Minneapolis rapper Knox is teasing out his long-awaited Kingdom Kulture one song at a time. Even before it's heard in full, he's already started to infiltrate the larger local consciousness, and his neighbors have noticed the difference.
"People I was on the block with, they see me now, they think I blew up," he explains. "I could fall off and never be heard from again, but I was successful because I did what I set out to do. I scratched something off my bucket list: I have a song with Slug, one of my heroes growing up. I've performed in front of a sold-out crowd. I put out [music] that people feel."
In addition to the new single "One" with Slug and MaLLy, he's already shared songs with Greg Grease, Prof, Freez, and many other local mainstays. But his progression had humble beginnings.
Knox started as a freestyler and self-described "word nerd," making a name for himself in the hip-hop scene in cyphers and battles before ever recording a song. But after serving seven years in prison, he's since been motivated to strive forward artistically and otherwise, and he's taken to writing and recording to express his own experience and give strength to others in his position.
Knox's first full-length Kingdom Kulture, produced entirely by Nicademus, revolves around the theme of improving oneself in order to affect one's surroundings. "I've had the idea for a long time," he says. "A mentor of mine gave me a quote, 'The culture of a kingdom is determined by the character of its king.' Wherever you are -- your job, at home, school -- that's your kingdom, and whatever you tolerate or don't tolerate, whatever you do or don't do, whatever you accept, whatever your influence is, pretty much dictates what's going to be around you."
Knox writes about his experience with both an open book sensibility and a handle on lyrical dexterity, and a classic Minneapolis underground sound runs through the veins of every track. "I may be squeaky clean and a stand-up citizen now, but it wasn't always that way," he says. "It's been a long journey, and I've learned a lot. I'm just trying to lay it all on the line, put it out there, share it with my people."
Facing technological setbacks similar to those that derailed proposed projects with Mike the Martyr and Gene Poole last year, Kingdom Kulture's release was pushed back, but Knox's drive to create since his return to society has already spurred two EPs -- the solo effort Equity EP and the collaboration with Baby Shel Killing Time EP. Though his songs tend toward reflective moments, in person Knox is focused on what's in front of him.
"Don't show me no love or respect because I went away, respect those that didn't," says Knox. "Show respect for people that had the strength to turn away from things and choose the right path. It was an unfortunate, hard lesson learned."
The takeaway from that and other experiences bleeds into the focused rapper's every line, as a reminder to himself and a token of wisdom to others. Now seeking a philosophy major in school, Knox says he's always been interested in different schools of thought, and approaches his songs with an angle towards personal ethics and day-to-day decision making.
"After I was challenged to sit by myself in a room for a long time thinking, I started thinking about morals and principles and meditating, thinking back on decisions in my past. Trying to piece together, why did I do this? Why do people do that? What should I do? How shall we live? Sitting there as a convict trying to find my way, I came across some Kant, like, my brain exploded. Just the way that he put things was undeniable to me, and I was thinking, how do you translate this? I want to be the one to help people make better decisions so they're more equipped to deal with the world."
The recording booth seems to be Knox's opportunity to ask these questions of himself and others, dealing directly with his own situations in an upfront way through music in hopes it connects with people. Knox brings an above-average grasp of intricate song construction and quick flows to his project, but the power stems from the brutal honesty and his knowledge of self. Songs string together personal experiences with a reflective tone and utilize storytelling techniques to convey both Knox as an individual and broader ideas about life and society.
"There's a lot that's going to be real authentic heavy shit," Knox says. "Hopefully people will vibe with it even if they can't relate. I think they're universal principles."