Battle-Rap Veteran MC Skarr Akbar’s Words Hit Harder Than Fists
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When Skarr Akbar says “I’ve got songs for days,” he’s exaggerating, but only slightly. With a catalog of more than 300 songs, and countless more freestyles, he may not be the best-known rapper in Baltimore, but he’s easily one of the most hard-working and prolific. At the age of 25, Stephen Tatum has been rapping for more than half of his life, adopting the name Skarr Akbar a decade ago.
On any given day you might see Akbar peddling his wares on the city’s streets, selling CDs out the trunk of his car, in the tradition of hand-to-hand salesmanship practiced by underground rappers everywhere. When he’s doing business and surrounded by fans and other rappers, he might not stand out from the crowd. Skinny and of average height, Akbar often hides his eyes under a baseball cap with his braids tucked underneath.
But when he raps, his relaxed speaking voice hardens into an aggressive, relentless flow of words, and he gestures violently with his hands. And onstage, sometimes wearing camouflage and military medals to go along with his nickname, the General, he becomes an intimidating figure who commands the attention of everyone in the room.
What sets him apart from other rappers in Baltimore, though, is not just how much music he’s offering, but how much his fans are willing to buy. For a while earlier this year, he switched up his usual rate-per-CD package, offering six and even as many as seven discs for $20. That much music from an unsigned local artist may sound like more than anyone could ask for, but he took it a step further by also offering a movie about his life.
Last year, Akbar got tired of being the subject of constant rumors and hearsay, known as much as a dangerous loose cannon with ties to the streets as a talented MC. And he decided to set the record straight by telling his perspective to the burgeoning street-DVD market. The Understanding: The Stephen Tatum Story, directed by its subject and shot with the help of a handful of associates, is a 50-minute documentary full of interviews and anecdotes that attest to his rep throughout Baltimore City, and packed with DVD bonuses such as live footage and a music video. Fellow artists, business partners, and folks around the way all have a story about Akbar. And most of those stories attest to his skill as a battle rapper and his temper, which has turned more than one battle of rhymes into a physical altercation—as demonstrated in the DVD’s footage of a show last year at the Vault.
“Battle rapping is really how I started out, that’s how I got my name,” Akbar says. “Money was never an issue, it was respect, reputation. I’d get on a bus and go all the way over to West Baltimore just to battle somebody.”
Not content just to battle local competitors, though, he’d seek out national stars who came through Baltimore on tour, finding a way backstage to challenge them. In 1998, he so impressed Onyx that the group took him along for the rest of the tour, and group member Fredro Starr invited Akbar to stay with him in New York for the summer.
Akbar can rattle off a long list of stars he’s battled, but one name sticks out. In the late ’90s, he had a meeting with an Interscope A&R rep who decided to bring in one of its recent signings—a white kid he’d never heard of—for Akbar to battle. A pre-superstardom Eminem caught Akbar off guard with his sick sense of humor, “but he gave me a lotta credit,” Akbar says. “That was about the best battle I ever had.”
Skarr Akbar knows the stigma that battle rappers face when trying to make the transition to recording artist, though, and he rarely battles anymore, focusing instead on writing and recording. He now gets most of his lyrical exercise freestyling for his seemingly endless series of mix tapes such as The General, The Hood Legend, and this year’s popular Show Me Your Soul. And his affiliations with various mix-tape DJs have insured that, even if he doesn’t get played on Baltimore radio, his music reaches ears in other cities.
DJ Radio has been a particularly powerful ally in spreading around Skarr’s music. Radio, who came from New Jersey to Baltimore to attend Morgan State University in 2003, hooked up with Akbar before becoming a member of the Streetsweepers, the powerful New York-based mix-tape crew headed up by DJ Kay Slay. And in addition to hosting several of Akbar’s mix tapes, DJ Radio, named the Rookie of the Year at this year’s Mixtape Awards, includes Akbar on nearly all of his mix tapes, putting Akbar’s songs alongside sought-after exclusives by mainstream stars.
As he constantly drops new music on mix tapes, though, Akbar has been saving up the best material for his next proper album, Da Beautiful Mind, which he plans to release in September. Although his mix tapes are typically full of what he calls “shoot-’em-up bang bang stuff,” he excitedly describes the elaborate lyrical concepts behind album tracks—such as “Motion Picture,” a story about 10 friends who turn on each other, with a twist ending. “Final Destination” is a scientific breakdown of how heroin is created and then reaches the streets, which Akbar researched so thoroughly that he impressed an expert.
“My mother got a friend, a pharmacist, and he listened to the song,” he says. “And he asked me, ‘How could you possibly know all this stuff?’ Songs like that, I do like I’d do an essay for college, get on the internet and get all the information, jot down all the facts.”
His versatility is further proven by introspective material like “Autobio” and “The Better Half,” sitting alongside street favorites such as “Pick Ya Poison” and the single “The Business.”
The only thing Skarr Akbar appears to enjoy talking about more than his music is his acting stint on The Wire. He landed a small speaking role on the second season of the acclaimed HBO series about Baltimore’s street life, playing a drug dealer embroiled in a turf dispute. Although he had no previous acting experience, he did so well in his first appearance that he was asked to appear in a second episode.
“To play that character was nothing different,” he says. “That’s an everyday thing in Baltimore City—that is my life, that’s how I really act. So it wasn’t nothing challenging. But just to get a whiff of that and watch myself playing that character, I really liked that.”
Akbar, who expects some further work with The Wire, says he liked the glimpse he got of the acting world, and hopes for more such opportunities in the future. In the meantime, he’s tried his hand at writing scripts, and continues his nascent career as a documentary filmmaker.
Akbar just finished another DVD, The Understanding 2, which will either be packaged with Da Beautiful Mind or sold separately. “The first DVD, it spoke more about my life, my comin’ of age,” he explains. “Now this DVD, it just shows my hunger for the rap, it shows me more in the studio, more performances.”
The new DVD also features more high-profile interviews than the first, with local stars paying homage to Akbar, including Comp, Mullyman, and Bossman, who went to the same high school as Akbar and used to battle him when they were both teenagers. Though he may not have radio play or a record deal on his side, Skarr Akbar is quick to point out that those who do came up looking up to him.
“They’re basically tellin’ how they feel about me,” Akbar says. “And why I should be signed. They’re payin’ a whole lot of homage to me, and these guys are signed.”
The secret weapon in Skarr Akbar’s talent reserve is the fact that he produces his own tracks. He has his own studio and has been making beats for nearly as long as he’s been rapping, and his lush, sample-laden beats are as accomplished as his rhymes. Though he saves most beats for himself, he’s produced songs for his crew the Arabz, including the fantastic distorted bass line on the anthemic “A-Arabz,” and recently sold a beat to Mullyman. Akbar also contributed beats to both of Ogun’s albums, including the standout “Why I Write” from this year’s Real On Purpose. And thanks to his industry connections, he’s also had the opportunity to rap over exclusive beats by big names such as Kanye West and the Heatmakerz.
Skarr Akbar has been rapping for a long time, but Da Beautiful Mind might be the breakthrough he’s been waiting for. He hopes to secure retail distribution by the album’s release, but either way he’ll continue to sell out of his trunk and through his e-mail address. And he still gets asked about his very first album, 1998’s Life, Death, and Loyalty, so often that he plans on reissuing it soon through his label Akbar Enterprize. His career has endured many false starts and setbacks over the years, but he remains more motivated than ever, especially now that he has a son, who was born last year, to raise. But whether or not a deal comes, he’s going to keep grinding.
“I’ve got too much music to hold,” he says. “I could die today or tomorrow. I just want my music out there.”