In a well-worn gymnasium in East St. Louis, Ill., children watch with impressionable eyes and follow the pattern of the djembe drums, as an integral piece of West African culture makes its way to the American inner city. In moments like these at the annual Katherine Dunham Technique Seminar, Senegalese-born Aliaune Thiam found the essence of home in America as a seven-year-old immigrant to the United States through the powerful trio of drumming, singing and dancing. With this training as his foundation, Thiam, best known as R&B sensation Akon, taps into elements of his native culture with his distinctive vocals and productions.
Akon is famous for his first runaway hit “Locked Up,��� last year's hip-hop anthem “Sole Survivor” with Young Jeezy and his track featuring Eminem, “Smack That.” Outside of the recording industry, it's been overlooked that Akon also produces most of his own tracks. But among music-business elite, Akon is a producer in demand, working with the likes of Jay-Z, Gwen Stefani and Elton John.
“It started with me playing the drums,” he says from his home in Atlanta, in a soft-spoken but assured tone. He's just returned from the UK where he was a presenter at the Music of Black Origin (MOBO) awards. Internationally, Akon's popularity has exploded as of late, but his musical roots have long been growing.
Dance legend Katherine Dunham brought Akon's father Mor Thiam to the U.S. in 1968. Thiam is a renowned jazz percussionist, performing with B.B. King, Nancy Wilson and trumpet player Freddie Hubbard. “My pops, of course, he was here with Miss Katherine Dunham back in the '60s,” Akon says. “Ever since I was six, I've been playing. I mastered every drum out there because of my dad.”
HARD TIME TO VOCAL LINES
Akon, who was born in 1979 and raised in New Jersey, like most immigrant children, grew up within two cultures. To understand Akon's radio-friendly R&B hybridization is to understand this duality. “R&B songs are more complicated than hip-hop because there are more melodies involved. You've got to change the melodies from the first verse to create the second verse,” Akon explains. “Beatwise, I always had grimy drums. The drums were always the main drive on the tracks, and that's how it is for hip-hop, too. I can understand why people call me a hip-hop artist, because I sing stuff that hip-hop artists rap about.”
On his second album Konvicted (SRC/Universal, 2006), Akon infuses rhythm 'n' blues with world music and hip-hop, including everything from reggae-influenced sounds to the distinctive vocals of Snoop Dogg and Eminem. On the album's track, “Smack That,” his “whoa” hook is sung with a sharp punch, an effect he achieved by manipulating his voice, holding his throat to control the sound. Essentially, he draws from Senegalese music, and the effect is similar to the Fulani vocal technique called daandé heli, or “voice exploding.”
While Akon is a high tenor, the darker nature of his vocal content is rooted in experience. As a young man in New Jersey, Akon decided he would cultivate his love of cars with the more dangerous influences of urban America, and became entangled in a car-theft ring. “Back then, I had a couple chop shops for stealing cars. Business was great, so I just stuck with it,” he reveals. “I got caught. I went to trial, got locked up for three years for it. The problem was, when I got out, I really couldn't get a normal job because I was a convicted felon.”
With percussion as his foundation, hip-hop resonated with Akon and provided a solution. “I had to figure out what to do without getting back into trouble, and that's when music came into it. I got in the studio and wrote about a lot of my experiences.” His first hit, “Locked Up,” is a reflection of this troubled past, with Akon's voice laid over a crisp, steady hip-hop beat. “Hip-hop is drum rhythms. I was attracted to that kind of music. I started out as a producer and a songwriter,” he says. To his great fortune, Akon was able to move to Atlanta and write for the Fugees, Monica and Usher.
DOUGH FOR STUDIO FLOW
Akon's first studio consisted of an E-mu SP-1200, Akai MPC3000 and the Ensoniq ASR-10. As his workload increased, he expanded his setup. “I bought $200,000 worth of stuff and did not know how to work a single piece,” he says. “I sat in that room for almost a year where I learned every piece, one by one, until I knew how to work that whole studio.
“As time started going by, I decided to do something on my own,” he continues. He's since scaled down his studio requirements, which are the same wherever he records — an Apple G4 PowerBook, Logic Pro, Pro Tools 7 and a Roland Fantom-X8 keyboard.
“Logic's the best program they've ever made for producing,” Akon says. “The technology makes it cheaper to record a record. Before, you had to find sounds and spend a whole day sampling. Now, you create your own sounds on it. Instead of searching [records] the whole time, you can go on the Net and download thousands of sounds.”
Nowadays, he is experimenting more with programming all of his sounds directly into Logic. “With Logic, you don't even need a keyboard,” he says. “I play by ear. The good thing about Logic is that you create your own screen according to how you produce. If you can't read music, you can go into dots and waves.”
Whether he is writing a hip-hop track or an R&B ballad, Akon has a consistent process for songwriting. “I think about the concept first, then I come up with the chorus. Once I got the chorus, then I create the beat around the chorus.” With his fine-tuned ear, Akon flourishes in studio sessions with an engineer and a guitar player on hand to keep up with his fast musical pace. During sessions, Akon's guitar player, Tony Love, has nylon, electric and acoustic guitars set up with 30 pedals to record into Pro Tools with a Focusrite ISA 215 mic pre through the SSL AWS 900 console.
Sound engineer Mark “Exit” Goodchild works with Akon on his many projects. “With a Pro Tools rig and an engineer, he'll beatbox his idea on the MPC2000XL,” Exit says. “It comes second nature to him. Sometimes he wants to play things live, and I'll have Pro Tools to record live drum fills. He often changes snare patterns at the end of a verse or a hook.”
Exit and Akon have the luxury of using the SSL AWS 900 board, which is a mainstay whenever session musicians work with them in the studio. “I mix in Pro Tools, but I use the SSL console to hear the output,” Exit explains. “When you have live players, it's necessary to use the SSL. It's good to have the flexibility of recording on the SSL and be able to flip between Pro Tools sessions. On the board, you get analog EQs, and then you're able to sample that back into the drum machine.”
A Manley Variable Mu limiter/compressor is the standby outboard recording tool when recording into the SSL console. “We do all the compressing as we're tracking it in,” Akon explains. “That way we don't have to go back and do it again.” Most of his tracks are lightly compressed with the aid of a master fader on the Waves L1 Ultramaximizer.
In Pro Tools, the tracks are split up for maneuvering in the final mix. “His original blend of music ends up being the final sound,” Exit says. “The sounds he chooses are EQ'd and resampled with the original sound. Since he does so much production himself, it's easier. I add compression to the whole mix, and then I add reverbs and delays. You tweak everything to make it complete.”
“Believe me, you know it when you have it,” Akon quips. If it's not quite right, he reexamines vocals, harmonies, ad-libs and lead vocals. “You add some more music to it, certain strings and horns. If that's not right, we try to get the sound fuller with different harmonies, an extra vocal ad-lib, or we stack the lead.”
Akon's R&B and hip-hop blend is simplified with the ease of sending Pro Tools sessions over e-mail, leaving open audio files and verses for hip-hop artists to drop parts into in their own studios, although he does occasionally run into compatibility complications with artists who record their parts using older Pro Tools programs.
When Akon works with an artist in the studio, it's generally a three-day process. Most recently, he recorded with the hip-hop act Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, whom he met with to gather ideas on day one and then worked with over the next two days on finishing songs with his three-person team.
Akon says he's most proud of his work on Gwen Stefani's “Sweet Escape” (on her second, as-yet-untitled solo album, due this month), recorded in a two-day session. “That record has so many different changes in the melody. It's so unique and different, but yet it fits her to a tee,” he recalls. “When I was writing, I was trying to think of her style. I want people to hear the record and think, ‘Akon did that?!’” He studied the elements of Stefani's discography. “I met up with her and I kind of felt her out. What is the range she likes to sing at?”
With Stefani's voice in mind, he laid down the background in Logic. “In actuality, [the artist] may not even hear the background because they may be singing on a whole different pattern,” he says. “It came easier when she was actually in the studio. She fed off of what I had already put down. She just took it and made it hers. She's a perfectionist. She likes to make sure every note is on the key. It usually takes her two weeks to do it. We recorded in L.A. It was the old A&M studio, the same studio where they did ‘We Are the World.’”
Working with vocalists, according to Akon, comes down to choosing the right microphone to ensure optimum sound quality. He prefers the Neumann U 87 and Sony C800 microphones. “It's a matter of if you have a high-pitched voice or a basic tone. If you've got a basic tone, the Sony mic is great,” he explains. “If you've got a high-pitched voice or project real loud, then the Neumann one is the best. When it comes to mics, it's really more of a matter of tone. You can make anybody sound good once you get them inside of the system.”
On Akon's vocals, his engineer's touch-ups are mild. “He's able to project in different ways than people from the Western world are able to do,” Exit observes.
Akon handles most of the production on Konvicted, and he actually prefers the studio to stardom. “I like being behind the scenes, being the mastermind,” he says. “You are a lot more powerful behind the scenes. It allows you to continue to be creative. When you're out in the open, you got too many people suggesting what you should be doing. When you're behind the scenes, you can always do what you want to do.” He recently inked a deal to start his own label Konvict Records with distribution through Interscope, signing Chilli from TLC, Grady Baby and Earl Ray. He also has plans to pursue film scoring next, with work on the upcoming movie Karma.
“I'm at the peak of my career as far as producing,” he says. “[But] I haven't really gotten started with what I want to bring to the game. I'm about to bring all the African drums out. In a minute, I won't even be doing anything with drum machines. Everything I'll use will be [live] rhythms.”
Computer, DAW, recording hardware
Apple Logic Pro software, Power Mac G5 and PowerBook G4 computers
Digidesign 192 I/O interface, Pro Tools 7 software
SSL AWS 900, 4056G
Roland Fantom-X8 keyboard
E-mu Proteus 2000 module
Yamaha Motif ES workstation synth
Waves Diamond Bundle (including Enigma; L1 Ultramaximizer; MetaFlanger; and Renaissance Compressor, Equalizer and Reverberator)
Guitars and Basses
Fender Deluxe Active Jazz Bass V 5-string, American Deluxe Jazz Bass 5-string, Grand Auditorium acoustic, Stratocaster (x2) and Telecaster
Ibanez GA6CE acoustic-electric nylon guitar
Yamaha AEX 500N acoustic-electric nylon guitar
Mics, mic preamps, EQs, compressors
Focusrite ISA 215 mic pre
Manley Variable Mu limiter/compressor
Neumann U 87 microphone
Sony C800 microphone
SSL AWS 900 console EQ
Boss AW-3 Dynamic Wah, BF-3 Flanger, DD-6 Digital Delay, MT-2 Metal Zone, OC-3 Super Octave and PH-3 Phase Shifter
DOD FX25 Envelope Filter
Dunlop Crybaby 535Q Multi-Wah
Ernie Ball VP Junior
Line 6 Bass Pod
Vox ToneLab SE Tube Driven Modeling Floorboard Processor
Augspurger dual 15-inch monitors