Having spent several years in Melbourne, Todd Williams (aka Louie Knuxx) returned to Aotearoa over the last year, bringing with him a smooth new sound and look which serves as a growing-up of the rough-edged messages of his 2006 debut album ‘Wasted Youth’. The change is clearly not lost on Williams as he dials it in with the acronymic title of his newly released ‘PGT/GRR’ which, as Martyn Pepperell reveals, stands for Progressive Gangsta Thug / Gentleman Romance Rap.
In November 2013, rapper Louie Knuxx (Todd Williams) took to a New Zealand stage for the first time in over half a decade. It was a Friday night in Wellington, and a crowd of around 200 hip hop fans, punk rock kids and tattooed burlesque dancers were crammed together up front, rapping and singing along to almost every song he performed.
Dressed in a sophisticated updating of the skate streetwear we saw him in when he arrived on the national scene in 2006 (through his Breakin’ Wreckwords-released debut album ‘Wasted Youth’), Louie Knuxx didn’t move his tattooed frame like a rapper. Instead, he gently sauntered with the silky smooth schtick of a 1960s adult contemporary crooner, interspersing his emblematic songs with well-received comic banter.
Having discarded the soul-infused boom-bap instrumentals he utilised during the first act of his career, his backing music had more in common with the after-midnight balcony music of The XX, Burial and Clams Casino than anything within hip hop’s mainstream. While at crux he was still fundamentally hip hop, still intrinsically a rapper, he’d become a creative force too large to be constrained by genre.
Eight months later, Knuxx reflects on that night, speaking via Skype from Auckland. He has just released ‘PGT/GRR’ (Progressive Gangsta Thug slash Gentleman Romance Rap), his latest album independently. Nine days after talking to me, he departed to Europe and the UK to play 20 shows, his second northern hemisphere touring foray in three years.
“It was great to be able to reconnect with my fans at home and show them what I’m capable of now,” he enthuses. “I’ve grown so much, not just as an artist and a performer, but as a man. To be able to share that with them, and have them respond the way they do, is so special.”
Following that Wellington show, Knuxx performed in Auckland and New Plymouth, before returning to Melbourne, where he’s been based for the last five or so years. Several months later he was back in NZ on a semi-permanent basis, living in Auckland.
While in Melbourne he says he’d grown as an individual and substantially refined his sound. He connected with trailblazers like JJ Peters and his hardcore band Deez Nuts, who helped him perform extensively across Australia, Europe and the UK. However, the creativity levels evident within a new generation of NZ hip hop, beats and soul/RnB acts, including @Peace, Team Dynamite, Jay Knight, Spycc, Kamandi, Jane Deezy and Mzwetwo became too alluring. Knuxx wanted a piece of the action.
Jay Knight, Kamandi and Jane Deezy, in particular, all feature on ‘PGT/GRR’ alongside a cast of Kiwi and Australian rappers, singers and beatmakers including Conor McCabe, Max Throw, Nick McLaren, BK Beats, Tony Douglas, Quexxxt, Rocky Nti, Willie Wes, Tom Skott, Lui Tuiasau, PNC, Diaz Grim and Ava Hovanka.
“I’ve been working closely with Jay Knight for a few years now. He’s a young dude, and I think by doing work with him, I made it clear to a lot of younger rappers and beatmakers that I was accessible for collaborations. Besides that, I’m just really into what all the young dudes are doing musically. I love it. I could potentially be more curious about what they’re doing than they are about what I’m doing.”
Mostly recorded and mixed by sound engineer Mich Malloy at his Melbourne studio, ‘PGT/GRR’ is the sort of record you can only write with several decades of life experience under your belt. It’s riddled with tales that feel genuine because they were really lived, and harsh truths that hit home harder the older you get. Across its 15 songs, Knuxx and his co-stars tackle – amongst other uncomfortable topics – emotional numbness, losing yourself in sex and drugs, broken homes, and late night not-quite relationships.
Lyrically, in contrast with the screwed down druggy soundscapes he selected for it, ‘PGT/GRR’ can be a harrowing listen. A particularly cutting inclusion is Cold Chills, which also features singer Ava Hovanka. Recalling some time he spent locked up in his late teens, it details a sequence of events where, after his girlfriend of the time tried to commit suicide, a prison guard suggested he should cut his wrists with a shaving razor.
“I’ll never listen to my spoken word outro at the end of that song again if I can help it,” he admits. “I wanted to describe prison in a song, and humanise it with humility and vulnerability. I did a rap song about jail that isn’t tough or macho. I did a song about fear and depression and sadness.”
Knuxx discovered hip hop music growing up during the ’80s and ’90s in New Plymouth, before himself drifting up to Auckland. While he didn’t really start rapping as a serious recording and touring artist until the early 2000s, he’s been around and participated in the culture long enough to remember the days of cassette tapes and DJs lugging crates of vinyl records into nightclubs and community halls.
As a musical figure, his strengths lie in an intersection between old and new, and more than just that, a willingness to embrace and explore that outside of the culture/genre he’s tagged as a participant in. He listens to Mazzy Star, Beirut and FKA Twigs. He shares stages with hardcore bands like Deez Nuts, Brutality Will Prevail and Landscapes. As an artist, he embraces new online developments and the opportunities they afford with an eager zest, be it social media platforms, streaming services or online music sales platforms.
“It’s hard to remember what it was like before I worked like this,” he admits. “I jumped online pretty early on. MySpace was the first one for me. With most things, as soon as I hear about them I check them out and see if they work for me.”
Online, he connected with the trans-Tasman cast of beatmakers and rappers who populate ‘PGT/GRR’ and his previous album ‘Dying Slowly’. As these networks brought collaborators into orbit around him, they also helped him refine and broaden both his taste in music, and the palette he uses to express himself as a songwriter and vocalist.
“I think the sound I want is an extension of me as a person,” Knuxx muses. “I’m real relaxed and lazy. I think the sound is an extension of that… When I think of some of my favourite songs, like Fade Into You by Mazzy Star, that moody intimate feel is the sort of thing I want to accomplish sonically.”
Within ‘PGT/GRR’, the place where Knuxx comes the closest to accomplishing that sort of soundworld is on You See, a collaboration with Hamilton-based Rwandan rapper/singer Jane Deezy (sister of Raiza Biza). It’s a song which leans on a sonic framework not unlike ever-present Canadian-American rap icon Drake’s smouldering piano house ballad Take Care (featuring Rihanna). With Knuxx and Deezy’s voices intertwining on the sweetly-sung hook, You See is about when unspoken expectations arrive with inopportune timing.
“I started seeing this girl just before the first time I went on tour in Europe,” he remembers.
It was a new thing, and they didn’t define their status before he left the country. After he returned, they caught up and she asked if he slept with anyone while he was overseas.
“I said, ‘Don’t ask me that,’ Knuxx tells. “She wanted to know why not, and I told her, ‘Do you see me asking you questions like that?’”
She wasn’t happy and they parted ways. Months later, after he wrote You See, he asked her to have dinner with him so he could tell her about this song he’d written, that was inspired by her. When they sat down together, whatever vibe or connection they’d had was absent.
“Anything that had been there before was completely dead. All that was left is this song about having something back home while I was out in Europe for the first time, experiencing incredible things and meeting European women. There is a line where I say, ‘I miss your voice, even amongst all the dramatic accents.’ I’m talking about how even though everything was so exciting I still had something for her. I just wasn’t willing to give up those experiences for her.”
As his tattooed visage graphically illustrates, Louie Knuxx has experienced plenty. The creative breadth of this new album further reinforces his artistic credentials.