“I had stuff I didn’t want to face up to”This NZ hip-hop star went hardcore, evaded arrest for years and came home to invent a new kind of rap
Louie Knuxx was missing in action from New Zealand for almost six years. Sure, there were EP and album releases, international tours and a ubiquitous social media presence that kept fans up on his every move, but up until the end of last year, the hip-hop artist born Todd Michael Williams hadn’t pressed the flesh or grabbed a mic on home turf since February 2008.
Originally part of the Breakinwreck Wordz collective alongside a crew of rap voices like Tourettes, Usual Suspects and R.E.S., the New Plymouth native left his adopted home of Auckland for Melbourne, where he connected with a new scene and altered his career trajectory. “I left New Zealand because I had legal trouble that I was avoiding,” says Knuxx, now back in Auckland City.
“I had stuff I didn’t want to face up to.” What he didn’t want to deal with was an assault charge stemming from an incident in New Plymouth, a one-man reprisal attack that Knuxx launched after being set on by neighbourhood thugs. Police witnessed both incidents, but chose to only press charges against the rapper, whose chequered reputation in the city precedes him. When his probation officer decided that his subsequent stretch of community service was not punishment enough, Knuxx legged it to the Lucky Country.
Historically, Australian and New Zealand hip-hop have had an uneasy relationship, divided by style, accents and subject matter. In Melbourne, Knuxx didn’t warm to the rap scene and became thick as thieves with an unlikely tribe: the local hardcore fraternity. “Sometimes I think my appearance makes it easier for someone who likes hardcore and punk to get into my music,” says Knuxx, 34. “They made me feel a part of their community and took me on tours and worked with me.”
His most important hardcore co-sign came from two high-profile artists: Joel Birch, singer with The Amity Affliction, and JJ Peters, drummer for I Killed the Prom Queen before jumping ship to front Deez Nutz. Peters would put his new Kiwi comrade on Deez Nutz’s track Move Back and together they formed the rap duo Grips & Tonic. He also introduced Knuxx to Oli Sykes, frontman of Sheffield metalcore heavyweights Bring Me the Horizon. That connection saw Sykes fly Knuxx to the UK for a show and release his Dying Slow EP on his Drop Dead imprint.
“Guys like JJ, Joel and Oli, they have tremendous weight with their fanbase and they understand that,” says Knuxx. “They can say to their fans, ‘This is cool – you like this now.’” Knuxx played shows in Australia and Europe with Deez Nutz, but it wasn’t until October 2013 that he was back in New Zealand – not for lack of trying. Plans to play a handful of homecoming shows were thwarted after the Ministry of Justice notified him to say that he’d be arrested on arrival. But when his sister announced her wedding plans, Knuxx took a semi-calculated gamble.
“I thought, I’m just going to chance it,” he says. “I flew into Wellington and when I got there the customs guy said, ‘You’re not going to give us any trouble, are you?’ I was like, ‘No sir’. That was a pretty amazing feeling when I walked past him, seeing New Zealand again – it was beautiful. I was with my brother, and my mum was there waiting for me. I felt so much relief.”
For all his time away, a new school of Kiwi hip-hop artists were quick to welcome the prodigal son when he played those shows. Returning to Melbourne briefly, Knuxx decided to move home for good and pick up on the New Zealand chapter of his career. Home-grown talent like Jay Knight, Nick McLaren and Kamandi played a part in crafting Knuxx’s best work to date, the album PGT/GRR, which came out in July. A support slot on Deez Nuts’s European tour followed, proving that there is no tyranny in the distance between him and his allies across the Tasman.
Back in Auckland after that month-long run, Knuxx is now seven songs into a new EP. Like PGT/GRR, a dark project in music and message that touched on topics like drug use, socio-economic struggle and suicide, Knuxx promises more melancholic reality raps – and he just might have a title locked in.
“It’s strange, man, because I’m a happy person,” he considers. “I draw inspiration from sadness and I like to write sad songs. Lubin Rains from The Vietnam War, when I played him my new material he labelled it ‘sedate rap’, which I liked. I might call my next EP that.”