It's a creative impasse on which east Londoner Kano, aka Kane Robinson, muses on his debut, Home Sweet Home - "I know I've gone far, I think it's too far to turn back," he reflects. "Sometimes you see me in a daydream, thinking: could the underground go mainstream?" Indeed, with his cherubic looks and ferocious flow, Kano may be the man for the job.
"Ah, I don't know about that," he says bashfully. "But I'm not all about 'Let's keep it east London, let's keep it street. I'm about keeping the music true to its roots but taking it as far as it can go, wherever that may be."
At the ripe old age of 20, Kano is already a veteran of the grime scene. At 15, he was making music in his bedroom and MC'ing on the pirate station Déjà Vu with the fabled Nasty Crew. Late last year, following a tour with his friend and mentor Mike Skinner aka The Streets (Kano guested on the single "Fit But You Know It"), he won the Best Newcomer award at the Urban Music Awards. This January, after signing a deal with 679 records, also home to The Streets, he was featured in the BBC's sounds of 2005 list, compiled by 100 broadcasters and critics, alongside the Kaiser Chiefs and Bloc Party.
Next to the music of Dizzee Rascal, to whom Kano is most frequently compared, his debut album, Home Sweet Home, has a more accessible sound that comes with flourishes of rock and reggae, as well as the usual hybrid of UK garage and hip-hop. The album reveals Kano as a gifted and introspective lyricist. On "Sometimes" he confesses "When I see the fans go mad/ I think 'Why do they like me?'/ There's about a thousand other boys like me?/ Spitting lyrics on the mic, dressed in Nike." "I'm just being me" Kano shrugs. "I'm a thinker as much as I'm a talker. I started writing lyrics to clash with other people in the playground. Now I've developed my own voice and my own style. There's no one out there that does the same thing as me."
Kano grew up in East Ham, where he lived with his mother, a PE teacher, and his older brother. Until the age of 13 he seemed destined to be a footballer, playing as a centre-forward with Chelsea at 11 before signing to Norwich. But his enthusiasm for sport soon dwindled and music won out.
From rhyming in the playground, Kano graduated to composing tracks via the music programme Cubase on his computer. By the age of 15 he was renting space in an east London studio. "You pay by the hour - it was 15 pounds a go. The engineer took ages, smoking weed, eating food and wasting my time. But I'd rather spend my money on that than go out drinking."
Laying waste to the notion of MC's as tearaways, Kano continued his education, passing all his GCSEs before doing an A-level in graphic design. "I would go to college and people would know me from the rave they went to at the weekend," he smiles. "So I would get a bit of respect. But I would always go to class and do my work. My mother made sure of that."
It was Kano's brother, a DJ, who got him on the radio, now one of the quickest routes to success for aspiring MCs. "We would cram into these flats where they ran the stations and do our thing. We used to make tapes with other MCs and they would circle around the scene. They would travel too - we would go to raves in Ipswich and find people selling our tapes." Meanwhile Channel U, the Sky-sponsored music channel for homegrown urban acts, started playing his home-made videos.
As word got around about his skills and inspired by the success of Rascal, Skinner and the MC/producer Wiley, Kano got a manager and began scouting for a record deal. "I was impatient," he recalls. "I was going: 'Why is this taking so long?' But I knew from Wiley's experiences that I had to wait for the right label. I wanted a label which would understand where I was coming from and not try to dilute the music."
Mike Skinner was full of advice - crucially, advising Kano to be true to himself and not to read his press. And Dizzee? "After Dizzee done his thing and got big we didn't see him. But with all of them lot coming out before me I could see what they were doing and learn from them. I'm lucky because a lot more people know about this music than when Dizzee or Mike was coming through so it's easier for me."
Kano has started writing songs for his second album, though demands on his time are making it difficult. Six months ago he got his own flat but, what with promoting his album and performing, he hasn't had a chance to move in yet. The PR machine cogs are beginning to turn, too. He's been deluged with free clothes by Adidas and Puma, and there are whispers of a modelling job for Hugo Boss.
"It's all good," he says. "This job's got some nice perks. I definitely don't need to buy trainers anymore, which is lucky as there's no time to shop."
His mother, meanwhile, has become one of Channel U's most devoted viewers, keen to catch a glimpse of her son in full flow. "She's well into it," he smiles. "She always knows when I've got things coming out. Where she works, the kids know all know about me so they all try to come home with her. But whatever happens I'm still just a kid from East Ham. I'm just like everyone else really."
The single 'Nite Nite' is out on 5 September; 'Home Sweet Home' is out now on 679 recording
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