Living large

After a decade in the underground, the Micranots deliver their sprawling, full-length debut, Obelisk Movements

At first listen MC I-Self Divine and DJ Kool Akiem of Atlanta's Micranots sound like throwbacks to the late '80s heyday of Afrocentric hip-hop, but don't take them for mere revivalists. Far from imitating groups such as X-Clan and Poor Righteous Teachers, the duo is actually a late arrival from that era, hip-hop Van Winkles staying true to the style they first developed over a decade ago when they formed as contemporaries of those groups.
Though both Self and Akiem originally hail from Southern California, it wasn't until they separately relocated to Minneapolis and fell in with the city's tight-knit hip-hop scene that they met and teamed up. First as Metro Unit in 1989, then renamed the Micranots two years later, the two pursued a life immersed in hip-hop creation, without much thought to careerist ambitions or widespread exposure.
Beginning in 1993, the Micranots made a series of homemade tapes, which they sold independently at shows, local record stores and anywhere else they found buyers. By the time they'd released their fourth tape, 1997's Return of the Travallahs, Self and Akiem had relocated to Atlanta and were making in-roads into the city's underground hip-hop scene.
When a copy of Travallahs reached the hands of former Company Flow MC Bigg Jus, the Micranots were invited to record for Jus' fledgling, independent hip-hop label, Subverse. Based in New York but with strong ties to Atlanta, Subverse has already established itself as a home for progressive up-and-comers such as Scienz of Life and Rubberoom, and the Micranots' 74-minute CD debut, Obelisk Movements, fits right into the mix.
In advance of the album's release next week, I-Self Divine gave CL an overview of his group and the new record.
On the name Micranots: "I was tired of people referring to African folks — those with a large consistency of melanin — as minorities, because when it comes to populace, we cover large areas. I don't like people referring to us as minorities — we're the opposite of small. So that's where the original concept of Micranots comes from: Micra - nots, negating the smallness, meaning that we're large and all of our contributions to society, in music or anything we do, are large-scale. Hip-hop is large, a heartbeat, excessive."
On the significance of the album title: "Obelisk Movements deals with the appropriating of culture, and we're using the obelisk as a metaphor to explain how hip-hop was moved from its original place. A lot of obelisks were moved, taken to places and rechristened with other names and other purposes. And that's pretty much the analogy of how hip-hop has gone. So we're not here to save hip-hop, we're here to provide a different angle on something you've already been looking at. And we bring the obelisk back home with the music, the content, by staying true to what we overstand hip-hop is and means to us. And looking historically and culturally at how everything we created has been siphoned from us and fed back to us."
On Obelisk Movements' music: "There is an overall concept to create a whole mood piece that has a beginning, a middle and an end. When you deal with African definitions, it's never just one thing. You always have poly-definitions, so for anybody who'd listen to this album, I'd say listen to it intently. It's not something that you can grab on one listen, and our goal was to create a balanced diet. We're really critical of our work, and the length of the record was a concern of mine, like, damn, it's a heavy chunk. I talked to other people and they said it moves good. And for me, I like things I just don't get right away, something that you can constantly listen to."
On influences: "X-Clan was an influence, but not a mad, crazy influence. I think more than anything is my upbringing. The way my mom raised me and living in L.A., having ties to Black Panthers and National African Peoples Organization, that really inspired me more than the music. The music that I listened to just validated what I was taught. But I look at them [X-Clan] as peers, even if they were farther along in terms of information or whatever. You have to understand, right now we're old in this game, compared to a lot of people who come into this game at 15 and 18 or whatever. We're almost 30 coming to this new level, but we've been here for over a decade doing this."
On hip-hop peers: "With this music I break it down to heartfelt or not. For example, you have a lot of people sound like Mobb Deep, but then you got Mobb Deep. When they rap, the emotion transcends. Anyone can talk about thug shit, but not many people feel it. You can look in their eyes and tell when they're not feeling it ... [Like Lil' Kim], she's clowning, she's playing the role. She knows it's a commodity, and sex sells, and she's doing it to a T. It's just a game. To some people it's a game, to some it's life. ... I try to just limit the categorization of music into good music and shit I ain't fucking with. The way I look at it, the pie's so big, there are ways for us to survive. So it's cool, everybody can co-exist."On being in the South:"There may some slang I picked up from being here, but the input and inspiration that I got from being here is one that has no body, it's more about feeling and learning. When I first saw Goodie Mob and OutKast perform, I was coming from an outside perspective, so I didn't understand what they were dealing with. Now, even some of the booty-shake music I can identify with a lot more because I've lived the struggle here, shoulder to shoulder with the people who make that music. But in terms of [Southern influence in] music or lyrics, no, that's a surface level. What's affected me about being in Atlanta is just seeing the legacy that went down here. Right now we're standing on mid-ground between who we are now and who we were."
On being a poor, righteous teacher: "I'm just a conduit. I look at the album like it's a Bible with beats. My life is no different from the next cat, so this is the experience that I've gone through. It's a Bible meaning that these are things I've accomplished and aspirations for where I want to be, because I'm no where near where I want to be. So this music is more of a medicine or a therapy, so to speak."
The Micranots CD-release party is held at Club Kaya on Tues., Oct. 17. Scienz of Life and Bigg Jus share the bill.