For years now, Brian Knockin has been at the door.
Back when he lived in Hollywood, where he studied at the Musician’s Institute, people used to tell him he was the next 50 Cent. Before that, he was in San Francisco, studying the art of production at California Recording Institute. Before that, he hustled tapes out of the trunk of his car on the southside of San Jose, like Too Short once did not so long ago or far away in another city by the Bay.
Since returning to his hometown in 2008, Brian Knockin has become one of San Jose’s most prolific rappers, releasing a deep and consistent discography spanning at least fourteen albums, a dozen EPs and many additional singles. Now in his 40s, Knockin is currently in a new stage of life and career, as hinted at in the title of his newest album: Open.
“I feel like I’m opening up to a new life with all the stuff I’ve been through. I’m opening up a new direction and closing the past,” he says.
Open (now streaming on all platforms) is the latest in a series of rapid fire releases from the San Jose hip hop artist that feel extremely of-the-moment. Beginning with 2020 EP The Water Bros.—in which Knockin notes he’s on “day five of a 14 day quarantine”—his work has felt not so much ripped-from-the-headlines as submitted-on-deadline, a kind of urgent hip hop reportage of one Black man’s experience of life in the year 2021.
“For me, music is current events,” Knockin says. “In the era that I came from, they rapped about what they saw. I grew up on Public Enemy, LL Cool J, NWA—they were all a sign of the times.”
Signs of our times are all over Open, perhaps best exemplified in Knockin’s process of selecting collaborators.
“Every rap artist that I have on that album I met off of Twitter,” he says.
Produced at San Jose’s Tone Freq Studios with beats by SF producer Ray Mullin, Open hits with an assured swagger, taking inspiration from the heavyweights of hip hop past without feeling nostalgic for any bygone era. The jazzy guitar and hi-hats of album opener “A Few Years Ago (RIP Big Fed)” might remind listeners of The Roots circa Things Fall Apart, but that ends once the chorus hits and Knockin starts spitting a very modern list of maladies: fires, floods and a pandemic.
On album highlight “Food Not Bombs,” Knockin details a revealing encounter with a longtime acquaintance: an employee at a San Jose Wienerschnitzel.
“She told me whether Biden or Trump, she’s still gon be working two jobs / midnight, Wienerschnitzel meals and two corn dogs” he spits in a flurry. On the chorus, he makes the statement clear: “We got money for war, but can’t feed the poor.”
“I used to live across the street from Wienerschnitzel and we would always talk,” Knockin says. “Before the election she would say, ‘Who are you voting for?’ and I would be like, ‘I’m voting for Biden, we gotta get Trump out.’ So, after we got him out, maybe three months after, I saw her. She was like, ‘How’s Biden? It don’t matter to me. No matter who it is, I’m still going to have work here at night and my other job during the daytime.’”
Much of Knockin’s recent work is galvanized by real moments like these, from the Black Lives Matter movement, to the local protests that emerged in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, to his own internal struggles with health, happiness and the state. On “Stairway to Heaven,” he drops a line that would have felt timely in 2017, and feels depressing in 2021: “Man, they still locking kids in cages.”
“‘Stairway to Heaven,’ it’s talking about what we went through when I was marching with my friends,” Knockin says. “They’re DACA. Their families are getting deported. A lot of my friends’ families have gotten deported, or are on the verge of being deported. Shit’s too much.”
While he’s humble about the significance of his own music, Knockin is serious about the importance of art and its role in empowering the many communities of San Jose. Music, in his words, is “a conduit.”
“Art should speak to people,” he says. “It should make people feel important. I’m not an activist, I’m just me.”