It’s time to sit down with the internet heavyweight. The controller-smashing, belt-taking, record-breaking man that they call KSI. From dominating YouTube’s FIFA community, to launching careers in music and boxing, a lot’s changed in just a few years for Olajide ‘JJ’ William Olatunji.
As I dial in for our chat – the swells of London’s rush hour having foiled our face-to-face meet – I’m instantly struck by how true to character JJ is. For a guy who garnered fame as a gamer, the fact that he’s playing Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot while chatting to me is the perfect image. I assume he also has a headset on. At least he’s being himself. I joke that I hope he’s good at multitasking, before apologising that I’m eating into his gaming time…
“It’s kind of annoying… but yeah”, he responds distractedly, ignoring the conventions of British politeness. I make another mental note that it is good that he’s being himself.
Gaming and collaborating with Grime kingpins JME and P Money probably isn’t far off the daydreams of many of Britain’s teenage boys. But if you were bold enough to share such aspirations with your friends, you’d be reminded that you were indeed dreaming. In many ways, KSI is. His unprecedented presence in several realms of entertainment must be recognised as a colossal feat. I ask him to hit me with his headline, the title atop the imaginary CV that he’ll never need to write:
He pauses for a moment. Whether he’s focused on Dragon Ball Z – or indeed my question – is anyone’s guess…
“I suppose I’m an entertainer. I entertain on different platforms. I’m able to go in all these different areas… whether it’s the internet, mainstream TV, or radio. Or sports, with boxing. I’m able to make music, too… I’m pretty much a guy who’s able to do a lotta things.”
I have no doubt that ‘entertainer’ would be snappier on a CV than ‘guy who’s able to do a lotta things’, but that’s an imaginary issue and he doesn’t need career advice. When it comes to the letters ‘KSI’, ‘Knowledge Strength Integrity’ is the moniker’s meaning. But it wasn’t always this way. This, like many things in his life, has been heavily influenced by his fans.
“Well that’s what people thought it meant. They kept saying it. Then I realised it sounded sick, so let’s go for it. I went for it.”
The emphasis with which JJ says that he “went for it” is no exaggeration. His body, beefed from the boxing regimen, is his walking brand. The word ‘Knowledge’ is inked across the great expanse of his chest, while ‘Strength’ and ‘Integrity’ adorn the insides of each of his forearms. This physical change to his body, thanks to fans’ perceptions of his name, is an apt image for their overarching presence in his career. As online pilgrims, they’ve followed him faithfully from YouTube, to Spotify, to pay-per-view boxing and back. They’re devoted, and he is too. He’s the YouTuber they’ve known for years, buoyed by the fighting talk that a lucrative foray into boxing has given him. The self-confidence is absolute.
“I’ve been YouTubing for ten years or so. I did it before the Logan Pauls, the Jake Pauls. I did it before a huge majority of people. And for me to still be on top, it says a lot. But I just work hard, I remain consistent. And I’m blessed to have people around me who do the same.”
Consistency when people admire you is one thing. I ask if he would have remained so irrepressible without the plaudits from a young age:
“I just, I always enjoyed it. For me, I always did what I wanted to do. There was a point when I started doing things for the sake of other people. At that point, when I wasn’t doing it for myself, I had to have a break. Then I decided never to just do something for the views, or for the fame. I’ll always do stuff that I enjoy and I don’t care what other people think.”
When he mentions his disregard for the opinions of others, my mind flits to the raucously riffing rapport he has with his fans. Like a shit-flinging contest on the school bus, it’s funny to watch, while it treads the line of what’s acceptable.
“I agree, especially on my second YouTube channel. And Reddit! I didn’t want people to be scared to make fun of me. I don’t want to be seen as this guy who’s all amazing, always winning, blah blah blah. I want people to be able to make fun of me when I do fuck up and when I do make a mistake. It shows that I’m human. People can relate to me because of that. They just say funny shit man, and I’m not afraid to laugh at myself. They’re so funny.”
[A belly laugh ensues…]
Whether KSI’s 21 million subscribers hold this Herculean image of him or not, it’s true that he belies the physical form of the gamer stereotype. This is largely since he started fighting, from which point he’s been hitting the gym. A lot.
“My body’s kind of a blessing and a curse… I’m able to go down to 78 kilos if I need to. But I can also go up to like 100 kilos. I love it, because whenever I’m training it’s obvious and I look sick. But then if I rest for 2 to 3 weeks my body thinks we’re chilling and just gains weight.”
22 kilos is indeed a stately change, and not a world away from Christian Bale’s legendary body transformations for films – from American Psycho to The Machinist and everything in-between. We both pause a moment, JJ wreaking havoc with Beerus on Dragon Ball Z as I ponder the perks of being paid to get in shape for a job.
Not only has the fighting mentality proved that KSI can attract a serious audience from boxing (his latest bout with Logan Paul had roughly one million viewers), it’s also helped his confidence reach this unwavering peak. Having grown up feeling more comfortable in the virtual world, he confesses that talking to the opposite sex hasn’t always come easy. It’s a refreshing chink in his armour.
“It’s true… I’m actually just shit at talking to women. I’m better now, but especially back in the day, I was terrible. I just didn’t know how to do it. My career’s forced me to get out there, which has meant that I’ve met all different types of people. I guess I’m getting better now.”
Once social distancing subsides, his career should force him to ‘get out there’ even more. 2020, he assures me, will be the year to shake awake anyone who’s been sleeping on the music.
“My album is gonna shock a lot of people. People are gonna be really surprised by it. Once I start rivalling top artists in the UK and then take it worldwide, they’re gonna realise there’s something going on here.”
When examining his back catalogue, the array of collaborations – from Waka Flocka Flame to Lil Pump – is striking. I mention that he’s always been able to draw in big hitters: his first release, 2015’s audaciously titled ‘Lamborghini’, came with a cameo from P Money.
“I just hit him up on Twitter. It’s simple – he fucked with my stuff, he played FIFA quite a lot. He plays a lot of games, he’s actually really good! He loves them. I just hit him up, we gamed, then he was like ‘Yeah, of course I’ll jump on it’.”
Let this be a beacon of hope to the rest of us. If you play FIFA and have Twitter, a song with P Money’s not necessarily out of reach. This business model can also be applied transatlantically. 2019’s ‘Down Like That’ attracted Rick Ross and Lil Baby, a feat he thanks his many fan bases for:
“Well, I have The Sidemen, which is a fan base. Then I have my own fans. I have music, which is a fan base. Boxing, which is another… Now it’s all just gelled together and it’s really allowed me to do bits. If I want to go HAM on the music, I can go HAM on it. No other YouTuber is getting Rick Ross and Lil Baby on a song!”
His latest single, ‘Wake Up Call’, comes with an Austin Powers-esque music video and stars Trippie Redd, complete with ‘Mini-Trippie’ à la Verne Troyer’s Mini-Me. The Ohio rapper’s recruitment can be considered another coup from the US talent pool. JJ certainly views it that way:
“My guy got Trippie Redd on the track when I asked for him. It’s a simple conversation, they know who I am. And now my song is in his top 5 on Spotify. My huge fan base can do that for people, no one else is doing that. It allows me to work with who I want to work with.”
While the tone of this statement is one of heady self-appraisal, it’s also recognition of the execution of his strategy to tap into the American market:
“The Logan Paul fight was a chance for me to get embedded in the American audience. That’s why I made it happen. It’s worked well and allowed me to collaborate so easily now with US artists. If there’s an opportunity there, I’ll take it.”
At this point, that tattoo of the name his fans gave him doesn’t seem like such a stretch. If ‘Wake up Call’ is a flexing saunter towards music’s top table, the album promises a closer look at the man behind the public image.
“The main concept of the album is to show two sides of me. KSI and JJ. I won’t say what the album’s called, but I’ve already got the art and the vision sorted. A lot of people have seen the KSI side, and they get it. But then on the other side, there’s a lot more personal stuff that I don’t talk about. It’s close to heart, so I feel like it’s best for me to put it out in music. It’s therapeutic. This is about making that first public distinction between KSI and JJ.”
Given his self-assured public demeanor, a body of work which breaks down these barriers is certainly an intriguing prospect. One thing’s certain: wherever KSI leads his online devotees next, the pilgrimage will be interesting, while the vision and strategy will be nailed on. Perhaps his CV ought to read “a guy who can do a lotta things” after all.
KSI’s new single, ‘Houdini’ featuring Tion Wayne and Swarmz, is released on Friday the 24th of April.