“It’s a long story.”
I’m trying to convince Todd to tell me why he goes by the name of Louie Knuxx. We’re sitting at one of the two tables outside Karangahape Road’s Verona, timing our speech to the lulls in sirens, ridiculous bass thumping from cars, and one odd inexplicable scream. Todd is sipping a beer, politely monitoring his phone and the Uber he’d ordered for a German friend. Every few moments our conversation is punctured by a friend who recognises him on the street. It’s hard not to recognise Todd. He’s covered head to toe in tattoos, to which he responds when asked if they have meaning, “Fuck no, most of them are just nonsense.”
He declines to tell me the ‘long story’ behind his adopted music alias. It’s not a mystery, he says; it really is just a long story.
Today Todd released his latest album, Tiny Warm Hearts (featuring the artwork of Toni Gill). It’s his second after an extended hiatus from music spent in Melbourne for six years, from 2008. From that, he returned without warning to critical acclaim with 2014’s PGT/GRR (an acronym for ‘Progressive Gangsta Thug/Gentleman Romance Rap’).
Contrary to what guidebooks and spiritually-enlightened recent BA graduates who’ve skipped the ditch have to say, according to Todd, Melbourne is a “fucking cultural wasteland.”
“The problem with art in Melbourne is everything seems co-opted, and not genuine, and just kind of corny.” This is why he’s currently back in Auckland, where he can effectively live by the rules he’s prescribed for artists seeking to keep genuine, “accountability, honesty, and vulnerability.”
We discuss the controversial impending gentrification of the very road on which we sit, that for years has fostered creative beings like Todd. “It’s pretty terrifying,” he laughs consciously, “It’s just sad. If this goes, then what the fuck is here? People like ourselves, where do we hang out?” Regardless, he’s optimistic that the supposedly ubiquitous ‘investment’ in the area won’t be undertaken without a fight - “It’s not just going to happen. I feel quite optimistic. K’Rd is quite resilient.”
Whilst currently finding his feet in Auckland, he’s not bound here. Throughout our discussion, he threads hints of a romance with Spain, “Every time I got to Europe, I’m at war with the idea [of moving].” It’s the plausibility of living off of €600 a month, drinking the €1 beers, playing a few shows and learning how to DJ.
Such a life forecast juxtaposes heavily with his driving concept of a purposeful life. It’s one of the reasons he makes music, he confesses, whilst simultaneously dismissing it, “It kind of ties into life and everything else. I think my passion is just trying to live really easily and chill, and I think music kind of enables that.”
Adding to the inherent contradiction in supposedly seeking to live ‘easy and chill’ whilst balancing purpose, Todd works as a Youth Development Manager at Nga Rangatahi Toa, where he helps kids who have been excluded from mainstream education by aiding and honing their creative expression. He also co-hosts the weekly podcast ‘How Not to be an Asshole’ with Dominic Hoey (a.k.a Tourettes, friend and other “aging rapper”), discussing all manner of topics related to life, love, purpose, and media. These things, whilst he doesn’t seem ardently keen to recognise them as such, anchor Todd in our city with growing pains, offering a shot at the meaning and local accountability he’s seeking.
But he’s actually from New Plymouth, Taranaki Hardcore. The snowball started when his mum took him to a local school’s weekend markets, where he’d see guys breakdancing. Todd got into breakdancing. So his mum bought him a breakdancing record - pivoting the trajectory of his future, “They said ‘shit’ in one of the songs. I thought that was mean and rebellious.” He began rapping with friends, “And it probably sounds really ancient to millennials, we were recording with two tape decks, one playing music and the other one recording.”
But the Naki couldn’t hold him indefinitely, “There’s kind of two sorts of people from small town New Zealand, people who are super content and love their hometown, and then the people who just fucking kind of want more.” In his early twenties, Todd made the jump, taking a punt on a guy in Auckland who was starting up a label, “Although maybe even then I didn’t take music seriously… I’ve been fucking around for as long as I can remember.”
As if it couldn’t have been timed better, one of the people who seemed to orbit Todd in the course of our hour-long conversation positioned themselves on the bench next to him. It was an older gentleman, and the initial conversation literally unfolded like this:
“Hi, this is my dad.”
“Who the fuck are you?”
“I said, ‘Who the fuck are you?’”
“Oh, I’m your son, but I’m also good. What the fuck are you doing up this end of town?”
“I’m allowed, it’s a free country.”
“Are you going for a Bernie Sanders look?”
“Well, people didn’t like my John Key look.”
Upon discovering he’d stumbled into an interview, and my necessary quelling of fears that, no, I was not a reporter from MediaWorks or otherwise, Todd’s father agreed to offer his opinions on his son’s work.
“I really admire your understanding, and your craftsmanship with words. Your latest album which you’ve brought out, I put it on when I want to go to sleep. It’s not because it’s soporific, I think it’s because there’s some sort of hope you’re provoking people to think. Things like, ‘Rub my face in your tits’.”
“No, ‘touch my heart with your tits’.”
“Oh, that’s much more romantic.”
With his tattoo-less (only noticeably, apparently the first layer of ink went down a few weeks ago) parent occupying the seat next to him, the complex make-up of Todd Williams became even starker. Finding his initial musical inspiration in “all that early nineties shit,” he now dismisses it as boring. His favourite artist at the moment is Rob Bank$ (Shaggy’s son), and he tunes into a lot of French rap.
Todd’s got a skin full of ink that by his testimony doesn’t mean much, a criminal record, a job helping kids off the street and onto their own lives of meaning, a discography made for no particular audience, the demeanour of not giving too many fucks, and the conviction of a man who recognises his own flaws and seeks the world to do the same.
“I’m a big mouth, so I’ll always alienate people. When you’re discussing things you’re passionate about, I’ve discovered if you’re just angry about it, then it’s not very productive. So I’m working on that.”
For now, let his music do the talking.