Chaka Mkali has an immediately calming presence. His gentle eyes are striking in the blazing sun on the porch atop Fifth Element, the Rhymesayers Entertainment-run record shop and label headquarters in Uptown. In an eloquent and carefully metered speaking tone, the artist known as I Self Devine takes us on a trip through the past decade, back to the release of Self Destruction, his seminal album that will celebrate its 10th anniversary Saturday at the 7th St. Entry. "My mom loves Self Destruction more than any of my other albums," he smiles.
Having spent the '90s pioneering Twin Cities hip-hop with DJ Kool Akiem as the Micranots, I Self Devine broke into a new creative realm with Self Destruction, his solo debut. St. Paul musician and activist Maria Isa counts Mkali as one of her mentors, and stresses Destruction's impact back in 2005 when she was 18 years old.
"At the end of the day the rap show is done, but we have to go back in our classrooms and our communities," she says. "That's what Self Destruction did. It gave us that boost of momentum to say that it ain't gonna be easy and never will be, but you can't give up and not serve your purpose."
As director of organizing and community building at Minneapolis nonprofit Hope Community Inc., Mkali serves his purpose through community activism as well as rap. The 42-year-old MC grew up in Los Angeles during the end of the Black Power era and throughout the crack epidemic, but it was Ronald Reagan's attack on education that truly catalyzed his activist streak. "I've always known that I came here to do other things, not even other than music... but I came here to make an impact," he declares.
Mkali's ability to impact others positively is a natural and organic gift, his friends confirm. "He's always been somebody I looked up to; I wanted to be like him," Minneapolis rapper Muja Messiah says. Muja refers to Mkali as "one of the greatest rappers ever," and considers him family. DJ Kool Akiem, owner of Mental Madness Wreckords and Mkali's partner in the Micranots, also views him as an inspiration. "I admire him, and actually would like to be more involved in certain aspects of what he's done," Akiem says. "That's part of me becoming a teacher, or elder eventually... 'cause I've got gray hair on my beard [laughs]."
Back at Fifth Element, Mkali discusses his highly respected work with Akiem in Micranots. He reveals that the two have finally begun working together again, years removed from a dramatic breakup at their record-release show in 2004.
"At the end of the day, Kool Akiem is my brother, as close to a biological brother that I'll have," he says, voice trembling with emotion. "I think sometimes we just needed space and we were young, and we developed, and I think we outgrew the process."
Akiem holds no grudge, either. "If you've ever parted ways with a friend and come back, there's natural friendship that exists... it's not broken," he says. Over the past decade Akiem's been busy, traveling the country DJing for MF Doom and establishing himself as a club DJ and radio host in Atlanta. Since returning to Minnesota in 2010, he's begun teaching a hip-hop history class at McNally Smith College of Music and focusing on his record label.
A lot has changed since the release of Self Destruction, and most of the artists spoken to in this piece agree that the influx of technology has impacted the Twin Cities hip-hop scene most profoundly. However, they're conflicted as to whether that change is beneficial or detrimental.
"I just think that because of technology, things have been more democratized in terms of supporting people's independence," Mkali says, referencing SoundCloud and Twitter. Akiem sees this as a downside, though. "I read a lot of articles now about how easy it is for artists to establish themselves because they have the internet," he says. "But I think the slice of the pie that artists are able to garner is even smaller at this point."
Muja and Mkali both note a sharp increase in the number of young hip-hop artists over the past decade. Mkali appreciates their business acumen while Muja admires their self-sufficiency, but Muja's feelings are more mixed. "There's a lot of cooks in the kitchen but I ain't mad at the food, you know what I'm saying?" he says. "Everybody has their right to create what they want to. All I see is just... it's just more — it's more of the same thing."
Saturday's celebration of Self Destruction should encourage past and present generations of fans and performers to embrace and uphold the album's original message.
"I am excited to see people celebrate the 10-year anniversary of Self Destruction," Isa exclaims. "Because it's a celebration that is an opening gate of what needs to be flowed through in remembrance of, 'Man, speak up! Write about it!' Go in the club, turn up, do what you do, but at the same time you gotta wake up and you gotta save these babies and you gotta make sure that your history is being told."
As hectic as his life is with five children, a wife, and Hope Community to help run, Mkali is greatly looking forward to the anniversary show as well as his reunion with Akiem. "The album that we're making will probably be the best album that we make as the Micranots," he says, shading his eyes from the sun. "But I think it'll also be my best album as a person."0x00E7
I Self Devine celebrates the 10-year anniversary of Self Destruction at 8 p.m. on Saturday, August 29 at 7th St. Entry; 612-338-8388