VIPER’s founder Lily Mercer spoke to the iconic Akon about his brand new EP, ‘TT Freak’, which takes influence from TikTok. Read on to find out how he put the project together, plus insight into the early years of his career, including signing the superstar, Lady Gaga, to his label…
Congrats on the new EP release, the ‘TT Freak’ EP! Is this your fifth project?
Interestingly enough, this is the fourth studio project. You got ‘Trouble’, ‘Konvicted’, ‘Freedom’ and now the ‘TT Freak’ EP. During the pandemic we released two mixtapes, one was a Latin one called ‘El Negrito’, and the other was the Afrobeat one called ‘Akonda’. Those were throwaways for the audience to give them something over the pandemic.
What’s different in your approach when you make a studio project – like an album or an EP – as opposed to a mixtape?
Mixtapes versus albums, a lot of it comes down to the amount of budget that you utilise to market and promote. Mixtapes are always for the audience, you don’t intend to make money from it. But it’s a body of work that you give to your loyal fans to keep them happy and to make sure that while you’re doing the album that you’re going to be marketing, promoting some videos and giving them some bonuses. That’s how I look at it, like bonuses, a thanks for being loyal. But interestingly, when those mixtapes come out, sometimes records come out of those and become so big that you end up adding them to the album. So it’s almost a way to test the market as well to see what the audience would like from you, what they would like to continue to see. That helps you to gauge where your audience’s head is at too. As you’re creating records for the album, you’ll know exactly which direction to go.
How does that change with your audience? Because I was lucky enough to know you at the beginning of your career, but now your fans have kids and their kids are fans. How do you keep up with those trends that are happening without being sidetracked catering to different generations of fans?
It’s super hard to do that. The best way to do it is keep doing what you’ve been doing and stay in that pocket. Or you can be daring and try new things, that’s what I was doing with those mixtapes like ‘El Negrito’ Because I wanted to see if there was another audience out there for me, what other audience out there is actually checking for what I was doing? Or is my current audience willing to ride through a journey? This was great intel for me, I came to find out when I dropped it, it actually debuted at number one, which was crazy; I’m speaking all Spanish on it, not even no English, but it actually worked out. Then as you move forward, you start to realise that there’s other platforms out there too. So how I got connected to my younger generation was through TikTok because they were streaming all of our catalogue records. Then TikTok reached out to say, “your catalogue is literally the biggest streaming catalogue on the platform.” I said, “What?” and I’m not a social media person, I didn’t even know what TikTok was. So when that happened, I started doing research to get more involved with TikTok and do a TikTok EP for this particular artist. He’s doing something different and this is a good way to gauge that. So the ‘TT Freak’ EP came from my catalogue starting to blow up, and me wanting to get on the mark and just gauge that and start doing some different things. But it also gave me an opportunity to do something different than what I’m known for doing, because it’s a brand new audience so I can start fresh with them. Lately I’ve been in Africa a lot, I’ve been doing more cultural stuff from Amapiano all the way down to Afrobeat. But I don’t want to go too far into that room without bringing some of my Pop influence in it, so I gave it that fine blend.
Because your song ‘Enjoy That’ even has a sample which is really big on TikTok so you took cheesy elements of the app but merged those with modern genres.
That’s exactly what I did. It’s interesting you said that because the reason why I didn’t really do too much on social media, especially TikTok is because I just felt like it was super corny. I saw a lot of old people our age doing the silliest shit, but I can’t do that. I gotta find a way to do this. So I started seeing all this trending stuff then there was one skit where they were asking this girl, “what’s your favourite curse word?” And she’s like, “probably fuck.” I made a song out of it, I was like, ‘this is what I know best’. I’m very creative when it comes to songs. So I started finding things that I know will go crazy on TikTok, but allow me to still be who I am without being corny.
So who’s on the project and what made you choose those people?
If you look at my history, whenever I dropped an album, I always presented or introduced a brand new artist that’s either signed or someone that I was like, “this is the next thing!” In this case it’s AMIRROR. So AMIRROR, she’s the epitome of the ghetto chick that understands international, but is super lost when she leaves the hood because of her background and her position. I gave her the name because she reminds me of the reason why I call it a mirror. It’s the reflection of what I see of the chicks today on Instagram, they’re searching for whatever. They all have this dream of getting to a certain place, but they’re all waiting for IG to take them there. It doesn’t make sense, through this world they have this network of just dreams and people. Everyone is expecting it all to come together but until certain things are done, it can only be a dream. I call her AMIRROR because I feel like she’s a reflection of them. But her story is really what captured me and her hard work. She’s just a star all the way around so I was like, this would be the perfect way to break her. Once we release her project after the ‘TT’ project, her projects can come right after. Imagine if you had Cardi B and the City Girls mixed with Gwen Stefani in one verse, it’s different but she’s gon’ go. I’ve been really excited, out of seven songs on the EP, she’s featured on three of them. Out of the three songs she’s on ‘One and Only’, and she’s on ‘Prolly Fuck’, we shooting videos for both of them. She has a record out now called ‘Move’, which is kind of a reinvention of Ludacris’s ‘Move Bitch’, it’s on that flow. Her album starts with Hip Hop, but it goes somewhere else like how my album started when I first came out, it was straight Hip Hop and then I went from ‘Locked Up’ to ‘Mr. Lonely’, just switched it up. She’s on that vibe but I think the audience is gonna really love her because she’s so down the earth and, and just real. Girls are really going to be touched by her and they’re going to relate to her.
Did you always aim for the Pop market, despite coming from a Hip Hop background?
It was all a plan, because I knew I was bigger than Hip Hop. But at the same time Hip Hop was my route. I’ve had to find the right medium where I can do what I want and still be respected in Hip Hop, without looking like a sellout. I just love good music and real music. Hip Hop at the time didn’t have enough elements in it that gave me the feeling of what I wanted to hear musically. I will always start every album Hip Hop and then it will slowly take them on a journey to international, go from Pop to rhythmic to Pop to international. Now I’m doing albums that way, because it’s kind of a test to see if I’m on the right path, finding the right social media platform to combine what I want to do with the audience, because I feel like the music has completely changed; how it’s being promoted, how it’s being distributed, who it’s being distributed to, so I don’t want to use the old tactics of marketing and promoting it. Now I want to dive into the future and force myself to understand it, doing the things that I feel I don’t want to do, but I know I need to do. I’ll do it in a way that makes me feel better doing it because like I said, I felt like social media was just super corny so I gotta find the corniest way to look cool. To be accessible, I have to be able to look at myself in the mirror and not feel embarrassed.
As an artist of African heritage, you’ve been coming to the UK where Afrobeats has been around for a while. Now it’s touching into the charts in America, do you feel you had a head start compared to other US artists?
I think that’s always been the one thing that gave me the advantage. I looked at it like a cheat code to an extent because in Africa, music wasn’t divided in genres. When I was in Senegal, the radio would play Bob Marley, then right after Bob Marley played Cyndi Lauper and then after Cyndi Lauper played Fela. There was no such thing as just Hip Hop and R&B or Country and Pop music. There was no genre, just good music all the way down to Country music. Dolly Parton was being played over there, we just heard great music. Then I would come to the States and I’m listening to music but when I’m with my hood crowd, they only listen to Rap. When I’m with the girls, they only listen to R&B. When I’m with my white friends I’m listening to Rock & Roll; when I’m in the country, they’re listening to Country music. Depending on what music I wanted to hear, that would determine which friend I was going to hang out with that day, literally. I was like, “Dude, this is too much work, I just want to hear great music all the time!” Then when you try to put them on to other music, they’re like “man turn that shit off, play this!” So you couldn’t even share it because they felt like if they listened to something different, that they weren’t who they were. So I said, “Okay, I want to be the chain.” That’s why I made that statement when I signed Gaga to let them know I’m not the typical black young executive that just wants to sign Hip Hop and R&B. I’m gonna sign music that reflects my music, so from that I went to Africa and started signing Afrobeat artists. I’ve got acts everywhere that people don’t even know are attached to me in literally every genre. I would pick which artist I would purposely publicly cosign, just for what direction I want it to go. But the rest, people wouldn’t even know I was attached to any kind of business.
You are incredible when it comes to building stars and discovering them but did anyone ever tell you to leave that alone? Just be an artist and focus just on yourself?
Absolutely, I get that all the time. The guy that I was signed to at the time was one of those guys who wanted me to just focus on me and I’m like, “I can’t.” I said, “Did you just focus on me? You want to sign other artists too right? So I can’t be a label owner?” He says, “Yeah.” But he knows if I become a label owner then I’ll become competitive to him. But in my mind, I’m like, “No, I’m still under your umbrella. It makes you look like a genius when I’m successful, because I’m under you.” Look at Dr. Dre and 50 Cent; 50 said yes, he’s great, but that’s because Eminem allowed that. Dre just opened it up for them to get the opportunity to do what they’re doing. So when 50 closed his contract with Eminem, it makes Dr. Dre look like a fucking genius like, “dude, he signed Em! And Em signed 50! Who thought of that? No, it just happened naturally, right? But then it makes Jimmy Iovine look like he’s a God at this point. Because they’re all under him, so how do you not see the impact of success being under your umbrella? You should always embrace that and that’s where I was, I always wanted to make sure that every artist that I signed was not only a great artist but they were also amazing businessmen and women. You have your own labour, we help you build that, we find new writers, producers and artists that we feel fit your brand and help you grow that stuff from, you know, so I just knew that the key to success has always been unity. It’s never been, it’s never been anything else. Like, I don’t see anybody that can do great things by themselves without any kind of assistance.
Yeah because you signed Lady Gaga.
It made me look like a genius. I mean, I take credit for Gaga because people give it to me but in reality, that bitch is a genius. She did all that shit herself, she had all free reign. That was the thing that she’d never had before. Because she was with multiple labels before I picked her up and they all had the same opportunity. But no one sat her down and said, “What do you want to do?” They actually allowed him to do it and gave him the machine and the infrastructure to allow those ideas to come to fruition.
You have a huge influence in business too. While you’re working on your business side, did you still need a creative outlet? Are you still recording and writing?
That’s actually a good question. Because a lot of people didn’t know that I was still producing and writing at that time. I could never alienate the music side of it because that’s pretty much what opened all the other doors and it kept me visible, it kept me active. I’ve got a room full of hard drives with thousands and thousands of songs; literally all the songs are all gonna get released. Because as new artists come, they all need songs and I like to connect with artists. I love that I’m actually a fan of people that I feel like have the potential to go to a certain level. I will listen to records and be like, “whoo, I got a record.” So they’ll cut it, I’ll make a demo and send it to them to cut it. But that’s always been a part of my career, always.
Yeah it’s important to have a creative outlet.
no way out of that part of it is the part that I would actually do for free. But ironically enough, that’s the part that actually makes me work. Because I just love to do it. It’s just, you know, and now it kind of spilled onto my kids, because now they’re coming. I got a job board coming, dropping this EP top of the year. And I’m like, wow, you guys thought I was amazing! He’s on a different level. I’m a fan like, shit, he’s out here.
Is he singing or rapping?
Yeah, he’s singing. He’s singing. He’s rapping, he’s producing. But he’s, it’s almost like me on steroids. It’s crazy. Like, I sit here and be like, damn, like, I can’t believe it. I’m very anxious to see how the audience gravitates and talk to him because I’m trying to find the right way to promote them. Outside of him being my son, because I know normally when you have a father that accomplished so much, and then you have the younger, come to take his place they’re expecting so much and I want him to get a fair expectation. Imagine that Michael Jackson had a son, what pressure would have been put on his kid.
As a father, is there like any form of musical training camp you would give him?
Well, I gave them all the same training camp, right? They were all born in the studio literally. The beautiful part about it is that as kids they all used to hang with me in the studio. Then when they started going to school I banned them all from the studio purposely because kids, whenever you tell them not to do something, it brings them closer. They find a way to do it when you tell him not to do it. So ultimately, when it was time to go to school, when they were able to check into school, I would ban them and they would always cry. So every time that they’d go through something, or they do some great or they get great grades, studio would be their reward. Then I started travelling, or moving around. And then I found out that they were sneaking in the studio when I wasn’t there. In my mind, I’m like, “Yes,” but for them, I’m like, “what the hell you doing?! You know, you’re not supposed to! You’re banned from there for another week. So I taught all of them how to use the equipment, the basics, by the time I would go out and come back, they were teaching me new shit about half the equipment that was out. Because technology’s constantly changing to the point where I became their student. They’re amazing, these kids are out of here, but then later they understood what I was doing. At that point, their love for music was too deep to the point where that’s all they want to do now.
You want to give your kids the best opportunities, so if they’re like, “Okay, I need a Lady Gaga verse,” how do you handle that?
I told them all, when you drop your first album, you will have no features. Not one, I don’t care who it is, you’re gonna come out by yourself on every record, because you want the audience to buy into you. You don’t want them to buy your record because someone else is on it, or you don’t want them to just support you, because their favourite artist is doing a record with you. You want them to be a fan genuinely and then you can start doing collaborations with other people and things of that nature. Once you learn your audience, because your audience is also going to like similar things that relate to you and those are the people that you choose to collaborate with; so it’s all business. Even though people may not look at it like that, even though my collaborations were strategic, I would only do collaborations, not only with friends, but people that occupied a market that I needed to be stronger in. And boom, I would create the right record for that market to gain that audience and then I’m off to the races. But then, of course, if that favour needs to come back; if they need me for anything I was there for them.
But having worked with icons like Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston, is there anyone left that you must work with at some point in your career?
I’ve worked with everybody that is a must but interestingly enough, on the Hip Hop side, there’s only two people that I haven’t worked with, who I’m super shocked I haven’t; it’s Jay Z and Drake and someone else brought that to my attention. I was like, “Yes, I did.” Then I said, “Wait a minute… no, how did we not work together at the peak of both of our careers?” But I think it was a timing thing because at the time when I was at my peak, Jay was going into executive mode at Def Jam. We kinda missed each other and as far as Drake, he was larger than life while I was in Africa doing all the things I was doing. But those are two artists that I always said to myself, before I completely retire I’ve got to duet with them. There’s a million artists that I want to work with, there’s just so many good ones.
I’m sure you pick up your phone and make crazy collabs happen, but does it work better when it comes naturally?
Definitely because there was never a personal relationship, we know each other from the business. We’ve seen each other at award shows and bump into each other at events, but that was never a closeness like we go to each other’s holidays parties and kids christenings and things like that. We didn’t have a relationship so I think that had a lot to do with it as well.
With the actual business side of things, not just your music but your philanthropy too, is there anything that you’re like left to tap into?
Actually from the standpoint of business, I think I’ve gotten into everything I wanted to get into. The only thing that I haven’t put too much focus into, which I plan to later, is the film and television side. Because I did a lot of producing but I didn’t do much acting. I want to do more acting and I want to be able to create more stories that can be you know miniseries’ and things like that. The politics of [TV] was so much worse than the music business at the time. I didn’t really want to deal with it. But now the game has changed because all these platforms like Hulu and Netflix and Amazon and Apple, they all have their own platforms so they’re actually picking up certain things that took place at other studios where those politics don’t exist. So now I can really do real stories with real acting and all the actors are available now. They’re all for sale, you can hire anyone to play any major part. So life is so much easier to do real stories with real actors and actresses. I think probably mid ’23 I’m going to announce a major project that I’m looking to do, almost like the same excitement of equivalency to what Black Panther was. It’s like real African stories with real production, real artists, real actors, done the right way, Marvel style, not the typical VHS style African movies, but some real shit.
There’s never been a better time, especially with people telling the stories from the actual culture. Would you make a biopic or series of your life?
Well I announced [something] two years ago. But then I realised, man, this is way too early, because things just kept coming and kept accumulating. Things that I didn’t envision to be in my story are now in my story. So we’ve been writing a biography for me, to keep track of what’s happening and we’re gonna turn that into a miniseries for sure. I’m thinking one season, 10 or 12 episodes, the whole spill from Africa, to Jersey, to the streets, to the hustle, to the incarceration, to the music, to the legacy to the philanthropy to the businessman and probably ended off with running for president from my country one day.
I wouldn’t be surprised. Your story of just your years living in America is quite crazy.
The story is nuts. If I just told you a piece of it people would be like “what?!” You have no idea, it’s interesting. It’s deep.
Was there ever a point before you got into your music career when you doubted that this would be your reality?
Yeah, I was really doubting life in New Jersey specifically, because that’s where the majority of the challenges came from, from the criminal side of things. That’s what made me go to Atlanta and start over there, where there was no reputation. No one knew who I was and I had a fresh start but then the one mistake became a blessing, because what I ended up doing was taking the same Jersey lifestyle, and allowed Atlanta to inherit that and that’s how I got locked up. But it came from the success of that, that made me realise no matter what I put my mind to – whether it was legitimate or criminal – I can be successful in it. So how about just putting all your energy into something positive? Because I clearly showed myself that I could be a millionaire, this is just the wrong field. Let me pick something I actually love to do but I was forced to do music because coming out of jail at that moment, I was a convicted felon so I couldn’t get a normal job anyway. Music is the only thing that I know that I’m great at that I can do and I still can be rich doing without having to do anything illegal. Music became the saviour, I’m happy that I can actually pay taxes. Like, “hey, I paid my taxes!” I’m probably the only entertainer that literally pays his taxes every year.
[Laughs] I’m definitely not in your tax bracket for these conversations…
Before I realised what taxes were in the first place, I used to be proud to pay a lot of taxes. I used to be like, “Dude, can you believe I paid this amount of money in taxes?” But then after a while I’m like, ‘why am I paying so much in taxes?’. Then I started learning tax laws, getting financial professionals to deal with it, and learning how to write certain things off. Then I started to realise half the stuff that I was giving the IRS, these are incentives to be able to make some back, as long as you can quantify from a business standpoint where those funds are going. I didn’t know that before, I would just pay what I owed and keep moving. But then when I got the professionals involved and started understanding the business side of things, it made life different because I got a huge refund just on back taxes of overpaying. When you calculate that plus the sale of the Gaga projects, “Oh cool, I can build my city now.” [Laughs] God has a way of reserving certain things for people. He showed me in every way that you can come through a very challenging environment, or being around all the wrong people but then be rewarded just by making all the right decisions.
A lot of people have made money in their career, but don’t choose to do something positive with it. Was there ever a point where there wasn’t a consideration to invest it back into communities?
Interestingly enough, my biggest fear was always going broke so I always thought the moment I made money, I’m not spending it unless it’s gonna come back. I always thought that way, even down to my girlfriends. If I buy you a bag, how am I getting that back? That’s $25,000 that can go down the drain. Birkin at least there’s a value that you can resell it, I’m cool with that. Rolexes and certain things are an investment, but a car isn’t making us money. Every situation I ever had relationship-wise, I always put them in a position to make money. I would rather put you in a position to make money so you don’t have to worry about coming to me for money at all. Because the kind of money I’m gonna give, you can build a business behind it. So let’s figure out what do you really want to do? Right and let’s feel that passion, you will use this money to build it so now you’re a business woman. You don’t have to worry if God forbid, anything happened between you and I, you’re still straight.
Yeah Lil Baby has a lyric with that same attitude now but back in the day rappers weren’t talking about that.
Right but it’s stupid, I would invest in a woman before investing in a man on any given day. If you give a woman a loan for $100, she’s gonna come back with $400. You can loan her $1,000 and before you know it, she’ll make you $10,000 off that $1000. A guy is probably gonna buy some kicks, take a chick out to dinner and come back with an excuse on why he ain’t coming back with your money; now you’ve got to chase him for your money forever. Women always find a way to bring it back. That’s why in my business, 90% of my whole infrastructure is women. It’s not even about women empowerment, I used to tell the women in my industry, why are y’all fighting for equality? It’s a big waste of time, why would you want to be equal to men? We’re full of shit, you guys are way smarter than we are. Women have it all made, you guys literally have all the opportunities to run the world. The only thing that’s missing is the fact that you guys don’t come together. That’s it but you guys are smarter than we are, you out number us 15 to one. There’s no door that won’t be open for you, any CEO will open the door for you. You guys have all the access but the only reason why it’s a man’s world is because we understand that you guys are smarter than we are, we understand you outnumber us. We also understand that you guys have the power so the only way for us to survive is to stick together. So guess what? We stick together. Women on the other hand, I felt regret for you the moment Hillary Clinton was not elected. That was women’s moment to run the world right there. The moment there would have been a woman president in America, the leader of the free world and she’s a woman? The game would have been over for us because there’s no way that Donald Trump is going to pass more laws that benefit women than Hillary was. The symbol of a woman being a president shows that there’s a new guard in town. You guys could have maximised that opportunity and fucked us up but the girls didn’t vote for her because they didn’t like her. She was the most qualified, the most experienced, the most knowledgeable and more than anything, it was the symbolism of a woman being the boss. For black people in America, we could have hated Obama’s guts. We just wanted him in office to show that a black man can do it. That’s it and guess what? It changed the whole perspective. To the point where they started fighting us harder, started killing us harder. But it’s showing that we have enough influence to actually make a difference if we choose to come together. That’s the same thing in America, if black people just came together, we wouldn’t go through half the problems we go through. We just need to unite, prime example, the Jewish community has the lowest and the smallest population in the world? But they control it. Why? They may argue but at the end of the day, “let’s do dinner.” They do dinner as if nothing ever happened but then in the office they’re back to bumping heads, because it’s business. It doesn’t have to do with personal stuff. If women did that? It’d be over for us, literally. Think about it, a man cannot properly cheat without getting caught and trust me, we think about every angle. You guys will come and dissect that shit within seconds. We’re like, how the fuck did she know? We cannot figure it out to save ourselves, We take a whole month trying to figure out the best way to cheat. Then we finally do it and you guys take three seconds and know everything. I promise you, women – the day they decide to come together, you guys will change the game, because I honestly believe that there should be more women in high government positions. The reason why there’s so many wars, so many conflicts and you can never get deals or treaties passed, is because men have too much ego and they will never put their pride aside to look weak. A woman will embrace the fact that you know what? I don’t mind looking weak. As long as this is done, and my family’s protected, I’ll be weak for my family. How about that? A man will be like fuck that, we’re all gonna die. And everybody dies.
Interview by Lily Mercer