Appearing on the cover of his latest single, “Champagne Red Lights,” in a slim-cut white dinner jacket, black bowtie and chin scruff, O’Neal McKnight resembles a skinny-mini version of his music mogul cousin, Andre Harrell. With a sound he calls “retro pop” (not hip-hop), McKnight produces a style that is all his own.
Best known for his single “Check Your Coat,” McKnight brings revelers straight to the clubs. In “Exploded,” on his “PreProm Mixtape” (a taste of his debut album Prom: 2008, which drops this month on SRC Universal Motown), McKnight takes it to the dirty dance floor: She grabbed my hand. I touched her thigh. For “Rush Rush,” on the same mix, it’s back to the high school gym: Prom Dresses. Bow Ties. Limos. Patrón.…And if you want to do weed...jump up!
Seated at manager Adam Lublin’s regular lunch table at Bar Pitti, McKnight, wearing denim and a black T-shirt, recalls his upbringing in backwater Lynchburg, South Carolina. “It’s funny now, going home,” he says. “Watching kids drive pickup trucks with Confederate flags in the back window with 50 Cent blaring.” The last time he visited Lynchburg, the owner of a convenience store (her husband a known Ku Klux Klan member) said, “You used to always want expensive cookies. And your dad would try to get you to buy off-brands. But you would refuse to accept those. You wanted Oreos.”
Describing his style as a “merging of pop culture, Duran Duran, The Cure and Michael Jackson put in a blender with hip hop, Gremlins and Goonies,” McKnight began his recording career on a whim. “DJ Cassidy played me the beat he created with Dub-L to ‘Check Your Coat,’ and I freestyled,” he explains. While McKnight was interning with Harrell and then Russell Simmons, Diddy took notice of his fashion sense and hired him as his personal stylist.
So how does a fellow who grew up in the rural South learn fashion? “I always locked myself in my room and read magazines—Harper’s Bazaar, British Vogue,” he says. “My dad was like, What are you doing? He’s going crazy!” When McKnight graduated, his father told him to either go into the military or get a factory job. His mother, a seamstress, had faith. “I was like, No, I want to be in the front row at fashion week in New York,” says the singer. Working with Diddy, who had also interned for Harrell, McKnight eventually appeared on Making the Band and MTV’s Diary with Diddy and Snoop Dogg. “I toured with Puffy,” he says. “I’ve also dressed Jermaine Dupri, Lil’ Bow Wow, Jessica Alba and Penélope Cruz.”
“Champagne Red Lights,” produced by Cassidy and Dub-L and featuring Busta Rhymes and Ron Browz, is destined for great things if “Check Your Coat” is any indication. In 2008, Rolling Stone named the track one of the top 100 singles of the year—before McKnight signed with SRC Universal Motown. When Jermaine Dupri remixed the single, Diddy came back into the picture. “I told him, We have $10,000 in cash in a Gucci shoe bag [and] I’m coming to your offi ce,” says McKnight. “He listened to the record three times. I took out the money and he said, Put it back in the bag—I’m doing it for free.” In 2008, “Check Your Coat” hit number 24 on MTV’s Mixtape Monday top 28.
But music isn’t McKnight’s sole talent. Brett Ratner cast him as a drag queen in his film After the Sunset, and he’ll play International, a card-dealing hustler at a casino, in a project directed by the Hughes brothers for HBO. Still, McKnight feels something is missing from the urban scene, something couture and close to the skin. His long-term dream? “To design women’s lingerie.”
FROM TOP: O’Neal McKnight with Russell Simmons; McKnight.