At 5'6", O'Neal McKnight's presence is far from intimidating. Dressed casually, with a friendly, open demeanour, you would never know that this man has the ear of some of the most celebrated names in the music industry. Perhaps his name is not as well known as that of his cousin Andre Harrell, but from dancing with Outkast, to styling Mystikal, and recording an album with Busta Rhymes, O'Neal McKnight's impressive list of talents and qualities show that there is much, much more than meets the eye.
Jaime Felber: Okay, so O’Neal. I want to start off with a question. Can you explain ‘Flavor Beyond Space’
O'Neal McKnight: It’s basically a website that I created. I feel that my style is always cutting edge, kind of above the rest. So my style is not earthly – it’s beyond space. It’s going to take a couple of light years for everyone to catch up to my flyness.
JF: And something I have to ask before we really get going here. You wrote on your website that you have a thing for Linda Hamilton?
OM: I just like the fact that in Terminator, she was taking no shit, she was not laying down and letting Arnie just chop her up. So I really got into that. I love Linda Hamilton anyway from that TV series Beauty and the Beast, I used to watch it as a kid, when it was on CBS.
JF: Fair enough. So you grew up in a small town in South Carolina?
OM: Yeah, I grew up in a small town called Lynchburg, population: 3 people. There were no street lights; it was one of those places where everybody knew each other.
JF: Originally you were known for your work as a stylist. So how did you make the jump to music?
OM: Well initially I started off as a dancer. I did a couple of music videos; Lil Kim’s ‘Crush On You’, Outkast’s ‘Caroline’. I was part of the whole Andre 3000 Love Below thing. But yeah, I started out as a dancer, and I came to New York wanting to pursue that, and just got bitten by the fashion bug.
JF: So you got bitten by the fashion bug, but how did you end up being the personal stylist for somebody like Russell Simmons? That’s a big leap.
OM: When I moved to New York, I didn’t really have a plan. One thing I knew was I wanted to be in entertainment. I was out one night, and Tommy Hilfiger gave me a compliment on my style, then Trace magazine did a story on me called Super Intern. It was basically about how I had interned for my cousin; Andre Harrell, as well as for Puffy and Russell Simmons. I would take my last penny and have the latest sneakers, the latest Jordans. It kinda sucked. Then I was approached by Grace Harry, who was still at Jive Records at the time. She was the one who encouraged me to get into fashion, to start styling music videos. From there it was like a domino effect. I started out doing small videos, like Mystikal’s ‘Shake Your Ass’, 112’s ‘Peaches and Cream’, and Lil bow wow’s ‘Puppy Love’. I started creating a name for myself, and then it led to me styling Puffy, and Russell, and Fonzworth Bentley, the list goes on.
JF: So an inherently natural style you might say, with your own unique take on fashion?
OM: Yeah, definitely my own unique take on it. My Mother, who passed away 9 years ago, God bless her, was a seamstress. So growing up in a small town, she was the person that everybody came to get dresses and suits altered, as well as dresses made for proms and Christenings. I didn’t really think I was paying attention, but I guess it’s true that the brain is always working even when you don’t think it is, or you don’t realize it.
JF: So while you were doing styling, that’s when you heard Cassidy’s song, the one that became Check Your Coat?
OM: I was doing styling, and like I said I was very content with that – being able to travel round the world with Diddy, just being able to be a part of that lifestyle, and just reaping the perks and the benefits from it. I had recently moved up to the Upper East Side, and I didn’t know a lot of people up there, and DJ Cassidy and myself were in the same social circle; he was a celebrity DJ, I was a celebrity stylist, and so we were bound to bump heads at some point. He found out I was living on the Upper East Side, and he called me up with some music he wanted me to check out. He knew, considering the crowd I hung around with, that I might have a good ear. When I heard his music, I was vibing to it, and the first thing I said was basically the hook in the first verse of Check Your Coat. He loved it, and from there we started freestyling with this old Ipod and mic he had. Two days later he called me up, and told me he wanted me to record it. I thought he was crazy, but he said ‘what’s the worst that could happen? You get a record deal’. The song got played at the Baby Phat Fashion show, and everybody went crazy for it. Then it started playing in the clubs, and it became a very organic thing. I see it as my Madonna experience; when Madonna was 18 years old, and a lot of DJ’s wouldn’t play her music, she started to hit up all the night clubs. She would literally grab the mic and start performing, and her success was really organic. I think people like home grown discoveries, and even though I’m not a New York native, I’m a New Yorker now, after living here as long as I have. Hot 97, Funk Master Flex, Party 105, all the different radio stations got behind the record, and they were really excited about something new, and it was kind of fresh.
JF: Okay, speaking now about the music video, who worked on the styling for that? Was it a collaboration, was it your designing?
OM: You know, I like to dream big, and think big. So for my first music video, I wanted to do something that stood out. I was watching all these shows, like 106th and Park, MTV Jam. I was looking at the kind of videos that artists were doing. I’m a very 80’s influenced artist, so I was like, where’s Christopher Lloyd? Whatever happened to Christopher Lloyd?
JF: Was that actually Christopher Lloyd jumping out of the DeLorean?
JF: That’s amazing. That really made my day.
OM: I wanted to do something that tapped into pop culture in a positive way, you know those movies like Teen Wolf and Back to the Future, they were colorless movies in a sense that both black people and white people liked them. I think a lot of the time when people create things, they think in the mindset of race, and gender. Those movies like Sixteen Candles, and Pretty In Pink with Molly Ringwald were great, and whether you were black, white, Asian or Spanish, they contributed to pop culture and your overall pop culture growth. So when I thought about Christopher Lloyd, it just reminded me of a refreshing time in music, a refreshing time in cinema.
JF: So it was sort of a time when everything was a little more innocent?
OM: Yeah, I felt that everybody is so serious in videos nowadays, you know what I mean? There’s a thing about movies and videos from the 80’s, sometimes their quirkiness made them more real. Sometimes guys try to be so cool, they come across as untouchable. It’s not real, it’s so contrived. I’m only 5’6”, so when I was casting for the video, everybody wanted to cast a girl who was 5’2”, so I would look tall. I didn’t want that. If we find a girl that height, and she’s gorgeous, we can cast her. But if we find a girl who’s 5’11”, and she’s gorgeous, we can cast her. I don’t want to focus on the clichéd cool things. I’ve been 5’6” and cool for as long as I can remember. I’m not going to start to alter the perception of me just for media outlets.
JF: You had a plethora of people in that video. Was it just friends who wanted to get involved with the project? It seems like you had a huge party for that video
OM: In life I’ve been really fortunate in the sense that I was surrounded by great people and friends, who didn’t look at me like I was crazy when I said I was going to be a recording artist. I was Puffy’s personal stylist, and the tutelage that you gain from working with someone like him, who is so successful in so many different genres, and facets of entertainment and business is amazing. Watching him work inspired me to live my dream.
JF: And you’re still calling him Puffy, still living back in the old school, rather than conforming to his new image of Diddy?
OM: Yeah, I’ve known him for a long time, Puff used to intern for my cousin, Andre Harrell. My cousin Andre started uptown records – he discovered Mary J Blige, Puffy; he put Jessica Alba in the movie Honey. He did all of that by his mid-30’s.
JF: I noticed by the way, that you have Michael Jackson as the background of your phone, and there’s a clear tribute to him in Check Your Coat. Tell me about that?
OM: I got a chance to know Michael and spend a little time with him. I think the media and the world unfortunately only started to realize he was human after his death. I think Michael’s mystery, and his Howard Hughes-esque persona, created an image for him that most people could not fathom. I got to know the person, I got a chance to laugh with him, talk to him. I got to pick his brain about a few things. My screensaver on my phone here is a picture of Michael and I at dinner, and I was privileged to have a chance to know the person, and not the personality. A lot of people, millions of people who he has affected will mourn him. They mourn him as an artist; they lost someone who has changed the face of pop culture. I mourn him because he was a friend. Everything I do, everything I aspire to do has been, and will forever be a tribute to Michael Jackson.
JF: Okay, so getting back a bit, going back to the music. You had Check Your Coat, and now you’ve got your latest single Throw It Back. There’s a whole album coming out now, right?
OM: My album is very diverse in its sound, very eclectic. A lot of people try to characterize me as R&B – I like to think of myself as R&P, which is a title I made up; it means retro pop. It’s basically a fusion of the music I grew up on – Michael Jackson, Duran Duran, Culture Club, Depeche Mode, stuff like that. I try to fuse all those sounds into my music. The album’s good, and the new single is called Throw it Back. We just shot a video for that in LA, with Too Short. I like to use old school classic rappers; I think the thing about hip hop and pop culture is that we sometimes forget what got us here in the first place. We’re very fickle, and we sometimes want to create things that are ‘new’ so badly that we forget the old nostalgic things. Artists like Big Daddy Kane, and all the artists that paved the way for the Kanye West’s and the Jay-Z’s and the P Diddy’s of today, can’t sell out shows the way that The Rolling Stones can, because our audience craves something new. So I feel that it’s part of my responsibility to pay homage and respect to those people.
JF: So who are you paying homage to with this album? We’ve talked about The Rolling Stones, Duran Duran, the pop, the rock element. What about RnB influence?
OM: My R&B element is always going to be Michael Jackson infused. Before Michael was a pop star, he was R&B, soul. ‘Off The Wall’ is an R&B, Soul album. He didn’t become a pop artist until his Thriller album. Then he became the king of pop. So I will always pay homage to Michael in my music. In ‘Red Light, Champagne’ I work with Heavy D, who Michael used on his Dangerous Album, for the single ‘Jam’, so he’s on one of my records. I just like to give back in a sense.
JF: From ‘Check Your Coat’ to ‘Throw it Back’, there’s a definite transition in your style of music. Check Your Coat was very tongue-in-cheek, very funny, while it seems that maybe with Throw It Back, you chose to play it safe?
OM: With Throw It Back, sometimes in the process of trying to be successful, I mean you always want to stay true to who you are, but sometimes, you got to give your ‘cool’ audience a little bit of what they want. So Throw It Back is very urban influenced, obviously. It has Too Short, and Too Short is known for making very somewhat explicit records. He’s an Oakland old-school West Coast rapper, and very respected, he’s been on everybody’s albums, from Jay –Z to Biggy, to Puffy, to 2Pac, to Snoop. So for him to even be on a record with me is already just such an honor. Throw It Back is about throwing people off of what they might expect from me, and then I’m coming right back out with this new record called Something About Tonight, which is a crazy dance/pop record featuring Mr. Bentley from G’s to Gents, who also worked for Puffy. We’re working with Andrew Jinx, who is the Emmy award winning director – he’s won awards for his HBO documentaries. This guy is amazing, and we’re getting ready to shoot a mini-movie, like a baby Thriller. We’re shooting that over the next 3-4 weeks, and the cameos are going to be crazy. I want to make a video that when people see it, they can’t believe I got this person to be in it, and do to that.
JF: You’re doing Guastavinos this Halloween; how do you approach an event like that? Like you said, your style is somewhat difficult to accept, it’s very new, very futuristic. How are you going to get a big night like this to be a success, as well as stay true to yourself?
OM: I try to keep it 150% honest. I don’t like to over-think shows. One thing I learned from Michael; when he did Billy Jean for the first time, I asked if he rehearsed, and he said he maybe rehearsed the night before, but he said when that beat came on, it was just such a natural thing. So most of my shows are not that rehearsed. I like to live in that moment, I like to give people an honest expression of me and my creativity. I like to make people feel like I’m partying with them. A lot of the time when you’re at shows, you’re in awe of the artist, of the person performing. I want people to feel like we’re performing together, and it’s a celebration of life.
JF: You take a basic idea of how you want the night to go…
OM: Yeah, I have a basic idea, and then when I get there, I look at the room, I check out the crowd. Is it 50% this, 40% that, 10% this. Then you get a gauge, of how you want to play the room. And you know, you try to catch a couple of girls’ eyes. The key is to catch a couple of girls eyes that already fancy you a bit, those girls become your cheerleaders. There’s always going to be two or three girls who know every word to your songs. So you engage them. The key is to draw the women in first. The guys are always going to be like ‘who’s this guy, who does he think he is? He thinks he’s the shit, he’s so cool’, but, guys do what women do, and if girls are having a good time, more drinks start flowing, and hopefully somebody’s gonna get laid.
JF: We’re weak like that, aren’t we?
OM: We are.
JF: What about the DJing aspect of your work, I know you DJ’d with AM, before those unfortunate circumstances.
OM: Yeah, RIP to AM. He was one of those DJ’s who got my music, he got my sound, and he got me straight off the bat. He didn’t even second guess it. He was a great guy, and he invited me out to LA, to DJ at his club LAX, which was one of the hottest scenes at the time. He was a great guy, and a good friend.
JF: Okay, very briefly, at the end, what does music mean to you?
OM: Music means to me… unity. Music can bridge gaps between people that religion and politics can’t. You can get a room filled with very diverse people, and you can play a song that unifies that room. I think that Michael Jackson as an artist really captured that, because his music transcended beyond race and everything we could even imagine. I remember the first time I saw him in concert, I was standing there with an Asian woman, who spoke little English, who flew all the way from Japan just to see him there. I remember Michael performing Man in the Mirror, and she was holding my hand, I didn’t know her, she didn’t know me, and she’s gripping my hand, she was emotional, I was emotional – it was my first time seeing him. That showed me the power of music – I didn’t know her religious beliefs, I didn’t know her ethnic background, but it was that music which made us one. I think the ability of music to unify, to bring people together, is so magical, that we don’t really pay attention to it close enough. We might not always agree with all the songs that come out, but its still the most magical thing that I’ve ever experienced in my life. To pull words out of space, and write them, and then go back and sing them, and then to see somebody have a face of just joy, singing something that I created is just the best feeling in the world. If you’re performing in front of 5,000 people, and you look out into a sea of people, and 4,800 of those people are singing your song word for word, it’s the craziest experience.
JF: I can’t even imagine, I know what its like when I see my favorite artists on stage, or even when I hear them on my ipod, that adrenaline, that euphoria that I get, just through listening to them. S to be in your position, and see all these people loving what you’ve produced, that must be magical.
OM: It’s great, I’ve had a chance to open for Gym Class Heroes, 50 Cent, LMFAO, Kid Cudi, it’s just crazy, because a year and a half ago, I was downloading their music, and now I’m on stage with them?! It’s madness, crazy. I used to be Puffy’s personal stylist, now we have a record together. Most of the people that are on my album, I worked with in some capacity through fashion.
JF: So aside from your own personal style, styling is behind you, and music is where you’re going now?
OM: Yeah, music is where I’m going, and I’m excited about next year, I’m shooting this TV show for HBO, it’s called ‘Gentlemen of Leisure’, and it’s directed by the Hughes Brothers – they just shot the Book of Eli, starring Denzel Washington. It’s going to be an all-star cast, and I’m excited about that.
JF: Are you worried about over-exposure? About jumping from fashion, to music, to a TV debut in such a short time?
OM: No, not at all. If you could try every dessert, and not worry about the calories, and not worry about getting fat, you would taste a little bit of everything.
JF: But wouldn’t you want to make sure that you always had something new to taste? Rather than going crazy straight away?
OM: You know, I’m Aries, and my Aries characteristic is ‘I want to live it’. I lost a lot of people very dear and close to me; my Mother 9 years ago, and one of my older brother’s got killed in a motorcycle accident 2 years ago. Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die. So while I’m here, I’ve got to get the best out of my life, and the best out of this moment, because nobody has ever come back and told us it was poppin’ on the other side. What I’m doing now is about me, but one day I want to have a family, I want a name. I want my name to feel like the Kennedy’s. But I want to have a foundation. I think when people are young, they don’t think about that. Everybody has their own right to have tattoos, but all my tattoos are in places where I feel that, if one day I have kids, they won’t feel uncomfortable when Daddy’s there at the PTA meeting. Most of the choices I try to make – I’m not perfect – I try to think how they will ultimately affect my children in the future, and what kind of imprint what I’m doing now will have on their future. I want my life to mean something
JF: That’s a remarkable amount of foresight from somebody who can’t be much older than me…
OM: I’ve been privileged to be thrown in positive, adult-like situations at a young age. I’ve been privileged to be exposed to things that most people, even in their adult life, will never get a chance to be exposed to. I’ve sat down with Russell Simmons and Bill Gates, with Puffy and Nelson Mandela. I’ve met Barack Obama before he was President. Sometimes when I sit down, I think about my journey from sitting down at dinner tables with Barbara Walters, Tom Hanks and Arnold Schwarzenegger, to hanging out at Neverland, to having a conversation with Mohammed Ali. It is so surreal, and what makes it even more crazy is that, in order for you to understand where I’m at, you’ve got to see where I came from. My next door neighbor was a share-cropper. Real South. It’s a beautiful journey. I wish that everybody could experience what I experience. (My sister called me one night, and she asked what are you doing, and I was having dinner at Ron Burkle’s house with Michael Jackson and Brett Rattner. She was like She was like, I’m going to Applebees. Do you understand? I’m ready to go to Applebees, and you’re having dinner with MJ and Brett Rattner, call me later, I hate my life. Bye’. But my family is very excited, and enthusiastic, because they know I’m a big dreamer. I used to lock myself in my room, and read magazines, and read the Zaggat, because I wanted to know about NYC, and the nightlife, and the restaurants. I feel that people who live here don’t really appreciate the city. They’re accustomed to all of this. If you’re not used to it, and especially if you’re from where I’m from, this is like a movie. I feel like I’m Alice in Wonderland.
JF: You were saying that you still talk to your friends back home, so you’re still holding on close to your roots?
OM: Yeah, absolutely. My whole school, all my teachers, friends supported me. I had a huge fan club at an early age. One of my history teachers found me on facebook recently. And he found me, because one of his daughters was in their room, blaring my music, and he saw a picture of me. He started googling me, and found me on facebook. He was my 10th grade history teacher. Support like that is just amazing. It’s just an amazing feeling.
JF: It’s an amazing, small world. Do you remember the first piece of music you ever bought?
OM: The first piece of music I ever bought… was a cassette – the best of MJ, and it was 99cents. It was music that I wasn’t privileged to know about, from back when he was 17. I remember listening to that cassette until it popped, and then I remember unscrewing the cassette, and scotch taping over the broken bit, and putting it back together. Then when you got to that part, it would kind of skip, but that’s how much I listened to it. It was like magic that I found it.
JF: Finally, rather than asking you for some words of advice, I want to know, considering the many successful people you surround yourself with: what is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
OM: Probably the first time I met Michael Jackson, and we were talking, sitting down at dinner. It was kind of hard not to act like it was MJ, but I was trying my best to treat him like he was a normal person, because I’m sure he was always around people who didn’t. We were talking about life, and talking about dreams, and his advice was ‘if you don’t dream, you don’t live’. You got to always dream, and not everybody’s going to understand your dream when you’re dreaming it, because dreamers tend to be visionaries. They tend to be people who think outside the box. But he said, if you don’t dream, you don’t live. I always dream. I always try to hold on to a youthful dream, things that still excite me. I’m just as excited about doing this Halloween Party as I was about when I did London Theatre, with Kid Cudi. The excitement levels are always the same. At the end of the day, you’re getting paid to do something you already like doing. If you’re fortunate enough to get up, do interviews, and people want to pay you for something you already love doing, then it’s just a blessing.
JF: Well, we wish you the best of luck with your dreams for the future.