One of the most revered aspects of hip hop’s golden age was its wildly diverse tour lineups. For five or six years during the late ’80s and early ’90s, it wasn’t uncommon to see A Tribe Called Quest performing alongside the Geto Boys or EPMD rocking after N.W.A.
But successive years of corporate influence have turned tours into conventional packages of artists. When independent luminaries AKIR and Hasan Salaam joined Kidz in the Hall and Redman at The Blind Pig last week, concertgoers experienced a throwback of sorts. Fists that pumped to the revolutionary calls of AKIR turned into hands supporting one of Redman’s many weed-induced stage dives. As the tour makes its way to the West Coast, fans can expect Hasan and AKIR to add a radical slant to an already formidable lineup.
Hasan, who was asked by AKIR to accompany him on this tour, is known for his bass-heavy delivery and politically charged lyrics. His debut album, Paradise Lost, is a potent mix of honest self-reflection and spiritual upliftment.
Over soulful production from his 5th Column crew, the New Jersey native addresses everything from slavery’s middle passage (“Diaspora”) to police brutality (“Allegro”). With an overarching goal of sharing his knowledge with others, Hasan has developed a social critique rooted in personal experience and historical injustices.
“Empirical knowledge is different than textbook knowledge. Sometimes you have to experience something,” he said. “I’m not just reading it out of a book and putting it on the paper. It’s everything together.”
On his sophomore release Life in Black and White, Hasan draws primarily on real-life situations. “The first album was the knowledge, this one is the wisdom,” stated the outspoken emcee. The song “Father’s Day” explores the challenges he faced as a biracial child: “I guess you ain’t consider raising up a half a n***** / Unable to relate to the world at odds with ya / I had to rip your face out a couple of family pictures / Mom’s aight, you know she ain’t bitter.”
The title of his new album is not only a reference to his biracial background but also an allusion to existing racial divisions. Hasan sees hip hop as a space where the racial fears of many Americans are manifested. “To sell the units that we do out of the trunk of our car, you have to have some entrepreneurial, capitalist, let’s-go-get-it mentality,” he said. “America does not want black people to become self-sufficient, no matter where that self-sufficiency comes from . They didn’t say the (Black) Panthers were scary because they had guns, they said they were scary because they fed the kids.”
Hasan expanded his critique to include the arrests of DJ Drama and Don Cannon. By independently creating and selling their own mixtapes, the enterprising DJs were bypassing record companies and profiting directly from their product.
Navigating the perilous record industry is a familiar subject for Hasan’s frequent collaborator, AKIR (Always Keep It Real.) After 10 years on the independent circuit, AKIR has realized what many underground artists have trouble accepting. “At the end of the day if you consider yourself an independent, you’re forced to be a businessman,” explained the veteran emcee.
AKIR’s strategy for survival in the industry is simple: “Pimp the system” – but not the fans. With performances in Sweden and Venezuela and features in some of hip hop’s most revered publications, AKIR has taken full advantage of any outlet for his music. And unlike many other enterprising emcees, the product that AKIR pushes is well worth the effort. Legacy, his critically lauded debut album, boasts appearances by Jean Grae and Poison Pen as well as production from the Heatmakerz and One Enterprises, his own beatmaking crew. As shown by the opening lines on his Immortal Technique-assisted “Treason,” AKIR’s flow is the ideal vehicle for his political sentiments: “They be manipulating politicians delegating / Task of perpetrating sounds like Satan making racist statements.”
As AKIR readies his next solo album, he’s turned to personal classics such as Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Mobb Deep’s The Infamous for inspiration. By examining the song structure and sequencing of these albums, AKIR hopes to create full compositions, not just a collection of “cuts.”
It’s the desire to create music both sonically innovative and lyrically challenging that bonds artists like Hasan Salaam and AKIR. According to Hasan, the current tour, which AKIR considers his most ambitious to date, promises to be fruitful for both emcees: “This right here I’m hoping is gonna be a real big thing for AKIR and, inshallah, I’ll be able to get some things accomplished, too.”