AKON with WYCLEF JEAN, SEAN PAUL and kardinal offishall at Molson Amphitheatre (909 Lakeshore West), tonight (Thursday, July 10), 7 pm. $45-$75. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
Ever since paying radio djs to play your songs was deemed unlawful, there hasn’t really been a reliable way of legally ensuring a record gets spins. However, having Akon jump on your track to sing the hook is probably the next best thing to payola, and no one gets arrested.
Over the course of the charismatic Akon’s crazy four-year reign as the collabo king, he’s enjoyed an unparalleled string of hits with a variety of artists – from Eminem (Smack That) and Young Jeezy (Soul Survivor) to Gwen Stefani (The Sweet Escape), Snoop Dogg (I Wanna Love You) and even the late 2Pac and Biggie Smalls (Ghetto).
At last count, 145 such pairings have benefited from Akon’s melodic magic, and of those tracks, 21 singles have placed high on Billboard’s Hot 100.
That’s why multi-million-selling artists like Whitney Houston, Elton John and even Michael Jackson are making room for the man with the knockout hook to do his stuff on their next recordings. Whatever Akon’s got, it’s working insanely well.
“The only way you can conquer the music industry is by grabbing everyone’s ear,” explains Akon, aka Aliaune Thiam, over his cellphone. “That can’t be accomplished by doing the same thing over and over again with the same people for the same audience.
“There are many artists who you couldn’t imagine working with anyone else, and others would get called sellouts if they even tried doing something with an artist outside their genre. From the beginning, I sought to be the kind of artist who could collaborate with anyone and people would respect the work as if it were mine alone.”
For all the high-profile throwdowns, Akon has pursued just as many left-field pairings with artists having radically different demographics in far-flung territories – people like South African harmony group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, New Zealand rapper Savage and, most recently, Puerto Rican boy band Menudo. It shows that his conquest plans have global dimensions.
It began straight out of the box for Akon in 2004, when his breakout joint, Locked Up, zoomed into the top 10. He followed the autobiographical first single from his debut disc, Trouble (Universal), with subsequent hits Lonely, Belly Dancer, Pot Of Gold and Ghetto in quick succession.
As a rejoinder to those who thought it was a fluke, Akon split off six more chart smashes from 2006’s Konvicted (Universal) disc, which has since sold over 4 million copies worldwide.
It’s a phenomenal rise to notoriety made all the more unlikely by the fact that up until six years ago, Akon had no interest whatsoever in making music. There’s nothing like jail time to inspire a career rethink.
“I was locked up for possession of a concealed firearm and also for driving a stolen vehicle. Between 1995 and 2002, I was in and out of jail a number of times, with the longest stretch lasting eight or nine months. It wasn’t that I got caught up with a bad crowd. It was more a matter of pure greed. I wanted to be filthy rich, and it didn’t matter to me what it took. I wasn’t considering what might happen if I got caught.
“Being locked up with people serving 25-years-to-life sentences made me come to my senses. There was a guy in my cell who was a good person, but he made some bad choices. Seeing him get shipped off to another institution where he wouldn’t see daylight for the rest of his life made me think seriously about my own future. I didn’t want to rot away in jail.”
Faced with limited employment options upon his release, Akon hit on the idea of using his home recording hobby as a way to infiltrate the music business. It turns out that being the St. Louis-born son of highly respected Senegalese master percussionist Mor Thiam has its advantages, and not only for the cut rates on having dope djembe beats dropped in the studio.
“As much as I wanted to be rich and successful, no Fortune 500 company was going to hire someone like me because of my past. So I started making music for myself, purely for my own enjoyment. It was the one thing I was good at and really loved to do, so I set out to use what I could do well to create my own opportunities in the music business.
“But I don’t know if I would have gotten my first record deal if it weren’t for the fact that so many established people in the business knew my father. From James Brown right through to Michael Jackson’s father, Joe Jackson, it seems like everyone in the industry either worked with Pops or knew someone who did. It trips me out to this day. I’ll be doing a show in another country and somebody setting up will say, ‘I did a tour with your dad back in the 70s!’”
The entrepreneurial Akon wasted no time parlaying his recording success into new business ventures. There’s that diamond mine in South Africa, the two fashion lines, Konvict Apparel and the upscale Aliaune Clothing, and he also co-owns (with manager Melvin Brown) and operates two record labels, Kon Live Distribution and Konvict Muzik.
Akon recently signed Toronto hip-hop threat Kardinal Offishall to the Konvict Muzik roster, which notably includes auto-tune ace T-Pain and Dutch boy band Glowb, and plans to raise Kardi beyond his current underground status. Considering that Kardi’s current single, Dangerous, reached a respectable 24 on the Billboard Hot 100 with an Akon boost, it appears that the Not 4 Sale (Konvict Muzik/Universal) disc may finally break Kardi in the U.S. when it hits the streets August 5.
“Kardi is locally respected and internationally known. He just needs the proper machinery behind him to put him over the top. He’s always been a hard worker. I’ve never seen him not grinding. If he’s not recording tracks for an album, he’s doing a mixtape or putting out a single. That sort of work ethic is what l look for in artists on their way up. With the right material, there’s no way an artist who works as hard as Kardi could not be successful. We’ve already got close to 5,000 spins on the Dangerous single, which is crazy.”
Unexpected, perhaps, but Akon’s life is silly with strange turns and bizarre incidents that keep appearing on YouTube. They make crazy occurrences seem like business as usual. Take the time Akon got Punk’d by Jesse McCartney while shooting what he thought was a Japanese television commercial.
Then there was the incident at a Trinidad club in 2007 when Akon was taped onstage simulating sex with a girl who was later found to be only 15 years old.
And who could forget that Fishkill, New York, concert where someone threw an object at Akon and the singer responded by hoisting the kid onto his shoulders and tossing him back into the crowd. Clearly, Akon still doesn’t think through the possible consequences of his actions.
Yet so far, none of the incidents – and that includes taking a bullet in the shoulder during the 2005 drive-by shooting that killed his road manager, Robert Montanez – has interrupted Akon’s tour schedule or slowed his forward progress.
Besides producing a feature film, Illegal Alien, based loosely on the events of his own life, he has a reality television series in production called My Brother’s Keeper, in which his two brothers pass themselves off as Akon to get VIP treatment at nightclubs and restaurants while gathering some sweet swag along the way. “The funniest thing about it,” roars Akon, “is that they don’t even look like me!”
If you get the impression that Akon may be turning to other mediums because he feels there’s nothing left to accomplish in the world of music, that’s not entirely true. He intends to release a chart-topping country album. Yes, you read that right: Akon claims he’s going whole hog into C&W. It sounds insane, sure, but with Akon, anything’s possible.
“When I listen to country music, to me it’s just another style of rhythm and blues. The strong narrative component in both forms is very similar. It’s the way the lyrics and music come together to tell a story you can visualize that is what I love about country music.
“No African-American artist has really conquered the form. I’ve heard that Bobby Brown is making a country album right now, but the country world will just look right past it. To crack that market you need the right strategy. With my plan, which I don’t want to disclose just yet, I think I’ve got the perfect way of getting in without people even realizing. When it happens, it’s going to shock the world, and it’s already in effect.
“I will conquer country music, I promise you that.”
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