No matter what you say about KSI (Olajide “JJ” Olatunji), the Watford-born YouTube powerhouse turned rapper, he’s entertaining. Whether he’s making casual FIFA videos in his room, which he’s been doing since 16, conducting humiliating pranks/skits or ludicrously shouting and skirt-skirting in his “Lamborghini”, the 24-year-old is a master of drawing attention; his 16 million subscribers are solid evidence of keeping eyes inherently peeled.
Since taking four months off from social media to “learn”, JJ has set new goals for the future to pursue his rap career to its highest potential. He’s already released a plethora of corporate hit singles you may already know like “Keep Up” featuring legendary MC Jme, “Lamborghini” with P Money, the Waka Flocka Flame assisted “Jump Around” and “Friends With Benefits”; however, KSI’s time spent soul searching has instilled a more authentic mindset which isn’t susceptible to money – his new Space EP, which includes his single “Creature”, is an ode to his true self, away from the loud, abrasive and at times obnoxious YouTube persona.
GRM Daily sat down with KSI to talk about his new music, evolution and the current state of YouTube amongst other things…
When did you first realise you had the passion for rapping and making music?
“I mean I’ve had it for years, probably started when I was quite young. I would use it to help me revise actually, ’cause I had a problem with remembering things, so I would use it to help me remember certain subjects. So yeah, I mainly used it for education.”
I remember in your earlier videos you used to do it in your FIFA ones…
“At that point I started to do it as an entertainment basis and when people started enjoying it, I was just like “Oh shit, alright I keep on doing it then”. For me it wasn’t hard to make words work in a rhythmic way and all that, for me it just flows easily. Writing lyrics, a lot of times I’d finish writing a song and go, “how the fuck did I just do that?” I’m never like, “fuck, how am I gonna do this?” It just flows – especially if the beat is right, it just works for me.”
For sure man. Let’s talk about your new EP Space – what do you think the reception’s been like for it?
“Yeah, it’s been really good. It’s encouraging and exciting as well to see that I have a fan base that will allow me to do my passion and what I enjoy, ’cause obviously you’re gonna get people who are gonna be like “you can’t do this blah blah blah.” But I feel the support heavily out ways the hate.”
Do you even care about that?
“That’s the thing, it’s kinda like I’m at a point where with YouTube I started it ’cause I enjoyed it, it was fun. So with music I can do it because I enjoy it, it’s fun. Obviously I’ve got a huge fan base, not everyone’s gonna be into rap, you know. People that like my videos probably like death metal or rock and roll or country, you know, so I don’t expect to please everyone or everyone to enjoy my raps. But yeah, the reception has been really good.”
The music does feel very real, but with the YouTube it seemed like you were trying to uphold a certain image – how important is it for you to be real in your music now?
“I feel like me putting my heart out, rather than just keeping it hidden and not really being who I am, really wasn’t healthy. That’s why it got to the point where I had to just leave and stop all of it ’cause I just wasn’t enjoying it anymore. I think from now on, I’ve got to a point where I can just be me and do what I wanna do – I’m 24 now, am I gonna continue doing something that the people want? Or am I gonna do what I want to do that makes me happy?”
You’ve gotta be authentic man.
“Yeah exactly, that’s what works in the long run. That’s where I’m at now.”
In your track “Transforming” you delve into not trying to be marginalised. Tell me about your evolution and how you want to be perceived now.
“I feel like with the whole KSI thing, it was sick don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed making all these videos, entertaining people, making people laugh and all that. But it’s kind of to the point where I’ve been there, done that, now I wanna do what I wanna do. The thing is, if people wanna see my old videos and stuff, my videos are still there, you can just go check them out, my videos are everywhere. I felt like an evolution was needed to prove to people that I can do what I feel is necessary in my life, and that was the same feeling with this whole Space EP, I just wanted it to be truthful; I want people to actually see how I was feeling from my eyes about what I was going through. I’d say Transforming is one of, if not the deepest song I’ve ever done.”
I mean in the older stuff like Lamborghini you’re a bit of a culprit there… but yeah I think “Transforming” is my favourite from you, it’s hard.
“It’s just real and even when my mates heard “Transforming” they were like “I like Transforming… that’s the one that really speaks to me.””
Do you think that’s your favourite as well?
“That’s definitely one of my favourites, I listen to that just on the regs, especially when I’m just alone by myself, it just really brings out a certain mood to me and I’m sure it does for other people; I’m sure other people can relate to it, like “fuck what they feelin’, I’ll be who I wanna be”. You always get people telling you “you can’t do this”, “you can’t do that”, “you’ll never be able to do this, you’ll never be able to do that”. Life’s not about what you can’t do, life should be about what you want to do and what you can do in your own right.”
I respect that man. Do you think you’ve found your own style in music or is there more time to evolve?
“I feel like there’s still more of me to show. I feel like once I put out an album, that’s when I’ll show you my true self. Right now I’m just showing you bits with the whole EP thing. I still have so much to write, it’s not like I’ve given everything out, there’s so much for me to talk about. Obviously I didn’t want to put all my eggs in one basket for this one, ’cause then it won’t be an EP it’ll turn into an album. But yeah I’ve got so much to say.”
I watched an interview with your mate Josh (Zerkaa) where you were talking about the idea of your KSI ‘character’. At what point in your career did you realise the ‘character’ was hindering you?
“At what point? I’d say near the time I was just doing so much; I think it was near the end of last year where I was doing a book, a movie, dropped an EP, lots of youtube videos, I was just doing so much it got to the point where I started getting stressed and it really started to hinder me. I started getting ill and everything. It was just a bit too much and I was like “yo, right now what do I wanna do with myself? What do I enjoy doing?” For me it was like right now it’s just the music, I’m able to put out my emotions through the music in the best way I feel possible, I feel that’s how I properly get my emotions out and words out. ‘Cause a lot of times whenever I’m in a conversation with someone I don’t know how to put what I actually feel in words, in music it comes across better.”
For people who don’t know, Sway’s (sat next to us) your mentor, what’s he like? How does he help you?
“He’s sick man, he can talk for Africa though! *Laughs* He gives me a lot of knowledge, ’cause he’s been in the game for years man, like way, way, way more than me. I mean he always helps me out with everything I’m doing; he normally helps me the direction and making sure I put good stuff out but with this Space EP he literally didn’t touch anything at all he was just like, “you do you man”. Obviously he had some opinions on some tracks, but he never got in the way. For me it was nice, it was good to just be able to let it out. It’s always good to have Sway in the background to just keep me in check.”
Who are your other influences and inspirations?
“I used to listen to a lot of American hip hop back in the day – that’s when I discovered the internet and everything, so to hear music from across the pond it was fucking insane. Do you remember LimeWire? I used to download so much American music from there. ‘Cause there wasn’t really like… I mean there was a rap scene in England but it wasn’t as mad as it was in America, so I listened to people like DMX a lot. I loved his fucking energy, it’s just sick. Tyler, the Creator’s pretty sick. I like Earl Sweatshirt, he’s pretty dope. I guess there’s always like the Lil Wayne’s, Kanye, and even Tyga I thought was pretty dope. The thing is I have a huge range so even bands like Breaking Benjamin – I think they’re fucking insane, the same with RED and Rage Against The Machine. I like to listen to those type of bands as well – that’s kind of my scope when it comes to people I’m influenced by.”
Do you think there’s extra pressure for you to prove your worth in the music industry?
“100%. I feel like I have to work twice as hard as someone that has just done music because obviously I’m a YouTuber, people will always see me as a YouTuber – because I’ve got so big being a YouTuber, now trying to go into music people will be like, “nah stay in your lane”, so it is what it is but there’s only one way to go about it and it’s just to do it, I’m just gonna put music out. With the whole YouTube thing, people were like, “you can never become a YouTuber, your videos are shit, you don’t have the right voice, you don’t have the right quality of videos” et cetera, “you’re not as good as these guys” et cetera, and then I just did it and look at me I’ve got like 16 million subscribers now so that’s just the thing like, people always tell you you can’t do something so I’m just gonna go about and do what I feel is true to myself and enjoy it.”
Obviously coming from GRM Daily, we’ve gotta know who your favourite grime MCs and UK rappers are…
“AJ Tracey right now I think is hot as shit, he’s smashing it. Dave is smashing it as well. JayKae is sick, I fucking love “Toothache”, I think that’s such a banger. Obviously you have the Stormzy’s and the Skepta’s and Jme’s…”
Stormzy is just on another level… is that where you’re trying to get to?
“For me I’m not even trying to get anywhere, I’m just gonna stay in my own lane, do what I feel is right for me. It’s not like I’m trying to do grime by any means, I know I’m not a grime MC, I’m just a musician. I just like making music. With “Creature” it’s not all just rap, I mean obviously it’s me rapping but there’s an element of rock into it. For me I just like making music. But yeah, those guys grime wise… smashing it. And it’s cool, so good to see the UK rap scene popping, it’s about time. Forreal, it’s about fucking time.”
What is your creative process like?
“You know a lot of the time I’m making my songs at home so I just have a quiet area in my house where I just listen to the beat and then through the beat it triggers emotions. I always write stuff down that’s happened to me just to make sure I never forget. In my head it’s just like a puzzle, it just starts to click into place and then the words just flow out and then I just go about it – obviously I try and make it sound good as well so it’s not just random words *laughs*. Yeah, I’m hardly ever in the studio, there’s a lot of time spent in my room just quiet, working on music. Whenever I go to the studio it’s usually just to lay out the track, then after that I’m back at home.”
Do you think you will build your own studio in your house?
“I think when I eventually move out the house I’m renting in right now, that’s when I’ll probably build my own studio. Right now I’m renting the place, so I don’t wanna sell the whole thing and have to take it down after like a couple of months or some shit like that.”
You took a few months off to “learn”. What were you learning exactly?
“Essentially just about myself man. I travelled loads, I went all over the place like Texas, New York, Ghana, Amsterdam, LA, France, then Ibiza, Magaluf, Kavos as well. But literally I went to all these places to just understand what I want in life. It took me a while to get to that point but I realised I actually know what I want in life and I’m going to strive for it now. Right now, money wise and all that I’m doing well enough to live, so I’m like “ok, my parents are sorted, you know, my friends are all sorted” everyone’s in a good place, it’s not like I’m doing YouTube to just make money – I’m not at that point anymore. That’s why you hardly see me post any videos. I’m gonna post a video to show where I’m at but right now everything is cool, everything is sorted, so why am I still trying to do something that I don’t wanna do? So that’s why I was like “cool, let me step back from it all, find out what I wanna do” and I’ve figured out what I wanna do.”
What was the best thing you did whilst you were away?
“I think just exploring man. Just doing a lot of exploring, this world is fucking amazing man. If you just stay in England, like obviously there’s cool things in England, but you don’t really get to see much of the world – when you get to go out and see cool places, then it really makes you think like, “wow, this is an incredible place”. For me I was just like “I’m in an incredible place and I just wanna do incredible things, so let’s just go.” I just wanna have fun right now and enjoy myself and I feel music is the best way to go about it. For me I love performing, performing is always a huge thing – with the whole YouTube thing I feel like I’ve been performing for how many years? So music isn’t any different, me going on stage performing, that’s why I never get nervous – I thought when I first went on stage I’d be nervous but I’ve realised with YouTube I’ve been talking to millions of people on a daily basis, so if I’m in an arena with only a thousand people it’s nothing. It is what it is, for me I’m excited again, I’m excited to be doing things now.”
I do feel that because towards the end of your last videos I could feel you were getting stressed…
“I always put on a brave face on YouTube because on YouTube you only see like ten minutes of work and then you don’t see what happens in the rest of the minutes in that day…”
Yeah, it’s only a snapshot of your life…
“Yeah, yeah exactly, so I will always try to make that look good. But I got to a point where I was just like, “I’m sick of it now”.”
What do you actually think of the state of YouTube at the moment, with the Viners like Logan and Jake Paul coming into YouTube?
“Obviously YouTube’s in a very business state right now, so people like Logan Paul and Jake Paul, the reason why they’re doing so well is because they have like millions being pumped into them; they have like huge companies just investing in them and I feel gone are those days where you can be one person and just do well on YouTube, I don’t think that’s a thing anymore. I feel like to get into YouTube you gotta have a lot of money to force your way into the system and into the game. It’s a shame because you lose out on that community of realness and then it just builds into this place of just fake people trying to one up each other and fuck everyone over just for their own gain.”
It’s true and you see with Joe Weller and others that they are having trouble with their fan bases; do you think you had that problem as well? Do you think you just grew out of your fan base?
“For me I’m always trying to grow with my fan base. So, back in the day when I was doing FIFA and all that, you know that’s ’cause I enjoyed doing FIFA, it was sick and obviously everyone else enjoyed it but like I said I’m 24 and people who watched me when they were 16 and when I was 16, you know they’re also 24… like, are you seriously gonna still watch me just playing FIFA? It’s kinda weird. I know people who watched me back then aren’t really gonna be watching me now because you’ve got other stuff to do in your life. For me it was just like, “it’s cool, if you wanna look at old videos you can go and look at old videos” but right now I’m at a point where I wanna try and, essentially, evolve and improve myself and I feel like that’s the best way of doing it.”
Would you say you’d prefer to be known for music rather than YouTube or…?
“I think I’d prefer to just… I’m trying to see how I can word this. I want people to just be like, “yo, this is KSI or JJ, you know, he’s just a guy that has given us entertainment”. Obviously if you’re a fan you just support me no matter what I decide to do and that’s just it. If you guys aren’t interested in the music then so-be-it, it just is how it is. Hopefully people appreciate what I’ve done in the past with the whole gaming videos and skits and pranks that I’ve done and allow me to do what I wanna do.”
Being an entrepreneur and building your own empire so-to-speak, are there any other avenues you’d want to get into?
“I think when I get older, a lot older, I’d want to probably go into acting and such. For me, it’s also been another interest of mine. Dude, like I said, I love entertaining man so that’s the realms I’d love to go into, yeah.”
You’ve already had experience acting haven’t you?
“Yeah, so I did Laid In America, that was funny. I fully enjoyed doing that, that was a good laugh. I dunno if I wanna do more stuff like that. I wanna change it up and try some serious roles or some funny/serious roles, you know a good mix just to see my range and see what I’m capable of.”
100%. So, have you got any plans for the near future? A tour or anything?
“Tour? Nah, I don’t think I wanna do a tour at the moment. Right now I just wanna work on music, that’s it. Especially last year I decided that instead of doing so many things, I wanna just start to focus on one thing, ’cause with YouTube I just focused on that and it got me to where I am today. The rewards will come no matter what – for me, the money, I’m not thinking about that, you know, I’m probably making a loss right now with all the costs of me paying for music videos, paying for producers, the beats, studio time and all that. For me, I don’t really care, I just enjoy doing it. With YouTube, it wasn’t the money that got me to that point, it was me enjoying what I did, so I’m just gonna apply that to music.”
What kind of legacy do you want to leave?
“Legacy… oh that’s a big question. I think the main thing is that you’re on this life once, you have the opportunity to do whatever you want so strive for it and don’t let anyone else tell you that you can’t do it.”
K.S.I’s EP Space is out now on Spotify.