Five years between albums is an eternity in the rap game — perhaps even more so in the indie realm. But veteran Boston MC Akrobatik has hardly been slacking since the release of his 2003 full-length debut, Balance. From touring and putting out material with his Perceptionists brethren Mr. Lif and DJ Fakts One, to delivering sports updates/raps for Ramiro & Pebbles morning show on Boston’s JAM’N 94.5, Ak has kept his name up. While trend-chasing rappers come and go, this DIY artist has pushed pure lyricism and hard beats for a decade strong.
Ten years after his hard-hitting breakout single “Ruff Enuff,” Ak still understands the importance of maintaining an articulate and fervent flow – more so than most of his indie peers. You can tell the MC takes Guru’s old adage “It’s mostly the voice that gets you up” to heart. When he raps, you want to listen, even when his concepts are not all that complex.
With the support of NYC’s Fat Beats imprint, Akrobatik recently released his long-awaited sophomore opus, Absolute Value. Here, the commanding MC hasn’t lost his penchant for delivering social-minded material. He even enlists Chuck D to assist in the somber “Kindred” — an unflinching pair of narratives where Ak embodies a runaway slave and then an abandoned victim of Hurricane Katrina. At moments like these, Ak is at his most stirring and conceptual. But as he tells Plug One, he’s now just as concerned with making tracks like “Beast Mode” with Mr. Lif that ultimately reflect his energetic live performances. Producers such as Illmind, Da Beatminerz and the late J Dilla help him achieve his goal.
A week before taking off to Atlanta to perform at the A3C Hip-Hop Festival, Akrobatik shared his thoughts about Absolute Value, adapting to the chaotic climate of the music industry, the importance of touring, and why his goals as an artist have changed so much since the release of Balance.
Plug One: Despite the rough state of the industry, how does it feel to have a release on the shelves again?
Akrobatik: It’s the best feeling in the world for an artist to have a new record out, have everybody excited about it, and walk into a store and see it on the shelves. It’s beautiful.
Plug One: Not that you had too much downtime because you’ve been touring and everything, but have you been studying the industry since Balance came out, and how things have been playing out?
Akrobatik: Yeah, there’s a lot of things I’ve been doing between strengthening my relationships in the business and working on songs and, yeah, studying the industry and just getting to that point where I see how I have to adapt in order to maintain and stay in the game. There are definitely a lot of cats since that time when Balance came out that we haven’t heard from again. And we might not because they haven’t adapted business-wise in order to survive in the game. So there’s definitely been a lot of that.
Plug One: It seems like more than ever, independent hip-hop acts really have to make a strong presence on the road. How vital is that for you in 2008?
Akrobatik: Crucial. Without that, there’s nothing. There’s no way to not be active on the road and still thrive as an independent hip-hop artist. I mean I don’t know which independent hip-hop artist sells enough records to not have to tour. Maybe there are a couple guys on the fringes of it, you know, guys that are more hip-hop with an indie rock twist or something like that — even those guys, maybe not. Maybe Slug from Atmosphere comes to mind, but every time I hear of Slug, he’s on the road grinding it out so I don’t even think you could make a case for that. I think everybody feels like this is what you gotta do. I got friends who don’t like to tour and still go out so people are definitely doing that.
Plug One: And since you do tour so much, how much do you think the actual pushing of your albums factors into your success?
Akrobatik: You mean on my part or by the record label’s part?
Plug One: Just on your part.
Akrobatik: Well, I’m gonna do what I can. I’m definitely gonna go on the road and do as many shows as I can in as many places as I can and I’m gonna try to keep a presence online and I’m gonna talk about the record everywhere I go and keep a box of CDs on me and sell them to whoever I can. But the record label also has to do everything they can to make me as visible as possible. It’s a team effort and I think so far that Fat Beats has done a good job of making sure my record is visible and I feel like I’m doing a good job of being in some of the right places at the right time. I just keep my name out there.
I’m on the cover of CMJ this week; I was a featured artist on MySpace last week. There are just a whole bunch of different things like that that I’m trying to do to keep my name out there. I mean the record is brand new so this is gonna be an all-year-long thing. And I think it’s great to put a record out at the beginning of the year and just have all the year to work it.
Plug One: You just mentioned MySpace. That wasn’t around back in 2003 when Balance came out. How has that changed the dynamics of publicity and just getting your name out and connecting with fans?
Akrobatik: Well, you know there are just so many different things about the game right now. On the one hand, it’s like I got 15,000 plays a day or something like that on my MySpace page during the week when I was the featured artist. I’d look on my page and there would be like 400 people on my page at one time. There was nothing even remotely close to that type of promo that I could have done with Balance back in ’03. It didn’t exist. However, back then, people weren’t stealing music as much. So you could actually sell records because people had to buy them in order to get them. So it’s going to be interesting to see if that cancels each other out or which is more effective.
I definitely after two weeks sold more copies of Balance than Absolute Value, which, although it’s bothersome, is just indicative of what’s going on in the game right now. But let’s see where we are six months from now. I feel like if I go on a couple of strong tours and continue to keep my name out there and continue to do radio and print interviews and do some remixes and keep doing things to keep people interested in the project, I think that there’s no reason why I can’t eclipse what I did with Balance.
Plug One: You’re a strong advocate for fans going out and buying the actual release and not downloading it for free, but do you feel like it’s inevitable for people to at least initially hear the album online and then maybe eventually go out and buy it?
Akrobatik: Well, you’d like to think that, but I have a hard time believing that people will actually have something already and then go buy it. I think that’s a very small percentage of people that we’re talking about. So yeah, maybe there are some people that would do that, but I don’t really think that’s how it goes. I don’t think that’s how the game works. I definitely appreciate people that do that and I would urge anyone who gets their hands on it beforehand to eventually go and grab it. But to me it’s like, “Just buy the record.” If you support the artist, then you’re a fan and you want to hear more music from the artist. That’s the vital point to me. If you wanna hear more music from the artists, then buy what they put out so that they can continue their record deal and put another one out.
Plug One: What else can you do on your part to deter that aside from telling people, “Go out and buy and support”?
Akrobatik: Well, you can do enhanced CDs and stuff like that, but for me I came with a project that has comprehensive artwork and extensive liner notes. There are reasons why you’d want to pick up the album. You want to get the whole story of the record, not just the songs. An album is just that. It’s called an album because that’s what it is: it’s audio but it’s also visual. It’s all about having that physical thing in your hand and I think that when digital downloading was instituted, they forgot about that. For me hip-hop and music in general is such a fun thing because when somebody puts out something new, you always just had that feeling, whether it’s a cassette or a record or CD, of opening it up, opening up that booklet, flipping through it and reading the production credits and looking at all the pictures and everything while you’re listening to the record for the first time. That’s how you get the full experience.
Nowadays in music it’s like, if you think about it, you get reviewers getting advanced copies and writing reviews based on just an advanced CD with no artwork; you have people who download the music for free and they just have the songs so maybe they didn’t take all the songs or maybe they just skimmed through it and tell you what they think about it. Hip-hop has just become like everything else, where it’s just mass produced and packaged in a way that you don’t really get the substance out of it. It’s like we’re selling Happy Meals now. And I’m not gonna be that dude that’s selling Happy Meals to people. I’m giving you a full gourmet dinner, and if you choose not to experience it that way, then you’re missing out. But I think that there’s enough people who are going out and really buying it and getting the full idea of what I’m doing that they’ll appreciate that, and they’ll continue to support me throughout my career because I’m putting in the extra effort for them. I don’t feel like I can be one of those artists that’s just going to put out a CD that doesn’t have any artwork because they know no one’s gonna buy it anyway and stuff like that. I’m gonna continue to live hip-hop; I’m going to continue to do it the way it was meant to be done. And if I’m the last dude left alive doing it at some point, then fine. But it’s not gonna to be a problem with me — it’s gonna to be everyone else’s problem. As long as I can continue to make money, I have no problem continuing to do it the way it was meant to be done.
Plug One: Does it baffle you that rappers are making songs specifically for ringtones at this point?
Akrobatik: No. Again, what any other man does or one does with his art, it’s totally up to them. It’s a free world. It’s a totally free enterprise. If that’s what you think is going to work for you, then by all means, man, that’s what you do. Because some artists are only talented enough to make a ring tone — they can’t make a hip-hop song. So if there’s a market out there for that, it can’t stop people from going out and making their money. Again, for me, my focus is just on me and what I’m doing and on my team and what we’re doing. And for me, I live hip-hop culture. I’m not 18 years old. I didn’t get into this business just because I said, “Here’s a way to make a quick buck.” I’ve been doing this because I love to do it, and before anyone was really getting paid to do it. So I’ve seen the whole evolution of the game and I’ve seen this regression over the last decade and I’m just hoping that it’s gonna continue to ebb and flow and that there will be another high point at some time. But I can’t fault people who are ignorant. If ignorance causes you to step on to making some money, well then you’re lucky.
I just don’t think that one guy can come out and save hip-hop. I just feel like we collectively as a culture need to support what we think is real so that what’s real can continue to thrive and not just get totally watered down by al the ringtone shit and everything that’s going on. It can co-exist. Commercial rap can co-exist with independent rap and ringtone rap can co-exist with real producers. It’s just that it’s selling stuff to 12-year-old kids who don’t know anything about hip-hop history. For what it’s worth, that’s what they’re doing. And yeah, to a degree there’s definitely a lot of mind poisoning going on and all that but I’m not gonna just stand on the soapbox and continue to try to tell everybody, “Hey, this is bad, this is wrong.” I’m just gonna lead by example and those who chose to follow are more than welcome to.
Plug One: On that note, in the Balance liner notes you wrote that, “I have devoted myself to trying to help change hip-hop and the perceived image of the black male for the better.” Has this mission become more challenging and has it changed over the course of the past five years?
Akrobatik: I think it’s changed. I just think that’s not necessarily what my mission is anymore. I learned a lot puttin’ out that record and I just feel like I was ambitious thinking that if you put out a rap album then that’s gonna change people’s mind about a genre of music or a group of people. It’s just not. So for me, my goals have become admittedly a little more self-centered. I still care about my people, I still care about the community, but at the same time, it’s up to everyone if changes are gonna be made to make those changes. It’s not just gonna be Akrobatik came in and now people are giving more black people a chance to get jobs, or Akrobatik came in and now everybody feels like the real hip-hop is back and we don’t have to listen to this garbage that’s on the radio anymore. That’s not gonna happen. It’s one record, it’s one project, it’s one guy. So for me, I’m looking to see how I can maximize that for myself and how I can continue to bring stuff to the fans that I think the fans will appreciate. And as along as the fans appreciate what I’m doing, then I’m doing my job. And as long as the beats are hot and as long as the rhymes are dope, I’m doing my job. It’s not my job to try to save the world. It’s just not.
Plug One: I think with Absolute Value it sounds like you’ve found an even greater balance with real thought-provoking songs such as “Tough Love,” and then balancing those with straight-up bangers like “Be Prepared.”
Akrobatik: Right. I think that just goes along with my focus of just saying, “Hey, I just want to make some jams that are dope. That’s why I’m here.” And when I listen to all my favorite artists, it’s the same thing, man. I’m sure that Gang Starr is definitely all about uplifting black people, uplifting the community. I know plenty of artists that feel that way. But are we all running around talking about it all the time? No. It would get annoying. It really would get annoying. And it would just be overly preachy. So for me, I just like to make songs that I enjoy based on the beat that I pick and the beat will dictate what my song is gonna sound like. And if I didn’t hear the beat to “Tough Love” I wouldn’t have written “Tough Love.” And that’s the reality of it. So I just want people to know that regardless of what my songs sound like, I’m here for a purpose and I’m just gonna try to do things outside of music more so to try to accomplish the goals that I have in the community.
Plug One: Some of the new songs like “Beast Mode” with Lif sound like they were made to be performed on the stage, kind of going back to tracks like “Ruff Enuff.” Was that something that you set out to do?
Akrobatik: Yeah, I always think about that. Any project that I make, I’m gonna have my live performance in mind because that’s where the money’s gonna come from for the most part in terms of direct benefits from puttin’ out a record. And also, you just don’t want to get on the stage and be bored. Like, with Balance, I felt that was a really mellow record. It’s really soulful and I love the record, but performance-wise, I was only performing like maybe five songs off of the album because of the fact that so much [of it] is really dense and dark. And it doesn’t really translate as well to the stage. But now I’ve made a record, save for the guest appearances, where I can perform just about any song on stage because it hits so hard. And that’s just a really important thing to me.
Plug One: One of my favorite lines (of yours) is from “Cooler Headz” on Balance, when you tell the story about how you’re “making 50 people feel like 50,000.”
Akrobatik: Right on.
Plug One: Do you feel like you gotta work with whatever crowds you have?
Akrobatik: Yeah, not every promoter does their job. You get to some venues and it’s a small crowd and the crowd might not be totally happy. Maybe the opening acts are weak and it’s just, like, “Is this gonna get good? What’s gonna happen?” I’m not gonna get out there and perpetuate that. I’m gonna get out there and make these people feel it was worth their while to spend their money. That’s the reality of it. In fact, anybody that’s ever been to an Akrobatik show, no matter how many people are there, they’re not gonna say the show was wack. They might say, “The opening acts were wack, no one was really there, it wasn’t well promoted, but Akrobatik did his thing.” And that’s my goal for every show regardless of how many people are there.
Plug One: When I saw you in Chicago last month you dedicated the last track on Absolute Value, “Back Home to You” to your lady and how she helped you along in tough times when you thought you might have to give up rhyming. Can you speak about incidents where you thought, “I gotta give this up?”
Akrobatik: Well, you put a lot of hard work into the game and … I can’t think of any one specific instance except for maybe going on a tour that tanked or something like that and you just dump a lot of money into the tour or maybe a couple promoters skated with some money. The problems for me usually tend to be around other people in the game that are fucking it up and that don’t know what they’re doing, making it even harder for an independent artist to really go ahead and maintain. Because when you are an independent artist, you end up dealing with a lot of people who are amateurish, whether it be amateurish performers, amateurish record label people, amateurish artists that you’re touring with or whatever. Not everyone is a professional.
That’s the one thing about being in the independent game that’s the most frustrating to me: not everyone is a professional and I end up suffering because of the lack of confidence of other people way too often. If there’s anything that’s made me not want to be in rap anymore, it’s that. I don’t think it’s ever been a money thing or anything like that because everybody’s dealing with that.
Plug One: You have worked with a lot of people, but the one person that has been consistent has been Lif, and also Fakts One. Do you feel like they have the same work ethic? What is it about them that have made them such an integral part in your career?
Akrobatik: Well Fakts One, he is retired. It’s been a little while since we’ve really done any work together, so I consider Fakts more of a friend. With Lif — Lif’s like my best friend. I’ve known Lif since 1995 and it’s just really second nature. He and I have chemistry. It’s not just on record. If I called him right now we’d be laughing within the first ten seconds no matter what it was about. That’s just the relationship that we have and it translates onto our records and it translates onto the stage definitely. And I don’t see it changing. I think that if I didn’t see Lif for five years, and I just bumped into him at a venue, we could get up on stage and murder a show regardless. So he’s a good ally to have. He’s definitely my favorite person to work with.
Plug One: Have you guys been talking about another Perceptionists album?
Akrobatik: Absolutely! Absolutely we’re gonna be doing that.
— Max Herman