Supposing we lived in a world where you could bio-engineer lyricists by mixing strands of great MCs together into ungodly bar spewing hybrids… If some mad scientist had decided to blend Ocean Wisdom‘s vocal clarity, with Onoe Caponoe‘s penchant for the weird, Kojey Radical‘s jaded conviction and then thrown in a concoction labelled ‘?’ consisting of a blend of MCs that only exist in the imaginary world this elongated analogy is based in… You might end up with Henny Knightz.
As a full time hip hop fan, a lot of the passion for the genre is rooted in being periodically surprised and amazed by artists who had somehow been overlooked. We got switched on to Henny shortly after the release of Random House of Evil and can safely say, as hip hop induced jaw drops go, this was a contender for furthest distance from my nose.
Random House of Evil is a 6 track EP of pure fire that dropped back in May and is the most complete project to date by Knightz. The Hackney rapper has been about for a long while, somehow evading the spotlight the whole time. Dope solo EP, MCMXCIII Wednesday Addams, shows him already artistically adept back in 2017 and moves with Knighthood Society alongside Nicki Knightz (who we discovered at the same time and is deserving of her own feature) date back 6 years. The earliest output from Henny that you can find on the internet shows he was sick since day one (see ‘Sativa‘), but lets skip forward to 2020.
Random House of Evil is a unique sonic experience. From the moment that the gloriously ominous appropriation of the eerie “AaHahahAAHah” backing from Gorillaz‘s ‘Clint Eastwood’ echoes over the intro of first track ‘House of Evil’, the listening experience plummets sharply into Henny’s sunken place. Far from being a straight downer, these depths bang throughout.
It’s an impressive balancing act that at it’s core the project is deeply honest and in frequent places dark but at the same time also a VIBE on every track. This is in no small part due to superbly textured production. Which leads neatly on to the next reason that Henny Knightz is a threat. The whole thing is self produced. Once the penny has dropped that he’s made all the soundscapes himself the scope of Henny’s vision becomes clearer. Proudly alternative, (self described as a voice of social misfits over avant-garde beats) and championed by The Pit London‘s Alt Hip Hop movements, its not surprising that the synthesis between beats and words on the EP forms a boldly different whole.
Even within the umbrella terms of alternative hip hop or new wave, to his credit, Henny is still something of an outsider. Both terms have been floating about to try and give form to the explosion of diverse offshoots of hip hop that are in places coalescing into scenes, still in their nascent phases. By its very nature, this movement of innovation in multiple directions, means that the scene has yet to solidify into a particular distinct sound, but umbrella-ing has meant that already variations of commercial sounds are fighting for the foreground. Whether it’s UK Rap 808 influences, garage infused beats, kids from the sticks who wanted to make something similar to drill but weren’t road enough or retro-synthy alt-pop with a rap on it… all fit within the realm of the sort-of-genre. Not to detract at all from the numerous heads doing creative and exciting things within that sphere, but Henny stands out starkly as the antithesis of the portion of the scene that’s bubblegum. Distinctly less pop. Distinctly more raw. Distinctly less of a mimic. For all the ways that production on Random House of Evil is drenched in UK stylings and sounds like it was made in London in 2020, there’s also something visceral about it that’s reminiscent of the longer standing and more sizeable alternative hip hop scene in the US. Like if he’d been born stateside 20 years earlier, he’d have been quite at home on Def Jux Records circa 2001. (Even more so if you listen to his last single of 2019; ‘Track:Red‘, which features an instrumental that sounds like a Cannibal Ox wet dream.)
As with beats, so with bars. Henny’s legitimately alternative standing is voiced in defiance of expected rapper norms. Without coming across weak, lyrical content is fiercely human. There’s no front. In contrast to the widely expressed hustle narrative of life in the ends, Random House of Evil clearly situates itself in that world from start to finish while rejecting any cliched topic material. Lyrical focus switches from insulin dependency, to realities of poverty, to the weight of feigning strength while dealing with depression, to suicide. Lyrics like “Because you’re black you ain’t allowed to be depressed/keep it in and keep it solid/scream and shout to show your chest/All that sad shit’s for the white lot” bring home a tangible sense of isolation.
Throughout, HK tells a personal story. While its frequently a brutal one, the combination of beats that bang and his flair for flow delivery means that it never sounds bitter. Just real. The lasting impression after listening to Random House of Evil enough times to digest it, is that Henny Knightz wants his listeners to compute a different, more grounded lyrical depiction of being young, poor and black in London. As he puts it on ‘Soul’, “We grew to survive/Glorifying the ends makes me sick/I can’t stomach it/You ain’t really from bits/I’ve had real friends that died.” The message is a powerful one. Obviously, Henny is not the first rapper to ever tear up the prescribed formula in favour of pursuing something more honest. Or even to follow that route to such personal depths. But very few have ever pulled off walking such a fine line between borderline despair and also somehow constantly styling on tracks with vocals and production which, in spite of all the darkness, hint that Henny could actually be commercially viable.
Since presently a global industry still ensures that the hood-life stereotype continues to shout by far the loudest, while more nuanced voices are mostly drowned out, the world could do with more artists like Knightz. Not simply because honest music of this calibre is no doubt a breath of fresh air for people in shoes similar to the Hackney native’s sneakers. Or equally that elevating more voices like his would help towards checking the at-times-moronic perceptions of privileged consumers of the culture. Mostly because, out of the minority of artists concerned with telling personal stories and ugly truths, very few possess a voice and sound with the potential to cut through the industry noise and actually be heard by a wider audience. Looking at Henny’s numbers its apparent that he’s still miles away from that eventuality. But listen to his discography culminating in Random House of Evil and his lack of exposure so far is baffling. Given the right breaks, he’s poised to go far. Hopefully the come-up is just over the horizon.