The first curious thing about Akhe Abdullah’s album of Hip Hop instrumentals, Journey: The Sound of Life, is the cover art’s painted depiction of a carefree boy crouched inside a tree, a man walking from a distance and a bearded man with his head lowered in contemplation. It’s actually from a mural done by Abdullah’s grandmother. All three figures represent Abdullah in different phases of his life, hence, his Journey.
The journey currently finds the Columbus, Ohio, native at Elementz Hip Hop Youth Arts Center as Creative Artistic Director. In a rare hour of downtime at the center, Abdullah finds a semi-quiet space to avoid distractions from sudden cannon blasts of music coming from artists opening and closing the studio door.
He explains Journey: The Sound of Life’s decidedly introspective direction, shares some details about his parents’ musical influence (Abdullah’s father, Chris Powell, played saxophone in Rick James’ touring group, Stone City Band) and why he waited nearly eight years to put out an album since producing 2004’s The Professor and the Mutant for MC Infinit Evol.
After the project with Infinit, Abdullah (whose full name is Brandon Alexander Abdullah Powell) converted to Islam and says that through his focus on God, he felt less passionate toward Hip Hop. He didn’t feel the urge to do another album until last year, but the album would be for a different purpose.
“I just found out that I was going to have a child last Ramadan; it was around this time last August,” says Abdullah, who at the time of our interview was in the midst of this year’s fasting season. “That made me have the realization that if I don’t do this album now, I’m really not going to have time (after the baby) because I’ll have a new responsibility.”
Looking at his current commitments — religion, marriage, a new baby, working at Elementz and in the Muslim community — he’s content to have the album be his “man cave” retreat during moments alone. Though he says he’s highly critical of his work, he also says he’s very happy with the way the album turned out, as he intended for it to pay homage to sounds that shaped him musically.
“Journey is really like my second project, so it had been a really long time since I walked through that whole process of creating an album and I didn’t know I could still do it,” he says.
Part of the process included picking songs that would work thematically from the beginning of the album to the end.
“The buildup in (the track) ‘Journey’ makes me feel like I’m going from one place to another and I wanted to build something around this,” Abdullah explains.
“That track in and of itself is the process of me starting to create that album.”
Compared with his first album, which he describes as more “sample-heavy,” Abdullah says Journey shows his progress as a producer because during the eight-year lapse between albums, he taught himself to play the keyboard. He estimates that at least 70 percent of the new album is him building from his own inspiration rather than from sampling.
“In my earlier years, I used a computer and I had software called Fruity Loops; it’s a cheaper production workstation (that) people (use to) make beats and record,” Abdullah says. “Started off with just that and eventually I got a turntable. I didn’t know how to play keys at all; I was just sampling music.”
When he was a novice at making beats, he says the benefit that came from sampling was the exposure it gave him to unfamiliar artists. His mother exposed him to many good singers when he was young, including favorites of hers like Teena Marie and Laura Nyro. He says listening to the way Hip Hop producers like Pete Rock sampled Jazz further fortified his music appreciation because it helped him distinguish sounds. By actively listening to records, Abdullah taught himself to play keyboard.
“I think what I was looking to do is tie things that I grew up with and experienced with ‘a Hip Hop kind of feel,’ and I think that’s what I accomplished with Journey,” Abdullah says. “(Through the album) I wanted to be able to show things that I appreciated: Funk, Jazz, R&B, so I used horns, keys, strings and flute sounds.”
He doesn’t consider himself a serious keyboardist, but the balance of textures throughout the album, especially on tracks like “Journey,” “Breeze of Jannah” and “Survival,” show that he spent time developing his ear to learn how to create his own arrangements and chord changes. He’s careful not to overstate a track’s mood and crowd it with unnecessary curlicues. Instead, he balances Journey’s edgier, Hip Hop side with calmer, Jazz-influenced tracks like “Wealth of Knowledge.”
Now 29, he’s not even sure he’ll want to make another album, but he hopes that people that hear Journey will enjoy the music.
“My time commitments and inner passions are in different places,” Abdullah says. “I really can’t say that music’s going to have a heavy part of my life like it has in the past because I feel like the older I get, it seems like the further away I get from it.”
He begins to reminisce about the way mid-’90s independent Hip Hop’s socially conscious messages moved him, but remembers that the difference between him then and now is that he doesn’t look to Hip Hop culture to teach him about life anymore.“I was looking to be educated in things I didn’t know about, and through developing my relationship with God, I felt like that was my continuation to go through my next phase in life,” Abdullah says. “My work (at Elementz) is trying to help youth get through that phase in life, to their maturity.”
Here's a six-part video series about the making of Journey: The Sound of Life:
Listen to and purchase AKHE ABDULLAH’s Journey: The Sound of Life at akheabdullah.bandcamp.com.