laugh at himself - "I'm a ghetto kid/ I wear my trousers low/ People see my undies", he raps on "Ghetto Kid" - but also self-doubt, a rare emotion indeed in this kind of music. On the track "Sometimes", he says: "When I see the fans go mad/ I think, Why do they like me?/ There's about a thousand other boys just like me/ What makes me so special?" Much praise has since come his way, along with a Mobo Award for Best Newcomer and a currently unfulfilled invitation to model for Hugo Boss. And the man's reaction to all this? A shrug of his low-slung shoulders, the unspoken suggestion that he couldn't care less.
"If I'm entirely honest with you," he says, a hint of embarrassment in his voice, "this is how I am with everything. It's just me. I'm laid-back. Sometimes, I think being laid-back will be my downfall; I'm a little too good at sitting on the sofa and doing nothing. But what can I say? It's who I am, how I am, how I've always been. You know, I was going to be a footballer at one stage, but..." pause, deep breath, slow chuckle, "...nah. And now it's music. I do love music, though, it's just there's plenty that comes with it that I'm finding I can live without. Like what? Touring. That can get a bit boring. Promotion. Business meetings. But see me on stage, and I'm all energy. Sometimes, friends come and watch me perform, and they can't quite believe it's me. When I'm in the moment, I'm all action. Otherwise, well," he shrugs again, "this is what you get." But has nothing of the past six months prompted excitement within him? Home Sweet Home has, after all, now gone gold in the UK.
"I don't really do excitement," he begins. "People around me, they do. Me? I just sort of take it in my stride. But these are definitely strange times for me, sure." He leans forward for his mug of tea, before slumping back into the sofa. Within seconds, he is practically horizontal.
Five years ago, Kane Robinson was, as he says, all set to become a professional footballer. Brought up in East Ham, London, by his mother, a PE teacher, he was an average school student who knew what he liked, and precisely what he didn't. He could see that maths would have a function in the outside world, and so gave the subject his due attention, but English was "nonsense - Shakespeare was a waste of time," and what was the point in subjects like RE or History? He did enjoy art and, after somehow attaining nine GCSEs without the benefit of revision, would go on to do a degree in graphics at Greenwich University before leaving to pursue music. But his most natural instinct in his mid-teens was sport, specifically football.
"I was never much interested in watching it or following it as a fan. It's just I had a bit of a talent for it, I suppose." He appears to be understating things somewhat. Word has it he was very good, his habit of scoring goals potentially paving the way towards future millionaire status and a taste for garish sports cars. He had trials for Norwich and Chelsea but became, he says, "lazy and bored," and so ultimately lost interest.
"I really irritated a lot of the people around me who couldn't believe my attitude," he chuckles, "because the way they saw it, I had this incredible opportunity. But, you know, that's just how I felt. I've since seen a couple of my cousins go on and pursue it, and now they are playing for Bristol City, Charlton Athletic. They've made it, the big time." He must be gutted? "No, actually, I'm not. I would be, if I was sitting at home wasting my life away, but fortunately I found another passion, and that was my music, innit?"
While English may have held little interest for him at school (on poetry he says: "What's that all about?"), he nevertheless clearly had a way with words himself and, by 16, was writing his own songs, pressing up his own CDs, touting them to record stores up and down the country and paying pirate radio stations to add them to their playlist. This proved a costly pursuit, and something he, his DJ brother (older by two years) and a group of friends only managed by doing whatever had to be done.
"Bank accounts?" Kano laughs incredulously. "We never had no bank accounts. No, we'd get money from - well, from whatever we were doing, basically. Like what? Well, from, you know, the street, from selling stuff: clothes, DVDs, drugs, anything." Two years later, and with quite a reputation on the underground club scene, he came to the attention of Mike Skinner, aka The Streets, whose own eloquent urban poetry was rapidly making him a star. Skinner, taking Kano under his wing, asked him to collaborate on a track, then took his signing on a national tour. A year later, he'd signed to Skinner's label 679 Recordings, suggesting to many that the latter was Obi Wan to Kano's Luke Skywalker. Not so.
"People think we're friends," he says, shaking his head, "but it's not like that. We only ever speak when it's work related. He has given me advice, though. You know, he's been through some of the shit I'm going through now, and he gives me pointers on things - like how to deal with fame, success, money, haters. He told me never to read anything that was written about me as it would only piss me off. I tried it once; he was right. Do I take it all on board? I listen to what he says, sure, but I also go my own way." Musically, he likes to think of himself as a one-off, and comparisons with Dizzee Rascal, the first grime artist to reach the mainstream via his Mercury-winning 2003 album Boy In Da Corner, aren't taken as flattery. "I'm nothing like him," he says.
His music is certainly more accessible than Rascal's, and lyrically he's pronouncedly more sensitive. Through music, he says he has effectively found ways of expressing himself that would otherwise remain unreachable.
"See, I'm not a very open person, face-to-face. I'm no good at sharing my feelings with others, good or bad. I kind of close up. Music is the only time I can open up and actually say things. Take 'Nite Nite', which is about a girl - about love. I could never speak to a girl like that in real life. I don't do sweet talk; intimacy makes me uncomfortable. But in music it's easier." He mulls over just why this may be so, and then says: "There's less shame to it, somehow." One subject that does bring him to life is money. He tells me that he can now make more from a single club appearance than many people earn in a month and that, having shifted over 100,000 albums, he is properly flush for the first time. He doesn't have a girlfriend, or at least a regular girlfriend, upon whom to lavish his newfound riches, and so he spends it largely on himself - on clothes and nights out.
"But don't go thinking I pour it all away," he points out. "That was something else that was knocked into my head repeatedly: got to be clever with any money that comes my way because it may not last. And so that's just what I'm doing." At 20 years old, Kano is becoming a property developer.
"I just bought my first place [15 minutes from his mother in east London], and I'm in the process of buying another one. Property is good investment," he says. "Kind of secures up my future." And it is money, at least partially, that keeps his endemic laziness at bay. In December, he was invited to perform for Christmas shoppers at Selfridges, and he readily accepted (something you can't imagine, say, Dizzee Rascal having done). But it was a quick and painless gig, crucially it paid well, and it also allowed him to play before an unexpectedly large and excitable crowd of, mainly, 14-year-old girls. While he may profess an abiding dislike of being viewed as a pop star, it is clear that he rather enjoyed the experience.
"It was funny," he grins. "These girls, they went wild, and afterwards a whole bunch of them mobbed my car, banging on the windows and refusing to let me leave. I had to wind down the window and sign autographs. That was new." Next month's Brit Awards, meanwhile, will bring him to an even more mainstream audience. He is nominated for Best Urban Act alongside Ms Dynamite, Craig David, Dizzee Rascal and Fame Academy's Lemar.
"Let's be honest about this," he reasons. "I deserve to win, don't I?" And does he actively want to? Kano doesn't say anything for several seconds. He blinks his eyes and scratches a phantom itch on the top of his closely shaved head. Eventually, he speaks.
"Put it this way: I don't want to lose."
Kano plays the Astoria, London WC2 (020 7344 0044) on Saturday. His new single 'Brown Eyes'/'Signs of Life' is released on 13 March on 679 Recordings. The Brit Awards are announced on 16 FebruaryReuse content