It’s easy to argue that Akrobatik is the Hub’s most beloved MC. The underground embraced him at the end of last millennium, and remained loyal as the Dorchester rhymer graduated from battle rap rookie to globe-trotting recording artist. Unlike any other Boston rapper, he also won the hearts of mainstream heads as a sports personality for JAM’N 94.5 and NESN. Finally, there was the reaction of his friends and fans three years ago after a valve in his heart ruptured, spurring an emergency that landed him in surgery at Mass General. A local rap patriarch, Akro’s scare brought the scene to its knees and filled the Middle East Downstairs for a benefit.
Though he dropped the autobiographic track “Alive” in 2012 to show fans that he was still fit, Akro has spent most of the past three years in a rebuild and discovery phase while teaching hip-hop history at UMASS Boston. He’s also been recording the most robust and incisive work of his career, out this week on the vivid concept album Built To Last, which he dropped in collaboration with the Boston-based UndergroundHipHop.com. We met Akro for a beer at ZuZu to ask about his latest. Considering the venue, naturally we took a trip down memory lane, but not without also rapping about everything from internet MCs to skyrocketing rents around Boston.
You used to battle here at the Middle East a long time ago, back when battle raps were improvised. Do you watch the new school battles at all?
I go online and watch the battles. Dizaster and Canibus brought me in–it was very hard to watch. There’s no way I could have been there.
What do you think of the format? The fact that they can write their rhymes ahead of time?
I don’t like it.
Imagine what you could have done with it though.
I could have thrived. If that’s what they were doing 15 years ago … give me a month to write about you, are you kidding me? At the same time, a lot of these guys are great. They actually have the balls to go into that forum, so I applaud that. When I was doing it, it was freestyling, which was a different thing–I don’t know who you are, and I just have to beat you and see what happens.
When Balance came out in 2003, you were spared the categorization of “battle rapper.” You succeeded in making a complete album. Was that a conscious thing? Did you go into it saying, “I don’t want to be the battle rapper guy?”
With putting out my first album I was conscious of it. I already had the Detonator Records EP, and that was me as an underground MC – a collection of songs I had done up until that time. With Balance I wanted it to be an album, and I feel that any album should have a concept of some kind. What is it about all these songs that make it a package? Why do these songs go together? I did think about that.
How long did Balance take to record?
Like half a year. I had some footwork to do, like running around and going to New York, like going to Diamond D’s crib in New Jersey. It was fun for that reason. There was also a romance period with me and couple of labels, seeing who I was going to go with. When I finally picked Coup D’Etat there was a budget there, and I was really able to get out and explore New York. That’s what it was about for me – getting out to more places where hip-hop was around.
You’re putting this album out with UndergroundHipHop.com, whose message board trolls you took to task on the track “Internet MC’s” more than 10 years ago. Do you remember writing that song?
[Nodding] I wrote that song on January 1, 2000. I remember I was on the train, on Amtrak, coming home from my mom’s house in Virginia back to Boston, and I wanted to start this decade, this millennium off with a bang. I went to Papa D’s house – Backpack Studios right there in in Brigham Circle – when I got off the train, and the song was posted on the internet like the next day.
Could you have ever imagined what internet MCs would become in the future? Right on the money, huh?
Right. On. The. Money. To this day that’s one of the high points of my live show, for the people who have heard it and the people who haven’t. It’s like everything I’m saying is what’s going on right now.
Do you have to change any of the words?
I change a couple. Maybe I take AOL out and say something newer, but for the most part it’s all pretty much the same deal.
When did you stop thinking of yourself as a Boston MC, if you ever did?
In my heart I’ll always be a Boston MC. That’s just kind of a thing about hip-hop – it’s global, but it’s very local. But in between Balance and Absolute Value, I did a lot of traveling across the world, and I became a different person in general. There’s a lot of personal freedoms I have now that I didn’t have before I started touring. I used to always think about things like if people were going to hate the way I sounded when I talked, or that I had to wear Adidas because I was from Boston. These are things that, even as a grown man, were in my head. But then seeing other places and seeing that they loved my music – even though they were completely different from anyone I knew back home – that started to make me feel like more of a world citizen. Like, “Yeah, I was born in Boston, and yeah I’ll always have a link to it, but I’m representing a lot of things here: I’m representing Boston, I’m representing black people, I’m representing Americans.”
You’re a very direct MC [as opposed to heavily abstract]. There’s Aesop Rock, then there’s you. Does what I’m saying make any sense?
It comes from knowing who I am and being comfortable with it. A lot of rappers put the majority of their energy into their image, trying to portray and get their audience to believe what they’re saying about who they are. For me, I’m just a dude who raps. Forget that, forget me, let’s just talk about what’s going on. And then when I talk about me, it’s going to be in a way that shows you that I’m confident without having to brag about shit. There’s a lot of things I do in my life, that if I put in my records, I could get props, but what am I going to get out of that besides an ego boost? I’d rather just do it. Being real with people is what I expect from them, so I expect them to expect it from me.
Absolute Value is a truly powerful record. Especially “Tough Love.” How does it sit with you now, looking back?
When I wrote it, “Tough Love” was the realest shit I ever wrote. It’s tough when you come from an area that isn’t completely open to what you’re talking about. Unfortunately, in the ghetto communities across America, we’re resilient people, but it also works against us because we start to believe some negative things about ourselves, and we don’t want to hear anything about fixing it. It’s love though. The most important part for me is the image of an older dude who’s doing hip-hop and doing his thing, but not processing it the way as these older guys who rap about selling drugs and killing people then go home to their wife and kid. And maybe they tell their own kids that it’s just entertainment, but who’s telling everybody else?
You were already a pretty deep and aware MC before you faced life-threatening circumstances. What’s happened in the time since?
They say when you’re not feeling well that you should diagnose from the outside-in, start with the skin, the muscles, the bones before you think about your internal organs. It comes to thinking about myself though and just how I perceive things from the inside-out. That’s kind of where Perceptionists came from: You look at the world and take all these things in, but you process it differently when you know yourself so well and so deeply. I know what it feels like to be cut from deep within. It’s like the pain of a thousand knives. And then you find out you can conquer that, that you can get up and strap 250 CDs to your back and walk the streets. It boosts your confidence, but it also humbles you because where was I before that all happened? That change in perception wasn’t as defined back then.
It seemed like you were living pretty healthy at the time.
But simple things like not doing what your doctor tells you what to do can kill you. As great as some of my accomplishments are, I was actually allowing myself to die because I wasn’t diligent to follow one simple direction to take four pills in the morning.
You’re that stubborn?
I was. I was. Because I was young and was like, “Whatever man.”
Why did you move out of Boston? You were loving Eastie last time we spoke.
It’s too expensive. I had to move somewhere else with my family.
What do you think about the plans to revitalize a lot of the parts of Dorchester that you grew up around?
There’s always that question – are they just going to come in and kick all of the black people out? Because that’s usually the next step.
Why did you back John Connolly for mayor?
First of all he’s a friend, and I’ve known him for a long time. But he also had priorities that mirrored my own – things I would say if I was running for mayor. My platform would probably be education, and the arts, and he has experience in it. He’s a hands-on dude. I liked that about him.
With the new mayor trying to further open up the city – from late-night trains to more alcohol licenses – do you think things are finally going to change for the better in comparison to when you were starting out as an artist?
I still think Boston is neglectful toward its residents. I think Boston sucks the dick of anyone who comes here from anywhere else, puts them right in front of the line, and that anyone born and raised here has to leave to thrive. As far as things changing, that hasn’t changed.
We were talking about the fact that you still make complete albums. What’s a moment on this project that especially speaks to that?
There’s a joint on there with [Mr.] Lif that I’m talking about something that really happened but I’m using my imagination to describe it, and unless you really invest yourself in the concept of the album, you might not really get the song, because the point is waking up and having no idea where you are and needing someone else to explain it to you. I put it after “Alive” so you’ll be in that frame of mind.
What did you go into this new album saying to yourself? Did you accomplish that?
I wanted to prove to everyone that I can bounce back. I have a song called “Ruff Enough,” and in that song I say I can’t be stopped by “no physical ailment.” Who knew that would be put to the test? But I proved my words to be true. That’s what the album is about. The concept has layers to it. Coming back is not just about me pounding my chest and saying, “I’m the man.” I had to be rebuilt. I couldn’t do that myself. The people in my life who helped me get to where I am right now are just as important as what I was able to accomplish myself with the music.