According to a famous study of rap vocabularies, CunninLynguists are the best lyricists of any group in hip-hop, and when you listen to songs like “Stars Shine Brightest” or “Never Come Down”, their talent is obvious. But the threesome of Kno, Deacon The Villian and Natti, remain an acquired taste. So, we recently caught up with Kno to talk about the group’s history and to find out why.
Recently on Twitter, the group’s account retweeted the statement “This is my annual f*ck your year-end best of music list if it doesn’t have CunninLynguists.” I did feel Strange Journey, Vol. 3 was one of the better releases last year. Do you agree, and what records did you enjoy?
From a front to back playability stand point, yeah. But, it’s no big deal being passed over, we haven’t hired a publicist since 2009. They’re not going to remember you months later, unless you have a publicist emailing them. I definitely think it’s a Top 10 hip-hop album of the year. But obviously, I’m biased. I’m trying to think of what I enjoyed this year and what I played the most. The Madlib-Gibbs project Pinata, the Run the Jewels sh*t, Killer Mike, it’s good to see them have success. I played the sh*t out of the Schoolboy Q record.
To get a feel for your taste, who did grow up listening to?
The good thing about where we come from, Kentucky and Georgia, we heard a little of everything. Everybody in the van grew up listening to Bay Area sh*t, L.A. sh*t, South sh*t, and New York sh*t. When I was young, I had a Nas CD, next to a E-40 CD, next to a Scarface CD. I lived in Oregon until my first year of high school, and then moved to Georgia. I was an outcast going to a small rural school. Girls liked me because I was fresh meat, the new guy at the school. But, I moved to Georgia to get away from a messed up family situation, poverty and alcoholism.
When did the music become serious?
We were never gung-ho at first. Natti didn’t even start rapping until he got out of prison. Me and Deacon met in Atlanta. He was going to Morehouse and they used to have an open mic, so I was there a lot. He moved back to Kentucky. I didn’t meet Natti until 2004, after we had already released two records. The Atlanta scene was still in its infancy, so that you could go out to a club and Big Boi would be there. Andre  would be there. Or ,MF Doom when he first moved there. Or Broady Champs. It was a very tight-knit community.
I’ve seen the group described as Southern hip-hop, as conscious hip-hop, or even boom bap. How would you describe the music?
An amalgamation of a person’s iPod, who listens to every type of hip-hop imaginable. There are some things about us that are Nas-ish, and some things that are Jedi Mind Tricks-ish, or straight up Geto Boys. We could have a Rap-a-Lot baseline over a drum loop Brand Nubian would have used in ’91. We’ll have themes for records. Dirty Acres was an organic Goodie Mob type of album.
I saw the study of the biggest vocabularies in hip-hop, and CunninLynguists had one of the best of any group out there, up there with Wu-Tang Clan. Where do the lyrics come from?
It’s funny because last night our dude Aesop Rock was at the show in Portland. And, that subject came up about how viral that infographic had gone. We started talking about the wordiness and how we have techniques, where we really don’t want to say the same thing twice. It’s not wanting to be wordy, so much as not being redundant. I can’t really tell you where it comes from. When I graduated high school, I had the second highest SAT score with a pretty bad math score.
Did you go to college?
I went to UGA, transferred to Georgia State and then dropped out. I had an art scholarship. I still do some design for our records.
One thing you notice about the vocabulary chart is that the rappers at the top — Aesop, Kool Keith, Jedi Mind Tricks — are seen as cult favorites, underground types. And, at the bottom were Drake and Lil Wayne, the commercially best-selling artists. Does it say anything that the artists with the worst vocabularies make the most money?
There was quality at both ends of the spectrum. When it comes to Drake or DMX, you can say plenty with less. You don’t have to shove 25 words in a bar to say sh*t. And saying more with less is a very poetic talent to have. But, complicated sh*t don’t sell. I don’t think anyone with a huge vocabulary is going to make a hit record. That’s not how America works.
As easy as it is now to get heard on the Internet, is it harder to get appreciation?
It’s easier to get your music out to where it can potentially be heard. But, that’s not a blessing because you have an oversaturation. Rap is super easy to make. You can buy a laptop, download a couple records, and be a rapper. It’s a different dedication to be a guitar player. The Internet gives you a platform, and the hope is that the cream rises to the top, but there’s so much sh*t.
It is easier now to avoid good music. Decades ago, more radio stations were like NPR. They played jazz and rock, and you heard what was good. Now you can spend your day listening to one Pandora station, or one Spotify playlist. You don’t have to listen to the President speak and you won’t hear CunninLynuists unless you search for it.
If Pink Floyd put out Dark Side of the Moon in 2015 it wouldn’t be on a label and 10,000 people would hear it, but it would still be an amazing record. I agree.
Who is your audience?
At any particular show ,it might be a 22-year-old college-attending black dude with a snapback hat standing next to a white dude with dreds. It’s your skateboarders, your snowboarders, your alternative lifestyle people who like to smoke weed and bungee jump. We do well in Seattle, Denver, Boulder and Sweden, with people who like to get high and listen to music on their iPod. Our name is hard to get past, but we’ve been able to tour with Raekwon to Nappy Roots. We could do a tour opening for Big K.R.I.T. and then one with Aesop without anyone being like, “Yo what the f*cK is this?”
Where did the name come from?
It came to us on a couch in downtown Atlanta at a crib that I used to live at, off of Ralph McGill Boulevard. I was sitting on the couch. Deacon was there. There used to be a group called Smut Peddlers, and a Canadian group called Swollen Members. And, we wanted something with a sexual entendre, which was catchy and you’d remember. Those were our references. It sticks with people.
Has it held you back, from people not wanting to say the name?
It’s very easy to pre-judge a group with the name CunninLynguists.
Having a microphone, having been in the business for 15 years, do you feel a responsibility to speak out and make songs about Ferguson and other issues?
Mainstream rap is going in the direction it needs to go to sell records. And, that’s probably not healthy. But, you can’t expect there to be a Public Enemy forever. Maybe hip-hop could have done better for the urban communities it needs to worry about more. But, as an American pop phenomenon, hip-hop has done a lot to make people open minded. Without hip-hop, I don’t know if Obama would be President; without white kids who grew up on Jay-Z and Snoop Dogg.
The group has been operating at a fast pace since it started, Will Rap for Food, A Piece of Strange, Dirty Acres, Strange Journey, but each is different. What are you proudest of?
As a personal favorite, Dirty Acres, the truest form of Deacon and Natti you are going to get — kind of country, kind of Southern, very unabashed Kentucky hip-hop. As a producer, I don’t know if I’ve done anything as dope as Oneirology. I don’t remember how I did it. I just hit a zone.
Can you go back to a Dirty Acres style sound?
I don’t think a studio record from us will ever sound like a previous one. We’re doing whatever we want now with the confidence it’s going to be dope. It’s a good head space for an artist to be in. We’ve already started working on our next studio album.