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 13: Juice Aleem


You know you are in the presence of true experimentalists, when in your post-gig analysis you tell the performers their songs were ‘impenetrable’ and they wear the term like a badge of honour. The event: Dedbeat Weekender 2002, the group: Gamma.

Juice Aleem, rapper with Gamma, The Infesticons and New Flesh, is a wanderer. You might spy him in Paris or South London. Is that him wandering around the dusty outskirts of hip-hop plotting a coup with bass-heavy bandits and Moorish mystics or growling out maxims from hip-hop’s epicentre? Is that a tusken raider or a shogun assassin?

Birmingham-bred Juice was the very first vocalist on the Big Dada label in 1997, has toured the globe with Coldcut and has appeared on records with various electronic luminaries for the last 15 years. A genuine MC, Juice has the ability to charm a crowd with a quick quip, whip ’em into a frenzy with a call-and-response hook or blindside ‘em with a double-time freestyle [by the way I define freestyle as ACTUAL on-the-spot improvised vocals].

Much of Juice’s material remains underexplored like ‘Understanding’ [2002] with New Flesh and ‘Permanament’ [2000] with Gamma. NME reviewer Angus Batey called the latter ‘an intense, if bewildering, experience’ and unsurprisingly misspelt the album title.

One reason why listeners are bewildered is the odd mixture of the strange beats, the dead-pan humour, the history lessons, wild flights of fancy, enciphered slang and the landmines of rage hidden throughout the various releases. But this is what happens when sonic art collides with Afrofuturism, something that Juice whole-heartedly embraces and explores.

The afrofuturist, as well as challenging the imagination, tends to bring up all kinds of inconvenient truths. Like Sun Ra and Rammellzee, Juice zig-zags between playfulness and indignation, cosmic visions and profane realities. Unfortunately the afrofuturist rapper is frequently marginalized as an irrelevant space-shit-talker.

But Afrofuturism itself calls into question what is and what isn’t relevant. In essence it transports us back to an ancient time and civilization and from that standpoint boldly shows us an alternative now and an alternative future. To do so requires alternative vocabulary too.

While admitting his own vices and foibles, Juice Aleem attempts to battering ram his way through the zombie-esque consumer culture white noise and punch a hole in our doors of perception. Can there be a future where innovation and justice are prized and Africa is a vibrant, healthy continent?

In 2009 Juice released his debut album ‘Jerusalaam Come’. It’s packed with sci-fi sirens, stern verbal battle drills, nasty thoughts, wit and whimsy, martial arts and humanities. Our family hosted the premiere crew screening of the ‘Rock My Hologram’ video in our lounge:

The vocals for ‘Jerusalaam Come’ were recorded in the house right next door and me and my daughter, who was 3 at the time, visited a recording session and added some shouting to the chorus on this track:

He is just about to unleash a new record via the forward-thinking hip-hop label Spinning Compass. Expect a thorough lambasting of the current world order, unothodox party music and a reinterpretation of the term ‘existential dread’.

Here’s the first single [produced by Roots Manuva] from the forthcoming album ‘Voodu StarChild’:

Here’s Juice’s Spinning Compass page.

The MoorKaBa LightBikes/AnuMal release is available via Itunes USA and UK


Elevator 11: The Praying Mantis

11mantisheaderThere’s a steep hill just off the M5 motorway southwest of Birmingham and I’m imagining The Praying Mantis sitting up there in antediluvian body armor drinking green tea and reading scripture as he waits for creatures from the underworld to engage him in a battle for the lost spirits of Mercia.

Like the title of his recent E.P. The Praying Mantis is ‘The Unorthodox Christian’. Listening to his lyrics is like being sucked into an epic convergence of literary and filmic genres. There’s media moguls, angels, politicians, dragons, Moses, postcode gangsters, ninjas and the god Apollo, but there’s also eschatology, autobiography, folklore, esotericism and gothic horror.

His style, forged in the fiery interactions of multi-cultural North Birmingham street life, has a gruff, no-nonsense backbone. Still, there’s lyrical back flips as well as bear grips. His delivery is striking enough that any savvy hip-hop beat producer could find a memorable hook were they to mine his verses.

What makes Mantis an elevator is his feisty battle for personal integration. As he dedicates time to reach out to embittered young people who’ve been neglected or written off, he wants to prove that there’s a new breed of fathers, brothers and mentors whose word IS their bond and who WILL listen to you, spar with you, care for you. His lyrics speak of grace, justice, courage, creativity and the desire for these things to be tattooed onto his life. Mantis explains, “I am very passionate about how I relate to the beat, the mind, the street and Christ, which you’ll find deeply embedded in the rhyme schemes and themes I write about.”

Mantis released his debut solo E.P. ‘Space/Time Continuum’ in 2005 and the ‘The Rusty Halo Effect’ album in 2009 and he continues to record with lyrical partner Quartz Crystallus. Here’s two of their many collaborations [Mantis’ verses are near the end of these tracks]:



I asked Mantis if he were introducing someone to hip-hop music which album would he get them to listen to? “I can’t think of any one album that embodies the whole spectrum of hip-hop, so I would start with KRS-One’s ‘Return of the Boom Bap’ followed by Shai Linne’s ‘Lyrical Theology‘”!

The Praying Mantis: adventurer, protector, visionary, servant, street scholar. I’m privileged to be able to call this emcee a close friend.

Download his ‘The Unorthodox Christian’ EP here for FREE:


Elevator 7: Soweto Kinch


This week someone from my home city of Birmingham released a 41-track Dante-inspired hip-hop jazz concept album called ‘The Legend of Mike Smith’.

Read that opening sentence again if you need to.

Yes, you’ve read that right and Soweto Kinch is that someone.

Soweto Kinch is an unstoppable force in UK hip-hop with an insatiable desire to experiment and explore. Since 2001 he’s been sparking off projects and drawing collaborators to his bubbling cauldron of jazz, rap and dramatic narrative.

Perhaps more than most artists featured in 70 Elevators, Soweto has received high profile awards and nominations for his music. He is a respected jazz alto saxophonist and he plays at jazz events around the globe.

But he is also a formidable storyteller, rap lyricist, freestyler and hip-hop beat maker. His debut album ‘Conversations With The Unseen’ was released in 2003 followed by ‘A Life In The Day Of B19 – Tales Of The Tower Block’ three years later. Increasingly Soweto proved that proper rap and serious jazz could not just co-exist on an album but could actually compliment each other. Listen to Ridez off ‘A Life In The Day…’

Here Soweto talks about touring ‘A Life In The Day…’.

As well as recording and touring, Kinch curates The Flyover Show, an inspiring and community unifying music festival which takes place under a dual carriageway bridge in Birmingham. Here he is back in 2008 trying to visualize it.

And making it happen.

In 2012 he took The Flyover Show concept to Freedom Square, Johannesburg, South Africa. 3000 came to the show.

But let’s listen to more of Soweto the rapper. Here he takes on the persona of the tyrant controlling the tyrant and tears up ‘Axis of Evil’. Awesome delivery.

This track ‘Head For the Hills’ from his 2009 EP ‘War in a Rack’ also showcases Soweto’s unrestrained flow.

The brand new 2-hour ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ adventure ‘The Legend of Mike Smith’ is available online here and here. ‘Gula’ and ‘Avaritia’ are the stand-out tracks for me so far. Here’s a review of it.

The great thing is knowing that after this impressive, complex piece of work Soweto Kinch will produce even more unusual and beautiful music. His well has not run dry. In fact he’s still warming up to make a genre-defying magnum opus. Mic in one hand, sax in the other Soweto has dug deep and found a rich seam of soul-searching narrative hip-hop and feisty lyricism.

Birmingham is the city of a thousand styles and Soweto has mastered more than a few of them.


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