Akon comes from musical royalty. His dad is famed Senegalese percussionist Mor Thiam, and as a youngster, Akon parlayed his natural rhythmic abilities into beatmaking, programming and, by age fifteen, writing and producing tracks. His early material was so promising that he became part of the Fugee family, but a three-year stint in jail for stealing cars temporarily broke his rhythm. Since his release in 2002, Akon has established himself as a premier force in R&B and hip-hop as a hook man, singer, producer and label executive. He has created hits for Gwen Stefani and Young Jeezy, and his solo album, Konvicted — which has spawned massive hits like the strip-club banger “I Wanna Love You” (featuring Snoop Dogg) and “Smack That” (with Eminem) — went platinum five weeks after its release last November. Akon also has a mysterious side: He’s rumored to be a polygamist, won’t cop to his real age (said to be twenty-five) and reportedly owns a diamond mine in South Africa. “Stuff like that would be irrelevant to the purpose of the conversation,” he says from his home in Atlanta. “What captured everybody was the music — I want to keep people focused on that.” Akon just released his new single, “Don’t Matter,” and will join Stefani on her Sweet Escape tour, kicking off this month.
Both “Smack That” and “I Wanna Love You” contain the word “pole.” Are you obsessed with strip clubs?
That’s another hobby of mine. A lot of my records were inspired from being in those clubs. We always test our records in strip clubs.
So you could go to, say, six strip clubs in one night, to test-drive the new music?
Oh, yeah. Atlanta’s full of them. You’ve got Magic City, Strokers, Pink Pony, Blazin Saddles. … You’ve got all kinds of people in there, from executives to politicians to cats on the street. If it works in them clubs, a lot of times it works out in the public.
You and Peter Tosh both have songs called “Mama Africa.” Do you dig Tosh more than Marley?
That’s a good question. Peter made a great contribution, but I think Bob’s messages have lived longer. It’s like Biggie and Tupac. Tupac’s message seems to be lasting longer and is more relevant than Biggie’s. And Bob’s influenced a lot of my records. “Don’t Matter” was influenced by “No Woman, No Cry.”
In the video for “Smack That,” the prisoner has an iPod…
No, you don’t get to have iPods in prison.
How did you hear new music while you were in prison?
TV. You might have break time where you get to watch TV and you put on MTV or BET or VH1, whatever the pod agrees to watch. There’s predominantly blacks and Puerto Ricans in there, so we watched MTV Raps and BET a lot.
Do you remember a video that inspired you in jail?
That “Ready or Not” video by the Fugees. I was like, “There’s a fuckin’ incredible video, and I gotta sit in this motherfucker through it.” That was literally a family that I was part of. It was definitely a blow, and it made me say, “Man, I’ve got to get it together.”
Your song “The Rain” is about the difficulties of fame. Does it ever feel like prison?
Being limited in what you can do is the same concept as being incarcerated. I can’t just get up and run to the grocery store in the daytime. I can’t go to the movies like I’d like to. It’s a hassle now. Every three steps, I’m stopping, doing autographs, taking pictures. I love that stuff, and it reminds me how far I came, but there’s a lot of times when I want to spend time with my family, but I can’t.
Do you like to drink and get high?
I never drank. I never smoked. Never. I’ve had plenty of opportunities, because everyone I hang with drinks or smokes. I never saw the benefit in it. I like to be in control of everything that’s going on around me.
The rumor is that you’ll soon be producing Michael Jackson.
I’m meeting with him before the end of March. I think it’s going to be magic once we get together.
What should he do to turn his career around?
He needs to take all the stuff he’s been going through and put it in his records. Nobody really heard Mike’s story. That’s a story people will buy into.
Who are your favorite singers?
I always liked Phil Collins. He has this crazy unique tone in his voice. “In the Air Tonight” — that’s my favorite.
I read that you also like Creed.
Yeah, I used to love Creed. Around ’97, I had this red Volkswagen Corrado — a little race car they used to make. I had a system that was out of this world, and I’d ride into the hood playing Creed. They’d look at me like I was insane — “What the hell’s wrong with this kid?” I used to love that. I also used to listen to lots of Guns n’ Roses, and R.E.M. is still one of my favorite rock bands.
Lil Jon is now in the Guinness book for having the biggest piece of bling. Jealous?
I saw it at the Grammys. But I’m about to take him out of the book. I’ve got a piece being made that will tear the game up. It covers my whole stomach, literally. It’s the continent of Africa. On top, it says AKON and on the bottom it says KONVICT. It’s ridiculous. Senegal has a little light behind it that constantly flashes.
Jon’s weighs five pounds.
Mine’s, like, ten. No, fifteen!