Elevator 34: Akala

34AkalaheaderThe hip-hop culture that formed in the 1970’s has splintered. There are arguments and counter-arguments about the sorry state of the culture and it’s future.

One piece of evidence for this fragmentation in my city and in many cities around the UK is the gulf between rap artists born before 1985 and those born after 1990. Somewhere along the way the so-called old-schoolers stopped interacting with and mentoring young, up-and-coming ambitious artists. This has meant that many young rappers are creatively standing on the shoulders of giant ghosts; ghosts they can’t even name check, because they don’t know their hip-hop history.

We need people who have the ability to bridge generation gaps and deep cultural rifts, to help people listen to each other and at times to force people, especially privileged people, to hear inconvenient truths. One man who does all this using extraordinary lyrical skill, clarity, wisdom, forcefulness and grace is London rapper Akala. He is Elevator 34.

Akala’s ability to fuse storytelling, social commentary, fiery satire and highly entertaining rap verses is evident in his famous 2011 radio performance on Fire In The Booth.

Akala is vocal about the power of reading and a part of his role as bridge builder is because he is such an avid reader, constantly seeing things from different points of view, constantly striving to see the bigger, more nuanced picture. You can hear his theories develop and beliefs strengthen over his last four albums. He’s also candid about his failings.

There are literally hours of Akala lectures and interviews on youtube, perhaps more hours of him speaking than him rapping. He’s an anthropologist, sociologist and historian. He recently spoke to the Oxford Union about, among many things, the problems of Victorian Egyptology.  In 2013 he asserted: “This country (the UK) is not comfortable with the idea of young, intelligent black people – especially men. They’re treated as the exception to the rule.”

His album ‘Knowledge is Power Vol. 2’ released in 2015 is about resistance and empowerment. “Every journey begins with just one step,” he says as he beckons young black people to explore their own explosive ideas, not just his.

The album includes this heavy hitter:

The lyrically potent ‘Murder Runs the Globe’ is followed by the track ‘Urge to Kill’. Played back-to-back they make a brilliant foundation for a sobering debate about violence and war.

Bigoted, racist powers won’t be able to stop Akala’s young listeners from feeling invigorated to go and do further research on his confrontational, anti-establishment assertions.

Akala also stands between cultures and makes them hold hands. In 2008 he founded the Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company, which performs adaptations of Shakespeare’s work and provides workshops for teens and 20somethings. Akala is keen to show that there are more than superficial links between the bard of the past and the rappers of the present.

There will be a new wave of rappers who will not only name check Akala as an influence but will also be able to wax lyrical about what they learnt from brilliant people who names are left out of school history books. Akala: relentless educator, bridge-builder, firebrand, lyrical elevator.


Elevator 32: George the Poet


For the first time in a long time it’s cool to be poet in the UK. You have the license to speak a six-minute stream-of-consciousness verse and people will actually listen intently. There are now 12 regular poetry and spoken word events in my city alone and most of them are packed.

George Mpanga started rapping at 15, but a few years later discovered what various rappers discover: if you rap acapella in certain settings and your material is labelled poetry, a wider group of people will taste, ingest and digest your rap lyrics. You’ve gained a whole new audience.

Mpanga aka George the Poet grew up on the Stonebridge Park estate in north-west London and some of his most memorable work picks apart London life with humor, affection and stark clarity.

George makes the most complex multi-syllable rhymes sound natural – like they were hanging for centuries in the ether somewhere just waiting to be spoken.

Evidence: ‘Baby Mother’

and ‘Estate of Mind’

His trademarks are vulnerability, confidence, beautifully weighted flows and uncomfortable calls for personal transformation.

George explains that his profound new EP ‘The Chicken and The Egg’ is about premature parenthood. “Through the story of a rocky relationship, it outlines the cycle of fatherlessness in seven tracks.”

Listen to it here.

George has a vision, which it appears he’s pursuing with sincerity and zeal: helping the next generation of inner-city youth discover their talents and grow their confidence and self-esteem. George’s words aren’t merely aspirational. He’s not weaving a tapestry of fanciful dreams – no, his words are a bulldozer to the lies and self-doubt of young people across the UK.

I’d go as far as to say George the Poet has a prophetic core. We need more artists brave enough to stand up to ego, empire, slavery and community dysfunction and say, ‘This ain’t working. There’s another way of living’.

Over the last decade we’ve seen a new wave of performance poets building their skills, pouring out their guts, confessing their inner demons and telling compelling stories of joy or misfortune. However George the Poet’s work stands out. With every measured pause, every mournful smile, every subtle internal rhyme you sense just how devoted he is to his craft and his mission. His poems cut through the fog of hegemonic disinformation with samurai ease and hopefully he’ll school some heads and unhead some spin doctors while he’s at it.

Here’s one of his no bull interviews


Elevator 4: Ty

Yes! Our 1st UK elevator!

Some lyricists elevate the art of rap through tongue-twisting flights of fancy coaxing us to expand our imaginations, others elevate through plainspoken observations, pithy diatribes and candid anecdotes. Ty aka Ben Chijioke has spent the last decade diligently making clear-minded, soulful, snap-your-neck hip-hop music.

He’s willing to point out not only the injustices and turmoil of 21st century life in general, but his own heartaches, gripes and struggles knowing full well that vulnerability, sincerity and social concern are perceived by some hip-hoppers as weak and uncool.

I think Ty can’t help but be honest and he couldn’t care less about machismo. While other rappers chameleon their way through their career Ty just spits it how he sees it. Accordingly in conversation he’s dialectic. He’s friendly, but he’s not automatically agreeable. You know he’s a good listener because at times he will disagree with you very specifically. How refreshing.

It’s this at times awkward honesty mixed with his playful gruffness, which makes Ty such a distinctive voice in UK and global hip-hop. Add his warmth and wit and you have some classic rap songs.

‘Closer’, released in 2006, is the Ty album that I’ve spent proper time with. It’s such a solid, well-produced and heartfelt record. For me this is the perfect soundtrack to everyday life: sitting on the train, cleaning out the garage or folding laundry.

But there’s one more thing that makes this Londoner a true elevator: he speaks hope, much needed, painfully rare hope. And honestly, it’s more fun to party in an atmosphere of hope than of zombie-like hedonism.

I implore you to listen to these songs on proper speakers or quality headphones – they are meant to be heard AND felt.
His latest release ‘Like You Never’ is the first single from the upcoming ‘A Kick Snare & An Idea’ EP on the Tru Thoughts label. If you want to know what Ty’s about, these lyrics are a good place to start.

More hope, more determination and one of the slinkiest beats ever recorded:

‘We Don’t Care’ from his album ‘Upwards’ (2005)

‘Don’t Cry’ from ‘Special Kind of Fool’ (2010) – just close your eyes and listen to this one – the video is a bit of a distraction

His Tru Thoughts label page