KSI is one of the world’s biggest YouTubers, with billions of views and millions of subscribers, and now he’s coming for the music business. As he releases his debut album, he lets Music Week in on his mission to become the world’s biggest rapper and start a new empire, with help from manager Mams Taylor and UK label BMG. Hold on tight...
KSI can’t rap. KSI can’t rap...”?
YouTube megastar and multi-millionaire KSI is in his bedroom in London, reeling off the reasons why his music career will never take off. He’s talking loudly, with serious glee. Lockdown has given him time to gather his thoughts and he’s firing them straight at Music Week.
“The thing always used to be, ‘KSI can’t rap’, now it’s, ‘KSI can’t make a song without a feature’. I have to constantly prove people wrong.”
The reason KSI sounds so cheerful is because he’s very much of the opinion that he can rap, and the counter-arguments he’s regaling us with aren’t his, but those of his haters, the online trolls who have repeatedly questioned his musical abilities since he first started uploading rap videos back when he was?a teenager. But KSI (which stands for Knowledge Strength Integrity) shows no sign that such things matter. For him,? this week’s release of his debut album Dissimulation via BMG marks the end of years of graft. He recorded it mostly in the very flat he’s in today, with some sessions also taking place in LA. This, he says, is his moment, and he’s not shy about it.
“Oh [I want a] No.1. No.1, No.1!” he says, repeating it for good measure. “I know it’s gonna happen, because I’m going to speak it into the world. If I’m like, ‘Ah, I guess...’ then it probably won’t, but I know it will happen and I will make it happen.”
You see, KSI, who was born Olajide Olayinka Williams Olatunji (‘JJ’ to his friends) in Watford in June 1993, has been rapping for a while now. After leaving Berkhamsted School during sixth form thanks to the burgeoning success of his YouTube channel – which at the time consisted of videos of him playing FIFA while laughing and shouting – KSI began to foster dreams of one day making it in music. Back then, that’s all they were. His rapid rise as an outlandish and unpredictable YouTube star meant infamy with a generation of British youth, and celebrity soon got in the way. The gaming world celebrated him and his ascent continued, although it was firmly halted in 2013 when Microsoft ended its association with KSI after he uploaded a video in which he abused female staff and attendees at a gaming event. KSI apologised publicly and condemned?his actions, but views tend to surge when his content is most controversial, an issue he is still learning to manage.
He found time for music when he could, forging relationships and collaborating with JME, P Money and Sway before releasing a joint album with his YouTube sparring partner Randolph in 2019. Today, he has almost 30 million subscribers on his two channels, ?nearly 14m across Twitter and Instagram and close to 4m monthly listeners on Spotify.
In August 2018, he branched out into boxing, fighting fellow YouTuber Logan Paul at Manchester Arena. That encounter was a draw and by the time last November’s rematch at Staples Center in Los Angeles rolled around – helmed by promoter Eddie Hearn – KSI was so confident of winning that he used the fight to launch his album campaign, walking out to Down Like That, featuring Rick Ross, Lil Baby and S-X. The fight drew 1.2 million pay-per-view buys around the world and in the UK it scored more viewers than Anthony Joshua’s match against Andy Ruiz Jr. KSI recorded the video for Down Like That two days later, it now has more than 14m views. It became his first Top 10 hit and has now sold 243,471 copies, according to the Official Charts Company. Suddenly, KSI’s rap career had lift off.
I’ve definitely had to work twice as hard in music because I’m a YouTuber
“I’ve definitely had to work twice as hard as the normal person in?the music industry, that’s just because I’m a YouTuber,” says KSI. “A?lot of people don’t respect YouTubers, they don’t see it as a real job. A YouTuber wanting to do music is like the ultimate disrespect. It’s one of those things, but now I’ve really proved that I am at that level...”
But not even someone who chose to name himself Knowledge Strength Integrity could break into the music industry alone. Thankfully, KSI has quite some team behind him.
“I remember something Robbie Williams said to me a long time ago when I asked him why he cared that this person had called him a wanker,” says Premier League Entertainment boss Mams Taylor. ?“He goes, ‘You don’t remember the hundreds of thousands?of people who praise you, you remember the one guy?standing there calling you a wanker’. That really stuck ?with me. It’s easy to be disheartened by negativity?from naysayers, people in power positions who?doubt you. But KSI is not weak-minded or overly?sensitive, it’s water off a duck’s back.”
Speaking to Music Week from his LA base,?Taylor – who has worked with Williams,?Snoop Dogg and many more during his?career as a musician, producer and manager?– gets straight to the point. Turning KSI into?a rap star and sticking two fingers up at any?doubters was an opportunity he couldn’t turn down.?Taylor looks after S-X, who put him in touch with the then- unmanaged KSI just 10 months ago. A 45-minute FaceTime call laid the foundation for a relationship that is yielding results. Taylor shopped around for a label, and signed with RBC in America and BMG in the UK. The deal was done last November, then Down Like That went Top 10.
“All of a sudden we had an artist with brand value and insane reach,” says BMG VP, recordings Jamie Nelson.
“Breaking artists is tough, but with that level of opportunity to reach fans so immediately, you could just see the lane open up for us, so it’s really exciting.”
Senior marketing manager Lisa Wilkinson started at BMG just before Down Like That charted, a moment she says made everyone at the label realise they had something special. “We saw a real spike after his boxing match and realised how engaged the fanbase was,” she says. “We’re incredibly lucky.”
Sadly, though, not even millions of followers can buy you respect in music, and team KSI have had to craft an extra special campaign to make it work.
“People roll their eyes at YouTubers, especially in music,” says Taylor, smiling. “Music is so snobby! DSPs, God bless them, they’re great, but they can be very harsh, radio can be very harsh. At the risk of sounding like a boomer, we’re in an age where people don’t want to take risks, they want sure things. No one believes in you until everyone believes in you, that’s just the way it is. There is a stigma attached to it.”
We’re in an age where people don’t want to take risks, they want sure things
Mams Taylor, Premier League Entertainment
Nelson acknowledges that KSI isn’t a conventional project, but argues that a YouTuber moving into music is an “extension of a long history of artists evolving out of being on TV and going into music”. Besides, he says, if there’s enough good music coming out, who really cares?
“KSI has proven that he’s incredibly astute at evolving and developing his brand and artistry in different ways, it’s a reflection of how smart he is,” says Nelson. “There were elements that were maybe a bit slower at radio, but we’re really starting to see that convert now. People are seeing that we’re consistently delivering hits, and as the music evolves and there are more relevant UK collaborations and connections, you can sense those records are feeling more relevant and giving us bigger results. You’ve got to convert all the awareness into something real, to show people his musicianship and that he can be an artist.”
The team point to KSI’s current single Houdini (79,331 sales), which features UK MCs Swarmz and Tion Wayne and peaked at No.6 in April, as a key moment. Unusually for an international project, BMG’s entire team across records and publishing are involved in A&R for KSI and Houdini was cooked up by Tashan Radtke and Emmanuel Olowojoba.
“The first three singles had a more American feel and we wanted to see what we could do in the UK market with a UK-sounding track,” says Wilkinson. “The UK A&R team got Houdini pretty quickly and what we’ve managed to do with it is incredible, it just goes to show how collaborative it’s been.”
People are seeing that we’re consistently delivering hits
Jamie Nelson, BMG
?‘Pretty quick’ serves as apt description for the pace KSI is moving at. He may have been grafting for ages, but his achievements since November are remarkable, especially given the hesitance the team has encountered. Now, Taylor says, the emails are flooding in. Dissimulation’s features list also includes Offset, Lil Pump, Smokepurpp, Jeremih, Trippie Redd and Aiyana Lee, and the manager says it proves the world is waking up to KSI.
“These artists were understanding of the fact that YouTube and social media influencers have a lot of pull,” he says. “We’ve been climbing that ladder and overcoming preconceptions about a YouTube background.”
The driving factor behind it all is sheer determination, KSI simply won’t stop.
“I remember being in the boardroom with BMG before the boxing match and they asked what Plan B was if he lost,” says Taylor. “I echoed JJ’s sentiment and told them there was no Plan B. We really believed in that so, so firmly. Not to get too philosophical and spiritual, but when you do believe in something so strongly you do manifest it.” ?In KSI’s bedroom, the source of all that belief is ready to reveal just where it comes from. Later, he’ll be back on YouTube filming himself reacting to TikToks featuring Houdini, but first, it’s time for Olajide Olayinka Williams Olatunji to reveal what KSI is really all about...
When did making this album first feel like an achievable goal?
“It really started after I did the album with my mate Randolph, I was like, ‘OK, I think I’m in a place where I could do a solo album’. I did quite a few EPs before that and was still finding my sound, finding where I fit. I was ready. It’s been in the works since mid-2019.”
So are you a musician now? Not a YouTuber or a boxer?
“I’m an entertainer. I don’t put myself in one category, I’m an anomaly. No one else does what I do, there’s no musician who is a YouTuber and a boxer. I’ve always been a fan of music and was doing it even when I was a kid. I would use it to help me remember subjects in school, I would make little raps and that would get me through, to a certain point. I was making tracks, tracks about FIFA, about YouTubing, I would do rap battles with me and Randolph being either Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, or Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger. I rapped about my Lamborghini, that took off. That was just me gassed about having a Lamborghini. I’ve been always doing music but things got in the way, either the boxing or YouTube.”
How does it feel to have made an album?
“It feels amazing, man. It’s been stressful at times, but it’s been amazing. I’ve surprised myself by what I could do with certain tunes and bringing certain emotions. I talk about my life, my girlfriend and how I felt towards her. Domain is more of a YouTube song, I wanted to make a song to show that I’m on a different level when it comes to wordplay. What You Been On is a braggadocious track to let people know that I am doing bits. You’re telling me I couldn’t do this or that, well now I’ve done this and that. I’m at this level. I’m turning the question back on the haters and the people that were doubting me.”
You’ve got lots of big names on there too...
“It definitely helped that I am who I am. In the music industry, a lot of people want to work with you, especially if you’re hot. If nothing’s really going for you, chances are that people aren’t going to really want to work with you. I’m getting to a point and getting to a level where people are seeing me as an artist and going, ‘OK, so he can actually do this music thing’ so they’re taking it seriously.”
I want to break that mould and be a YouTuber that makes good music
Has it been difficult to get there?
“Yeah. There are certain YouTubers who make tracks that are absolutely awful, but they do well because they have a fanbase and all of that. I wanted to break that mould and be a YouTuber that makes good music.”
So what makes you think you can do it?
“Because I’ve been doing it for years! I’ve been doing it for 10+ years, I’ve been in studios with many UK artists, P Money, Big Zuu, JME, Sway... I’ve been around. It’s not like after boxing I hopped on music, it’s not something you can just do. I wrote all the tracks, I did everything, it’s all me. I’ve been progressing throughout the years and now I’m at a stage where I’m happy to make an album. I’m not trying to capitalise on anything. If anything, I just feel right in myself to be able to make an album like this. It’s just come at the perfect time and I’ve taken this opportunity to showcase that I can make music with the top artists.”
What can you teach the music industry?
“The beautiful thing with me is, if you can have a large audience and you can make good music, then obviously you’re going to do well. A lot of people have a large audience but don’t make good music, and that’s why there’s a disconnect. If you make a good song, you have a large audience on social media and you can combine that, well, the sky’s?the limit, you can go ham with that. It’s all about finding the right connection. I see value in social media, it got me in the position I’m in today. I didn’t start out making good music, I’ve definitely made a lot of stinkers in my life. But over the years, through practice, practice and practice, I’ve proved I can rap and people have accepted that I can do music now.”
How have you kept your?millions of followers engaged??
“Because no one knows what to? expect from me. That’s it, that’s ?why people are always interested.?I’m a person that never just does the ?same thing, I’m always changing up my? content. There are people who struggle to?change their content, but I have no problems ?doing that. I’m not afraid to take risks, look at my life, I’ve taken risks my whole life. I’ve risked my whole legacy and I’m reaping the rewards, that’s why my fans are there. They’re inspired by me.”
I’ve risked my whole legacy
Why is that?
“I’m a person that shows self-belief, I’ve shown how much I’ve worked for everything I’ve got and people have seen the beginning. It’s not like I had a helping hand, a rich family that were able to just pump money into me and make me famous, I literally started from scratch, zero subscribers. And I was able to do everything. Now, I’ve got 20 million subscribers on my main channel, almost 10m on my second channel, millions on my social media. This is all inspiring stuff, people look at it and go, ‘Yeah, I want to be a part of that’. And I guess I’m also entertaining, people find me either funny or just entertaining to watch.”
What’s the most powerful platform for musicians?
“TikTok. Of course! TikTok has just made musicians out of thin air. People you’ve never heard of have just had absolute hits because of TikTok. It’s very powerful. I don’t make my music for TikTok [laughs]. Maybe I keep things in mind TikTok-wise, but I just make music that I want to make, that I enjoy. If TikTok picks it up then so be it.”
Is it fair that social media can just ‘make’ musicians?
“Yeah of course. Why would it not be? Anyone who says it’s not fair is selfish and should get with the times! [Laughs]. It’s very fair. Music is subjective, if people?like music, why does the artist have to have a certain background or certain things to do with their music to be able to make a good song? If a song is good, a song is good. It’s as simple as that.”
Is it changing the boundaries of what good music is?
“There are definitely songs that do well on TikTok and it doesn’t mean they’re good songs, but the musician can’t do much with that. They can’t go on tour because of that. It’s a phase. Certain songs are bangers and are on TikTok and that’s just how it is. People will always like what they like and you can’t stop it. You can’t stop the internet, you can’t stop social media, it’s its own force and you have to accept it and adapt. Adapt or get removed. Is that my best advice? Yes, that’s why I’ve done so well to remain relevant.”
How have your interactions with the music industry been?
“It’s half-and-half. People welcome me with open arms, they respect everything I’ve done, whether they’re fans or not. They’re happy with everything I’ve done and they’ve seen the progress and they’ve seen that I haven’t just jumped on the hype. There are obviously people who,?no matter what, are just like, ‘No, he’s a YouTuber, no, no! Not accepting it’. Those are the people who’ll get left behind eventually, with their backwards thinking. I’m very forward-thinking and I definitely see progress in things like TikTok and social media and how they’re affecting music. It’s cool how it allows people to adapt and change their way of thinking.”
Where’s the music industry going, then?
“TikTok could just be a phase, you never know. Vine was a phase. Look how that turned out, it’s no more. Rock could come back, Machine Gun Kelly is pushing the rock scene at the moment. Music is all over the place because of the internet. There isn’t a set thing, no one knows?what could do well nowadays, you can just be in your basement, make a track that you think is sick, put it out in the world and in a year’s time it just takes off. Music is just random nowadays. I was a risk for BMG and it’s one of the best risks they’ve taken, I like people who take risks.”
Do you have idols in music?
“No, no, no, I don’t have any idols. I’m my own person.?I have my own sound, my own identity, I don’t want to have say, Kanye West, as my idol and try and be like Kanye West, I want to be like myself. I don’t need an idol.”
But can you start an empire? Def Jam for YouTubers?
“Oh yeah, of course! But I don’t want to run before I can walk. I haven’t even put out a solo album yet, I need to make sure my foundation is solid. I’ve done that with YouTube, I’ve helped hundreds of people with that because I knew my foundation was solid. In music, I’m not at that point where I can help other people yet. But trust me it’s there. A lot of the artists will be online artists; they’ll have come from online. It would be sick, but not yet...”