The Sounds of Science
Is the Hip-Hop Nation Ready to Invest in Labteknology?
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"The prophet gets no love in his own hometown" is one of the many pithy proverbs that occasionally sprout from the mouth of Baltimore MC extraordinaire Labtekwon. Having spent the better part of the last 15 years rhyming and producing his own beats, Lab is a familiar figure to many on the local hip-hop scene. Now, with the fruits of his labor in the underground coming to a record store near you, he stands on the verge of capturing the attention of the hip-hop nation.
Labtekwon recently released more than a dozen CD-Rs of material by himself and a few friends on his own Ankh Ba Records. Included in the Ankh Ba library thus far are two discs of improvisational performances with musicians recorded live at University of Maryland, Baltimore County; a pair of discs by fellow local MC the Maker Profaze; and the centerpiece of the discography, the Labteknology series--10 full-length albums of tracks that chart his personal and artistic development since 1994.
When he began rhyming around 1985, Labtekwon (aka 29-year-old Omar Akbar) says, he had no concept of what a record label was. His inspiration for making music was the artists he heard on the radio and saw performing at church shows. His main motivation was--and, he says, remains--to make dope music to listen to himself and to entertain others. "But now," he says, "people don't look at it like that."
Lab's take on the state of hip-hop today is summed up in another proverb: "Blow up, not grow up." That is, rather than take time to nurture their abilities, establish a fan base, and work to create something lasting, most up-and-coming MCs aim to explode into stardom instantly.
"I always say, if we had the same attitude about hip-hop that we have about basketball, Baltimore would have blown up years ago," he says. "You can wear the fly sneakers, the tightest shorts, the slickest jersey, but if you cannot play basketball, people will let you know.
"If we had that same attitude with MCs--'I don't care how hot your hook is, I don't care how you dress, what kind of Benz you have, if you can not rhyme . . .'--somebody would have gone beyond the level of just struggling to earn the respect of the underground following here in Baltimore."
Labtekwon's own carefully honed skills are on display on every volume of Labteknology, each dominated by the MC's thick and eclectic rhyming style. Lab's battle rhymes and punch lines rank among the best: "Your verse is stankin'/ Holy ghost, Batman!/ Your clan is stomped to death when I possess Kirk Franklin," he warns on "Ankh Ba (West Side Version)" from King of Kings: Nile Child Championship Edition, Labteknology Volume X. But he's equally proficient at creating tracks with deeply personal revelations, like Live From Hell: Shadows of a God's moving "A Message to Cushanah," in which Lab talks directly to his young daughter, trying to explain to her why he's made certain choices in his life. He puts forth a startlingly lucid argument for veganism in the concise and clever "Now Cipher" on King of Kings. Elsewhere, Lab takes the listener from imaginative adventures in ancient Egypt to straight talk about the streets of Baltimore in the span of a few bars.
Right now you can get Ankh Ba's CD-Rs from Foolblown.com, but Lab is working on licensing the albums to a larger distributor for wider availability. (He maintains that he's not interested in signing a deal with another label unless an obscene number of zeroes are involved.) He's preparing songs of a personal nature (stories of his youth and maturation as a person as well as an artist) for his next album for Ankh Ba, The Hustla's Guide to the Universe: Mind Over Matter, which he plans to press as a proper CD in spring 2002. This year, Mush Records--the label responsible for such recent hip-hop-underground landmarks as Aesop Rock's Float and the Boom Bip/Doseone collaboration Circle--is unleashing Song of the Sovereign, a compilation of tracks from Lab's back catalogue.
In the meantime, he plans to keep writing, exploring, and perfecting his art. But helping others "grow up" is just as important to him as growing himself. Lab is involved in the Shriver Center at UMBC, tutoring kids ages 9 to 18 and developing curricula for so-called at-risk youth. Lab even developed his own program, the Ghetto Griot, where he teaches young kids about African history, geography, and other subjects, then helps them write and record their own raps about what they've learned.
There's a potential lesson for local hip-hop fans in the Labteknology series as well. The real question isn't "Will Lab get his due?"--it's whether it'll take national recognition to clue us in to the talent in our own backyard, or if Baltimore will wise up first and help turn on the nation to our hometown MC.