Personality Clash: Idris Elba x Akala

Actor and rapper, in conversation...

Two people, one conversation. Which Clash records, transcribes, and then presents as this sort of article. We’ve done it before, and we’ll do it again. Just you watch us. (Don’t watch us. It’s hot, and we’re sticky.)

For our latest Personality Clash, we’ve pulled out the big guns. Or, rather, one of our contributors does in his new movie. Idris Elba, known to many as ‘Stringer’ Bell in The Wire and the title character in the BBC’s hit crime drama Luther, is currently starring on the silver screen as the rather wonderfully named Stacker Pentecost, a commander sort amongst the human players of Guillermo del Toro’s sci-fi monster-mash-up, Pacific Rim. If you’ve not seen it, think Godzilla meets Transformers only, like, a lot better than that seems in your mind.

We’ve pitched the hip-hop-loving actor against one of the UK’s leading MCs, Akala. Born Kingslee Daley in ’83, and the brother of Mercury Prize-winner Ms Dynamite, he’s a MOBO-winning artist whose catalogue of albums has attracted substantial acclaim.

Akala’s latest long-play set, album number four ‘The Thieves Banquet’, was released in May, and features the single ‘Lose Myself’. Check the video to that below, alongside a trailer for Pacific Rim, and then read on for the chatter between our clashing personalities.

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Akala, ‘Lose Myself’

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Pacific Rim (official main trailer)

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Akala: Can you remember the moment that you fell in love with hip-hop? Was there one moment for you, or was it an era?

Idris: The moment I fell in love with hip-hop, really, was listening to Dave Pearce’s show. He had a show on, I think at the time it was on LWR, and it was on a Sunday between about eight and 10 o’clock in the evening. And what he used to do was play new hip-hop, new music, and then I think about quarter to nine he would say, “Right, write down your raps, and at nine o’clock call in… first in will get on radio and rap their 16 bars,” or what not. And mate, every Sunday that was me, man. That was when I started to fall in love.

This was just when UK hip-hop was just starting to bubble, really. You had a couple of artists coming out, from Derek B to Hijack, and MCing was kind of new. I was about 14-years-old, so it was just this vibe like, “Oh man, if I can get on the radio and spit in front of everyone that would be me; that would be a big thing to say, ‘Yeah, did you hear me on the radio yesterday?’’’ That was when I fell in love with it: listening to other kids just like me getting on the radio and rapping and writing down their rhymes.

One time I actually got through! But what they do is you call up and then they say, “Alright, hold on the line, and if we pick you, you’ve got to be ready to go.” I was on the line with about four other rappers, but they didn’t pick me! (Laughs) But that was my moment, man. That was that moment where the art of spitting and rhymes and beats, that’s when I fell in love with it, right there listening to Dave Pearce.

A: Cool. Do you think that’s part of what gives you power, in a way…? I mean, there’s elitism in that if you’re a great MC, you’re a great MC, but the way that it’s sort of open to all in that you don’t need more than a pen and a pad in many senses? For loads of other things you need to buy all this equipment, or be of a certain social strata. But in hip-hop, essentially anyone can participate. But you’ve still got to be good.

I: I don’t know, man, I think it’s a combination for me. A good MC is someone who has something to say and a way to say it, you know what I mean? For me, I never really could fall in love with one style of MCing. You’ve got people that chat and spit fast over sort of drum ‘n’ bass and house and all that – I love that sort of stuff, that soundsystem stuff where the MC’s toasting over beats. That’s an MC for me.

But then, you’ve got the American style, from KRS-One to Jay Z, where you’re talking about how much bling you have or you’re talking about education or trying to educate. To me, the common denominator for all of that is that it’s someone with confidence, charisma, something to say and a way to say it. And that can be anybody. Anybody can pick up a pen and write down their thoughts and say them on an open microphone, but the right combination of all those ingredients I just said makes a great MC, in my opinion.

I think, as well, some people have that voice and personality where they can just read the Bible and it sounds fresh, and it sounds fly.

A: I know exactly what you mean!

I: And that’s a natural gift that some people have, but not everybody has that and a lot of people have to work at being an MC. And that’s the other misconception: everyone thinks that you just get up and you rap. But rappers have to work at it, and I know that for a fact.

When I lived in New York, I was watching rappers… I used to wonder how rappers could freestyle on Hot 97’s Funkmaster Flex show. I remember the moment I realised that freestyling didn’t mean freestyling! (Laughs) It broke my heart a little bit, that most of these freestyle rappers are not freestyling, they’re all written rhymes that they’ve remembered, and even though they might embellish them and dissect them, and do them in different ways, but ultimately they’ve written these rhymes.

There are MCs that can do that, the art of freestyle, but those are very rare; most times out of 10, most rappers work really hard, as you would know. But for you, where’s your position on it? You’re a great rapper, but what makes you recognise another great MC?

A: Ah, thanks. I think for me it was… growing up, it was the way that rappers would use words, right, but so intelligently. If you take someone like Biggie, right: even if he was telling a grimy story, I was instantly aware. I was like, you can just tell this guy is f*cking smart. Just the way he put his words together, the way he would craft the story and all the different elements, from flow to charisma, and then on top of that have great lyrics and a great story and all of that. For me, it was what rappers could say, how much information they could pack into three minutes.

With a singing song – I love rock and reggae music and soul, and all of that – but singing, just the nature of it, the speed of singing is so slow that you can only fit four to six lines in a verse, whereas a rapper has got 16 bars or maybe even more than that, and I was always taken aback by how much information MCs could put into stuff.

I grew up in the Wu-Tang era, and for me Wu-Tang sort of hit me in a way that I can only say changed my life. They came out using words like “benevolent” in rap songs – I was like, “What?” They sent me to the dictionary, because they made it so cool to be smart. They weren’t being anything else; they were from where they were from, they’d been through what they’d been through, some of them had been to prison, some of them had been shot, but they still felt they had the right to come out and use words like “benevolent” in a rap song. And, to me, that was amazing. It made it okay to be intelligent. In fact it made it cool, and I think that was one of the big things that had an impact on me: that use of language in such an eloquent way, but without aspiring to be something that you’re not.

I: Did you ever get lost as an MC finding your way, finding which way you wanted to go? You could have gone Biggie’s way, where it’s about being braggadocios and being sort of observational about their culture. Or, since Wu-Tang was a massive influence, did you find yourself going more poetic? Did you find yourself caught between where to go?

A: Yeah, that’s absolutely true. I found myself and lost myself and found myself again, if that makes sense? When I first started writing, because my primary influences were Wu-Tang and Public Enemy, it was very conscious. But I was rapping with an American accent for about six months until my sister just pulled me up one day and said, “Listen mate, you’re not from New York!”

At the time RZA was my favourite MC, so not only was I rapping in an American accent, I was rapping exactly like RZA; even the way he does his slur, everything. It was pathetic. I was about 12 or 13 and my sister just pulled me up and was like, “No, no, no. You can’t do that, you’re not American; we’re in England. If anything, chat yard.” We grew up listening to Jamaican stuff and my family’s from Jamaica. “Mix it with that more! We’re not American at all; we have no connection to America.” And so, luckily, I lost that early.

I: (Laughs) That’s a good bit of advice. Let me ask you this: why is it that English rappers, and rappers from other parts of the world, haven’t quite been able to penetrate the worldwide market in the same way as US artists? And yet, we will speak about things that are equally as entertaining, equally as eloquent, but often less bragging. What is it about the UK rapper that doesn’t quite ever make them a worldwide number one hit in the same way an American rapper can be?

A: I think that’s a valid question, and I think there are a number of reasons. I think for a long time we didn’t perfect our own voice, myself included. We all went through a period of copying America too closely. When the West Coast rappers came out, the reason why people noticed them was because they had their own flavour on top of what they took from New York. So when NWA, Snoop and all these others came out, if they were rapping about snow and Timberland boots people would say, “Are you lot crazy? It doesn’t snow in Los Angeles!” You know what I mean? They had their own flavour.

I think Britain has found its own flavour. The difference is, I think, to be honest. It has a lot to do with, in my opinion, the position of black culture in America and how much importance it is accorded. And you’ve probably experienced this yourself; it’s no coincidence to me that you got your big break somewhere that isn’t here. And I think if you look at many black British actors, and even professors and so many other parts of black British culture, there’s sort of this emigration to America. They get a big name there, and then finally Britain says, “Actually yeah, you are really good.”

Take the two biggest British MCs, Monie Love and Slick Rick… I mean, if Slick Rick continued his life here but had the exact same talent, would he have ever become Slick Rick? Most people don’t know he was born here, and he didn’t move to America until he was about 12. So I think there’s a certain amount of credibility that American hip-hop has: because people like Nas and Wu-Tang have sold millions of records, as an art form American hip-hop is respected.

We have not yet seen a Nas type, or a KRS-One type, or a Wu-Tang type UK MC get onto Radio 1 in the daytime. So I don’t think there is enough credibility or enough of a story that sells British hip-hop. People don’t even know there’s black people in England, let alone what’s going on here, whereas everyone everywhere in the world, you ask them about Brooklyn, they’ll probably be able to tell you five or six different project buildings in Brooklyn, or they’ll tell you that Biggie’s from Bed-Stuy or Jay-Z’s from Marcy. These African American hoods have a worldwide story – people know Queens – and so there seems to be a credibility, and that’s still even further from Muhammad Ali and James Brown and all these African-American icons that were global a generation before then.

So I think it’s to do with the position of culture and I don’t see that being remedied, to be honest with you. I just think it’s one of these things. And because we speak English as well… Like, the French market? French rappers are huge! They’re the biggest rappers in France. But perhaps because they speak French it immediately gives them their own identity, and so that’s it. I think it’s all of those things.

Take Loki, whose album came out in 2011. Now he got no radio support here, no TV support, but he’s got 10s of millions of views on YouTube, sold nearly 10,000 albums, and he can do shows in New York and sell a couple of hundred tickets. Granted, that’s not massive numbers, but for a British MC who’s never had any radio even here, you’d think that if the music industry was really interested in making money they would support somebody like that, given that he clearly demonstrated he can make loads of money. His album launch here sold 800 tickets. But because of what he’s talking about he’s never going to get mainstream support in the UK.

I: I think that’s definitely true, and I think it makes sense, but it still bothers me because you and I both know the same kicks, the same snares, the same basslines that are all used in the studio. You might have a difference in the technique and, yeah, the accent is definitely different, but it’s marginal. The guy that produced ‘Empire State Of Mind’ for Jay Z and Alicia Keys, Al Shux, that guy’s English! That tune could have easily been about London, because the guy’s from England. It’s a UK producer, it’s a UK perspective if you like, but he made it about New York. I just find it baffling how we couldn’t have made the same record and had the same impact.

Okay, Jay Z is Jay Z and his credibility is definitely talking about something, but it baffles me. As far as actors are concerned, okay, I go to America and I get a bigger audience and that compels me into a bigger atmosphere as an actor. But, I’m still English. In America, I hate to say it this way, but I’m known as the next great African-American actor – but I’m not African-American! So it’s like records: if I was a rapper and I went out to America and rapped in an American accent, would that be considered American music or would that be considered English music? Do you know what I mean? I guess I’m not articulating it properly, but I’m just baffled at how we are not allowed to do the same thing.

A: I hear you, and I think part of it is definitely the quality of the music to a certain degree. Particularly ‘80s and ‘90s hip-hop. That era, man; think about the albums that came out, from Kool G Rap to KRS-One, to Slick Rick, to Nas, Eminem, DMX… the level of production, the amount of money spent, the quality of music, there was just such a plethora of things.

Also, if you go around the world, people don’t want to be English, they want to be American. If you go to Nigeria right now, nobody talks in an English accent, except someone who is trying to be an Oxford professor. Like, on the roadside people wear NY caps, they wear LA caps, they wear baggy jeans and Timberlands – and I’ve seen this in Nigeria, in the Philippines, in so many places in the world. But you don’t see people necessarily aspiring to be English in the same way.

That record, ‘Empire…’, could have been about London, but I don’t know if it would have had the same worldwide appeal because America has the presence both economically and militarily. In every sense, America has a presence around the world that Britain maybe had around 100 years ago but doesn’t have in the same way now. I don’t know.

I: Akala, I want to get into the studio with you, literally. But can I just say something? Why is it all rappers are mean? They always say, “Yeah man, come on,” and then you never hear from them.

A: Alright, I’ve got your email, let’s just do it, 100 percent. Whenever you’re ready, just come down, we’re there.

I: I’ve got some bits I want to play you – we could even start from scratch. But I think it would be lovely to create a piece.

A: Any parting shots with hip-hop, anything we’ve forgotten?

I: Okay, if you had to name your one favourite MC, who would that be?

A: There’s two people that come into my head now. I would say actually Lauryn Hill, after Wu-Tang. Even though she doesn’t rap that much, the few times she does, I feel like that alone is enough to cement her. I heard Nas say that she’s the greatest rapper of all time, but I wouldn’t go that far because I don’t think she’s put out enough material. But on ability she’s definitely someone I would put in that conversation.

And I’d say Damian Marley. If you go and listen to the album that him and Nas did, 'Distant Relatives', if you had to unpick it line for line… No offence, Nas is one of the greatest, no doubt, and I’m not trying to slight him in any way, but you would have to say Damian out-raps him on that album.

I: Lauryn would be on my list for sure. Lauryn is incredible.

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As told to: Cai Trefor

On topic: read Clash’s 15 Years Of ‘The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill’ here

And previous Personality Clash articles here

Find Akala online here

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