Interview: Akon Talks His Revamped Konvict Kartel Label, Why Today’s R&B Works & Plans For His 'Stadium' Project
Those who do great things often move in silence, and Akon is no exception to the rule.
Throughout his career, the multi-hyphenate artist has made music that has transcended into number ones in nearly every genre. As glow stick fiends jam his songs like “Play Hard,” with David Guetta and Neyo, he was also able to make hip-hop lovers pop bottles to “I’m So Paid” with Young Jeezy and Lil Wayne. Not only has Akon made massive hits for himself, but has also helped catapult some of best acts in music like Lady Gaga, T-Pain and unbeknownst to many, Young Thug. In addition to his multi-platinum career, he’s also helped bring light to millions in Africa with his philanthropic efforts. But the mogul isn’t one to keep the keys to success to himself.
With his newly revamped label Konvict Kartel, Akon is looking to bring forth new talent in hip-hop/R&B. After helping launching the careers of acts like Pain and Jeremih, the singer wants new acts to realize the path to success can be just as simple as a Soundcloud upload, but the business aspect is a long road traveled.
Instead of trying to force his formula on new talent, the “Heatwave” singer wants aspiring artists to vie for a career past a hit single. We talked to the Akon about Konvict Kartel, why viral musicians have short lifespans and his plans to release the five-album project, Stadium. Take out a notepad and grab all the gems you need for your aspiring music career.
VIBE: What inspired you to change your music label Konvict Muzik to Konvict Kartel?
Akon: It’s like the new generation Konvict music. Today is a new time, new sound, new artists, new thinking. These guys are a lot younger, more fun and the energy with the music is totally different. I think it was the perfect time to put a makeover on the label, especially the urban side of things, moving on the Konvict side and just recruit a lot of young artists, new thinkers, just people that think beyond artistry that want to take their brands to the next level.
Tell us about the acts on the label.
We have Young Greatness; he's out of Memphis. We have Tone-Tone out of Detroit and we have collaboration with QC (Quality Control) and Greatness, they have a single out now called "Moola."
What grabs your attention when you’re looking for an urban kind of artist?
When it comes to that side, I'm just looking for an amazing tone, a guy who works really hard and someone who is ready to understand the business. I think a lot of times artists come out and just put songs on YouTube, they blow up, get a lot of views, the label picks them up and they have no experience whatsoever on the game and how to stay there. Ultimately, what happens is the record comes out, the label takes it over, it does a little [bit of numbers] and you never hear from them again. I want artists who want to make a career out of this. They have to understand how this really works to the point of learning more about it and to listen. You have to gather all the notes pretty much of what I have acquired through my years and help take them to the next level.
I think today a lot of artists feel they still can do that on their own since you can promote on social media and you can even learn how to produce on YouTube. Do you think this can hold them back from the business aspect of their careers?
I think it can hold them back a lot. Especially to be a seasoned veteran that understands the business side of it. The creative side, you're absolutely right, they can definitely do it on their own. With today's technology you can make a song in an hour. You can make a music video in two-three hours. It does give you the opportunity to create the content.
You have the content, but what do you do with it? How do you saturate the content? How do you make it relevant? How does it correlate to a business? How does that content now make you money? These are things that you need people to help you realize. People who know the politics of the business and who does what. Now you can take your crew to the next level. Now there's a system. You can become a superstar, but you need a team around you that is going to help you make that long-term success.
And it helps that you're dealing with people that have had their own success, too.
Absolutely. There are a lot of things that you're going to go through that you don't know how to deal with. When that time comes you have someone that's been there and they can walk you through those steps before they even arise.
In the midst of all of this, are you still working on the Stadium album or working on other endeavors?
The Stadium album is done, it's now the matter of putting it out and what system I'll put it out through. I was dealing with a lot when it came to my deal with Universal and the changes they were making within their system. Currently I'm with Atlantic and we've put together a nice little plan as far as how we're going to put it out. So all of that is now being handled on Atlantic's side.
Congrats on that. New deals, new energy, new business.
When you say, as a means of putting out Stadium, what do you think of the way music is being released today? You have people like Beyonce who reinvigorated the whole "surprise album" motif and Kanye West who dropped an album in real time while working on it. Do you think with the times, people are stepping outside of the box when it comes to releasing new music and how listeners digest it?
Personally, I think you have to think outside the box period, regardless of the times because you have to stand out. There has to be some kind of shock value that creates curiosity. When you're an artist like a Beyonce or a Kanye that already have a fan base, you know where your fans are. I can drop a project tomorrow as long as I have access to my fans and let them know the project is coming out tomorrow. By getting a hold of the data, which gives you the information of how to communicate with them. Once you have that, the sky is the limit on what you can do.
You have so many different sounds and I think that's something that's really amazing. You can make an R&B song, a pop song or music with Caribbean and African flavor. Do you think that your fans at the moment are expecting one thing from you or that they know they're going to get hit with so many different sounds?
I think they know they're going to get hit with a lot of different things. It's the reason why I'm deciding to put out the Stadium album the way I did. It's five different sounds, five different territories, and five different types of music because every genre has fans of mine. I've made records in every genre and have had number ones in every genre. So it actually worked out to my benefit because I have a worldwide audience and if one genre that doesn't attract at one point, then another one will. More than anything, I love music that's why I did it. I won't let one particular genre hold me back from what I want do it. I think the fans are pretty much know I'm hitting them from every angle for sure [laughs].
I think that says a lot about your talent and your longevity. For Konvict Kartel, are these are just urban artists?
Yes, Konvict Kartel is just for the urban market, hip-hop, raunchy and grimy R&B. Something that really speaks to the underground.
So for R&B, what do you think the genre today? Do you think the traditional R&B of yesteryear can ever come back as strongly as the airy mid-tempo sounds that are dominating the genre today?
I think it's a decision that the artist would have to make. Every time there's a new generation, they're into something else. My mom and dad were into disco, then you had Marvin Gaye, then the Isley Brothers so you know you even had different types of R&B back then. Then my generation had acts like Jodeci. This generation is totally different. You've got Trey Songz and those guys are totally hip-hop now. Chris Brown, it's really hip-hop with melody. It's really based on the generation that grew up under than genre so you can't really predict what R&B is going to sound like in the next five years. You just have to be in tune with the time and adjust according to the generation because that's what you really do this for, the people. So if the people are requesting one particular thing, then that's what you give them. It's not ever going to be what you personally like. Otherwise, you don't need a record deal you can just make music for yourself in your basement.
Do you plan on expanding your label to include other acts?
Absolutely, we currently do that now. For the last few years, I've been in Africa doing my main Konvict movement there so with there we have artists such as Wizkid, P-Square who's signed to us as well. Those are the top acts that have come out of Africa that are huge in the Afrobeat market in the UK. A lot of people here don't know that. They think music domestically is what really matters but when you travel across the waters you see they're acts in those areas that may not have crossed over yet. Ultimately, my end game is to bridge all that sound, all that music into one so people can open up and listen to music from around the world and not just focus on here in the United States.
Why do you think the artists from overseas have trouble finding success in the States?
I think people don't travel. When you don't travel, you close your mind to what's around you everyday and you really don't open your mind outside of your reach. I'd say three out of ten people I know personally have passports. Some of my friends didn't even know what a passport was. That's just the culture of the U.S. has always been that way. You have some people that are from certain corners who have never left that corner. We've never had a culture of travelers. Sure people go to Cancun or to Hawaii, but you're still in the United States. I think that's why the fear is so heavy here. It holds people down mentally and stagnates them from opening their mind to something bigger. You have to want to explore and taste different foods and interact with different cultures of people. There's so much fear and propaganda that pushes people from not even wanting to leave the United States. I think that holds us down as a people.
There's that notion of generalization. So if you think it's one way here then you assume it's like that somewhere else. I wish it was generally known, but there is growth in traveling when it comes to young African-Americans.
It only makes the confirmation a lot stronger from a mental standpoint. When you go out, you come back with things that stay with you for a long time.
You've been able to travel and give back with your lighting initiative in Africa. How do you feel about other artists like Big Sean who have given back to their cites in light of the Flint Water Crisis?
I applaud them to the fullest because ultimately with your artistry you can spread that wealth and spread that extra blessing to someone to who can possibly need it. Some musicians, athletes and high profile people really care about the people and the environment, and really want to do something powerful. Those are always the ones who stick around for a long time and the blessing always come right back to them. Sometimes it's not hard to question someone's morale or integrity. Just by being around them for a minute but you can also see what they do other than what they're known for and that right there is their legacy.
Phife Dawg of a Tribe Called Quest passed away recently. He's one of the recent black men in the hip-hop community that passed at a fairly young age. The bigger conversation coming from this is the idea of health in the black community. Do you think this is a problem that is left largely unsaid?
I think there's over 40 people that have died in the hip-hop community that I know personally. It's all been from health issues. Cancer, heart attack, unknown diseases. The health issue is serious. We have to start taking it serious or none of us will live past 50. People are now just eating to live and not living to eat. We have to be in the position to know that after a certain age, your body doesn't function the way it normally would. Whether it's fighting a disease or burning off fat as fast. It's just habits you have when you’re younger that you have to switch out when you get older. It's so important, especially if you want a longer life. We have to have more nutritional type of diets even in the workplace because a lot of these people are eating the same foods at work, the bodegas, the restaurants, these things are the same foods that affect your body.
Speaking of being woke, what do you think about Donald Trump’s winning spree during the primaries?
It's a scary feeling. You would think that people were a lot smarter. Trump is like another Hitler with his agenda. I know that he is a very smart businessman and everything, but I just think there are certain parts that he's lacking that he doesn't even know he has. I think he's more into the cameras and the popularity of the celebrity. He knows there are certain things that people want to hear that more than everything; the people have to know how is he going to go through with all of this? He can tell you everything but how is he going to package it? If all fails, he was going to get publicity out if it. Now it's hitting him. He's probably thinking, "Oh, I'm actually starting to win," to "Wow I'm winning" so know it's starting to switch up. I don't even think he himself would get this fair. Before when he ran no one cared. Now they care.
What’s the most important thing you want people to know about Konvict Kartel?
This is a movement and I just want to be in position to offer that platform to artists who understand who they are and where they want to be in the next ten years. That's what we want. We're trying to build careers here.