Friday, 28 January 2011 11:18 Matt Lundy
As a former member of Jurassic 5, Akil the MC helped the group become hip-hop icons. At a recent show in Phnom Penh, his performance was steeped in the group’s back catalogue but the 40-year-old insists his new material is the way forward.
Mini mushroom clouds spew from the smoke machines in Pontoon nightclub, billowing around Akil the MC, the night’s featured performer.
The 40-year-old emcee is still sporting his trademark dreadlocks – his calling card in a two-decade music career – although nowadays they are flecked with grey.
A crowd of expats, backpackers and Khmers are huddled close to Akil on the dance floor – close enough to score high-fives and cell phone pics with the rapper – when another gust of manufactured smoke blows through.
“Can we have no more smoke? Please, no more smoke,” Akil says into the mic. “This shit is choking the shit out of me, for real.”
Nearly 15,000 kilometres from his home in Atlanta, Georgia, the emcee is on his latest jaunt through Asia. Performing last Saturday in Phnom Penh, Akil rhymes his way through the back catalogue of Jurassic 5, a Los Angeles-based hip-hop group he was a part of for nearly 15 years.
The group, like most long-term bands with egos to manage, eventually broke up. But Akil continues to tour at a relentless pace, performing the group’s classic tracks, as if to preserve their cult following and keep living his teenage dreams.
Akil grew up in South Central Los Angeles – an area still fighting a stigma of urban decay and gang violence – where the career options were limited.
“I had friends that sold drugs that made way more [money] than the company that’s on the corner of Sunset [Boulevard],” says Akil. “I didn’t want to sell drugs. I didn’t want to gangbang. I didn’t want to go to the military.”
After breaking his ankle during high school football camp, he started to emcee full-time, travelling to other schools to find people to battle with.
And in his spare time, he gorged himself on a steady diet of old-school classics on tape: KRS-One, The Fat Boys and Kool Moe Dee.
“Hip-hop was a dream and a hobby,” says Akil. “Now times have changed. This is the cash cow right now. [Hip-hop] is just like a God-given gift, our own natural resource to help pave our own way for videographers, people that write books, do movies, managers, lawyers – all these things involved with music that aren’t even the rapper or the DJ. All these jobs that opened up from one art form.”
By 1993, Akil had joined Jurassic 5, consisting of members from two disbanded groups, Rebels of Rhythm and Unity Committee.
The six-piece outfit – comprised of four emcees and two DJs – provided an alternative to later-90s hip-hop that was largely concerned with coastal rivalries, bling and braggadocio.
Four years after its inception, the group made an impact on the underground circuit with its first multi-track release, Jurassic 5 EP.
Compared to other hip-hop from the era, Jurassic 5’s music was stripped down: classic funk samples from deep in the record crates and lyrics recalling a bygone playfulness in the genre.
The group signed a major label deal with Interscope in 1999, where they released three full-length albums and built a cult following. Their album Feedback was released in 2006, minus DJ and producer Cut Chemist. It would be the group’s last.
The break-up itself, nearly four years after the fact, is still shrouded in mystery. Speaking outside of Pontoon, Akil is tight-lipped and vague about the split.
“Things grow old, man. Everybody has different opinions and stuff. With a group you all have to be on the same page.”
Speaking in an interview last year, Akil dismissed the possibility of a reunion.
“That right there is very questionable,” he said.
“It’s just not coming together right now. I ain’t have nothing to do with the split.”
And yet the 40-year-old emcee seems to be keeping the idea alive: that one day the globe-trotting sextet will get together, tapping into a light-heartedness that made them so likeable to begin with; that rhyming his way through Jurassic 5’s catalogue is like practicing for an expected return.
Still, Akil says he’s recorded a few solo albums, the first of which should be released this summer.
“I’ve had people say: ‘Is [the music] different from what you already did?’ Well it’s down the same street. It’s in a different building.”
Sample tracks that have surfaced online show the same crowd-friendly lyrics and sample-laden beats, though the production sounds less indebted to an old-school aesthetic.
On “About Me”, Akil provides the most comprehensive look at his personal history, rapping about the smell of “weed skunk” in his childhood neighbourhood, playing football and listening to LA rap legend Ice-T.
But in spite of this trickle of solo material, Akil doesn’t seem to think hip-hop heads know what he’s up to.
“Nobody knows if I have anything out there,” he says.
“I’ve been performing about two and a half years ... just keeping out there and performing all around the world on the underground circuit. Yeah, you know me from being in J5, but you really don’t know me. So that’s what this is all about. I knew I had to get back on the surfboard and catch another wave.”
That means six to seven months of touring each year, to far flung cities like Phnom Penh, where he played his third show in the past couple of years.
On previous trips to Cambodia, Akil has visited Tiny Toones, the drop-in centre that uses hip-hop culture as a stabilising force for at-risk youth. Earlier on Saturday, he made a cameo in a Tiny Toones music video, almost serving as an elder statesman in a sign of approval for the local organisation.
The day after his performance, Akil is off to Bangkok. And then more Asian tour stops.
Maybe it’s not how Akil envisioned his career arc, but you sense that he’s embracing the opportunity to step out on his own.
“It wasn’t my goal to split up the group,” he says.
“This is all stuff that’s been thrust into my lap, but ... God is the best of planners. This makes sense for me to do it like this. He’s pushing me out into the water, to teach me how to swim and not to teach me how to drown.”