He is a megastar who has worked with everyone from Michael Jackson to Whitney Houston, and David Guetta to Lady Gaga. He’s a record breaker who is the first solo artist to hold both the number one and two spots simultaneously on the Billboard Hot 100 charts twice. According to folklore, he’ a reformed man, who left behind a life of crime in his native Senegal to become one of the biggest artists in America today. And you’re almost certainly heard him blaring from someone’s phone, as he currently holds the official world record for the best selling artist of master ringtones in the world. And now, ladies and gentleman, Akon is appearing up close and personal at Cavalli Club on Friday November 1. Here’s what the 40-year-old rapper has to say.
You’ve collaborated with lots of different musicians – such as Lady Gaga, Leona Lewis and T-Pain – how do you decide who to work with?
Well a lot of times you just reach out. If I’m already a fan then there’s never really a question. You always want to work with the people that you love and admire. The majority of the time it’s about getting together and figuring out what they’re looking for. I grew up with all kinds of music and as a producer and songwriter you have to be able to switch between all kinds of different genres.
Does your Senegalese heritage play a role in your music?
It plays a huge role because I started off as a percussionist. My beats start with the drums, then I go from drums to melody, then to lyrics – once you’ve got the rhythm going, everything flows very easily.
How do your lyrics come?
A lot of the time they just come spontaneously. When I lay a track down and hum a melody over it, the lyrics come really easily. I put down whatever comes to me then I go back and I edit it. I fix the words to make them more poetic or to fit the artist, whoever I’m working with.
What was the inspiration behind ‘Smack That’?
I just wanted to make a fun record for the club. Around the time my biggest fans were females so I wanted to make a record that the females would love. I wanted something that I would have fun performing – I always have that element in mind when doing a record, the crowd participation. At the same time I want to make sure that it doesn’t offend anybody. There’s a fine line and the challenge is: how do I get to that line without crossing it?
With all the hits you’ve written – do you get a feeling about them in the studio or is it quite surprising how people react?
You just know that’s its going to be a hit. A lot of the time, if I don’t feel 100 percent [behind a song], then I’ll hold it back. I’m a fan first and foremost. No one knows me better than myself so if I like it I know for sure they’re going to like it.
You were friends with Michael Jackson – what do you find is the biggest misconception about him?
The biggest misconception was that he was crazy. Everyone was saying he was ‘Wacko Jacko’, like he had a different state of mind – like he was different to everyone else. He’s the most normal person I’ve ever met in my life – the coolest, most fun person ever. When I was with him I wished the world could see the person that I got to hang out with every day and sneak off to the movies with. If the world could have seen that guy it would have been amazing. It was sad to see people speak of him when they had no clue of who he really was. I learnt a lot from him – from music to business.
Another of your famous friends is Lady Gaga – you co-wrote her hit ‘Just Dance’.
Absolutely, that whole first album [2008’s The Fame] I co-wrote with Redman – we were like the magic threesome
Did you know then that she’d become famous?
Man, I knew it. I had that feeling in my gut that she would be the biggest thing in the world. I fought for her. Everyone on the label will tell you that there wasn’t a day gone by where I didn’t go and see an executive and say ‘listen, we need to put more money behind this girl and not give up on her! This is going to be the biggest thing you’ve ever seen,’ and I believed it.
You’ve got lots of different creative avenues – your Konvict Clothing line, production, discovering new artists... What are you most passionate about?
Music for sure. It’s the one thing I’m most passionate about. Music was the avenue for me to open up all the doors for all the other stuff I love. Music is the one thing I do without caring if I’m paid for it or not.
Is that performing it or producing it?
I love all of it. Creating it is always wonderful because you never really know how the crowd is going to react. Watching [an audience] sing your material and loving it from top to bottom is the biggest reward.
We read that you’re a Chelsea Football Club fan?
Oh man, I love Chelsea. My favourite players are no longer there though – [Nicolas] Anelka and [Didier] Drogba – they were the reason I supported Chelsea. They were my friends – they’re my brothers man.
You caused a bit of controversy by taking off your shirt when you played at Dubai Media City in 2009.
Unfortunately – I honestly didn’t know [that it would cause offense]. I’m out here the whole week. I’m going to look for a penthouse while I’m out here as well. I’m definitely thinking about creating another residence out here – I love it here man!
What do you think about the music scene in the UAE?
You were kind of late with iTunes – you should’ve received that earlier. I’ve noticed that they’re trying to get a load of the UAE artists out there [on iTunes]. I think [the UAE is] beginning to get an idea of what it means to share your culture with the rest of the world. You’ve got to use these platforms that represent the world and be part of it.
Are you resentful of the audio quality of music on iTunes?
No I like it. It allows me to move freely around the world and have access to all my music, rather than having a suitcase full of CDs. It’s liberating – I love it.
What do you think about the audiences out here?
There a lot of rules that you’ve got to abide by here and I think that’s one of the main reasons why the audiences are so crazy – they don’t get a chance to really let loose enough.
What are you listening to yourself right now?
My two favourite groups to at the moment are Mumford & Sons and Fun. [But] I listen to anything.
What are your earliest memories of music?
I was into reggae. A lot of Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff. A little bit of Michael Jackson.
You’ve also worked with Dr Dre. Are his methods different to Lady Gaga?
The majority of artists do it pretty much the same. Dre is a lot different to other people, and he takes a lot longer too. There are so many different elements
Are you involved in Dre’s new album?
Yeah – everyone’s been involved in that album. It’s taken forever man, it’s been ten years. I’ve probably recorded between fifteen and twenty songs for him but I have no idea which ones he’s going to work with.
Is there anyone left that you’d like to work with?
There isn’t anyone I haven’t worked with. I’m just waiting for a brand new artist that I haven’t heard.
What do you think of talent shows – do they cheapen music?
Nah – they know what sounds good – it’s just another avenue for music.
Akon performs at Cavalli Club, Fairmont Dubai on Friday November 1. Limited tickets at Dhs250. Call 800 2282554