Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Akira The Don - ZION 2012: The Apocalympics

Akira the Don is an odd character. He's part rapper, part DJ, part sample mad scientist, and very very British. He's had an up and down career, and as of the time of this writing, he'd just returned from wandering around Los Angeles with his wife and his son, Hercules, after having been evicted from his home in London. As they say, the life of a starving artist ain't easy.

His first album, "When We Were Young," was actually out on Interscope records in 2006, and featured the song "Oh! (What A Glorious Thing)" which has appeared in a film and a couple of commercials, and keeps him afloat. The album failed to make an impact, and Interscope dropped him not long after, which was probably for the best, as Akira (born Adam Narkiewicz) has become something of an internet gadfly since then, doing a lot of his best work when freed from things like commercial viability and rules. Without having to worry about what he can and can't release, Akira's turned into a guerrilla sound chemist, which has been fantastic to listen to.

My first exposure to Akira The Don came from comic book writer Warren Ellis, who posted a link to the song "Be Brave" from Akira's ATD23 Mixtape, which was The Street Fighter Mixtape. Akira does a mixtape every few months, each with its own theme. Some of them are better than others, but the Street Fighter mix had a lot of great songs on it, and "Be Brave" was catchy in a way that was hard to shake. It's a fun, slinky song that hangs on a wonderful set of samples from the classic Capcom fighting series. It's not the kind of thing he could get away with in a commercial release (as is evidenced by the fact that "Be Brave" was on his iTunes release "Living In The Future" but had all the Street Fighter sampled dropped out of it) but that's why his internet mixtapes are so much fun. They take all the rules of traditional music and throw them out the window. The song's great without hearing the classic "Noooo!" but there's something wild and fun about having it there. If you heard the song without the samples, you wouldn't know there was something missing, but when you hear the version with them, it feels more robust.

The Mixtapes are generally where Akira's trying things out, seeing what works and what doesn't, playing with sounds and samples to see what connects, usually a mix of his own stuff and things he likes from friends and colleagues, but occasionally includes stuff from outside of that. And a shitload of samples from all sorts of sources. One of the most recent ones was called "Mangamusic" and you can imagine where he drew a lot of that from.

ZION 2012: The Apocalypmics
For me, the best of his mixtapes is the ZION 2012: The Apocalympics. It's clear from the mix that there was a lot of conspiracy talk in London about the 2012 Olympics, as well as the logo, the mascot, etc. I don't think Akira buys into any of the chatter, but I think he finds all the talk rather fascinating, and I have to admit, listening to all of the interviews and radio talk he splices in, I can see why. It's a weird, spiraling madness that loops back in on itself without ever seeing how it looks on the outside. There's one sample in particular where a guy says "It really can't be taken any other way," which always makes me smirk, because it's the sort of reductive argument you see a lot of in conspiracy theorists. Of course there are other ways to interpret it - there's multiple ways to interpret anything. What he's really says is that he doesn't see any other way to interpret it, because that supports the argument he wants to make, which has to do with a particular bit of red coloration being obviously symbolic of bloody guts and disembowelment. Of course, it could also just be a little flourish of color.

A lot of the ZION mix relies on an interview with a young conspiracy theorist named Rik Clay. Rik Clay, by most accounts, committed suicide in 2008, but before he did, he was talking a lot about how the London Olympics was filled with symbology and was indicative that it was part of a global agenda to create a new Jerusalem in London. Clay sounds passionate about what he's talking about, but in many cases, the whole thing feels like grasping at straws, drawing any thread he can in hoping to prop it all up. The Mayan calendar, alien invasions, numerology...

Rik Clay
There's a funny thing about numerology - it really is, when you look for it, you start stretching coincidence into "synchronicity" and makes connections where they don't exist. This sort of illusory correlation is something author Robert Anton Wilson talks about in his Illumintus! trilogy that we'll talk about in a later post. The heavy dependence on numerology is the keystone of the best song on the mixtape, "11:11," which focuses on how that number must mean something. Towards the end of the song, though, you get some of the tragedy of Rik Clay, as one of the voices we heard earlier talks about how Clay has died, and there is no evidence of foul play, but that some of his audience is going to have a different opinion on this, and that's fine. The song is a wonderful meditation on what happens when something, in Clay's own words, is "doing my head in." Maybe it was all the conspiracies that finally got to him. Maybe it was something personal that we'll never know about. The song has no opinion, simply showing a lot of what people were talking about before and after Clay's suicide. It leaves it to the listener to draw whatever conclusion they want to,

You won't find much rapping from Akira on ZION 2012: The Apocalympics (with the exception of "Where Were The Heroes?"), which normally would be a negative, but there's something magical about this whole mix, as if you're getting a window into what a part of the world thinks on a daily basis. And Akira offers no judgement of them, because there's parts where the argument starts to make some sense, only to push just a little too far and lose you again half a step later.

It's easy to just think of Akira as a rapper, because that's the focus of his career, but I think it's incredibly important to pay attention to how great a producer and mixer he is. He's got so many wonderful sounds blended together, so many voices, so many snippets of music, pianos, drums, choral tones, sparse electric guitar... it's an audio collage in the finest form. Akira's got a real knack for blending things together, and ZION is the mixtape where he's firing on all cylinders.

Some of the music from ZION is used again by Akira in other projects. The majority of the background music from "11:11" is used in ATD28 as the backing track for him and rapper Envy in "Give Me Something." The phrase "give me something I can hold" is from the original "11:11" and here is applied as Envy talks about losing her mother in the new song. Both versions of the song are excellent, although I have a slight preference for the original. This is standard operating procedure for Akira, who is happy to double-dip with a good collage or beat, and rightly so.

ZION 2012 wraps up with the song "Occupants," which showcases the optimism of even the conspiracy theorists, an upbeat tempo and a chipper voice saying "holding on" over and over again as the talking heads point out that, despite all the things they've pointed out, we shouldn't expect to see anything obvious or big happening at the 2012 Olympics, although the implication is clear - it could happen and if it does, we will be there telling you we told you so. The New World Order is clearly going to enslave us all, and we really can't do anything about it, but we won't see it coming, and we may not even notice when it does happen, so don't panic, because panic doesn't do anyone any good. On with the show!

You can get the ZION 2012: The Apocalympics mixtape from Akira's website for five pounds (which is around $8.50 as the time of this writing) and you can get the albums "When We Were Young," "Living In The Future" and the essential "The Life Equation" from iTunes for $8 each, as well as a bunch of his other singles and EPs. A lot of his mixtapes you can listen to for free on his site track-by-track, such as the ZION mix, although some of them are purchase only at this point. Of the mixes, the most recent ones have all been pretty solid, although Unkillable Thunderchrist (the second to most recent one) can be a bit heavy handed in spots, although that's forgivable for the moment of teenager life called "This Is So My Jam." Although, in classic Akira fashion, he revisited the track in the most recent mixtape, ATD29, with "OMG (This Is So My Jam)" that takes the quiet mellowness of the original and amps it up with a techno beat, synth sizzles and turns it into a party anthem. The first version is more of the teenager alone in their room, ecstatic about a new discovery they're keeping to themselves and the second one is the teenager at a club or concert cheering as loud as they can when their favorite song hits the air like a wave of joy breaking just above their head, throwing their hands up to brush their fingertips against the feeling of it.

I gave Akira a copy of my first novel when I saw him perform live at a comic shop in San Francisco. Never heard what he thought of it, but hope it brought him at least as much joy as his music's brought me...

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