Fly Anakin Sets Out On His Own (With A Little Help From His Friends)

Tim Saccenti

Fly Anakin Sets Out On His Own (With A Little Help From His Friends)

Tim Saccenti

The Richmond MC and Mutant Academy co-founder talks linking up with Madlib, and how the soul music he grew up with informed his "debut" album 'Frank,' and why he keeps working with his old friends.

The idea of Fly Anakin’s “debut” album arriving in 2022 speaks to just how meaningless our vocabulary to categorize music has become. The distinction between “mixtape” and “album” has been debated ad nauseum, and the streaming economy has allowed artists to build a body of work largely on singles without the need for full-lengths anyway. We accepted Coloring Book as a mixtape and More Life as a “playlist.” So sure, why can’t the Richmond rapper, born Frank Walton, call his latest album his debut, despite a career that spans nearly a decade now and a discography that includes about 25 prior projects?

Ignore the technicalities. At the very least, Anakin’s latest feels like a debut. There’s the stunning cover art, a surreal Bitches Brew-inspired self-portrait. There’s the immaculate run of singles — the most intentionally curated of any Walton release so far — and co-signing features from influences-turned-peers like Madlib and Evidence. In the biggest departure from his past work, the album prominently showcases choruses that break up Anakin’s aerobic lyrical workouts. Then you have the title, Frank, a semi-eponymous marker that emphasizes the album as Walton’s most personal.

When I ask Walton to clarify his reasoning over Zoom, he dismisses reading too much into the qualifier. “I called this one my debut because it cost the most money to make,” he says. “It’s the first budget, the first time my shit was mastered. It’s the first one of that kind.”

Frank is billed as a solo affair, which also differentiates it from his prior releases, most of which are tag teams with members of Mutant Academy, a loosely organized ensemble not unlike the extended Marvel universe. At the group’s core are Fly Anakin, Henny L.O. — who Walton first began rapping with in middle school — Big Kahuna OG, and Koncept Jack$on, as well as producers Tuamie, Ohblv, Ewonee, Foisey, Sycho Sid., Unlucky Bastards, and Graymatter. Each member holds extensive air time or credits on one another’s projects, and various duos and trios have formed under the larger umbrella of the whole.

“All my friends make music, so it’s natural,” Walton explains. “When I was in Richmond we basically would just meet up at Kahuna’s crib and make songs all day. When I was making those songs, I figured he should just jump on them.” Since their informal origins, Mutant Academy has significantly expanded. “There are 10 or 11 of us now, so we can make three-man groups, two-man groups. We can even make five-man groups,” Walton says. “With so many of us, we just like to play with the combinations.”

He is quick to note that within Mutant Academy lie further sub-collectives, like Graymatter’s Scheme Team, with additional affiliates. Walton names frequent collaborators as honorary members too, including the Richmond veteran Nikelus F and Birmingham rap chameleon Pink Siifu, with whom Anakin released the essential joint LP FlySiifu’s in 2020. At this point Mutant Academy is no longer tied by geography or prior history, and their membership has become diffuse enough to embody something more of a school of thought, similar to the likes of other presently influential brain trusts, such as MIKE’s [sLUms]. and billy woods’ Backwoodz Studioz.

Like those scene leaders, Fly Anakin is helping lead a renaissance in the kind of studious and surrealist crate-digging that has brought up MF Doom and Madlib to an equal stature of influence as Rakim or RZA. The most revered underground hip-hop albums of the past few years — Some Rap Songs, Pray For Haiti, Haram — have become more hazy and insular, but also more technically rigorous. Frank is of a piece with those projects, operating as a masterclass in sample curation and manipulation. These songs are cooing and lustrous, layering searching vocal fragments from decades past with sheets of warm synthesizers and ripples of guitar, all stitched together by hiccups of percussion and studio gauze.

While the beats move with a weightless thrum, Anakin pins them down with a clenched-fist flow, merging his contemporary sensibilities with a foundation in rap traditionalism. Listen to how the wisdom-imparting motif on “Dontbeafraid” interlocks in a disembodied duet with Anakin, who shadowboxes around the sample, bobbing and weaving with a trained precision that gives his vocals distinct shapes. Or take “Grammy Snubnose,” which finds Anakin making tight turns around producer EARDRUM’s winding corridors without missing a step, sounding like Big L by way of Roc Marciano.

That blended approach — taking cues from both sides of the street rap/cloud rap divide — is what makes Anakin stand out within an increasingly crowded field. His lesser peers lack the lung capacity to confidently chart a course through their source material, ultimately drowning in a soupy mix. Anakin takes on those same loop-led song structures but actually adds some boom and bap to it. Among the highlights on Frank is the intro “Love Song (Come Back),” in which a midtempo thump keeps time for Walton’s brash earnestness, both pretty and pungent. While most of the album moves at that unhurried pace, he blazes through a vintage Madlib beat on the breathless single “No Dough,” talking his shit with an infectious intensity: “All my life I had to fight so it’s fuck you/ N****s don’t never help but always ask what you been up to.”

Frank is ultimately defined by Walton’s self-reflection, which infuses his classic wisecracks (the project’s very first line is “Death to all Karens”) with his most sincere lyricism to date. He pays respect to a lineage of creatives that have shaped culture across the globe on “Black Be The Source.” For “Sean Price,” he zeroes in on one with a particular influence on his own style. When he’s not gazing outwards, he’s looking in, offering several short soliloquies that range from an interrogation of the the racism that fuels his ambitions (“WaxPoetic”) to taking himself to task to live up to his own ideals (“Poisonous Primates”).

While Anakin cedes less of the runtime than he has with a majority of his prior, more communal work, the album is still decidedly a family affair. Most of the production was handled in-house by Mutant Academy, and prominent guest spots go to day ones like Big Kahuna and Henny. “I’m honestly just trying to get my friends out – I try and push them as far as I myself can go,” Walton says. All of his next steps are defined by this community-centric approach, making references during our conversation to upcoming full-lengths with Foisee, ANKLEJOHN, and Chuck Strangers, a 45 already pressed with Evidence, plenty more Madlib collaborations, and an official Mutant Academy group tape. Mutualism is what drives the prolific MC, and is also the source of his power: “Working with my friends makes me stronger.”

You mentioned that a majority of these songs were recorded back in 2018-2019. What was the impetus to finally get them together for release?

FLY ANAKIN: When I first signed to Lex I had an album called At The End Of The Day that they wanted. But I was like “Nah, I want to drop this myself.” So I just went and made Frank as an “I have to make an album for this label”-type situation. Then I got jammed up cause I had to wait for a feature and that shit took forever. I never even got it! [Ed: Liv.e was supposed to be on “Black Be The Source.”] So that really took an extra year. I just delayed that process a whole lot to the point where I kind of forgot about the album, because I was working on FlySiifu’s and shit. It was a lot going on at one time, so I neglected it.

When I came back to it and finished it, I fell in love with it again. Then it was like, cool I can drop this. I don’t feel weird about it no more.

The most immediate departure on Frank compared to your other projects is the emphasis on choruses. Was that an intentional choice?

FLY ANAKIN: It was. I was listening to a lot of Max B at the time. Max B is one of those hook guys, in my opinion. I was just more intrigued by song creation because I always put one verse on some shit and cut if off — be in and out — and I wanted to take my time with this album. Actually make songs, two-verse songs, with a lot of hooks and shit. I was trying to explore, see if I can make full songs without being bored.

The press release said the album was inspired by the soul and R&B records that your dad used to play for you growing up. What specific records were you pulling from?

FLY ANAKIN: Lenny Williams’ “‘Cause I Love You.” I used to hear that song every fucking Sunday morning. Earth, Wind And Fire — my mom used to play that shit all the time. Pops was on Luther Vandross and Marvin Gaye and shit. All types of shit. My house was just full of soul.

What was your initial entry point into hip-hop then?

FLY ANAKIN: My earliest memories are of Ghostface’s Ironman album. I remember Guerrilla Warfare by the Hot Boys. My brother used to just buy tapes all the time, and he’d make me open the plastic and play the speaker out the window so he could hear the music while he was selling drugs. Essentially I kind of felt like I was a DJ when I was kid, cause I used to try to make sure that they heard the shit that they wanted to hear. It was like playing a game.

What was the first time you started rapping?

FLY ANAKIN: I was nine years old and just saying shit, trying to impress my brother. The motherfucker wouldn’t take me to the studio with him, so I quit rapping. And then I turned 13 and I met Henny L.O. and we started recording at his house. I dropped my first mixtape at 14. And after that I just created a little schedule for myself, so I’ll have music out every year basically.

Were there certain rappers you were trying to emulate when you first started out?

FLY ANAKIN: I mean, I was trying to be Wayne back then. Those were the Lil Wayne days, that was 2007-2008. But it was a mixture of things going on. Those were also Soulja Boy days. It was an interesting time [laughs].

The peak era of DatPiff.

FLY ANAKIN: A lot of mixtapes back then. That was a good time for me, because I didn’t have a computer until around that time. I never had Internet in my household until damn near high school. Once that shit happened, I basically opened up to a whole new world of shit.

What was your stage name at that point?

FLY ANAKIN: Man I don’t even want to say, it was so bad. My first rap name was “Deuce.” I was basically in my second year, so Deuce. I was Deuce for like three songs, and then I was Nathan Hale for an album. Then I changed it to N-Hale. And then I changed it to Fly Anakin in 2011.

When did you feel like your music was shifting from your early days of emulating Wayne to what it is now?

FLY ANAKIN: Me and my friend ewonee dropped this project called mirrors_episode1 in 2014. It was an EP after Henny and I dropped our first album. That was when I kind of established my sound. You know how some music just creates an environment? That project was my first time creating an environment. After that I was trying to beat whatever I just did basically. So it wasn’t really about who was doing what. It was about what I did, and how to do it better.

When did Mutant Academy form?

FLY ANAKIN: That was when I met Henny in middle school. It just wasn’t called Mutant Academy yet. It was just me and Henny. Then after 2014 when I was figuring my shit out, that’s when we were adding more people, cause we needed producers and DJs, and then we ended up bringing in videographers and engineers too. Everybody we were bringing into the group was multitasking, each of us had three or four different talents, so we didn’t have to ask for help no more.

The operation was self-contained.

FLY ANAKIN: And with Frank it was like, I know we self-contained, but I don’t need to do that this time. I can actually ask for help if I needed it. That’s why I took it the way I did. It’s the only thing I haven’t tried, asking for help.

One of my favorite songs on the albums is actually the one you produced yourself, “Bad Business (Killswitch).” Have you been getting more into producing lately?

FLY ANAKIN: I’ve been producing since 2014. The main issue is my computer would crash and I would lose everything. I lost all my music like three times. So anything from the beginning of my rap life to probably 2018 I lost. I don’t have any of the sessions. So even if I wanted to, I wouldn’t be able to remaster shit. It’s a mess, bro.

But I’ve been making beats since 2014. So I’m pretty versed at doing this shit. I just don’t do it all the time. I’ve been making more beats recently. Like I produced a whole EP for Big Kahuna, 360 Santana. I did an EP for myself, Pixote. That was the first time I did that, and was really just me proving a point to myself that I can do this shit. And then COVID kind of helped it, because it made me sit down and really focus on it. I think I made my best beats this year and last year.

Does it feel like something you want to do more of? Get behind the boards as much as you’re known for being an MC?

FLY ANAKIN: Being able to do it all is important. It’s like, now I need to figure out how to mix and master my own shit. Then I’ll be super self-contained. That’s all I want. Be able to record a song, produce it, mix it, and drop that shit as soon as I feel like it. I can’t do that shit because I don’t know how to mix. I suck at Ableton. Ableton is a fucking weird puzzle, I hate mixing all that shit.

Madlib produced a cut on FlySiifu’s, he’s on Frank, and there was that tweet where he called you one of the “illest MCs.” How has it been forming that relationship with a legend?

FLY ANAKIN: He a cool dude, bro. Madlib very regular. He reached out through the Twitter shit, and I just heard through the grapevine that he was a fan. We’ve been texting and talking since 2019. He really just be like a big brother. He will send me songs that he’s working on and shit, so I got a lot of shit that I shouldn’t have [laughs]. But that’s the homie. He don’t make me feel like I have to act. He fucks with me for who I am, and has been listening to my shit since 2016.

A lot of your music references past greats, folks like Richard Pryor, Sean Price.

FLY ANAKIN: You got to honor the OGs. You gotta make some people remember their names and shit. That’s a part of the game, a part of the world we’re in. That’s something I appreciate about Curren$y so much. You hear his music and he’ll break off into a whole other rapper’s verse. Like he’ll start the verse off with a fucking Jay-Z line, and you just think it’s from his mind. But then you’ll listen to older shit and be like, “Wait, I heard Curren$y say that. Damn, that n**** was paying homage.” So this is my way of paying homage essentially. I don’t mind honoring people I actually thought were cool.

How did you end up linking up with some of the folks outside Mutant Academy for Frank, like Jay Versace and Evidence?

FLY ANAKIN: With Jay we was just texting at that time. He would send beats pretty randomly. There was this one joint that he sent (album closer “Bag Man”), I kinda just stuck to it. That song is pretty old as hell too, definitely 2018. That was really around the time Jay first started making beats and was getting his shit out. Crazy how it panned out, cause this n**** Grammy-nominated and shit.

Evidence was after the Madlib thing happened. He got hip through Madlib. He asked me to come to his studio one time when I was in LA. He’s a fan, bro. He really likes my shit. He’s a really good dude. And I fuck with him as a person, like above the music stuff. He ended up putting me on his album. We ended up making an EP. We got songs for a 45. It’s already pressed up, but we trying to wait till the Frank album is out first.

Just being in LA for FlySiifu’s was definitely the beginning of new relationships and new energy. I think it was very organic. Some of those people that I started working with on that project I met previously, we just never made music. But it’s cool to work with my friends, bro. I only want to work with my friends.

Frank is out 3/11 on Lex.

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