Editors note: This interview was first published in 2016
It’s impossible not to get into deep thought territory when having a chat with Akala. I tried. Honestly, I really did.
Of the variety of mantles that the man wears heavy on his shoulders, it’s his activism and cultural commentary that he is asked about the most. So for a change, I wanted to focus purely on the music, leaving the tough questions for those more qualified to ask them than me. I quickly realise how naive an aim that was when, within 2 minutes of shaking hands hello, we are discussing reincarnation and the concept of knowledge of self.
Akala has been a resolute force not only within the UK music scene, but also in our wider cultural and political landscape for the last decade. Since setting up Illa State Records with its signature Union Jack in Jamaican colours imagery around 2003, one can fast forward through five albums, four mixtapes, countless appearances as a pundit on national television, three perfect Fire in the Booth sessions, TED talks, directing productions of Shakespeare’s plays, a MOBO award, relentless community activism, lectures and the release of a variety of written works. Yet that’s just scratching the surface.
I ask which, of all the lofty titles he is given, he feels most comfortable inhabiting. Several tangential rabbit holes later comes his simple answer to a complex question “at this point I am a musician, writer and social entrepreneur. From London.”
Akala came up as the eskibeat scene was gaining a reputation on the underground and much of his early work mirrored that same aesthetic. Double time spitting over 140BPM instrumentals that would become the backbone of the grime scene. While not being a member of the slew of crews that one thinks of when talking about the beginnings of grime (“I was cool with them guys, but was always on my own thing”), his impact was undeniable, if not always remembered.
“Pedestals are not useful. You can respect people and look up to what they’ve achieved but we still got to recognise that they’re just people.”
A Little Darker (2006), originally known as the Illa State mixtape, remains one of grime music’s most tragically underrated and almost forgotten gems. Among others, it features a young JME on the track Tourettes with the finest technical set of grime bars ever laid down, Nasty Crew, Roll Deep and also proof that ‘big sis’ Ms Dynamite will always be one of the UK’s best MCs, of either gender. “That tape was really ahead of its time to be honest. It’s not remembered in the same way as other seminal tapes for a whole host of reasons. But I still look back at it and am really proud of it. It was a fantastic statement of UK culture.”
Like the variety of his extra-musical activities, Akala has never inhabited a stylistic box for too long. His methodology switches up with each new release. DoubleThink, released in 2010 is electro to the core, while The Thieves Banquet (2013) is a live session platter. Both sonically echo their respective themes and content to the tee. So does he still consider himself a grime artist? “I think the dichotomy between hip-hop and grime is false anyway. What is this thing grime? Grime to me is an amalgamation of hip-hop, jungle, garage, reggae, UK dance music… all mashed up in a pot. But hip-hop itself was an amalgamation of soul, blues, jazz, reggae, dance music… all mashed up in a pot.”
It’s a good point and one that is rarely put forward at the moment, as grime is swaggering out and defining itself on the worldwide stage. Grime may have started in a BPM box but is now truly a statement of culture, of approach and birthplace. “Ghetts has got a rap album, Kano’s just released a rap album. All the best grime MC’s, their influences would have been American hip-hop artists. But now, for the first time, if I say to a class of young ones Who’s your favourite rapper?, everyone would say someone English. When I was young… No chance. It was all American. Grime’s played a big role in that. But I see grime as still part of the hip-hop family tree.”
I think people now really need to be saying to themselves, Right, we got this success, what do we do with the craft? What do we do as songwriters? How do we take this to that next level?”
So what does this forefather think of the current so-called resurgence of the movement Characteristically, he takes a step back to see things on a larger scale through the spectacles of a historian. “We’re at a healthy position, but we also shouldn’t get gassed and think we’re bigger and more important [than we are]. What’s most encouraging is that people have started touring properly. Y’know hype and success… they’re not always the same thing. Hype is great, it can really help you. But success is permanent. The important thing is that there’s bodies of work. Where are the classic albums? Where are the greatest songs, where’s the musician shit, where are the live shows? Looking at what made American hip-hop such a global phenomenon, albums like Aquemini or Wu Tang Forever or Illmatic. I think we’d be lying to ourselves if we said we’re yet on that artistic plane. I think people now really need to be saying to themselves, Right, we got this success, what do we do with the craft? What do we do as songwriters? How do we take this to that next level?”
“I think the dichotomy between hip-hop and grime is false anyway.”
In a recent interview with Bloomberg Politics, Ice Cube got real, about the machinations of the early 90’s music industry and how rap with overt political messages was shunted from the mainstream, leading to the Crystal era and its self replication. Akala is among the few who have managed to escape this cycle, at least in part. He stands in a strange limbo between being a household name and a scion of the underground. “I haven’t had a Radio 1 or even a 1Xtra playlist in a decade. But still my next show is going to be at KOKO. If you look at who else is playing KOKO from the rap world it will be people (with the greatest respect to them because I wish them all the best) with a lot more mainstream exposure than I ever had. We’re playing similar sized venues so how can that be if people don’t want to hear more thoughtful more analytical… deeper music. There’s a reason why certain artists are promoted over others.” I’m not saying I get no mainstream exposure, but I get very little compared to the level of success I’ve had. It’s strange that I’m still perceived as underground, even though, even though my actual, real life success isn’t that underground.”
Akala is playing the ever on the pulse Soundwave Festival (4th – 8th August) this year alongside a crop of leftfield British talent. It’s a perfect example of the point he’s trying to make. You don’t have to be playlisted by Radio 1 to headline a renowned festival. “Croatia is the festival place at the moment. I actually went there 13 years ago to record The War and Roll with Us. They were both produced by a Croatian called Dash. I can’t wait for it man, live performing is my favourite part of the business. I love it. Pharoahe Monch, would be my number need to see, and of course Eva Lazarus who’s a Bristol based artist and is wicked. Gentlemen’s Dub Club and Channel One obviously. I’ll be out there skanking. There’s a nice real independent, real interesting line up.
While his music won’t be found in the charts, his presence on the mainstream airwaves tends to be in places you wouldn’t expect a musician to be. From facing down the then leader of the EDL in 2013 to discussing structural racism with comedian Frankie Boyle. Both Akala and Boyle share this space of being both too outspoken for the mainstream and yet too popular to be sidelined. “[the hook up] came from him being a hip-hop head! He was a fan of my music and came to a couple shows in Glasgow. We’ve met up a couple of times since the show, discussed a couple of ideas but we haven’t really pinned down one we both love yet. Watch this space though.”
“I say I ain’t got the answer a lot in my music, and that’s about saying listen, do your own thinking. Challenge everyone, including me! I don’t think I know it all and that’s how you keep learning.” Shady industry gatekeepers in dark coats aside, music that spouts actual complex political ideas will always be greeted with thoughts along the lines of ‘This is a bit of a buzz kill mate’ from some. “I think it turns on a certain kind of person. What’s good about that it that people who tend to be more thoughtful tend to be less fickle. I don’t whinge about that [people switching off], but the idea that people just want to hear poppy surface level stuff just doesn’t stand up to analysis. I believe people love music that touches them.”
As Akala tends towards self-questioning lyrical webs that ask more than they answer, his music can sometimes feel unsettling, hopeless even.
“Anyone who tells you they got the answers is a fucking idiot. There’s a tendency with conscious artists that people put you on such a pedestal. Understandably so if you’re speaking out and being brave, but your still jut a person bruv, you might have a bad day and punch someone in the face. Pedestals are not useful. You can respect people and look up to what they’ve achieved but we still got to recognise that they’re just people. I don’t want people to get the impression that I’ve got some supreme wisdom.”
“I’ve never really given any kind of fuck about what those people think is low and high art. These are the same people who will try and tell you that hip hop is not poetry.”
“There’s a reason why certain artists are promoted over others”
Despite the lack of supreme wisdom, Akala wakes up each morning feeling quite good about life. “I’m happy with what I’ve accomplished as an artist. I’ve managed to travel the world doing what I love, both performing and working with young people”. Yet he certainly isn’t one to lie in bed all day (“haha that’s one thing I never do”). I ask if he would ever stand for a political office and the measured answer that he gives me tells me that he has been asked that question far too many times. “I can’t say never, but there are millions of ways to engage in politics that may be more productive. Having a generation of young working class kids that aspire to be clever more than they aspire to the things that society has told them to aspire to, that’s political.”
So where is Akala’s path leading? He’s just released a graphic novel rendering of an epic poem entitled The Ruins of Empires, given body by the art of Tokyo Aoyama and is looking to do more in this form. “Visual arts is a world that seems like magic to me, because I’m so shit at it. I’m doing a few different collaborations. Just trying to push the boat out a bit. I was reading some Kabuki stuff recently and one of the things he says is that the comic is one of the last subversive art forms. It reaches a massive audience, yet its underground, because a lot of it is deeply subversive and political.” In the long term he hopes to build schools, “the schools of the future that try and get the best out of everyone, not teach them to be automatons in an industrial factory system.”
As the interview is wrapping up I ask if there’s any upcoming projects that he wants me to shout out and am faced with a barrage of details. The upcoming BBC special on Jamaican Music, collaborations with visual artists, his first major US tour in the autumn, and the four graphic novels to be released over the next few years. Again, we’re still just scratching the surface.
Words: Oscar Burton Xi