2016 Unsigned Music Awards nominee AKS has been on his grind for a minute now. His debut EP The Bus Stop was released to critical acclaim and even a 5-year hiatus didn't slow him down as his most recent release was the follow-up Train of Thought which was nothing short of brilliant.
EARMILK first introduced you to the South-East, London-based act when we premiered his video for "Stay With Me " last year which was off Train of Thought, still pushing said EP, EARMILK caught up with the man himself to talk about his interesting background, the present and beyond.
EARMILK: Give us a brief summary of who you are and what you do?
AKS: On a real I wear a lot of hats fam. Husband, Brother, Son etc…but for now let's just say I'm an independent Hip-Hop artist born out of South London, UK just trying to express myself and reflect on the world as I see it; the best way I know how and I go by three letters….AKS, nothing more nothing less!
EM: What inspired you to make music and what was the first piece of music you made?
AKS: My Dad's an astute musician who plays the keys and sax and my mum was into Nigerian theatre so naturally, music formed the initial backdrop of my childhood. Thinking back it's mad because I'm from endz, but we had a full blown Upright Piano in our 2 bedroom flat! To me that's normal…but it's not normal! LOL! But beyond just being exposed through Dad playing scales and arpeggios my He's also there blazing stuff from jazz greats like Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and as Nigerian-born parents they're both marrying that with sounds of home; Fela "Anikulapo" Kuti, King Sunny Ade, Kollington etc. That's the early musical landscape. And for me being born in the UK I've had a range of influences and inspirations beyond what my parents fed us whether that's the 90's Pop and R'n'B, Michael Jackson, the influx of American Hip-Hop and our reactions to that over here or even home grown Garage transcending into early Grime; I've just kinda grown with music at the forefront of my day to day and absorbed it all. It's funny to me because I started writing and singing songs as a child in the playground with my mates; I was just trying to emulate what my Dad was doing but in my own way and that early point it was literally Boyband-esque…cause at 5/6 years old that's what I knew I could do, you know?
It wasn't until much later that I found myself in Hip-Hop specifically. I still remember as an early teen my friend handing me Nas' illmatic…I don't think he knew what he was going to trigger in me by handing me that album but yea….inspirations abound.
EM: What aspect of the music making process excites you most, and what aspect discourages you the most?
AKS: As an artist, you love different things for different reasons. I love the writing and recording process because I'm a firm believer that in its purist form music should be an expression and reflection of self. That's how I approach it as a means of conveying my emotion so it's almost like something therapeutic to me. I can listen back to a record and know exactly where I was at on an emotional and spiritual level. Like…I believe in that!
Similarly performing is great because it's the point at which you take that emotion you had in isolation and share that with others who've most probably had similar emotions in isolation. That moment of both the artist and their audience realizing that they're not alone is special and ultimately that's what I'm in this for.
As far as discouraging it's the other stuff...the hamster wheel of trying your utmost to be heard by a wider demographic; seeing what the drive for fame does to people and how the industry in itself treats people. It's a gift and a curse at the end of the day. It's the "music business" innit?...and more often than not business being the operative word. It's calm though I've learned what it means to step into being business savvy especially in this day and age where you have to present yourself at a high level from the gate! I'm still learning too…I just gotta remember not to lose myself in that enough to compromise what I started rapping for.
EM: What is the importance of the connections you make? How can you utilize them?
AKS: It's incredibly important man. The game is pretty much built on relationships and navigating industry really hinges on being able to, on some level, leverage those relationships to your benefit. In the long run things still come down to having dope music but we've all heard that saying "It's not what you know; it's who you know!"
I watched an interview once with Jennifer Hudson in which she said something that really resonated with me. It was "It's less about how good you are, and more about how good you are to work with!" and that can get applied across a lot of industries to be honest.
Be good to peeps! Be fair to peeps! It goes a long way trust me!
EM: Does your mind ever wander when you perform in front of a crowd?
AKS: Yeah all the time! LOL! Performing is like putting myself back in the emotional place I was in when I wrote the songs so it's not just saying words I'm living those experiences and conveying passion. I hop on stage and I'm searching for the people in the crowd who are living those experiences with me. I'm still growing in popularity so it's especially true when it's a big stage like playing Troxy for the Unsigned Music Awards I was thinking about everything that went into getting on that stage and being nominated for 2 awards on the night including the night's biggest gong and it's my first time being nominated ever! That's a poignant moment for a lad who told himself he wanted to rap whilst wearing his heart on his sleeve.
EM: What were you thinking about when your songs are developed? Explain your process.
AKS: I'm just trying to convey my emotion and thoughts on the world that surrounds me at given points. Everything is about emotion so if something doesn't hit me in the right way at the right time I won't run with it. I work with a handful of peeps; so it's either a case of me putting down an idea that I have and embellishing that with producers or them pitching me an idea or us cultivating that until it fits where I want to take things lyrically. It sounds incredibly circumstantial but I'm inspired by everything and anything…it could be the most throwaway conversation that I grabbed a jewel from, a memory, or a quote I've read that triggers me off. All these records are an extension of my thoughts and feelings. They're incredibly personal!
EM: Being an independent artist, which is the one factor, above all else, that you currently desire most (increased music distribution, better quality production, more media exposure, more club and live performances etc…)?
AKS: Hmmm…tough ones. You can always do with more of everything to be fair. I've got a place now where we're making great stuff and able to put it where it needs to be; so now it's about connecting with the audiences in the right ways and via the right channels. Being candid I def need to drop more visuals and make a point of touring! Those are things I need to do.
EM: What would your friends say they appreciate the most about you?
AKS: Haha! I wouldn't presume to know to be honest! But I'd hope it'd be that I'm a man of my word; and that I dream big, chasing after those promises I've made myself and others. I won't dream smaller to make other people feel comfortable. I'd hope that dogged determination inspires something out of them; because Lord knows they inspire me on a daily!
EM: How has your practice changed over time?
AKS: It hasn't really. I still approach every show like it's the most important show that I've ever done. I'm trying to make sure the audience connects and remembers me; so the practice hours really go towards making sure that I'm comfortable with things and the band have all got their cues etc. I tend to throw in new bits if I'm playing with the band. Our live renditions of "House Called Home" and "Truth Be Told" are really special.
EM: Describe a real-life situation that inspired you?
AKS: On the Train of Thought EP there's a specific record that was birthed out of watching my parents' relationship with one another and subsequently how that affected my relationships when I came of age and formed my opinions on marriage. It's called "Who Cares" and I'm on the record speaking from the perspective of a husband/father, then the perspective of a wife/mother and then through the eyes of a child trying to avoid making the same mistakes that perhaps his parents made but in doing so making other mistakes which amount to the same thing! I'm sure that's experience shared by many peeps. I'm married now by the way...but that was an important thing for me to express on wax.
EM: What's your scariest experience?
AKS: I'll be real and say I'm struggling to think of the time I've been the most scared! When I was in Uni I went back to endz and bumped into an old friend. We're walking down the street just catching up, I head into a chicken and chip shop and whilst I'm in there some peeps my mate's got beef with roll up. They're fully on a family day out, pushing prams and all sorts so I'm thinking nothing of it but an argument kicks off and they pull a gun. Police get called and peeps disperse in all different directions but I go and pick the way that sees me bump into the dude who's packing again! You know the saying "Guilty by association!"…I honestly thought I was gonna get shot that day! I don't know what I said to get out of that situation but I do remember asking if that's what he wanted to do in front of his kid?...Endz is crazy! But the maddest thing is to me that's a normal story…it shouldn't be!
EM: What's integral to the work of an artist?
AKS: I'm going to say giving yourself time to live and expressing that. Like I said before I'm a firm believer in art being a reflection of self. So in order for you to be able to reflect something you need to have lived it; or at least gained a perspective from someone who has. Industry and the internet have got us as consumers with a short attention span; and peeps are trying their upmost to keep up with that. So there becomes this conveyor belt of music which at times is more "product" than "art". That's not in my mind what artists should be creating...We'd be forgiven for thinking that the drive for commerce was synonymous with the creation of art. Sometimes they're one and the same…but they're mostly not! LOL!
EM: What skills/personal attributes are most important to be successful?
AKS: On some level, it depends on what you deem success as. Like for me that's not specifically seeking the opinions or celebration of others so that I feel gratified. Nice as that is; having that self-determination and contentment in oneself is important. But I really do think being determined and relentless in your pursuit is key! As with any other quest for something there are going to be times when you doubt yourself and what you're doing. Whether any of it is even worth it? Especially when you put yourself on a platform for people to critique you or the things you create but it's in those moments that you've just got to keep going and making the stuff you believe in! There have been loads of peeps that have thrown in the towel…but I'm still here; I'm still AKS! Maybe it's just about focusing on the peeps that are down with what you're doing and proving them right, rather than trying to prove the naysayers wrong!
EM: What jobs have you done other than being an artist?
AKS: I used to work at Madame Tussauds as a Guest rep. I actually loved that job. They had me on the mic down by the Chamber of Horrors so I had to deliver some Health & Safety spiel…I tended to put on a voice and scare the guests before they got in! Think the voice-over on Michael Jackson's Thriller…along with menacing cackle! LOL! That was fun. But I've also been a wine waiter and Web Developer…I'm still doing web development! I'm good at it!
EM: Do you think the advent of internet and all the new technology has helped your music and independent musicians in general, or do you think it just creates a mass of mediocre "copycats" who flood the web, making it difficult to distinguish yourself?
AKS: Fact is that I don't exist as an independent artist without the internet; so I'm all for the ability for artists to reach an audience which historically wasn't open to them. That's got to be a good thing! That being said though the idea that everybody and anybody can do this thing means that everybody and anybody gives it a go...which means we have a saturated market and A LOT of B.S. some of which becomes incredibly popular! I wouldn't call peeps "copycats" I just think a lot of peeps crave being famous more than having a form of self-expression.
EM: How important is "image"?
AKS: I've always had the impression that "Perception is everything". In terms of selling people buy with their eyes before their ears so in that regard image is important. I always use the analogy of rings when people ask me about this. To an onlooker, a diamond ring in a recycled craft cardboard box doesn't seem to have as much value as a cubic zirconia ring in a lush velvet case with a ribbon. We know that one is worth a lot more than the other; but the presentation makes a difference to our perception. I think a lot of artists need to know that!
EM: Are there any questions that you were expecting that I didn't ask and want to answer?
AKS: Nah these are good. You've got me thinking!
EM: Is there anyone you'd like to acknowledge for offering financial or emotional support?
AKS: Beyond the immediate team; I just wanna acknowledge all the fans that put their hand in their pocket and bought the records and/or came out to a show etc; even those who've just perused and streamed 'em via Spotify and showed their mates and that. As you know I've never had a big system behind me; so having people come to my music organically and having them love it enough to part with cash, share it and shoot me a message means the world.