Friday, January 05, 2007

A question of balance

By Will Parkhouse

[previously published in Total Spec magazine October 15 2006]

"What's all this in aid of?" asks a besuited and bemused drinker. We're in a traditional Shoreditch pub and the quiet guy with long peroxide blond hair who until now had been quietly sitting in the corner tinkering with a bright red laptop is suddenly striking poses over the billiards table and being snapped by our photographer. "He's a hip-hop guy," we explain. "Akira the Don."

Before he pops outside for a few more pictures, Akira, aka AK Donovan, Adam Alphabet or just plain old Adam Narkiewicz, hands me some things to ward off the boredom while he's gone. We get a copy of Hip-Hop Connection ("read about The Game," he says), Gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson's The Curse of Lono with illustrations by Ralph Steadman ("you might like this") and a copy of The Independent ("and a silly newspaper").

All very apt; it could almost be a pre-interview required reading list. First and foremost, 26-year-old Narkiewicz is a hip-hop artist, but he's also a music journalist and cartoonist, and nurtures the kind of crusading world-saving liberalism beloved of the Indy. Oh, and he's also writing a sitcom. A bit multi-talented, then. "There's time in this world to do everything," he says later, in a laid-back drawl that sometimes briefly lapses into a Hunter S-like slur. "You just have to stagger it."

So who is this jack of all trades? It feels cheap to point it out, but the Akira the Don look breaks all the hip-hop image regulations - and not just because he's white. Long peroxide blond hair? Cartoony tattoos? Beard with protruding pencilly moustache? Check, check and check. Various publicity shots have him looking much like Johnny Depp playing Thompson, and Narkiewicz is occasionally told he looks like the Hollywood star. "It's nice to hear that, when he's the most handsome man in the world and you're a short-arse hairy Welsh creature," he says.

Is he pleased with his debut, the nostalgically-titled When We Were Young? Narkiewicz seems genuinely surprised to be asked. "The album's amazing," he says, matter-of-factly. And strangely, there's nary a hint of arrogance in this, just a brisk confidence in his abilities. "I'm sure lots of people will adore it and lots will dislike it immensely. And I'll make another one that's even better. And it'll be great."

There's justification for his confidence. The long-player is a vibrant party soundtrack stuffed with animated anthems, bursting with quick-witted rhymes and featuring a thankful paucity of that great hip-hop foible, the skit. It's got the sunshine of Lily Allen, the Britishness of The Streets, the stoner charm of Sublime and pinches of the scattershot humour of Goldie Lookin' Chain. Narkiewicz, in modest mode, calls it "a dude chatting nonsense over a bunch of noises", but quickly adds: "It's also quite glorious pop music".

The 'glorious pop' part is perhaps what sets Akira the Don apart from many of his hip-hop contemporaries. He's clearly deeply enamoured not only with hip-hop, but rock and indie too, and his output is soaked through with the genres' influences: the album memorably samples artists as diverse as Alice Cooper and Nico; it's also interspersed with sound clips from The Prisoner, in a way that's reminiscent of the Manics' 1994 misery-manual The Holy Bible. His other creative mediums are also saturated with guitar-love: a recent blog post had him lamenting the break-up of Scottish indie miserablists Arab Strap; an interview once saw Akira claiming to be "the rap Morrissey" (a phrase that's now mentioned in every article written about him); and all the backing music on his recent mix-tape album, distributed through his website, comes from the Britpop era, from Elastica to Menswear to the Boo Radleys. When we see him DJ later in the evening, the setlist is a paean to accessible and unashamedly fun tunes, featuring tracks by Bon Jovi, Johnny Cash, The Proclaimers, Meatloaf and so on and on.

Narkiewicz's favourite part of the album, he says, is the sleeve, which pictures an homage to Salvador Dali's Christ of St John on the Cross, with the painting's crucified Jesus replaced by a crucified Akira. It's not the only thing here that owes something to the surrealist; Narkiewicz wears that most eccentric of hirsute accessories, the moustache. "Dali needn't have painted anything – he could've been the greatest artist ever, purely from what he did with his facial hair. Brilliant," he laughs. "Moustaches done correctly can be wonderful things. They can also be abhorrent food traps." Those 'doing it correctly' are Tom Selleck ("pretty gangsta"), Bruce Forsyth ("it's like a weird dead caterpillar"), and Depp ("so sparse, yet somehow quite luxurious").

It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to even attempt the moustache in this day and age. But Narkiewicz says he has a clear sense of what he's capable of – not just in terms of facial hair, but musically too: "I know what I can do and I know what I can't do," he says, and it's not boastful, just open. "I was brought up in a little valley where I was told everything I was doing was entirely wrong. And I went ahead and did it anyway."

Born in Anglesey, a county at the northwestern extremity of north Wales, his musical indoctrination came remarkably early, dancing around to Adam Ant aged two. He lays out the stages of his childhood using a range of cultural landmarks: Spiderman on the bedroom wall when he was two, reading Roald Dahl's The BFG aged three, then on to the The Hobbit at four, drawing comics and "making noises" at five, making his first mix-tape aged eight.

School was "rubbish" and he retreated into a world of music magazines and comics. The kids weren't down with his Adam Ant records or haircut and he got into fights all the time. "Usually they would win because I was small, but still I would keep on. And that included the teachers, because they didn't like me either."

Fortunately, the not fitting in and general dislike of the place in which he'd found himself nurtured his love of music. "I had lots of time to walk around and wander, because there was fuck all to do. I used to walk around singing to myself." He left home aged 15 and spent a brief period living in the woods in a tent, hitching to school every day to do his GCSEs. "I missed one of them because I was asleep in my tent and I didn't have an alarm," he says. "I was relying on the sun to wake me up."

Then, after a short and unsuccessful stint in a bedsit in Bangor, he moved to Birmingham overspill town Redditch, aged 16. Although he had rocky moments – he was still getting into fights, including one incident where he was held down by four rudeboys and had cigarettes stubbed out on his head – it was a happy time, for a bit. "I quickly fell into the world of drugs and pretending to be a rockstar. It was great," he reminisces. There's a pause. "Then it all came crashing down. Everything got really mad. Everyone was taking too much speed, because no one could afford proper drugs. Speed does nutty things to people's brains."

His girlfriend got pregnant, mates tried to kill themselves and he was arrested for selling drugs. The world "went a bit dark for a while", but it provided a chance to get away from the madness. He has happy memories of sitting with a probation officer smoking weed and listening to The Smiths, when they were meant to be mowing the lawn in the graveyard.

Things really started to get going when he moved to London. He got into music journalism, and later hooked up with two like-minded souls to form hip-hop collective Crack Village. "We decided on the morning of the millennium that everyone was rubbish and that we'd teach ourselves to MC and form a rap boyband that would be represented visually by cartoons. Then Gorillaz did it. Bastards."

Things didn't work out with Crack Village – their progress was too slow for him. So he took a song he'd done but which the others had rejected and attached it to a website column he'd written. David Laurie, who co-runs London record label Something in Construction, heard it and asked if there was any more where that came from. Narkiewicz told him there was, then went home and wrote another seven songs over the weekend.

Around that time, a mate invited him over to America to play some shows and crash on people's floors. Narkiewicz sent some songs to his friend Phil and fate took over. "His girlfriend, who was a hairdresser, was playing the CD while she was cutting some guy's hair," he says. "It turned out he was some guy who claimed to be working for Warner Brothers. He was actually a gobshite, but he was one of those gobshites known by other gobshites who know important people." Within a day, Jimmy Iovine, the manager and co-founder of Interscope, had heard the CD and flown Narkiewicz over to New York, then LA. The label, home to the likes of Eminem and Marilyn Manson, offered him a six-album deal.


As well as being about his own childhood, When We Were Young, named after an AA Milne book of the same name, also concerns itself with a kind of collective, global growing up. "The '90s were the last time I was young, but it was also a time when everyone in this West of ours felt young and invincible," he explains. "Then we woke up in this new millennium having realised that things actually have a consequence, that there was a larger world and shit is actually pretty dark and fucked."

He's talking about wars, genocide, corruption, cloning, global warming, that sort of thing. But he's less concerned with terrorism than the governments who have used it to alter people's civil liberties and scare their subjects. "We're currently in a period which is very much like Germany in the '30s," he says. "We have tyrannical freaks trying to terrify us into nonsense Orwellian weirdness."

With his frequent plane journeys to America, does terrorism worry him? "Terrorism is nonsense. It's been blown incredibly out of proportion! There's no 'terror in the skies' unless you live in the Gaza fucking Strip or Iraq where there's a load of fucking planes that are going to fucking bomb you. Planes are fucking scary if you happen to be poor and brown and live in certain parts of the world that have lots of natural oil reserves. Planes are not fucking scary if you live in London: planes are ace!"

The two most politically savage tracks on the album and which form a neat central set-piece are Bankers and Thanks for All the Aids. The latter is a hilariously jaunty anthem whose message is encapsulated in the line "you can't rub pennies in a wound and expect it to be fine". Live 8 and the World Bank particularly come in for a pasting, if a poptastic one.

What's his problem there? "Live 8 was a nonsense and an embarrassment," he says witheringly. "Lots of people who went to the concert bought a t-shirt and thought they could go back home and forget about everything that was actually going on. A load of dickhead popstars got some exposure on TV. Nothing was changed. The World Bank didn't drop any fucking debt, they've actually imposed more since. Nothing has been fucking done. It's a farce and a horror."

The album's diatribes have caused problems with its release in America. Reaction from Interscope's marketing department was reportedly along the lines of "What the fuck are you saying?" With Narkiewicz refusing to change anything - and it's hard to see how he could have, without ripping the teeth out of the album - Interscope delayed putting the record out, which essentially could've meant it would never see the light of day. Some to-ing and fro-ing between the lawyers allowed the album a UK release, although Narkiewicz is still technically signed to Interscope in America.

It must have been incredibly frustrating, though he's more understanding than you might expect. "I can see from their point of view that it is going to be difficult to sell a pistachio blonde English guy rapping about Henry Kissinger giving people AIDS," he laughs.

Thank god for the mix-tapes then. Narkiewicz painstakingly puts together these hour-long mixes of himself and various collaborators rapping over a range of samples - and it'll be recorded, mixed and edited at home. Then - he puts these out every few months, and has done 14 so far - he'll offer it as a free MP3 download from his website. It's the mix-tapes that have helped him build a following, particularly in America. The record company tell him not to release them; aside from the fact that they're filled with uncleared samples, he's also been told it's career suicide – "save it for your second album!" and so on. But without the mix-tapes, he says, no one would have heard the name Akira the Don. "Thanks to them," he says simply, "I exist."

Narkiewicz has a number of intriguing recurring phrases, but the one that stands out and wraps up many of his answers is "…and it was great". As well as capturing his easygoing but enthusiastic manner, the tic gives a strong sense that each mini-anecdote he relates has a happy ending - that whatever past adversity he's faced, he's ended up exactly where he wants to be. We get that sense on the record too: the Nico-sampling Oh! What a Glorious Thing, for example, manages to turn what was once an introspective and melancholy guitar line into an upbeat and, yes, glorious thing. Of course, those World Bank rants show an anger, an alertness and a strong sense that the world is teetering on the edge of darkness, but the 11 songs maintain a fine balance. We come out of When We Were Young feeling not quite so powerless, which is really what music should do.

How does Akira the Don see this balance? "Stuff is really fucking dark in one corner, but it's also really ace in another," he replies. "But there's no point in caring about the bad stuff if one doesn't appreciate the good stuff. Yeah. So smell the flowers."

1 comment:

James K said...

He has a blog over at the Guardian.