- Photo by Kurtis Solis
Aki Kharmicel can’t stop. A local rapper and self-described “beat head,” he keeps his two Akai MPC beat machines on 24/7, and brings them along whenever he travels. When he comes up with an idea for a beat or a rhyme, he starts working as soon as he can, to keep his inspiration fresh.
“I get bombarded with ideas, so I gotta move quick,” Kharmicel says. “As of lately, it’s to the point where I’m so overwhelmed with ideas and concepts and whatever that I don’t even take time to write lyrics. I just plug my mic in and record.”
Prolific, resourceful and wildly inventive, Kharmicel—whose real name is Kennuf Akbar, a name he once used as his rapping moniker— has been putting out albums on his own since the late 1990s. Though he also has a day job, a wife and two kids, he always finds the time to craft beats and record vocal parts at his home studio in Encanto.
“He just has tons of shit,” says Jamal Smith, aka 10-19 The Numberman, a member of Parker & The Numberman. When Smith recently asked Kharmicel to send him some beats, he gave him more than a dozen. “And he’s, like, ‘Yo, if these don’t work, I got some more!’” Smith says.
For all his beats, Kharmicel also has a range of aliases. The name Aki Kharmicel is a reference to Stokely Carmichael, a leader of the black-power movement. Aki sees Kharmicel as a militant “raptivist,” and he touches on racial profiling and police brutality in his track “@thebeach#circa94,” a cut off of The Return, a forthcoming sequel to his album Aki Kharmicel, which came out last year.
In the track, he recounts a lovely trip to the beach that turns ugly after the police show up. Describing how the cops brutalize a young black woman, he adopts his signature, laid-back flow. His cool-headed intonations betray only a mild sense of surprise, underscoring just how common this type of abuse is.
But he isn’t always so intense. He gets extra-romantic as Aki Khalaq & The Blak Prints, a one-man soul band that he considers his own version of Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, a classic Philadelphia group that Kharmicel’s parents listened to when he was growing up in City Heights and southeastern San Diego.
Over the smooth beat of the stunning Aki Khalaq tune “Ursmilingface,” which came out last year along with a gorgeous video shot by Robert Espiritu, Aki describes the tantalizing traits of a beautiful woman, and then drops some ballsy pickup lines: “You look so pretty, girl, I almost wanna stare at you. / Girl, you feeling me, that’s almost like a miracle.”
Kharmicel came up with Aki Khalaq as a way to explore ideas of true love and sexual attraction. While he’s previously tackled issues like the black struggle and the teachings of Islam, he’s now been pushed in an emotional new direction—he’s even begun singing in a soft, breathy falsetto.
“When I do music, I can’t do it unless it’s sincere in my heart. So I almost have to channel my energies and almost, like, really kind of fall in love to make this shit real,” he says. “I mean, it sounds crazy. Shit, it might sound straight-up weird. But that’s kind of what I ended up having to do.”
Kharmicel, 36, has an impeccable sense of style, and his own way of doing things. He often uses recording effects to alter the pitch of his voice, making it deeper or higher to suggest that the lyrics are coming from different points of view. Taking influence from the ’90s-era breaks of producers like Pete Rock, he likes some distortion in the bass and coats his soulful beats with grainy texture.
“My beats, if it was a person, would probably kinda look like me. Kinda gritty but still kinda fly, you know what I’m saying?” he says. “Almost an acquired taste, but an outsider can still see the beauty of it, the art of it.”
He first got into hip-hop in the early ’90s, and he taught himself how to use a sampler in a class at Mesa College. In the mid-’90s, he formed the hip-hop crew Nocturnal Scientists with his friend Sumach Ecks, aka Gonjasufi. Still repping the crew, they recently recorded an album together under the name The Nok.
Now, Kharmicel is juggling several projects at once (including an Aki Khalaq video series), and he’s slowly working out all the details. “He’s very strategic,” says his friend Beatsmith Resist, a local producer. “He has an exact plan of how he wants everything to be put out.”
Meanwhile, the ideas just keep coming. Recently, he finished a song called “The Mourning,” a heartfelt tribute to nearly 20 of his beats that were erased after the power went out in his neighborhood. Heading out to Seaport Village with his family, he’d kept his MPC on, as usual.
“On the real,” he says, “I almost cried when I came home.”