In the late '80s, Chuck D called rap the black CNN, but the channel's long since switched to a steady stream of gritty urban crime dramas (an inner-city "CSI") and action-hero drug-dealers with the resilience and resourcefulness of a gat-wielding Indiana Jones. But the kind of music Chuck D referred to still exists in artists such as the Perceptionists' Akrobatik and Mr. Lif.
The pair hail from Boston, which initially seemed like a disadvantage given the rap music industry's New York/L.A. focus. Instead, Akrobatik says, they turned it to their benefit, taking the time to grow their sound rather than waiting to be discovered by Jay-Z or Russell Simmons.
"Every situation is what you make out of it," says Akrobatik. "What Lif and I made out of our experience in Boston was, 'OK, hey, we're not in NYC, that's great.' We don't have the pressure to sound like rappers from NYC. And we're also in an area that is starved for someone from here that can take over and be that hotness from here."
Individually, they focused on building a strong local following and honing skills. Rather than compete, they shared bills and built a friendship.
"I was doing more shows in the beginning and Lif would be my hype man, and then he started to get some shows, and I'd be his hype man. Everybody was like, 'You have the chemistry on stage you need to make more songs, you should be a group,'" Akrobatik says. "Even though we took that advice to heart, we were on different record labels and had different schedules."
A tour for Def Jux finally brought Akrobatik, Mr. Lif, and their DJ, Fakts One, together for an extended time. Naturally, an album broke out, the much-awaited Perceptionists debut, Black Dialogue.
"When that tour was over, the response was so positive toward us that the label was really interested in doing a deal. We already had half the album written by the time the tour was over, because that's pretty much what we spent our time doing on the tour bus -- writing, talking and playing video games," Akrobatik says. "We were ready to go."
Like many of their underground peers, such as Talib Kweli and Little Brother, Akrobatik expresses a frustration with exaggerated "reality" that preoccupies mainstream rap, and the impact it has on the culture.
"The image of black people as sex-starved, money-hungry, drug-dealing, murderous perverts is profitable for the music industry. There's a fascination with black people being that. And as long as the media can find someone to do that, that's where the money's going to go," he says. "The majority of people who buy that music are white kids. The vast majority. But the majority of kids who are affected by it are black kids ... [who] walk out each day to the jungle where that stuff really exists and is glorified. He's being taught if he's really going to be a man and a 'real nigger,' he's going to subscribe to all that shit."
But Akrobatik isn't one for tilting at windmills. He doesn't expect it to change: "The population is so out of control and the media is so irresponsible, I don't think it can be turned around," he says. Besides, he's managed to carve out a sustainable niche for himself with the backpackers.
"Even though I talk about it, and it's something important to me, I'm not going to waste my whole career trying to get people to realize it. The reality is that people are going to do what they're going to do," Akrobatik says. "Am I upset about the state of the black community? Yeah. But I'm not a politician, I'm an entertainer. If I can take people's minds off the club for a couple hours at a club on Friday night, so be it. I'm not trying to be anything more than I am."