‘We spend our lives being put in boxes; it’s the boxes I can’t stand, man.’ It doesn’t take much to get British hip hop wordsmith Akala (aka 26-year-old Kingslee James Daley) on a roll, as we chat over a healthy pick’*’mix from his favourite veggie restaurant. This amiable rabble-rouser has always looked to break the mould, combining sharp lyrics with cherry-picked pop culture hooks, from 1980s indie to electro-trance. ‘The funny thing is, this approach isn’t new for hip hop,’ he points out. ‘The musical philosophy of my latest album was Aphex Twin meets Public Enemy meets Depeche Mode with a bit of Radiohead sprinkled in – then there’s the heavy metal stuff, which fazes some people.
‘I make no bones about loving music. I’m not scared of offending anyone who thinks I shouldn’t make metal or acoustic classical folk, or work with someone who’s composed for the English National Ballet if I want to.’
Along with several quickfire mixtapes, Akala’s acclaimed previous albums, Mobo-winning 2006 debut It’s Not A Rumour and 2007’s Freedom Lasso, continue to sell steadily, and also gave rise to the fruitful Hip Hop Shakespeare Company (he’s just returned from a youth writing workshop in Denmark).
The literary inspiration for new album Doublethink is George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. It’s not the first time Orwell’s classic has influenced records – David Bowie used it as the basis of his 1974 album Diamond Dogs; The Eurythmics released a synth soundtrack in the year 1984. But Akala’s apocalyptic vision is galvanising and beautifully arranged on numbers such as Welcome To Dystopia and Yours And My Children.
‘We wanted to approach this album like we were scoring a film,’ he grins. ‘To me, 1984 felt like prophecy rather than fiction. There are so many parallels with modern life and what seemed like preposterous ideas in the book.’
As a rapper, he was particularly struck by 1984’s use of totalitarian ‘newspeak’. ‘I was fascinated by the concept that limiting language limits people’s thinking. I actually see that working with young people who have brilliant ideas without the words to communicate them. It’s when you don’t have the tools to express yourself that you get violent. How is it that a “civilised” society is producing 16-year-olds who can’t read or write?