Lord Akeem is a Hip Hop illustrator in France. He’s done drawing from Nas, Eryka Badu, Pharrell Williams to doing the cover for Los Angeles Hip Hop group and former Ruthless records artists Above the Law. In this exclusive interview for Alt Rap; Lord Akeem speaks about how he got into drawing, to drawing for Above the Law, to the difference between Hip Hop here in the U.S. and France and much more.
How did you get into drawing?
In the mid 80s, I started drawing. I learned how to draw by copying Marvel or D.C comics. Painting came later in the early 90s. I bettered my technique when I entered an advertising design school.
What are your first memories of hip hop music?
Three tracks: Grand Master Flash “The Message”, Break Machine “Street Dance” and the famous Run DMC “Walk This Way”. They were the first tracks I had heard as a kid.
The first memory of a TV show representing the culture would be H.I.P H.O.P in 1984. My first memories are also hip hop being a cultural movement that was gathering many arts such as graffiti, emceeing, djing, etc. As time passed, these aspects of hip hop disappeared. Has it failed to be passed on from one generation to the next? Who is guilty when Nas says Hip Hop is dead? (Laughing).
As soon as Hip Hop arrived in France, I always knew it was part of me. When I made my first tag or drew my first letters, it felt normal, even natural. The 90s are the decade that marked me musically with MC’s who set a style in the mid or end of the 80’s: Chubb Rock, KRS One, Kool G Rap & DJ Polo, Rakim, EPMD, the Geto Boys…
I also liked artists who followed such as Biggie, Jay Z, Ill Al Skratch, Lord Tariq & Peter Gunz, The Lost Boyz, Nas…
What’s the difference between Hip Hop in the U.S and in France?
The difference is huge. When I mention names such as Def Jam, Rap a lot, Ruthless Records or Death Row, we are talking about real “Hip Hop business”. They remind us of how the Hip Hop phenomenon was taken seriously quickly. I don’t think we can name any labels with so much weight in France. I also believe that underground artists represent more the French Hip Hop scene rather than well known commercial artists.
In the US, there is a large panel of MCs or groups who have a true identity in the music they create even though some producers are making a “more uniformed” music these days. A group like Mobb Deep or an artist like Alchemist or DJ Premier still have a say in their production, despite the fact that New York lost its sound that was so characteristic. In France, “hood” rap prevails. A lot of groups or artists from different cities or regions don’t make it to the top. You have only two cities that are known for Hip Hop: Paris and Marseille. In the US, a lot of artists from different cities or states are on the Hip Hop map. Labels and radios do not promote Hip Hop the same way. Here, the Hip Hop culture is developing underground and I think the only media such as independent or college radios and press promote interesting things. We have very good graffiti artists, dancers and DJs who take parts in battles and are very talented, great beat makers who, thanks to the web, have been featured with other artists worldwide, excellent MCs… But unfortunately, are not showcased by labels or national radios. I would say that “mainstream” features more artists who rap rather than do Hip Hop. In the US, “mainstream” and “underground” are in a way linked together. How many MCs in France can say that being a rapper is their full time job like it’s the case in the US? It’s undeniable that the differences come from the history of each country. The US gave birth to Jazz, Soul, Funk music. It makes sense that Rap music is a continuation of those genres. In France, Rap music was “imported”…
When I read Cornel West and Eric Dyson’s interviews in The Source, I think we have a point in common: What’s the true mission of the Hip Hop culture today? My opinion’s only a B.Boy’s point of view. This is an interesting question as it brings up a captivating debate.
What was the first drawing you ever did?
It was a comic’s character when I was 10. I told myself I could do it. One day, my teacher called my mom to tell her I was drawing in class… but not like other kids of my age.
To be more serious, it was in 1995 or 1996 that I made my first “professional” illustrations. One of my best friends was writing album columns for music labels and he asked me to make illustrations of the Fugees and Groove Theory.
How did you end up doing the album cover for Above The Law? Were you able to meet them or talk to the group?
I was part of a Facebook group created for West Coast Hip Hop fans. Someone posted a message on the page; a German label, Drop Top Music, was looking for a newspaper or a magazine to promote an album. Having a close relationship with the West Coast magazine Street Motivation, I told him to contact the manager from me. While we were talking, I mentioned I was an artist and invited him to check my page out. Right away, he offered me to make A.T.L cover. Even though, some people are not very familiar with Above The Law, I jumped on the project and I am very grateful. I already knew what I was going to create for them.
I only spoke to Hutch once and it was to offer him my condolences when KMG passed away. This group is still legendary in my opinion.
Which has been the drawing you’re most proud of and the most difficult one to do?
That would be the ones I took up the challenge of course. Each painting has it’s own difficulty even though I have the capacity to adapt to different themes or styles outside of urban art. I’m a perfectionist so it makes things more difficult. I have painted canvas which themes were baroque or Art Nouveau from the 18th and 19th century; something completely different from my style. This feeling of pride when I see my artwork months or years later is priceless. That’s when I realize all the work I put in.
Have you done any requests for artists to do their portraits?
Very few… Most of the artists are not current any more… I will not give out any names 😉
How do you feel your portraits mix with the music?
As soon as I start an art piece for a new exhibition, I need a beat!!! Then, when I work on a Narrative Figuration piece that can take place in the streets or elsewhere, that’s, of course, the music that goes with it. A lot of people say that my artwork “sweats Hip Hop”. In the early 90s, I used to listen to the words of a track and draw what I was hearing. I was making frescoes that could reach almost 12 ft long, narrating what I understood from the lyrics. I was inspired by Tupac, Ice Cube, Public Enemy, KRS One… It’s how I got the name of the “Hip Hop Illustrator”.
Any final words?
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