The Crown Prince of mzansi rap wears all jackets on his new album, LeveLs

By Suede
Thursday, 25 July 2013 10:26
AKA in the studio
AKA in the studio

Just beyond the security gate at #42 3Rd Avenue, a dirty melodic synth mingles with a crisp hi-hat, creating an effortlessly soulful two-step that skips and bounces across the treetops of the quiet northern suburb like a happy housewife. Pulsing bass causes an audio joygasm that ripples the pool and inspires leaves to fall to the earth.
It's an early autumn afternoon and Kiernan Jordan Forbes (AKA) sits on the brick wall beneath a late-blooming crimson bougainvillea vine in the poolside garden of a Melville bungalow, muttering to himself like Rain Man or a sangoma in a trance. Eyes heavy-lidded from the fast life and Kush, he rocks rhythmically back and forth, repeating a garble of words like an alchemist's incantation to change lead into gold. His lower jaw protrudes in a blinding under-bite, catching and spitting the sun's lazy afternoon rays from his gold-encrusted grill. On the pavement to the left of his tapping red-and-black Jordan 1 Retros, a passing gecko stands, arms akimbo, frozen by the dayglow of his lyricism:

"I was ducking my landlord Looking out from my standpoint

We don't fuck with you assholes,

Gassed up like Castrol
More stamps in my passport

That's bad news like tabloids

Came up on that death row

West Coast bad boy."

His body is here but his lyrics capture the imagination and teleport us to another time, another place. Perhaps his Western Cape Mitchell's Plain roots, where Tupac is the religion and ducking the landlord or being the lookout can seem like professional sports come month-end. Yet, simultaneously we're on a plane with Kiernan in business class, Mount Kilimanjaro on our shoulder and more stamps in the passport. This is the transmuting power of music; it allows one to assume the guise of another, jump through time and unlock memories, experiences and sentiments buried deep in the sound without ever leaving the space between our ears on a Jo'burg pool deck.

Kiernan knowingly nods his head in my direction, raising his chin in salute to the hypnotic looped track, and refers us back to the pres- ent moment. "I'm sampling a lot of house, a lot of dance music and switching it up. Some local and some international house samples. But every sample I'm using is for nostalgia. I wanted to call the album Nostalgia but Frank Ocean got that already. That's the best way I could describe the album, 'nostalgia'."

He'll inform me about that later. For now, in a "let's get down to business" gesture, he lights a cigarette, inhales deeply and looks directly at me, exhaling when he speaks, and gesticulates with his hands, "So how you wanna do this, huh? Grab some drinks, stick around, grab some food later? Make a day of it for some fly-on-the-wall-type shit, or you gonna be quick?"

Jovial and accommodating in a mafioso "made man" sense, interviews and media are second nature to him. He gets this game and is a top player. But the work is pressing and he's in a creative mood. I opt for the fly-on-the-wall quickie to allow him to work while serving the media machine. His album is due out this month on the recently formed Vth Season Audio record label and behind those tiny bloodshot eyes, a swift mind is calculating.

"To finish this album, I need time. I need two weeks blocked off in studio just to finish. I need time. Time I don't have." He takes a drag and humble-brags a thumb-sucked itinerary. "I'm off to Tanzania for the weekend with MTV Base, I have the 'Kontrol' video to finish with Da L.E.S., there's Live Amped, Club 808, not to mention the features, oh gawd the features, and I gotta do the features, because the features come with the videos and the videos mean more shows."

And the shows means more bucks! Time is of the essence and not on his side. If you don't know, now you know, on planet Egoli Hip-Hop, sales isn't the goal. The gravity here is different, you're only as good as the last music video dropped, expensive bottles got, model/celebrity popped or sponsor copped. Geddit? Kiernan, a.k.a. Sleevy Wonder, a.k.a. Ike Turntup a.k.a. AKA, is the Crown Prince and his kingdom awaits. He's figured out this game and the gravy train has left the station. He's the Moses in the bulrushes of Mzansi youth music marketing and he's parting the sea for his next album. Since the 2011 genre-defining debut of Altar Ego, AKA's takeover of South African hip-hop has been relentless – he's won a slew of major awards, but most notable are the category-defying accolades for Best Produced Album at the 2012 Metros and Best Male Artist at the 2012 SAMAs.

"Winning awards has been a big honour and it's very humbling," he says. "The male artist of the year awards have made me see myself as a musician across all genres and not just as a hip-hop artist." In anticipation of the new album, LeveLs, Vth Season Audio records has been hard at work to keep Mr Forbes at the top of South Africa's musical A-list through a plethora of genre-jumping features and videos for DJ Milkshake, DJ Vigilante, Professor, Matthew Gold and, most recently, Naima McLean's "Hero".

In between the feature work, he's also been able to drop a couple of his own singles from the upcoming album, beginning with 2012's "Jealousy" and most recently 2013's "Kontrol". Each track is "self-produced" by AKA.
"What could I do?" he asks rhetorically. "Me and IV League weren't seeing eye to eye, the show must go on and the show is going on in a fucking superb manner. I know exactly where I want to go with the music, it's just the process of getting there."

At the onset of AKA's solo career, his hunger for more and time in sound school paid off in a production team known as IV League, a sonic collaboration with Kamza Mbatha and Buks. Disagreements arose after the release of the album and the team has since disbanded, but remnants of the "IV League Papa" manifesto are still relevant in the music, a strong international influence with local flavours. Kiernan sees the new setup as an opportunity for growth.

"It used to be just IV League feeding me beats, but now I need to do it myself. Gotta do the track, gotta do the production, gotta do the lyrics. "I've been to everyone possible for beats at this point. I can't find what I'm looking for, not that the talent isn't out there. It's just not giving me what I see in my mind."

Assisting him on the journey to bridge the gap from idea to reality is the guiding hand of Steve "Sticktainment" Raphadu of JR's "Make the Circle Bigger" and Jabba's "Music and Lights" fame. Steve's approach is like that of a Morpheus to Kiernan's Neo. Sticky, as he's known in industry circles, swaggers out of the studio into the setting sun. By the look of his beard, peasy Afro and red eyes, these guys have been burning down the house for this new album.

"When Kiernan came to me and asked me to produce the album I told him the only way I know how to do it, is to 'translate', to produce, to bring the music out of your head and bring it, to bring that energy and put it in the music and we're doing that," Steve counsels in a gruff voice which intones years of studio time. "People will be able to feel that he was having fun in the booth and that he's grown. Now he's a beatmaker."

Kiernan light-heartedly protests the term "beatmaker" while Steve continues.
"He'll bring in the beats on his laptop. I'll take that and put it on my computer. Then we'll bring in Mpilo on keys and we'll bounce ideas and we'll give him things to play. Then we'll bring in Vicks, the live bassist, to play something, like on 'Kontrol'. And we'll take it from there to create the music."

An aural Igor and Dr Frankenstein, this duo are giving life to the music. A quick playlist of the possible tracks on deck for the album sees a heavy reliance on direct sampling with a balance of Kiernan's sonic influences: Martin Solveig's "Jealousy", George Benson's "Show Me The Love", The Gap Band's "You Are My High", Dr Buzzard's Original Savannah Band's "Sunshower" and a hat tip to local sampling; "Kontrol" alludes to DJ Mbuso featuring Jerah Mothusi's "Mawe". But Steve concedes it is an organic approach nonetheless. "We take it, in terms of the sample, we use it like an instrument. In the chorus, we allow it to have more of a presence, but in the music, it's our music. But we'll replay elements of the sample to create the song."

Before stepping into the booth, AKA pours himself a glass of water and declares: "I'm putting so much time and so much effort into the produc- tion, into finding the samples, into the way I sam- pled, into the genre I sampled. I feel so good about the production, I feel like I could "Dilla" [U.S. record producer] this album and just put out these instrumentals by themselves." 

AKA steps into the closet – the back cottage has been converted into a pre-production studio where the closet is the recording booth, the bed is the sound desk for the engineer and a whirring Apple Mac is the sound engineer's control deck. Steve mentions that before moving into their new digs at 44 Stanley's Media Mill, they are currently dealing with the sampling side of the album, but are open to new sounds, referencing the quirky new audial school of S.A. Hip Hop, evidenced in the Okmalumkoolkat and Dirty Paraffin production teams.

Facing the mic, Kiernan, with his tattooed right arm, holds on to the handle of a suitcase perched on the top shelf of the closet sound booth. "Steve, don't move this case, it helps to hold me down when I get into my zone." Kush escapes from somewhere deep within Kiernan Jordan Forbes, the walls of the room begin to vibrate with that transmutive melody, and the ride to LeveLs begins anew:

"I was ducking my landlord
Looking out from my standpoint
We don't fuck with you assholes,
Gassed up like Castrol
More stamps in my passport
That's bad news like tabloids
Came up on that death row West Coast bad boy."

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