Rap's Rebels

Funny, the Knux don't look hip-hop. And their sound takes liberties too.

December 28, 2008|Chris Lee

On a recent fall afternoon, "experimental" hip-hop duo the Knux sidled into a Melrose Avenue vintage clothing emporium wearing matching pairs of skin-tight jeans, Chuck Taylor sneakers and expressions of serious intent. Style is as important as substance to the New Orleans natives -- who have become the most forward face of Los Angeles' burgeoning "hipster rap" scene, whether they like it or not -- and so the two bounded over to a rack of used T-shirts and started rifling through them. Without a word, they disrobed in the middle of the store.

Off went the snug-fitting tees the rapper-producer-multi-instrumentalists had been wearing in favor of "new" T-shirts that looked to have gone through the rinse cycle at least a thousand times. For Kintrell "Krispy Kream" Lindsey: one bearing the logo of '80s punk group the Exploited. And for his brother, Alvin Lindsey (nom de rap: Rah Al Millio, but call him Al), a shirt bearing the slogan "D.A.R.E. to keep kids off drugs."

No sooner had the cashier removed the shirts' electronic shoplifting sensors than the Knux exited the store, looking more like the Strokes than, say, New Orleans rap icons the Cash Money Millionaires, without bothering to pay for their new threads.

"This is us. It's not an image," said Al, pausing to sign a credit-card receipt a clerk had rushed out onto the sidewalk to present him. "We started dressing like this at a time that had nothing to do with music. Me and Krispy, we're some street-ass [individuals]. We caught a case . . ."

"Racketeering, auto theft, tampering with public documents, forgery," interjected Krispy.

"That's just what we got caught for," Al continued. "But we changed our life around, started living differently, traveling. And once our lifestyle changed, the clothes got tighter."

Knuckling down

Call it hip-hop's new shrink-to-fit rebellion. Time was when form-fitting clothing was more antithetical than handcuffs to any tough-talking male rapper worth his fat gold chain. But the Knux, short for "knuckleheads," never cared about fitting into rap's status quo. Which might explain why they are helping change the genre in their own used-clothes-wearing, tight-jeans-rocking image.

Riding a wave of blogger hype that hardly has abated since the release of the group's first single, "Cappuccino," in March, the Knux has infiltrated the national consciousness with its genre-bending sound that incorporates elements of New Wave, Electro-clash, '80s hard-core, "golden era" hip-hop and Nu Rave. The two, who have opened for bigger rap names including Q-Tip and Common, play their own instruments and self-produced "Remind Me in 3 Days . . .," their debut album on Interscope Records, which entered the national album chart at No. 23 last month.

"Remind Me in 3 Days . . .," which earned a four-star review in Rolling Stone, is a churning melange of disparate musical styles. The songs percolate with heavy metal guitars (played by Al), reggae bass lines, Big Beat electronica a la the Chemical Brothers and Gary Numan-style synths. Krispy and Al's lyrical interplay can bring to mind certain rap forebears -- the machine gun flow of OutKast, De La Soul's well-considered randomness and the rollicking party heartiness of the early Beastie Boys -- while avoiding sounding self-consciously "alterna."

With their gunslinger swagger and habit of partying like rock stars (but also rapping about those experiences), the Knux has done more to organically conjoin the Sunset Strip and the Dirty South, the Pixies and the Pharcyde, than any number of self-proclaimed mash-up artists like Girl Talk or 2 Many DJs. "Not since Guns N' Roses has a local group rendered the fast-lane lifestyles of the young and debauched so vividly," critic Jeff Weiss wrote of the Knux in LA Weekly last month.

Moreover, at a time when L.A.-based rappers faced with the declining popularity of gangsta rap are looking to redefine the city through new sounds and ideas, the Knux has made a big impression with its high-energy, take-no-prisoners performing style honed over the last two years.

"If some [stuff] happens, it's part of the set," said Krispy, 26, over lunch later that day. "If the amp busts, if the guitar string snaps, smash that bad boy! We just go with the flow. We try to connect with the audience like it's a big party. Make them feel part of the scene."

The back story

Of course any breakout rap act worth its salt these days comes with an elaborate creation myth: an arc of adversity (usually a criminal past), overcoming obstacles (usually prison or a gunshot wound), embracing music and eventual triumph (a major label recording contract, perhaps accompanied by a distribution deal for a boutique label like the Knux's agreement with Interscope to put out its Chic Freak imprint). But unlike artists such as the Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z or 50 Cent, who transcended crack dealing to become respected MCs, the members of the Knux committed crimes of a decidedly more high-tech stripe.

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