Tuesday, 9 May 2006

total:spec - Akala

There’s a story that British rapper Akala, known to his mum as Kingslee Daley, tells that seems to sum up his personality perfectly. As a teenage school boy he had to endure the opinions of an unashamedly bigoted teacher who taught Religious Education, of all things. While the rest of the class sat and listened numbly to her racist ramblings, Daley naturally took umbrage and decided to take on his teacher’s opinions.

“If I told you some of the things she said you would think I was making it up,” says the London-born 22-year-old. “I wrote to governors about her, and I got a petition from local kids in my school to get her fired. That’s how bad some of the things she said to me were. But nothing was ever done and she got away with it.

“One of the things she said was that the Ku Klux Klan stopped crime by killing black people. And that is an exact quote. I shit you not. We were having an argument and she was trying to say that the Nation Of Islam and the Ku Klux Klan are the same thing. I was saying, well you can’t say that because the Nation Of Islam have never been proved directly responsible for killing white people.

“I wasn’t saying their views are not racist, or that they’re not an organisation who’s views are questionable. What I was saying was that the Ku Klux Klan are known to be directly responsible for murder, whereas the Nation Of Islam have not. I said to her also that the Nation Of Islam do positive things like helping stop crime in the black community. Her reply was that the Ku Klux Klan stopped crime in the black community.”

Daley hasn’t always been this strong-willed - he admits that he got bullied as a young child and it took his mum, who promised him a smack every time he failed to hit someone back, to bring that out of him. But his opinionated and commanding personality has grown and grown since then, and is very much in evidence on his recent debut album It’s Not A Rumour (the title itself a cheeky reference to the hype surrounding his rapping skills).

In many ways he’s following in the footsteps of his sister Niomi, better known to us as Ms Dynamite. Not only is he getting his face on the shelves of record stores across the country, he’s also laying down the gauntlet of his opinions on the political and social state of our country. Ms Dynamite is famous for speaking her mind on subjects of social and political import - Akala is unafraid to do the same.

Take, for example, his album track Bullshit - a witty, irresistibly catchy tune layered in guitars and simple enough to be a nursery rhyme. And yet it takes on all manner of things from third world debt to the London congestion charge and domestic violence. Like his sister, Daley has a impressive knack for encouraging debate with a catchy tune.

“I think it’s my mum’s fault that we’re so serious,” says Daley with a wry laugh. “She made us watch a Nelson Mandela film when I was like four and Niomi was six. Watching it now as an adult I’m not sure that was totally appropriate because that film’s quite violent. But it makes you realise, especially at such a young age, that the world’s quite a serious place. In a way our innocence was lost early on. I mean I still thought at that point that Santa Claus existed, but then I also knew that there was genocide and those kind of things happening in the world. From a really young age we had a serious mentality.

“On top of that we weren’t the wealthiest family in the world. I’m not trying to sound too hard done by because millions of people in the world have it far harder than I did, but as kids we had quite a lot of responsibility put on us quite early on. I just think all of that combined just makes you grow up fast.”

That responsibility was looking after what would eventually become 10 siblings. Daley was the second eldest after his older sister; they suffered the departure of their father when they were both very young. As such they had to take responsibility of their growing family of half-siblings while their mother went out to work. Their father is the one subject Daley seems uncomfortable with - the one question I ask about him during our interview is the only one the rapper doesn’t tackle head on.

“It’s not a traditional relationship, we’re not particularly close,” he says quietly. “But it’s always been like that, and to be honest most of the people I grew up with were in the same situation. I think it’s only when you grow up in a situation where people’s lives are very different to yours that you realise what you’re missing. But pretty much all of my friends didn’t grow up with their father either, so it was never something where I looked around and thought, Oh look what Jay’s got - he’s got a mum and dad and a nice car. He didn’t have those things, he was the same as me.”

Music, Daley says, was a big part of his life from an early age. He remembers putting on little plays with his sister and performing raps, particularly for his mum’s birthday.

“Obviously the flow and the delivery was pretty rubbish,” he laughs. “But the subject matter was still quite serious even at that time. We used to write about our experiences and about history and stuff and just turn it into a rap. Music’s been a part of our life since Niomi and I could both talk.”

With so many years experience under his belt, the consummate skill and sharp wit with which Daley delivers his droll diatribes should come as no surprise. But the rapper obviously has unique talent. For a start he never writes his lyrics down, preferring to keep them all in his head both while recording and performing live.

“It’s a real organic thing,” he explains of his lyric-writing. “When you don’t write things down it comes directly from your soul, when you do you’re thinking about it too much. This is something I took from Jay-Z. I heard that he doesn’t write anything down, and I thought, that’s not possible. But then I realised that at the time I was only writing three or four words anyway for a whole verse. Literally since that day I haven’t written anything down on paper. Bob Marley recorded the same way. I just think when you record like that you’re able to find a level of honesty that you can’t otherwise find.”

Like his sister, Daley is very laid back in terms of his intelligence. It’s not that he behaves like he’s thick, he just talks about all subjects - big or small - in such a down to earth way. But occasionally you have flashes of that intelligence and it’s almost formidable. The impressive memory for lyrics is just the start. Despite almost constant indifference from his teachers at school (“When I was in primary school they put me in a special needs group with kids who didn’t speak English as their first language,” he recalls. “I just found that a lot of teachers had a problem with me.”), he left with 100% straight A GCSEs. So good was he at maths that he won a place at the Royal Institute, but he decided it wasn’t his thing, something he writes about in Roll Wid Us. Football, however, was his thing and he won a scholarship, going on to play for West Ham and Wimbledon as a teenager. His love of music kept nagging, however.

“I’d be on my way to football playing raps in my head,” says Daley. “It shouldn’t be like that. Now when I’m writing music I don’t think, shit I want to play football. Music has always been my first love and it’s always been the thing that’s inspired me most. But I’m thankful for football because I don’t know what my teenage years would have turned out like if I wasn’t playing. A lot of the other kids I grew up with are in a lot worse situations than I am now. They had five nights a week where they could be rolling around in the street finding mischief to get up to.”

Four years ago Daley went to Ayia Napa, the Cypriot holiday resort that was, at the time, the heart of the British garage scene. He stayed there for six months, not to party, not even to perform. Instead this astute young man set up a West Indian restaurant there, running his first business at the age of 18.

“The whole garage scene went there, half of London, but there was no West Indian food out there,” he says. “I knew it was something that would be popular. It was the most incredible experience of my life. In those six months I learnt more about life and myself than I’d learnt in the previous 18 years. And I’d already learnt a lot in those.”

But as this holiday haven for garage fans imploded amid drug problems and violence, Daley was forced to shut up shop and come home. It was only then he decided to make a proper go of making music, and Akala (a Buddhist moniker that means ‘immovable’) was born. But Daley is still making use of his talents as a businessman. Rather than attempt to get a record deal he set up his own label, Illa State, which he runs with two friends. Ms Dynamite is also involved as a director, the four of them making all the major decisions. But the day to day running of the label is done by Daley and his two friends. He might be the label’s priority artist but he’s involved in the running right down to the delivering of records.

“Of course, it’s had its ups and downs,” says Daley. “There’s so much work. When I say we’re independent I really mean independent. The three of us do everything. But I love running a business, it’s just so interesting. I read Fortune magazine and they feature a businessman and explain how he rose to the top and what he did. A lot more businesses than you realise came from nothing. Obviously a vast majority of the world’s corporations is old money, but there’s so many people like Richard Branson all over the world. It’s not just the money that appeals to me, it’s the power and the sense of achievement. It’s standing for something. In all honesty, this is going to sound corny, but it’s providing people with a service, something that makes their life a bit better. That’s the thing I love.”

Now he’s attempting to make hip hop better. Part of the inspiration for It’s Not A Rumour was what Daley saw as a complete lack of inspiration in American rap and hip hop. He wanted to make music that was as good as what he describes as the ‘golden age’ of hip hop in the early 90s. But these days he says it’s guitar bands that he finds more inspiring.

“I think most hip hop is dry and boring and repetitive,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong, I love hip hop, but I love old school hip hop. With rock music there’s still a difference of identity between each artist, and their videos are completely different. In two rap videos you’ll see the same naked chicks and the same bottle of Cristal. Rock has really been inspiring me so that’s why it’s reflected in the production of the album.”

Along for the ride is another family member, Daley’s younger brother Jerome. Jerome has been honing his production skills on a mix tape for Illa State records and looks set to be another member of the Daley clan to make his mark in the music world.

“He’s really talented, man,” says Daley proudly. “He makes really good music. And he loves it, that’s the main thing. If you don’t feel it people will find you out, man. Nobody comes out and forms a full career for themselves in music without having that integrity and honesty and love in the music.”