10 Years Of Akala: Talking Art, Vinyl & Politics With The UK Hip Hop Star

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This year sees Akala hit his 10 year anniversary as a recording artist, and what a journey it's been. In a lane all of his own, those 10 years have seen him evolve into a motivational speaker and creative author as well as become a trusted representative of today's generation, while all the time maintaining his place as one of the UK's most inspiring hip hop artists. But right now it's all about celebrating the last 10 years by not only releasing an album made up of tracks chosen by the fans, but he's also taking it on the road for a 27 date tour around the UK. It's then on to the US and Australia for what is his most extensive tour to date, and the fans can't wait. In the meantime we go back with Akala to look at those last ten years, his landmark debut album, the high points and of course the music.

Hello Akala and congrats, 10 years into your career now as a recording artist, you're celebrating this with the new 10 year anniversary triple vinyl album made up of selected tracks from all your 6 albums picked by the fans themselves, released Sept 9th. Were you surprised by the selections, is it a good representation of your recording career so far?

Akala - Yes definitely. I think the people chose almost the exact track listing I would have chosen myself. Also luckily they did not pick any of the early tracks that I now feel no longer really stand up or represent me.

How about the tracks which you yourself feel define your career so far. Which tracks do you see as good representations of your time as an artist over the last 10yrs?

Well the reason I did a new video for 'Carried Away' was that I felt that when listening back to it and thinking about when I wrote that song, which I was about 20 years old at the time, the track was actually written under the context of just after the invasion of the Iraq war as well as everything else that was going on around me as a youngster growing up in London.

So I was trying to reflect those realities. And so listening back I felt lyrically, and as song structure and everything like that it still held weight and resonance. And obviously now with the 'Chilcot Report' coming out it feels like its got that same spectacle as it did with the war in Iraq and has come full circle. Because at the time I was young and if you like 'politically green', but my immediate suspicion is that it was a total sham as it was for most other people...so the release felt timely.

Aside from that I felt there's a few songs I do really like that got left off, like 'Freedom Lasso' and 'XXL' which is a track I enjoy performing, its always fun for me to do. But I'm really pleased with the other tracks that made the track list, like 'Carried Away' ,'The Thieves Banquet' and others like 'Behind My Painted Smile'. But to be honest I did feel a bit sad 'Another Reason' and tracks that I really enjoy listening to didn't make the cut.

But then when you have 6 albums to pick from its kinda inevitable when you're looking to pick out just 18 from like a total of 70 to 80 songs. All in all I just think its a great journey, if you listen to 'Roll With Us' and 'Shakespeare' for instance there's sort of a question, and the use of the word 'nigger' in those 2 songs. Where later songs like 'Murder Runs The Globe' and 'The Thieves Banquet'' particularly there's this political shift between album 1 and album 6. Where at the same time I think you can hear it in the early stuff too.

Brilliant idea for shooting the new video for 'Carried Away', a track which comes off your landmark debut album 'Its Not a Rumour'. Which also has had a great reaction by the fans online

Yeah and it's like I said. I think for the people who have been following me since back then the video was a little bit like a kinda present almost, like a 'happy 10 yrs, thanks for being with us all this time...have a watch of this' kinda vibe, you know. And like you say its had a really good reaction, really positive with plenty of people saying they like the new video. I personally like the video too. I feel like its one of the better videos that I've done so all round I'm just pleased with the way things are going and where things are at right now.

The release as a whole really feels like it celebrates just how important, and successful an artist you've become over the last 10 years?

And not just for myself, I think for any UK based music with out a shadow of a doubt both commercially and artistically I think its probably been the best period we've had where we've had loads of really successful artists coming through. I mean if you look at someone like Kano who just recently sold out Brixton Academy, you can't deny Kano is an incredibly talented MC. But it's now we're starting to see a change where the Internet has given artists like Kano an independence, whether its Bugzy Malone or Lady Leshurr. Where artists are really carving out their own viable careers, making music they want to make. Opposed to years ago where if you didn't get on Radio 1, which usually meant sanitising the music, then you basically had no career. But now they have a lot more freedom than they did back in those times and the ability to make the music they want to.

The album itself is a well put together triple vinyl with lyrics/pictures included within a booklet inside. A real throwback to the days when vinyl offered that bit more than CDs or downloads. But what was it that inspired you to release on vinyl?

Exactly what you just said there, vinyl feels like your supporter's medium. Even though maybe plenty of people who do buy the record wont even have a record player, though obviously they'll get a free download of the tracks issued on the vinyl too. But overall it just fuels that statement of authenticity and appreciation of an artist's work in way a CDs can't. Though millions of people have bought CDs they never retain that core status like vinyl does, you know. And it's a physical thing as well, rather than something computerised, where you place it under a needle and get sound out from it, so I think that physicality as well as the art work and all that means vinyl has had a much more enduring legacy than CDs will ever have.

About to start your UK tour, its probably your biggest to date with 27 dates in total. Any surprise guests planned? And can you give us a taster of some of the tunes you'll be performing, will they all be from the new '10yrs of Akala' album release?

Well actually no, because there's so much material now that basically what I'm doing is almost more like a big live sound system show really, though I'll still have a live drummer there too. But as there's so many tracks to pick from and I really want to get into the last 10yrs worth of material there will be very few songs which I'll be performing the whole of, you know . Like one big gigantic mash-up where we go through not just the tracks on the new release but other material as there's other tracks I want to perform too. So right now were just finalising the track list for the tour but I can say it'll be way more extensive than the tunes off the new album release.

We're also putting together US and Australia tour dates too right now. And yeah, I cant reveal who just yet but I am in conversation with a few different people and were just finalising those dates as well. So they'll be some surprise guests on the tour too.

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Looking back at 'It's Not a Rumour' today, it still sounds as fresh and relevant as it did on its release. Track to track a real land-mark album for not only British hip hop but for UK music as a whole. But who were the artists and sounds influencing you at the time of putting it together?

At that time I had a range of influences. Growing up my favourite rappers were like Nas, Wu-Tang, Jay Z, Tupac, Mobb Deep so there was a strong American hip hop influence. Then I had the Jamaican dancehall influence with people like Ninja Man and Super Cat as well, but then I was introduced to by my producer more guitar based/rock music like Red Hot Chili Peppers who I've recently become a fan of, and bands like Radiohead. So a mix of all these new discoveries were what behind the years built up to be my kinda overall influences behind all the different albums I've released in the last 10 years.

The album saw you that year pick up the MOBO award for 'Best Hip Hop Act'. But how do you feel looking back at that time now and putting the album together. Was you pretty confident it was going to be the success it turned out to be?

Whats interesting is the difference between hype and success and my own career within the industry. And what I mean by that is even though I won a MOBO award in my first year and that was great, and that I got on Radio-1 and everything else I never actually had any where near the genuine level of fan-base I have today, even though I've not been on the radio much in that in-between time. Like when I toured the first album I couldn't do a 27 date tour like I am doing now, with a head line show in London's KOKO. In fairness I'm think I'm currently the only UK rapper to have done a headline show at a venue that big who doesn't have Radio-1 play on my label.

If anything as an artist you're bigger than ever, especially in this age of the Internet which by passes the record labels and industry as a whole. Letting the successful independent artists shine more than ever?

It's quite interesting really that though I'm not in the mainstream as much as I used to be, in the real world I'm a lot more successful than I used to be. I'd say the thing I'm most happy about is that I stuck to my guns and made the kind of music I wanted to make and as an independent and got to where I am today, you know. At the same time I'm not going to lie and say I'm not in no way materialistic in any way, you know I enjoy nice things too. And just being an adult that doesn't have the same level of financial difficulties as say my mum had, but at the same time there's more important things to me than other than money and success. I think that what I'm trying to show through my entire career so far is to say ' yeah, I'm not knocking your hustle, get your money and work on getting your success etc'...but I feel there should be an that should really come before money. And for me being able to maintain the things I want to say but also become a relative successful business person is what I'm proud of the most. Though for me business isn't just about making money, because anyone who makes money but at the same time destroys the planet and how we live is not a good business man. To me a good businessman is someone who can add value to some ones life and do well for themselves. Its what we call 'social entrepreneurship' and that's what I try to emulate myself.

Without doubt you're an artist in the true sense of the word. It's not just music which inspires you as with the release of your highly reviewed graphic novel 'The Ruins of an Empire'. So as an artist how else would you maybe like to express yourself in the future. How about film or even TV, does acting interest you at all as I can well image you on the big screen or treading the boards?

I have been offered a few acting roles actually but Ive never taken any of them because as an artist I feel that anything that I'd want to do I'd want to perfect the craft for it first, you know before embarrassing myself. There's been a lot of rapper/actors in the past who some have been really good but then others have turned out really poor. So I'd definitely be interested in working within that world at some point but I'd only do it if I was confident and had the proper training.

I have had offers for roles on TV and on the stage but I haven't taken any of them, yet. I'm much more interested in writing scripts at the moment rather than acting itself, more into being behind the camera than in front of it. I have also written a drama script though it hasn't been made yet, but I'll probably turn it into a graphic novel...so watch this space.

At the same time its also away from the music and you as an artist in which you've also very much inspired many people. Whether it be speaking on true African culture at Oxford Union or debating on political issues on Question Time you've over the years grown into a real trusted source of knowledge and honest representative of today's generation in the UK. So on the, lets say political front', does politics itself interest you at all in terms of maybe in the future getting involved, in anyway at all?

I think one of the most politicised arenas in the world today should be music and I think maybe artists have more ability in promoting alternative ideas and ways of thinking, more than ever before. But then currently I don't think there's any kinda mainstream party I'd ever be interested in being associated with or any particular individuals in politics who have any integrity, so as whole there are no parties that I'd want to align myself with. But then you never know, as I get older and the political climate changes its a case of 'never say never'. But at present I feel more effective and can reach more people as an artist, but I don't ever want people to thing I'm just criticising. The artists are never 'politcal change' within themselves, the artists can promote ideas around political change but it still takes for 'the people' to introduce those ideas, to organise them, to defend those changes. So I think sometimes we place too much importance on the artist, politically speaking, and I'd be the first as an artist to say that artists per say can be accused of a little bit narcissistic now and again, you know. Thinking were more important than we are and that's with out overstating or understating the role any artist plays, but its always the people who are the centre of those changes.

How about if I asked you on the high points during your ten yrs as a recording artist. I'm sure there's been so many. But looking back what would you say are your proudest or most meaningful moments of your career up to now, and why?

I'd have to say one of my favourite moments was probably my 'Fire in The Booth -part 1', and the reason I say that is because back when I wrote that I was very nervous, which is something I've never told anyone before, but I was. And I thought there was going to be much more of a negative backlash to it, that people wouldn't get what I was trying to say and that I'd come across as just 'too much. Because we were in a place and a time where there was so little political content and so I thought it might of gone over peoples heads and maybe they'd think I was...I don't know really but you could say I was a bit scared and kinda second guessing myself. But I thought no matter what I was still there to do it, you know. So then to see it received really well and people were getting exactly what I was trying to say, things I was frustrated at and that people actually researched the things I was talking about and the facts behind it was just really amazing.

I also think the up coming tour and going out to do a 27 date tour of the UK finally is a high point. Many of the dates have sold out the tour will probably be sold out by the end of the month. I think the release of the first album was definitely a high point, but was also a bit of complicated point as well. The release of 'Ruins Of An Empire' is another milestone along the way which has really stood out for me, but the most important one for me are like the 'Oxford Union Address'. The day to day love I get from ordinary people when I walk down the street, the letters I get from peoples parents like 'my son was really struggling in school but he's been listening to you and he's actually on for getting some good GCSE grades now'. And its missing out on school at that age of 13 years old, the road back to a having a decent life as an adult is very difficult. So for me personally all that work with younger people and being told by teachers or parents that the reason their son/daughter or student started reading such and such a book or that their work improved was because of something I said or did, that there for me feels like the greatest triumph. Because when I was growing up it was Wu-Tang and KRS1 when everything for me literally came alive, the way I started thinking about life and the world started happening because I was listening to those artists. So when people say to me 'something you said really influenced me' ...for me that's the greatest achievement.

Another big fan of yours both in and outside of music is Happy Mondays drummer Gary Whelan (whose wife is half Ghanaian, where they both spend much time visiting family) and so on hearing I was to interview you sent me this question: 'Would you ever like to play an event like 'PANAFEST', the International Festival Of Music in Ghana, as well as play other African countries too?'

Sure yeah, I've love to. I've so far played in Zimbabwe, north Sudan, south Sudan, Ethiopia and Nigeria, but that festival which he mentions, I've only recently heard about it so yeah. As soon as they invite me I'll be there. I think for some one like myself who is Pan-African, playing those countries across the continent is always an honour and a pleasure. That's the universal thing about hip hop, being able to play to crowds all over the world. But I'm not going to lie, I think people of an African heritage that return and play in that way, because growing up, especially around Jamaican culture who just love to party there's a certain sense of emotion attached to those performances. So I'm always interested in doing more and really seeing the music scene growing in places like Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa and elsewhere and see what it adds to the direction of the music.

Before you go Akala, if you can would you tell us how you'd describe your live shows. How would you explain an Akala gig to some one who has never been to one of your live shows before?

I'd say energetic, enthusiastic, no hype-man, live drums. I'll say one thing though which I pride myself on is, and I'm not blowing my own trumpet but as well as keeping it energetic I'm also about sounding as much like the record as possible. I've spent a lot of time working on my breathing, on my aerobics and I'm not one of these rappers where you'll come to one of my gigs and every other line I cant finish it, where I need one of my mates to shout the line to me, you know. Everything I rap in the studio I can rap on stage and I do that while really moving about up there, I'm inspired actually very much by, which if you grew up like I did you were always listening to Jamaican music and dance hall that those artists would run up and down on the stage while still rapping. And its that kinda Jamaican stage energy which I try to bring to hip hop. I think a lot of the American style of hip hop is a lot more relaxed than it is in England, and with the Jamaican dance hall being very hype I feel its that energy what UK hip hop brings to the music, which is also what I like to bring to my shows too.

For all tour dates and info on the new release go to the Akala website

@GrimUpNorth74