The Highkey Importance Of Klashnekoff’s ‘The Sagas Of…’

Words: Thomas Hobbs
Photography: James Leigh

With its references to innocent Londoners getting stabbed coming home from their night shift and drug dealers who act like sharks, the sinister Hackney that Darren “Klashnekoff” Kandler describes over the haunting keys of “Jankrowville” sounds a lot like the Wild Wild West—it’s a place where the line separating good and evil is blurred, and holding a weapon for protection is just a part of daily life. One of the standout tracks from the Stoke Newington rapper’s powerful 2004 debut The Sagas Of..., it immortalises East London before gentrification kicked the locals out and moved the hipsters in.

But even though the storytelling is dark, the tales Klashnekoff spits radiate vibrancy with his use of tongue-twisting alliteration (at one point, he thrillingly raps: “Disperse wicked words of hatred / ‘Cause I’ve worked for the worst wages / Brethrens hold a bird and go berserk in the bird cages”) and bold flows, creating a sense of urgency that sounds like a soldier reporting directly from the frontline. British rap had never heard anything quite like Klashenkoff, who was the perfect mix of rawness and technical lyricism. He was the kind of poet capable of profound social commentary, but also stabbing you in the eye with his pen. For many, he sounded like the closest thing Britain had to a Nas.

In 2004, UK lyricism had transitioned from the chart-friendly So Solid Crew years to a place where a lack of polish was actively encouraged. Just a year before, Dizzee Rascal dropped the frenetic Boy In Da Corner, while Skinnyman’s raw Council Estate Of Mind would dismiss Tony Blair by giving a voice to the voiceless. But while those albums broke down sonic and conceptual boundaries, Klashenkoff pushed the culture forward lyrically, with his unapologetic bars telling a whole generation of British rappers they could say absolutely anything and not be afraid of any repercussions.

When “Murda” dropped, it was as if a nuclear bomb had gone off in the streets; if you were a US rapper doing a show in London and wanted to get the locals on side, there was no other option but to blast it out the speakers. It’s a trend that persists to this day (FYI: just last year I went to a Pharoahe Monch show in Brixton where the song was treated like it was holy). The song’s gothic music video, which lit Klashnekoff like Apocalypse Now’s Colonel Kurtz talking about his unsound methods in a dimly-lit cave, was the antithesis to everything that came before it, but it was the bars that truly shifted the culture.

Over a chilling beat that sounds like a variation of the Candyman theme tune, Klashnekoff raps: “Drop you on your doorstep like [Jill] Dando”, referencing the shocking murder of the popular BBC newscaster, who was shot in the back of the head by an assassin outside her home in an affluent West London suburb. It felt like an invisible line had been crossed, Klashnekoff touching on a subject his peers wouldn’t dream of handling, unapologetically flipping Dando’s murder in 1999 into a punchline that said: if you’re my enemy, you’re not safe anywhere.

I remember my mum, who wasn’t easily shocked by rap music, walking into my room while I was playing “Murda” and telling me to turn it off. She thought the Dando lyric was “a step too far” and wasn’t for an impressionable teenager’s ears. On the song, Klashnekoff, who calls himself a “black cunt from out of Stokey / A banana boat, mango-munching monkey,” also raps proudly about “reading books by forbidden authors.” Yet, ironically, that’s exactly what listening to Klashnekoff felt like. It was if you had discovered an artist who had no filter and was happy to break down conventions, no matter who he offended. Basically, you wouldn’t have been surprised to learn his name was on some government list filled with undesirables. Whether it’s slowthai calling the Queen the c-word or Stormzy having a number one single about ejaculation, all of this can be traced back to the moment Klashnekoff threatened to drop you like Dando, a brutal punchline that proved you could say unspeakable things and still have the hottest song in the streets. It was a bar that freed a whole generation of British emcees, letting them say what was on the tip of their tongue, and to truly own it.

The Sagas Of... is filled with similar provocation (for example, on “Parrowdice”, Klashnekoff threatens to “aim two flamers” at the prime minister) that hint at an anger among working-class Brits amid the topsy-turvy Blair years, but it’s also a poignant look at black love (“Black Rose”) and feeling a spiritual connection to home (“Son Of Niah”), even if the motherland feels a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Its production, heavy on both boom-bap and tribal drum samples, is a melting pot of influences that speaks directly to Klashenkoff’s diverse heritage; born in London to Jamaican parents.

Amid the cinematic synths of “Our Time”, Klashnekoff talks of “walking between love and hate like a tightrope”, and this could almost be the album’s mission statement. The Sagas Of... is about taking everything that’s beautiful and ugly about London’s inner city, embracing both sides fairly and taking listeners from one extreme to the other in order to replicate the unpredictability of being young, black and living in Hackney. Maybe Klasknekoff, who hasn’t released an album since 2012’s Fuck The Long Talk, wouldn’t recognise his hometown of Stoke Newington, with its many vegan eateries and craft beer shops, today. But his potent voice on The Sagas Of… immortalises what East London was like before it lost its edge.

Posted on June 14, 2019