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.”
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.
The band members are cagey on the details but claim to have stolen more than half a million dollars in merchandise by (a) forging car ownership documents, (b) persuading car dealerships to give them newly cut replacement keys to vehicles they did not own and (c) “walking straight up to your car, starting it up and rolling on by.”
“We’re the whole reason GM changed their policy,” said Al, 24, with more than a hint of pride. “Now, if you lose your key, rather than just bringing in your registration, you’ve got to bring in your title, like seven different things. It used to be you just brought in your registration and license.”
Ultimately, they both avoided jail time: Though he was looking at a 17-year prison sentence, Krispy got off with just parole, which mandated that he not set foot in any auto dealership; Al declined to discuss the specifics of his deal. But the trife life, specifically the bad press the brothers were getting, took a physical toll on their mother, who they say was stricken by rheumatoid arthritis as a result of worrying about them. And so the Lindseys, who learned to play brass instruments including the trumpet, tuba and French horn in elementary school, decided to refocus their efforts around music.
Inspired by a shared love of the “horrorcore” hip-hop collective Gravediggaz, the Lindseys cut a demo CD, got their indie imprint Chic Freak up and running and embarked on a new career promoting clubs and parties. “That’s how our CD got out to music executives,” Krispy explained. “When major artists would come to town, we’d throw parties for ‘em. The execs would come around there and we’d hand ‘em our music.”
Landing a publishing deal with Atlantic Records to ghostwrite songs for major artists they decline to identify, the Knuckleheads, as the duo then called themselves, traveled around the Big Easy, Houston, New York and Los Angeles, networking with record label bigwigs and soaking up musical influences as diverse as Emocore innovators. At the Drive-In, Brooklyn indie rock icons the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the horror punk band the Misfits.
Then in 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall and, as the creation myth goes, the Knuckleheads transformed into the Knux.
The brothers were returning from Dallas, where the extended Lindsey family had ridden out the storm, and reached New Orleans just as the city was being evacuated. “On the news, they showed Katrina had passed. An hour later, you heard the levees are breached,” recalled Al. “You’re on the road, not hearing that [stuff]. You see a long line of cars like in ‘Independence Day.’ People are on the side of the road, crying.”
The Lindseys spent a week sleeping in their 2001 Saturn Ion before deciding to move to Houston. There, word of their talent for writing hook-laden, head-nodding songs began to spread, capturing the attention of powerhouse manager Mathew Knowles (Beyonce’s father) who signed the brothers to a distribution deal with Sanctuary Records that later fell through.
By that point, with their familiarity with the Machiavellian inner workings of the music biz, the group -- now rechristened the Knux -- was driving a hard bargain, entertaining offers from four labels. Enter Paul Rosenberg, Eminem’s manager and chief executive of the rap superstar’s Interscope-distributed Shady Records. “We were getting calls from other managers. But dude kept calling after everyone else stopped,” Krispy said. “He helped us get the deal we wanted with Interscope: one with complete creative control.”
Since moving to Los Angeles in 2006 and then recording “Remind Me in 3 Days . . .” at a debauched party house in the Hollywood Hills, the Knux has become the most forward face of a hip-hop sub-genre that the duo abhors: hipster rap. The hedonistic scene has congealed around local performers including U-N-I and Shwayze -- artists who have either recorded or toured with the Knux. “I’m not going to take anything away from them because I like them,” said Krispy. “But a lot of people who opened up for us, they’d see us do our thing and be like, ‘I’m gonna do it!’ ”
According to Brandon Perkins, senior editor of Urb magazine, the group -- whose next show in Southern California is Jan. 24 at the Glass House in Pomona -- is making waves in the local scene by rapping to the beat of its own drum. “They bring an energy that a lot of L.A. acts don’t have,” Perkins said. “Their sound is definitely not L.A. and definitely not New Orleans. It has this otherness that is not place-specific.”
More apt to rap over fuzzed-out electric guitars and hard synths than a Roland 808 drum machine, the members of the Knux have kept their distance from the rap firmament. They’d rather follow the business model established by a certain bestselling Lite FM mainstay than keeping up with the hip-hop Joneses.
“The Eagles are still touring an album from 1976!” exclaimed Krispy. “In 25 years, we’ll be like the Eagles even if we don’t make another album. We don’t care about money . . . as long as we can do what we want.”