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total.spec Interview: Akira The Don

So this just popped up, and it’s a bit odd as I have no memory of doing it and that Lono book it mentions has been out of my position for well over a year so lord knows when it was conducted… But anyway, via total.spec, have at ye…

Interview: Akira The Don

“What’s all this in aid of?” asks a besuited and bemused drinker.

We’re in a Shoreditch pub and the quiet guy with spiky peroxide blond hair who, until now, had been quietly sitting in the corner tinkering with a bright red laptop is suddenly striking poses, having his photograph taken.

“He’s a hip-hop guy,” I explain. “His name is Akira the Don.”

Before popping outside for a few more pictures, Akira [aka AK Donovan, Adam Alphabet or just plain old Adam Narkiewicz, pictured], hands me some things to ward off the boredom while he’s gone.

So I get a copy of Hip-Hop Connection ["read about The Game," he says], Gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson’s The Curse of Lono with illustrations by Ralph Steadman ["you might like this"] and a copy of The Independent ["a silly newspaper"].
Indeed.

And all very apt.

It could almost be pre-interview required reading list.

First and foremost, it should be noted that Narkiewicz is a hip-hop artist in his thirties, but he is also a music journalist and cartoonist, and nurtures the kind of crusading world-saving liberalism beloved of the Indy’.

Oh, and he’s also writing a sitcom.

A bit multi-talented, then.

“There’s time in this world to do everything,” he says later, in a laid-back drawl that sometimes briefly lapses into a Hunter S-like slur. “You just have to stagger it.”

So who is this jack of all trades?

It feels cheap to point it out, but the Akira the Don look breaks all the hip-hop image regulations – and not just because he’s white.

Peroxide blond hair?

Check.

Cartoony tattoos? Beard with protruding pencilly moustache?

Check, check and check.

Various publicity shots have him looking much like Johnny Depp playing Thompson, and Narkiewicz is occasionally told he looks like the Hollywood star.

“It’s nice to hear that, when he’s the most handsome man in the world and you’re a short-arse hairy Welsh creature,” he says.

Narkiewicz made his album debut, with the nostalgically titled When We Were Young [2006] – a vibrant party soundtrack stuffed with animated anthems, quick-witted rhymes and featuring a thankful paucity of that great hip-hop foible, the skit. As an album it retains the sunshine of Lily Allen, the Britishness of The Streets, the stoner charm of Sublime and pinches of the scattershot humour of Goldie Lookin’ Chain.

Narkiewicz, in modest mode, calls it “a dude chatting nonsense over a bunch of noises,” but then quickly adds, “it’s also quite glorious pop music.”

The ‘glorious pop’ part is perhaps what sets Akira the Don apart from many of his hip-hop contemporaries. He’s clearly deeply enamoured, not only with hip-hop, but with rock and indie also, and his output is soaked through with the genres’ influences. As such, his work memorably samples artists as diverse as Alice Cooper and Nico and is also interspersed with sound clips from The Prisoner in a way that’s reminiscent of the Manics’ 1994 misery-manual The Holy Bible.

His other creative mediums however are also saturated with guitar-love.

Indeed, an interview once saw Akira claiming to be “the rap Morrissey” [a phrase that's mentioned in almost every article written about him] and a lot of the backing music on his famous mix-tapes comes from the Britpop era; Elastica to Menswear and the Boo Radleys.

When he’s DJing later in the evening, the setlist is actually a paean to accessible and unashamedly fun tunes, featuring tracks by Bon Jovi, Johnny Cash, The Proclaimers, Meatloaf and on. Narkiewicz also has a thing for art, and for er, moustaches.

“Dali needn’t have painted anything. He could’ve been the greatest artist ever, purely from what he did with his facial hair. Just brilliant,” he laughs. “Moustaches done correctly can be wonderful things. They can also be abhorrent food traps.”

Those ‘doing it correctly’ apparently are Tom Selleck ["pretty gangsta"], Bruce Forsyth ["it's like a weird dead caterpillar"] and Depp ["so sparse, yet somehow quite luxurious"].

Putting facial hair aside for a moment, Narkiewicz seems to have a clear sense of what he’s capable of – and not just in terms of facial hair.

“I know what I can do and I know what I can’t do,” he says, openly.

“I was brought up in a little valley where I was told everything I was doing was entirely wrong. I went ahead and did it anyway.”

Born in Anglesey, a county at the northwestern extremity of north Wales, his musical indoctrination came remarkably early, dancing around to Adam Ant aged two.

He lays out the stages of his childhood using a range of cultural landmarks; Spiderman on the bedroom wall when he was two, reading Roald Dahl’s The BFG aged three, then on to the The Hobbit at four, drawing comics and “making noises” at five and putting together his first mix-tape aged eight.

School was “rubbish” he claims, and he retreated into a world of music magazines and comics. The kids weren’t down with his Adam Ant records or haircut and he got into fights all the time.

“Usually they would win because I was small, but still I would keep on. And that included the teachers, because they didn’t like me either.”

Fortunately, the not fitting in and general dislike of the place in which he’d found himself nurtured his love of music.

“I had lots of time to walk around and wander, because there was fuck all to do. I used to walk around singing to myself.”

He left home aged 15 and spent a brief period living in the woods in a tent, hitching to school every day to do his GCSEs.

“I missed one of them because I was asleep in my tent and I didn’t have an alarm,” he says. “I was relying on the sun to wake me up.”

Then, after a short and unsuccessful stint in a bedsit in Bangor, he moved to Birmingham overspill town Redditch, aged 16. Although he had rocky moments [he was still getting into fights, including one incident where he was held down by four rudeboys and had cigarettes stubbed out on his head], it was a happy time, for a bit.

I quickly fell into the world of drugs and pretending to be a rockstar. It was great,” he reminisces. “Then it all came crashing down. Everything got really mad. Everyone was taking too much speed because no one could afford proper drugs. Speed does nutty things to people’s brains.”

His girlfriend got pregnant, his mates tried to kill themselves and he was arrested for selling drugs. The world “went a bit dark for a while,” but it provided a chance to get away from the madness. He also has happy memories of sitting with a probation officer smoking weed and listening to The Smiths, when they were meant to be mowing the lawn in the graveyard.

Things really started to get going when he moved to London, however. He got into music journalism, and later hooked up with two like-minded souls to form hip-hop collective Crack Village.

“We decided on the morning of the Millennium that everyone was rubbish and that we’d teach ourselves to MC and form a rap boyband that would be represented visually by cartoons. Then Gorillaz did it, the bastards.”

Things didn’t work out with Crack Village – their progress was too slow for him. So he took a song he’d done but which the others had rejected and attached it to a website column he’d written.

David Laurie, who co-runs London record label, Something in Construction, heard it and asked if there was any more where that came from. Narkiewicz told him there was, then went home and wrote another seven songs over the weekend.

Around that time, a mate invited him over to America to play some shows and crash on people’s floors. Narkiewicz sent some songs to his friend Phil and fate took over.

“His girlfriend, who was a hairdresser, was playing the CD while she was cutting some guy’s hair,” he says. “It turned out he was some guy who claimed to be working for Warner Brothers. He was actually a gobshite, but he was one of those gobshites known by other gobshites who know important people.”

Within a day, Jimmy Iovine, the manager and co-founder of Interscope, had heard the CD and flown Narkiewicz over to New York and then LA. The label, home to the likes of Eminem and Marilyn Manson, offered him a six-album deal.

Today, in the world-weary semi-recessionary state of 2013, Akira is working on a collaborative mixtape with Gonzales.

“The ’90s were the last time I was young, but it was also a time when everyone in this West of ours felt young and invincible,” he says, looking back. “But then we woke up in the new Millennium having realised that things actually have a consequence and that there was a larger world and shit is actually pretty dark and fucked.”

He’s talking about wars, genocide, corruption, cloning and global warming, that sort of thing. But he’s less concerned with terrorism than the governments who have used it to alter people’s civil liberties and scare their subjects.

“We’re currently in a period which is very much like Germany in the 30s,” he says. “We have tyrannical freaks trying to terrify us into nonsense Orwellian weirdness.”

With his frequent plane journeys to America, does terrorism worry him?

“Terrorism is nonsense. It’s been blown incredibly out of proportion. There’s no ‘terror in the skies’ today unless you live in the Gaza fucking Strip or Iraq, where there’s a load of fucking planes that are going to fucking bomb you. Planes are fucking scary if you happen to be poor and brown and live in certain parts of the world that have lots of natural oil reserves. Planes are not fucking scary if you live in London. Planes are ace!”

On the ground, and away from the planes, Narkiewicz today remains very much about art, journalism and mix-tapes. As such, he painstakingly puts together hour-long mixes of himself and various collaborators rapping over a range of samples – recorded, mixed and edited at his home.

Then he puts these out and offers them as a free MP3 download from his site.

It’s the mix-tapes that have helped him build a following, and particularly in America.

“Thanks to them,” he says simply, “I exist.”

Narkiewicz has a number of intriguing recurring phrases, but the one that stands out and wraps up many of his answers is “…and it was great”. As well as capturing his easygoing but enthusiastic manner, the tic gives a strong sense that each mini-anecdote he relates has a happy ending – that whatever past adversity he’s faced, he’s ended up exactly where he wants to be.

So, how does Akira the Don maintain the balance in his mind and his life?

“Stuff is really fucking dark in one corner, but it’s also really ace in another,” he replies.

“There’s no point in caring about the bad stuff if one doesn’t appreciate the good stuff. So smell the flowers.”

Quite. t:s

written by Mr Will Parkhouse

 

 

— Friday, May 17th, 2013

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