We meet one of the UK’s most credible hip hop stars
Akala is many things: a founder of The Hip Hop Shakespeare Company, which attempts to promote interest in the Bard among rap fans; the brother of Ms Dynamite; and, more importantly, one of the UK’s very few spokespeople for credible hip hop. His new album, Doublethink, is available online now, but when we spoke to him he was too busy pondering Brazilian poverty and the state of modern music. Here’s where his head is at right now…
Akala thinks Radiohead wouldn’t make it if they started today.
‘For the past 100 years, music has been a force for unification, and one that provokes thinking. But now it’s really being used as a way to numb that. If Radiohead were a new band, I don’t think they’d get a record deal, ’cos Thom Yorke’s hair isn’t cool enough and he doesn’t even wear nice enough shoes. I don’t know if they’d get a job, because they’re a bit too weird; 15 years ago, with your Massive Attack, your Portishead, your Rage Against the Machine, you could still make weird music and you could not wear nice shoes and it would be okay.’
He thinks modern hip hop is where rock music would be if no one had listened to Jimi Hendrix.
‘The power of hip hop, like any music, rests within its truth. If you take rock music and erase Hendrix, Zeppelin and everyone else, then say, “Well, this is where it starts – the latest corny indie band that’s just been signed and plays really tinny, horrible music – this is rock music.” That’s what’s happening to a large degree with hip hop. How often do they play ‘Fight the Power’? Or ‘The Revolution Will Not be Televised’? I encounter kids every day who have literally never heard of Chuck D. This is someone everyone should know, especially if you’re an MC. It’s like being a guitarist who’s never heard of Jimi.’
He’s incredibly moved by Brazil’s culture of hospitality. ‘I spent three months in Rio de Janeiro. I spent time in the slums all over South America, but particularly in Rio and Salvador. Not that I expected to encounter any kind of hostility, ’cos I understand stereotypes and stuff, but the warmth with which I was treated made me want to cry. You’re somewhere where people have absolutely nothing, but they would invite me in, people would feed me. So many people would say, “Why don’t you come and stay at my house?” Especially when they found out my dad was Jamaican. Bob Marley is worshipped in Brazil!’
He thinks Brazilian favela [slum] gangs are more polite than kids in London. ‘I went to one party in a big favela in Rio, and there were about 50 kids carrying M16s and hand grenades. I bumped into one of them because I didn’t see him behind me, and he apologised to me. He’s carrying an M16 in a favela, and he can still find it to be polite. A lot of kids can’t.’
He thinks that hip hop-loving kids in the UK who make a big deal out of ‘representing’ their council estates are just a bit ridiculous. ‘I say to young boys: this whole being from the ’hood thing, recognising our ends and all that – what do you own in your estate? The council owns your estate, so you’re effectively representing… I dunno, [London borough] Haringey Council or something.’ Doublethink is available now online.