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Photography D’Andre Elizah

‘We’re ahead of our time’: Knucks and Venna go head to head

Ahead of the release of Venna’s new EP Equinox, we caught up with the duo to find out more about their rare and ‘beautiful’ creative partnership

When Knucks released “Home” back in 2019, the sound palette of drill was permanently altered. His production on the track pushed the genre into a higher level of musicality, fusing syncopated drum patterns with jazz elements, like the stumbling piano loop and the use of a live saxophone. Behind the highly emotive saxophone lines was a young Venna, one of the most sought-after and talented musicians not only within the international jazz scene, but the wider music landscape, having been called on by stars like Burna Boy and Wizkid to contribute to their tracks. 

They are both stars in their own right, however. As I join the call with Venna and Knucks, Venna is packing his suitcase to head to LA from Miami, while Knucks is talking about a North American tour that he’s planning for later this year. Their talents are recognised internationally, being at the forefront of a new wave of young British musicians who, for the past few years, have been constantly producing fresh, exciting music and share the same common goal: to continue innovating and pushing boundaries. There is genuinely something special about the connection both London-based musicians share, a connection that they speak of throughout the Zoom call. “We have an unspoken synergy that just works and we never have to talk too much to get to the final product,” Venna explains. Relationships like those shared between creatives are rare, but intensely fruitful.

The date of our call is in the same week that Venna is sharing his newest EP, Equinox. It is the work of a musician both of advanced skill, but also deeply tapped into his own soul. The opening track, “Mount Shasta” is named after the Californian volcano, a location of deep spiritual presence and mysticism. The song itself carries these themes from the repeated piano hook to the saxophone riffs, a wordless question that plays out as if to ask “what else is out there?” The track leads into “Misty”, a collaboration with Knucks that they were both super excited about releasing. Knucks flows effortlessly over the staggered drumbeat and spacey synth arpeggio, on a track that owes more to the music of Terrence Martin, Robert Glasper, Karriem Riggins and Thundercat than it does anything out of the UK rap scene.

Down below Dazed spoke to the artists about their creative relationship and dream collaborative album.

When and how did you two first meet?

Venna: I come across Knucks before Knucks come across me. I was in college in the ICT room with my bredrins, and I came across “21 Candles” or something like that. I heard that Knucks was using a MIDI saxophone.

Knucks: I knew you was gonna bring that up! [Laughs]

Venna: I thought bro had a good sound palette that he’s trying to experiment with. I just hit him up one day, like, “yo, let’s do something,” and he replied. This was when Knucks had like 2600 followers, and I was about 16 or 17 at the time. Then we both were playing at the same show in Shoreditch – it was at Cameo, before it closed down – and then that’s when we properly locked in. 

Why do you think you work so well together?

Knucks: I think we both have a very particular taste, style and understanding of music. That’s where we’re able to relate, and a lot of our conversations and things we do stem off the back of that.

Venna: We come from similar backgrounds as well, in terms of areas and what we’ve been around and what we’ve seen. I found that we have a mutual understanding of life as Black men as well, rather than just musicians. That helps with the music too; it’s knowing your history, knowing your roots without having to say anything. It’s like an unspoken synergy.

‘You see all of these places that music has taken us – Venna, especially – and it just makes me smile’ – Knucks

Do you feel you’ve influenced each other’s sound?

Knucks: For sure. Venna has made me become more musical. Him adding sax to my songs adds an extra layer of musicality, [but also] in terms of being a producer, [it’s great to learn] from him and see how he works. It makes me want to add more live instruments to my beats. That’s something that I’ve carried on over the years.

Venna: Definitely. Musically, I’ve always been where I’m at, but in terms of sharing it and making sure I have the right beat for Knucks or the right groove for him, I feel like I know the perfect fit for him. I’ll give it to him and it’s a classic. “Misty”, for example, I knew when I played it to Knucks, we were gonna make something special. 

How have you both seen yourselves – both as artists and people – grow since your first collaboration?

Venna: We both come from humble beginnings, man. And it’s not about the money, it’s about freedom for us and our families, rather than money. I’m super proud of Knucks and happy for him: from the first day I saw bro on YouTube with 2600 followers, I saw something. If anything, it makes me happy – it’s a testament to myself that I’m not crazy and that I know I have good taste. It’s a testament to Knucks that if you prevail, you cut through. [Turns to Knucks] Remember there was a time when things didn’t feel like they were going the way they should? Well, it always pays off in the end, because look at what’s going on now. That’s my little two cents on it.

Knucks: I agree with V. From my perspective, I don’t know anyone travelling as much as Venna right now. This guy’s not staying in one timezone for too long. Seeing that and watching the video for “Misty”, with the cutaways of the different environments, like the desert, rainforest, the cities. You see all of these places where music has taken us – Venna, especially – and it just makes me smile. 

This is something that we love doing; this is something that we’ve grown up with a certain appreciation for. The fact that it’s paying us and allowing us to see the world, that’s a beautiful thing. I don’t know if we could’ve imagined it, obviously it’s something that we’ve always wanted, but to actually fathom it and imagine it back then when we met each other would have been difficult. But we’re here now.

Venna: That’s the most beautiful thing about it. Arm in arm, hand in hand, we’ve helped each other get to where we need to be. We still got a very long way to go by that but I think it’s just beautiful, man. 

You both collaborate with artists from lots of different genres – why do you feel it is important to do so?

Venna: Music is genreless in my eyes, I don’t see it as working with an artist from a different genre, I just see it as working with someone who has a different palette to mine. There’s always something you can learn from someone else’s mind, and interpret in your own way. Even recently, I’ve been into indie guitar and shit like that. There are certain things from different musicians and different artists that you can take and make into your own. That’s how hip hop was made, by sampling records.

There is an upcoming EP all made by Knucks x Venna and one producer and artist (singer/ rapper) can contribute – who would you want on board to help? Dead or alive.

Knucks: You’re making it hard, man! Man said dead or alive. [Laughs]

Venna: Bare of my favourite musicians are dead, it’s kind of sad.

Knucks: I’m thinking, and it might just be because I've always wanted to work with them, Pharrell as a producer. Adding Pharrell to our sound would be mad!

Venna: I’m on that with Pharrell, I’ll pick Dilla. What artist you saying?

Knucks: The singer I’m going to say – I’m very biased and I feel like everyone is going to guess...

Venna: ...[Singing] Sadeeeeee! We always need a woman in there, a woman’s touch is always necessary. 

Knucks: Sade’s vocals would go well against the sax.

Venna: For musician, I’m saying Terrance Martin. Pharrell, me, Knucks and Terrance, that’s going to be mad.

How good are your A&Rs? You need to get this going!

Venna: Knucks, I get asked on a weekly basis for us to do a project together.

Knucks: In due time, man.

What’s next for Knucks and Venna?

Knucks: For me, I’ve got a project that I’m working on now that hopefully is going to come out towards the end of the year. Obviously, I’m going to have V on there. I’m trying to do a couple of tours towards the end of the year as well.

Venna: You know, we don’t plan this shit man. We just wake up and smell the coffee and try another day. I know what’s next, just being great and keep shifting the sonics of how music’s going. Whether anyone wants to acknowledge it, Knucks and I are changing the sound and the narratives right now. I’m going to talk our shit right, Knucks, because I don’t think people are really realising. I’m happy that drill is lighting up – it’s getting a bit sweeter and a bit softer on the spirit – but what people need to realise is where it comes from. And it comes from us. 

So what’s next is just to make the next sound. Once “Misty” drops and people hear Knucks and I in another soundscape and another palette, people are going to be trying to play catch up. It’s a beautiful thing that we’re ahead of our time. We just want to make timeless music and live forever. That’s my whole thing, I’m trying to build a legacy. I want to be one of them old men who are playing tours at 60 or 70 years old, bopping around with a spliff in my mouth, just having a good time on stage. That’s what‘s next for us – building on the legacy and keep changing the game.

Equinox is out now via Hillside