Akala has fast risen through the UK underground to receive big plays on TV and radio, becoming the first unsigned artist to appear on MTV’s TRL show. He’s politically and socially aware, but not in a preaching know-it-all way and his album, It’s Not A Rumour, is busy winning over fans from all corners of the music spectrum.
Abjekt met him in Café Rouge, a place where both felt a little too downmarket for, but talked about everything from RHCP to football and of course his music.
So, just to start with the background stuff, I read you were chosen to be in a maths masterclass as a kid, but it wasn’t really the sort of thing you wanted to go for.
Yeah, it was one of things that you’re good at but never really had any passion for. I was in school, so I had to study mathematics, found I had quite a talent for it, but I didn’t enjoy it. Physics wasn’t too bad, when you applied it to something, like the velocity of a football, tangible things, that was interesting. But factorising numbers and stuff wasn’t me thing.
And I also read you were an apprentice at Wimbledon and West Ham.
I was at West Ham when I was a schoolboy and I was an apprentice at Wimbledon.
What happened with that?
Again, I didn’t love it. I fell outta love with football, I still like it but I didn’t love it. It’s something that you need to have all your heart in and I didn’t have that.
How old were you when you decided it was music that you really wanted to go into?
I was 18.
You used to have a restaurant in Ayia Napa too right?
I did, it’s closed down now. We were very dependent on the rave scene out there y’know, and now they have a new mayor who wanted to make it all about family so there’s no real demand for what we had there.
Do you have any other interests like that at the moment?
Not at this point. I have other things that I’d like to do, but no other businesses running at the moment because I’m spending so much bloody time on Illastate [Akala’s self-run label]. I love getting into anything, so in the future we’ll see.
And onto the music, you take quite a broad approach to music, with the rock sounding stuff and the guitar licks in your songs, is it really important for you to be as expansive as possible?
Definitely. That’s what music is about. Its about trying to capture as broad a sound as you can. To encapsulate the biggest statement you can, inside of a song, both musically and lyrically. It’s important to make real music from your heart and your soul and to draw on all your experiences rather than focussing on one singular thing.
I’m not a big fan of the rap scene in America at the moment, because they just use obvious samples and one boring beat and rap about the same thing all the time.
Yeah, it’s awful, lyrical content, other than Kanye, it’s all garbage.
It’s all about the same thing, money and women.
Money and women, exactly. If I see another naked woman, I’m going to kill myself. Don’t get me wrong, I love women as much as the next man but its just so sad. I love hip hop so much and it actually hurts my feelings to see it as it is now. I have so much love and respect for this art form and if I were Wu Tang or any of the early lot, Run DMC, Big L, Onyx and I looked at hip hop now I’d be like “what the fuck have they done to my art?”. I’d be so upset. I mean I’m a nobody, I’m just a new kid from England, and it upsets me. But if I spent all my time and sweat turning hip hop into the credible art form it became and then saw how it was now, I’d kill myself.
Hip hop was so good for so long, even when it went past being new and fresh, it was the dominant music form both creatively and in terms of revenue for like, 10 years. Until 97 and 98 you had DMX, Big Pun and Eminem came out as new artists and since then you’ve not had anyone with the calibre of those artists.
Are you worried that UK kids are going to come out sounding like American wannabes?
I’m not worried, I just would feel sorry for them if they did. It’s accepted now that if you’re English and rap with an American accent, you’re an idiot. You’re just a twit if you do that, there’s no sideways or argument around that, you’re just a bloody idiot.
Especially with the grime scene doing so well as well as hip hop now, it’s such a distinctive vocal sound, there’s no need to be like that.
Exactly. I mean, Redman did a jungle song, but did he do it with an English accent? Of course he fucking didn’t, because he would have sounded like a twit.
You play with a live band, is that important to give your music an extra dimension live?
That’s exactly what its for, to give it that new dimension, so you really come to see a show. I could just out with my DJ and rap, but I think it makes for a much better to show to come and see me rap with live instruments.
And you seem to have a really good relationship with all your band.
They were all involved in the making of the record. Rez, the guitarist did 8 of the songs, and he’s my business partner, Danny on bass did “This Is London” and “Hold Your Head Up” and Cassell did the drums for “The Edge“, so they’ve all been involved in the record, they’re not session musicians.
Rez has worked with a lot of bigger American names, does he bring a lot to the production?
Oh yeah, he brings a lot to the production and a lot to me. I’ve learned a lot about myself as an artist through working with him to become what I am now. Not that I’m calling myself Picasso or anything, but he’s helped me develop.
He’s involved in Illastate too right?
Yeah, he’s my co-owner.
So what’s going on with Illastate right now? Obviously your album is out…
We have the first Illastate mixtape going to come out, which has basically got everyone from the grime scene: Nasty Crew, Roll Deep, J2K, Wariko, Gappy Ranks, Jammer… it’s basically a grime/ hip hop mix tape and will be out on June 4th on the streets, it won’t be out in HMV and Virgin until later on in the year. That and my album are the two projects we’re working on and depending on the success of them we’ll see what else we’re working on.
Was everyone receptive to it when you got in touch with them?
Completely, the politics in the music industry aren’t really artists politics, you’ll find an artist, if he likes the music will work with you. Artists know how difficult it is to put yourself out there, so there’s less snobbery amongst them. If I like someone’s work then I’ll work with them, if I don’t, I won’t. Whereas the politics in the music industry comes from the label, executives, radio, TV.
Do you find it important to have as much control as possible over your own stuff, hence setting up your own label?
Yeah, its really, really important.
You’ve been getting a fair amount of press and exposure, it’s nice to see your stuff on MTV too, aswell as just the usual Channel U…
Yeah, it’s great but I’ve still got such a long, long way to go. Things are improving, but I’m still miles, universes away from where I wanna be. It’s nice for people to recognise me, but we’re nowhere, we’re not even on the radar yet. So we’re going to get on the radar and then try and build on it by making nice music.
You were at Live8 last year, how was that?
Well, I did a little bit in my sister’s set, but it was weird. I’m not really a person who gives a shit about celebrities, I never have been, but that was weird. Literally, this happened to me, in one look I saw Robbie Williams, the Beckhams and Brad Pitt in one look. It was absurd, it was like you had to be a celebrity to be there.
How does that compare with the more intimate shows?
Well, I didn’t play a full show at Live8, and if there’s that many people and they don’t know your songs, it’s really hard to get anything out of them. Whereas an intimate crowd, like the Barfly show last week, a lot of people there weren’t my fans, they were just at the Barfly, but its easier to get something out of a smaller crowd, because you can connect with them more. When you get more popular, and you have a crowd of say 6,000, they can be 20 yards away but still be into the vibe, because they know the songs.
Ok, just to finish off, I have some quickfire questions:
Favourite UK artist?
Wariko, from Nottingham.
Favourite holiday destination>
The one vital thing to take on tour?
Favourite venue to play?
So far, the Barfly
What’s your most spun album
The Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ Greatest Hits
And you’re an Arsenal fan so, are you going to beat Barcelona?
We are, yeah.
Akala’s album “This Is Not A Rumour” is out on Illastate Records now, make sure you pick it up.