A Conversation With YouTuber KSI On His Music Career, Top 5 Rappers & Breaking Into The American Market
Yohance Kyles (@HUEYmixwitRILEY)
(AllHipHop Features) Long gone are the days where an aspiring rap star has to hit the pavement to make sure his demo tape gets in the hands of the people that matter. The typical path to Hip Hop stardom now involves occupying smartphone screens instead of selling CDs out the trunk of a car.
YouTube has 2 billion monthly logged-in users and reaches more than 91 countries. In an average month, 80% of 18-49 year-olds watch content on the Google-owned platform. Masters of the YouTube universe, such as Olajide Olayinka Williams Olatunji, have converted sections of that global audience into a devoted fan base that follows their every move.
Whether he’s called JJ, KSIOlajidebt, or KSI, the British national’s name is regularly listed among the most successful internet personalities on the planet. The financial effects of KSI’s recent victory in a professional boxing match against fellow YouTuber Logan Paul even garnered coverage from Forbes and Business Insider.
While mainstream outlets were reporting that Olatunji and Paul each earned $900,000 for the six-round bout, many Hip Hop fans were just as interested in the fact that MMG boss Rick Ross and QC hitmaker Lil Baby co-signed KSI inside the Staples Center that night. Then Rozay, Baby, JJ, and S-X linked up in Los Angeles to film the Nayip Ramos-directed music video for their collaboration “Down Like That.”
An American audience may be discovering KSI as a performing artist because of his 1-0 boxing record or his new connection with two southern rap luminaries, but the London-born entertainer already scored three Number Ones on the U.K. R&B Album chart. No. 1 projects, 29 million YouTube subscribers (over two channels), 5 billion YouTube views, and 2 million monthly listeners on Spotify are impressive, but not enough for the Sidemen collective member. KSI’s objective as a rapper is to be the biggest fish on the other side of the pond as well.
AllHipHop: Can you talk about how you connected with Rick Ross and Lil Baby for “Down Like That”?
KSI: Mams, my music manager, pretty much made the whole thing happen. S-X sent me the track with the hook already on. I got gassed. I made several verses just to try and find the right one. I talked to Mams about making this bigger than just a track with me and S-X: Let’s try to make this international and get some bigger artists. Rick Ross was in mind, as well as Lil Baby. And I just made it happen. I’m still in shock. With everything I do, I want it to be big. The whole boxing thing was big. Every time I’ve done a boxing match, I released a track. So with this next track, I wanted it to be huge and we made it happen.
AllHipHop: You’ve released a few EPs. Are there any plans to release a full-length album?
KSI: I released a joint album with my friend Randolph this year. Then we went on tour as well. But I think, definitely, for next year I want to have my own album. I feel like it’s time. It’s due.
AllHipHop: Your project with Randolph, New Age, made it onto the U.K. charts. A few of your songs have charted too. Are you looking to break onto the American charts? You mentioned wanting to become international. Is that a goal for you?
KSI: Yeah, 100%. Rick Ross and Lil Baby, that’s why I wanted those names. Obviously, in England, I’m already a big name, but when it comes to America, I’m still like a small fish in a big pond. Or a big fish in a big pond, shall I say. [laughs] I feel like it makes sense for me to collab with more American artists. So yeah, I definitely want to start charting more in America. I feel like the music video will bring a huge amount of attention. No other YouTuber is attracting international artists besides Jake Paul and Gucci Mane. For me, and for everyone who watched that, it kind of put YouTube in a bad light because Jake Paul is not respected as an artist. Everyone was like, “Nah, Gucci. Don’t do that.” Hopefully, now I can pave the way so that YouTubers can make good music, and chart, and be international, and make waves in the music scene.
AllHipHop: Do you feel like you’ve already gained respect from artists that are already working in the industry?
KSI: Yeah, definitely. They see that I can do YouTube, I can do boxing, and I can do the music. It’s not like I just woke up and went, “I want to do music.” I’ve been doing music since I was like 11 or 12 to help me remember things and subjects in classes. I only decided I wanted to make music because I thought it would be cool. It’s not like I started making tracks. It’s kind of cringy, but when I was younger, I was making videos online where I would rap about what I was doing in Call of Duty. Also, I would pretend to be a footballer and I have a mate, another footballer, and we would have rap battles. So I didn’t make tracks until "Lamborghini" which was one of the first tracks I ever made. It was literally me rapping about my Lamborghini. I wrote that and it was a smash. From then on, I’ve always just rapped about my life. Everything just gelled together so well to the point where I’m able to do tracks with Lil Baby and Rick Ross.
AllHipHop: Who are some of your favorite rappers? If you had to name your personal Top 5, who would it be?
KSI: I’m a big fan of Skepta. I just think he’s sick. I’ve seen his whole journey, and as an artist, he goes against the grain. But it works. I’m obviously a big fan of Drake. I feel like everyone’s a fan of Drake. I just love his music. When he raps or sings, he kills it. Slowthai, I rock with him a lot. I think he’s pretty sick. AJ Tracey is another one. A$AP Ferg is another one. I just love his energy. That’s Top 5, but I could go on. It’s not like your obvious list, but I just like certain energy. Even right now, I’d love to put Tyler, The Creator in there. Oh my God, Kendrick Lamar as well! There are so many names that pop up and I’m just like, “How could I not put Kendric Lamar in there?!”
AllHipHop: I want to go back to something you said before about the perception of YouTubers who make music. What are your thoughts about how the mainstream media covers YouTubers in that space?
KSI: They just think we’re talentless. [laughs] And we’re just cringy and we don’t take it seriously. That’s just not the case. As YouTubers, we know what to do when it comes to hard work. I guess it’s like always proving people wrong. Maybe we don’t have the resources of certain artists, but we make do with what we have and we have a fanbase. There’s a huge audience on YouTube, musically, especially. There are people that rock with me, rock with Quadeca, rock with Token, and all these other YouTube artists.
AllHipHop: What do you think your fight with Logan meant for YouTubers? It got a lot of attention outside of just the YouTube community.
KSI: That’s it. I knew this would bring a lot of attention. You got to remember that everything I do is smart and calculated. When I fought Joe Weller, I released "Uncontrollable.” That’s just a track with me and Big Zuu. I knew this was going to gain a lot of traction. That’s why in the music video I showed off my body, I showed that I’d been working hard. It just built the hype. Then with the hype, people then listened to the music. And they said, “Oh, this is actually pretty good. I might listen to more of his stuff.” Then with the first fight with Logan Paul, I released "On Point." It was a bit of a diss, but it was also showing my rapping skills. It did numbers! It got 30-plus million views! The attention was phenomenal. The attention with the fight was phenomenal. A lot of people, with the hype, saw the music and went, “Yo, he’s actually sick at this.” They realized that I’m actually good and I can make good music. Then with this rematch where I beat Logan - “Down Like That” with me, Rick Ross, and Lil Baby - I’m gradually showing people that I’m making moves on the music scene. It’s not in your face. It’s in the background. But it makes people pay attention to it. Right now, people are like, “JJ’s here to stay when it comes to music.” I think people are starting to respect and realize that.
AllHipHop: I think one thing that you can’t ignore is that you’ve really mastered marketing. You’ve really learned how to promote yourself. Did you study marketing or branding?
KSI: No, it’s just something you learn over time. It’s literally something to experience. I’ve been in the game for ten-plus years, so I know what works and what doesn’t. I’ve failed a lot of times, but people don’t pay attention to that. People only pay attention to when you succeed. Eventually, you get good at something and you keep trying it and trying it again. That’s why I’m at this point where I guess you’re saying I’m good at marketing.
AllHipHop: You've said you’re not interested in boxing Justin Bieber, but would you be open to fighting another Bieber-backed YouTuber?
KSI: I’m definitely interested in fighting another celebrity. I feel like YouTuber wise, there isn’t really anyone for me. Besides maybe Jake [Paul], but I think Jake needs to prove himself. That’s why I’m always telling people he needs to fight [AnEsonGib]. If he beats Gib, then, fine, he can fight me. Then it makes sense because then there’s hype. Right now, me fighting Jake, there’s no hype. It doesn’t make sense. Jake is worse than Logan, and I beat Logan. So why would I fight Jake? Jake needs to prove he’s better than Logan. Then people would be intrigued. Then I’ll make another track. That’s how we roll. [laughs] I’m interested in fighting a celebrity for sure, and there are a few celebrities that want some. I can’t say who they are, but we’re working on it for next year.
AllHipHop: We’ve seen Tyson Fury jump into WWE. You did a video with Rule’m Sports where you were wrestling. Have you thought about jumping into the WWE?
KSI: Oh wow. I’m surprised you saw that. [laughs] I like doing that type of stuff. Of course, I’m always open to doing WWE, AEW, or whatever organization there is. I’ve been a fan for years. Man, that’s my childhood. I used to watch Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, Hulk Hogan, Sting, Mick Foley/Mankind, The Undertaker, all these guys, Triple H. I’m a fan, so it would be a dream come true to fight in the WWE. It’d be a bit too mad for me. I think at that point I’d probably need to check into a hospital just to check that I’m sane. [laughs]
AllHipHop: The Grammy nominations just came out. What was your favorite Hip Hop album of 2019?
KSI: My favorite Hip Hop album? I love Igor a lot… I’m going to say Igor. The thing is that I’m a Tyler, The Creator fanboy, so I’m biased. [laughs]