Kno Can Do: CunninLynguists And The Art Of The Chop
“I don’t even know what ‘underground hip hop’ is anymore”
Ryan Wisler (aka Kno) once referred to himself as the Emo Primo. Even a cursory survey of his polished production proves he’s worthy of the moniker. As a founding member of Atlanta’s CunninLynguists—a group that proved Dungeon Family weren’t the only Southerners that could make heady, hardcore hip hop—Kno helped take Southern rap stylings out of the strip clubs and back to the basement.
CL’s sound is earmarked by Kno’s gothic head-nodders and eclectic samples. While they’ve served notice since their 2001 debut, Will Rap For Food, it was CL’s sophomore release, SouthernUnderground, that landed them firmly on underground rap radar.
The group’s third release, A Piece Of Strange, is widely considered a hip hop classic. Kno’s sound, masterful from the first, has developed into something expansive and remarkable. Their sixth full-length arrives six years after their last offering, Oneirology. We talked to Kno just before the October 6 release of Rose Azura Njano.
Let’s start with a brief origin story of the CunninLynguists, specifically you and Deacon The Villain.
We met around 2000–’01, at a weekly open mic at Morehouse that Deacon ran with a few other students. Interestingly enough, that’s also when I met activist Shaun King, who Deacon went to high school with and was also involved with the open mic. I used to go there with a rapper named J. Bully that I produced for and lived with. We had a crib off Ralph McGill Boulevard between the old Fourth Ward and Carter Center and a little studio set-up in the dining room.
Deacon and I hit it off, recorded a couple tracks at my crib and just decided to keep going. He ended up transferring to the University of Kentucky and moving back to Lexington, so I made a trip up there to finish the last few songs that would become Will Rap For Food, and from that point on my life has gone entirely downhill. [Laughs]
Death Is Silent, Built To Fade, and The WinterFire EP were plenty to digest, but it feels like you’ve been incognito for a grip. Outside of the new CL album, what projects have you been working on since Onierology?
After Death Is Silent, I dropped MacheteVision with Marq Spekt, which was some straight-up grimy, East Coast boom-bap shit. It had Action Bronson, Meyhem Lauren and some other cats on it and kinda flew under the radar. 2012 was pretty much dedicated to my move to LA from Atlanta.
In 2013, I produced a third of Natti’s solo album Still Motion and Built To Fade’s To Dust with Anna Wise (reference Kendrick’s albums), Zoe Wick and Dane Ferguson.
I produced Strange Journey Volume Three in 2014; basically a CL studio album with a shit-ton of guests (Blu, Murs, Del, etc.). It was, to our knowledge, the first crowd-sourced album where fans actually played A&R, so it was a huge undertaking: running polls and analytics and answering e-mails. That pretty much ate up my entire year. [Laughs]
I dropped Phantom Limbs with Sadistik in 2015 and my instrumental record Bones in 2016, so really in that six-year span I produced eight-and-a-half projects, technically the busiest I’ve ever been. We were on some one-hundred percent DIY shit during that time, so I totally understand how it could seem I disappeared. Not to mention I was engaged for two-and-a-half of those years doing the domestic thing, so it’s tough juggling it all.
Talk a bit more about Built To Fade. Are you moving in a direction to do more projects like these?
Yeah, we’re in the process of finishing up a second album, but we’re going through some growing pains. I think the first one was just very loose; I approached them with a vision and we just knocked it out. It was friendly and artsy and just kinda flowed. But around the time To Dust dropped, Anna Wise got invited on the Yeezus Tour to handle background vocals for Kendrick Lamar, got a new manager and basically just stopped speaking to Dane, Zoe and I.
It was really weird and unexpected—especially since her and I had been friends for about four years at that point. We were literally in the middle of doing press for the album and she just stopped replying to our publicist and me and just ghosted. She asked Zoe if she could crash at her crib after the Seattle Yeezus show, but since then, I don’t think any of us have even spoken to her, so the three of us have just been working on the next record ourselves.
We have a single and video lined up entitled “One Ship” that is real ’80s indie or New Romantic sounding that I sing lead vocals on, which will be the first time I’ve released something for the masses in that vein. I’ve been mainly concentrating on songwriting as a “next phase” of my career so I think it’s a good, natural move for me. My production is so melodic it lends itself to that type of thing, just as much if not more than hip hop, honestly.
Obviously, you’ve been touring a lot. Let’s hear a tour horror story.
I think we’ve been lucky in our 13 years on the road, honestly. I hear so many tales of tour van accidents and entire gear rigs being stolen that it’s kind of amazing how little issues we’ve had.
I’d say the funniest horror story was being stopped by German border guards coming out of Switzerland for having metal studs on our tires. We rented the van in Sweden and had driven it the entire tour with no issues, including all through Germany but when the tour was over and it was time to make the thirteen-hour drive back they were like: ‘Nah. Can’t drive on the Autobahn with those tires.’
So we make a U-turn back into Switzerland. Well, the Swiss border guards stop us like, ‘You can’t come in our country with those tires, either’ and at this point we’re like ‘What the fuck?’ because we just came from Switzerland [Laughing]. So we’re essentially stuck in this purgatory between Germany and Switzerland and I’m like, ‘The fuck are we supposed to do? Carry the van to Sweden?’ [Laughing].
Finally after about 30 minutes of just sitting there this Swiss guard comes up and says, ‘If you go directly into France and drive up the border, you’ll find an unmanned border crossing about 25 miles up and you can cross into Germany and nobody will ever know.’ It was the weirdest shit ever. We were really shook, like we were going to have to just leave the van behind and walk to an airport or something. [Laughs]
Is overseas the best look for underground hip hop right now?
Honestly, the best look for people who make good music is places they support good music. I don’t even know what “underground hip hop” is anymore. There’s 100 SoundCloud rappers who aren’t signed that most people have never heard of that can pack a 1,000-capacity venue in L.A. right now. I don’t fucking know. All I know is all I’ve known since 2001: how to make dope shit, how to use the internet to stay in touch with our fans and go where someone will pay us to talk into a mic. [Laughs] Anything else is just overthinking at this point.
Let’s talk about how you forged your unique sound. What did you listen to before becoming a producer? What would a DJ set from you include?
I think the reason I stand out production-wise is because my youthful ears were forged in the fires of burnt-out psychedelic rock, punk and ’80s glam. My dad and uncle are who I channeled most of my music through and I just think the simple difference in growing up with Bowie and The Grateful Dead versus someone like Deacon who grew up more on Marvin and Michael just makes my ear different. Makes my ear whiter, for sure [Laughs], but being able to squeeze the soul out of a 1973 prog-rock record and turn it into some head-nod shit can be something truly artistic, in my opinion.
I haven’t DJ’ed but a handful of times since the early 2000s but I’m starting to get back into it. I like spinning ’80s shit sprinkled with hip hop, or flipping classic rap with modern R&B stuff. Anything inspiring melodically and thematically. Every “Fuck The Police” type song in my Serato. [Laughs]
Your sound became larger during and after A Piece Of Strange, to what do you attribute that evolution on projects like Death Is Silent, Onierology, and now Rose Azura Njano?
Honestly, it’s just learning—that’s all. I’m completely self-taught so our first couple of albums the beats were just purely my ear and then winging the technical shit. Once I started learning how to mic drums, how to EQ three different basslines without them clashing, learning how to tweak a VST to sound exactly like what I hear in my head, then my sound started to expand. Now I feel I’ve learned so much I’ve started to strip it all down and go back to the basics, but with a better understanding of what it is I’m trying to accomplish and what emotions I’m trying to evoke.
Can we discuss your sampling process (if you’re at liberty to)? A personal favorite is your lift of Forest’s “Graveyard.” Forest was a British 60’s psychedelic rock/progressive folk band. How do you find source material for your samples?
I’d say my process in 2017 is about one-third stuff that’s in my or other people’s collections or on my radar, one-third blind digging or what I like to call: “That cover looks stupid as hell, I’ve never heard of it, I bet it’s fire” [Laughs] and one-third just reading, absorbing and listening to shit on the internet.
I’ll sample a 45 I bought at a mom-and-pop on tour in Sweden, I’ll sample an indie band I found on Bandcamp, I’ll hear a song while I’m taking a shit in a Chipotle, Shazam it, buy it on Amazon and flip it. [Laughs]
I really don’t have any specific manner of finding sounds at this point. The only two rules I have is that it needs to be relatively obscure and it can’t be anything flipped better or more visible than I’m capable of making it. Songs like “Graveyard,” many of those samples I just found doing searches for songs about death on Discogs and then tracking them down or buying the vinyl.
Name some artists you’d like to hear over your beats.
I’ve worked with so many artists I grew up listening to that at this point my list has shortened dramatically. I’d say Nas, OutKast and Jay-Z, rap-wise. Sade, Khalid & Little Dragon in the non-rap world.
CL dropped the WinterFire EP in 2014, then two more EPs this year. Can you talk about these EPs and the concept for Rose Azura Njano?
WinterFire was just a fun project with Eligh & The Grouch ahead of our run on the “How The Grouch Stole Christmas Tour” that year. The Rose EP and Azura EP were both really just teasers for the album, a way of doing things differently and letting hardcore CL fans enjoy and preview the music before a proper release.
The album concept revolves around Rose Azura Njano, who is afflicted with chromesthesia—or the ability to hear colors—and her personification of Black music in America. We thought introducing her through those portions of her personality without really explaining it was a great way to tease the direction of our creative process. Our fans are super bright, though. It didn’t take them long to figure most of it out—what the names meant, what the colors meant in relation to the release of the EPs, etc.
What is the significance of the album’s title?
Rose Azura Njano is the name of the titular character. Her name represents the visual primary color wheel—red, blue and yellow. Each part of her name represents a portion of her personality as well as a portion of the emotional depth that created black music in America, forged through the black experience in America. It’s a double-entendre intended to communicate that when you listen to black music maybe calling it that isn’t quite enough—because every color and their emotional and psychological connections have forged this music’s existence.
You mentioned Shaun King. As a native Southerner, can you weigh in on the Confederate flag issue and what happened in Charlottesville?
Growing up 45 minutes outside of Atlanta for the largest portion of my life, I’ve seen some ugly shit. But ultimately the Southern, white obsession with the Confederate flag as some kind of participation trophy for a lost war baffles me to this day. There are no statues of Hitler in Berlin. There’ll be no statue of Julio Jones making that amazing catch in Super Bowl ’51. Why? Because we don’t honor the exploits of losers. [Laughs] Not only are Confederate flags and monuments reminders of racism and slavery, but also a reminder of the want of Southerners to own humans as property. Simply put it’s like me wearing a shirt that says “Super Bowl ’51 Runner-Up”—you just look like a dumbass loser.
Don’t be a dumbass loser! Cop Rose Azura Njano and listen to this suggested playlist: