Interview: Larry Achiampong

Written by: Ninkisun
I was curious about Larry Achiampong aka Black Ph03nix and his recent Meh Mogya project because he had managed to do something I had been thinking and talking about doing for a number of years, waiting for the right skills, moment or something. What I was aiming for was tLarry Achiampong interview by Ninkisunhe fusion of sounds from my past/heritage embedded in the fabric of my musical education and love of hip hop, house and electronica mashing it all up into various two-minute cacophonies of remembrance. To me this meant to express the cross fertilization of cultures I have experienced myself growing up, a phenomena so widespread and varied in the diaspora that raises interesting questions about identity, culture and history.
Larry Achiampong’s is a British Ghanaian artist whose work explores perceptions, misconceptions and concepts of identity using his own cultural heritage as a foundation for some of his various creative projects.
Larry has a BA in Mixed Media Art at the University of Westminster, London and an MA in Sculpture at the Slade School of Fine Art, London. He recently released a beat-instrumental album titled Meh Mogya (Samples of Me) that was previously featured on Have Plenty Music.
Over Burgers and fries we talked about his background, African identity in the Diaspora, art, family, life and of course about music. It flowed.

Ninkisun: African parents…So your parents were ok with you doing Arts studies? You know where I am going with this right?
Larry Achiampong: (Laughs) It wasn’t plain and simple. When I told to my mom (she was the one who mainly raised me) that I was going to be an artist She was a bit disappointed because she wanted me to do the safety thing be an architect or doctor that sort of thing but I was very determined that I wanted to create things. Over time, she experienced firsthand my ability and skills increasing and saw the potential in where that could go so, yeah, my moms been very supportive. She’s been very instrumental in where I am now n I’ve been thinking a lot about that in retrospect about the thing that family being the cornerstone of whatever you want to do in life.

Ninkisun: What made you get into exploring sounds/music given that you studied an MA in Sculpture?
Larry Achiampong:
Slade at the time, I don’t know about now, they really encouraged students to experiment with ideas and different mediums. I’d already got to that stage were I’d been experimenting with painting and sculpture and a little bit with installation and I wanted to keep on doing that, branching out on new concepts and not become an artist who is known for making one kind of thing. During my time at Slade, I started experimenting with different things and music happened to be one of them. I didn’t show my musical experiments to people I just worked on them at home. It wasn’t until the graduation show that I had one of my sound based ideas and that idea is called ‘jam in the dark’. What it entails is creating a space, which is very dark / pitch black and inviting musicians to come into the space and improvise and jam with one another without seeing each other.

Ninkisun: That sounds very liberating…
Black Ph03nix: It can be one of two things: it can be liberating or it can be the opposite and that’s happened with quite a few people. They try it the first time, second time even third time and they realized you know what, this is not for me, I can’t do my thing here but most of the people fortunately who I’ve approached they’ve been like, wow, this is really interesting, this has taken my mind or my plane to somewhere else. I’d always been interested in exploring sound and music. I just needed to come out of my shell with it really.

Ninkisun: Were you coming from a musical/ bedroom producer background before embarking on the Meh Mogya project?
Larry Achiampong:
Not really, I bought equipment along the way particularly within the last 5 years but before then my dad played instruments when I was younger. He played the rhythmic guitar, bass, synthesizer and when my parents were together they would take us to church every Sunday and he would play in the church band. One of the things that always has me mesmerized; my dad as well as the other members of the band never met up to rehearse because they had their day time jobs. They had bills to pay and so their practice session was during church time but it didn’t sound like that or feel like that. Its just really hard and very funky and they really put their spirit into the environment. I remember as a kid watching him with the bass guitar and seeing his fingers just travel along… and the way that there was a communication taking place that to me was the blueprint for studying music. I play the bass guitar as well I am self-taught and I practice as much as possible. The other thing as well and what a lot of this record is about is the vinyl’s that my mom and dad would play. They collected vinyl when they were together and younger and they had an awesome sound system.

Ninkisun: So you didn’t have to go crate digging at all?
Larry Achiampong:
I did go a little bit. Some of the vinyl that my mom and dad collected people would borrow but not return. Additionally there was this one time when I was about 7 years old and I thought I would play with the vinyl’s as frisbees so you know what happens next I am dashing them across the room, most of them smashing into the walls exploding and I loved it at the time but obviously sitting here in retrospect so many sounds…its crazy. So it really did come down to chance that a lot of those sounds that you hear on the record are from my parents’ collection.

Ninkisun: Recognising some of the samples on there… Alhaji K. Frimpong comes to mind…
Larry Achiampong:
Yeah he is a legend. I didn’t even know his name when I was younger. I remember that particular song and still to this day it’s my favorite song. It’s just so intense. The drumming. You think about dubstep and the way hip-hop is developing and some of those sounds. That’s where I think a lot of those complex rhythms come from they come from Africa and through me revisiting highlife and hearing those sounds its like, wow, that’s the blueprint for a lot of what some people think is the new thing today but its not new its just taken from somewhere. That’s where the idea of the record came about I wanted to make music somehow and then at a later stage I wanted to make beats but I wanted to make something that was important to me and then I thought of the idea of remixing highlife from a certain time period.
I was kind of surprised though before I started making it because I thought that someone else might have done it already. When I realized that I was definitely going to do it I had to make sure I do it before someone else does it because I know the momentum of the sound is coming back. People are doing reissues of albums and I don’t want just say ‘Oh yeah, I’m the one who made that idea’. I want to push my ideas out there and let it be something that people can take in and enjoy.

Ninkisun: When I first heard your stuff, I thought definitely a Madlib/J Dilla fan.
Larry Achiampong:
To answer your question, I’m not gonna lie without being someone whose got all the crazy memorabilia and everything I am one of their biggest fans for sure. If inspirations research is anything to go by I studied them when I was making the record. I would listen to a lot of their sounds, I watched a lot of interviews on YouTube, watched documentaries and kept watching them and listening to what they were talking about and listening to their philosophy and approach. What made J Dilla and Madlib so special is the fact that they are individuals and they do it their way. Of course hip-hop is a beautiful thing but they are musicians and they approach sampling as an art form and that to me just spoke volumes. Its like if I’m gonna do this record I better make sure that I really do it to the point were if I’m gonna make a next project I better make damn sure I’m ready to sacrifice myself once more to push the limits even further and that’s what I got when I researched these guys.

Ninkisun: In terms of the artists that you sampled on the record. Have you been able to get in touch with any of them or would you like to in the future?
Larry Achiampong:
Good question. I’d love to. Frimpong of course he’s been dead for a while. I’m trying to get in touch with Ebo Taylor. I went to see him for the first time at the Hackney Empire. It just blew me away. It was so beautiful. I never had the opportunity of meeting any of my grand dads but it was like seeing your grandfather telling stories to his grandchildren. I never got to meet him personally or shake his hand but I was just really taken away. It brought back so many memories of childhood.
That’s the amazing thing with highlife music. I’ve not come across another musical form that manages to keep people happy. I’ve never listened to highlife and been depressed. It’s always about happiness and that’s just beautiful.
I also got in contact with one of the band member from T.O. Jazz, Professor John Collins. He runs an archive in Accra. It’s called the Bokoor African Popular Music Archives(Bokoor means cool). I thought, ok I have to talk to this guy before I make this record. So I found his email and I sent him a long message one of those kinds…trying to get hold of somebody and they probably wont read it but you need to send it anyway… I mentioned J Dilla, told him he did this record before he died I want to do what he did for soul music with highlife music. He got back to me pretty quickly within hours and I was really surprised. And he wrote me a long email as well and he told me about the archive to look it up and he gave me his blessing with the project and that was enough for me to get on with the project and work with the legacy.

Ninkisun: The title of your project, tell us a little about it.
Larry Achiampong:
Meh Mogya translates to “my blood” in Twi/Akan. I was referencing the idea of audible samples being something that can connect to the origins of a person and using samples in that manner. In a way that a lot of hip-hop artists sampled from soul music, taking from their history. That was the reason why I chose that name and then of course in brackets I put “SAMPLE OF ME” because that was the original name of the project like a snippet element of myself
Even with regards to the record cover a lot of work went into that. Originally I didn’t want to use an image of myself I wanted to use an image of my mom cause the idea was about where I come from but unfortunately my mom had sent a lot of the family photos back home to Ghana so I was strapped for choices and that was the strongest photo of the lot. In terms of design I collaborated with a friend and designer called Roi Driscoll. And he designed I spoke to him very closely about the project.

Ninkisun: Twi/Akan. I take it is the language your parents speak?
Black Ph03nix:
Yes, my parents speak I speak it a bit I understand more that I can speak and that was interesting living in the UK you are learning this language which a very small percentage of people speak and then you go out and people speak English so its this thing of jumping between parallels of eating traditional Ghanaian food eating fufu, jolof and being outside and going to the chip shop.

Ninkisun: Why did you think identity is an issue why did you feel that you needed to express your Ghanaian heritage?
Larry Achiampong:
For a multitude of reasons really: I think one of the most important things about this project is about legacy. It’s about creating something that will last in time to come. I wanted to create something that people could experience and they didn’t have to be in a gallery space. I wasn’t interested in creating an artwork that created a separation point, people who feel daunted when they enter the gallery space. Cause I still feel strange when I enter these spaces. Coming from a working class background that’s just the way that I feel and I think that’s what the art scene has build itself upon this kind of exclusivity. It’s very important for me to visit my heritage because in many ways it is my past and present and it’s going to be my future. Yes I was born in the UK, live in the UK, raised in the UK but I am also Ghanaian, and not that every single work that I create will say ‘I’m Ghanaian, I’m a Black Star’ but it was very important for me to create something in this way because I think it’s important to be proud of where you come from, to take pride in your identity and show your own approach to where it is that your coming from. I also have a son and he’s just turned three and he’s been very instrumental in the creation of the project. I did all the work in my little studio at home and of course at times he was around and he would come in listening and do little dances and his vocal is even at the beginning of record and that is so important to me because I’m still young. When he was born I was reading ‘The code of the samurai’ and it was detailing that a samurai should consider death at all times. I found that saying very harsh at the time but over time it made sense.
I’ve made some interesting artwork but I have not made something that you can pick up and say, ‘this is what my dad was doing’ and that is so important to me and the whole aspect of a vinyl is important. Again the digital as much as it’s a good thing I also think it’s a bad thing were unfortunately a lot of young people are being introduced to music from the digital angle and not from an analog kind of perspective. I’m not saying everybody should have a record collection but having that opportunities to touch a record or cassette tape this kind of opportunities to touch tangible objects is important. It gets you closer to the artwork that is held within and I wanted to in completing the work give this much respect as possible by placing it on what I see is probably the most important format.

I think that we are living in interesting times. When there are interesting times politically, time calls upon artist to deliver something, a message or say something. And at the moment this is my message. It is one that is focused on positivity, hope, passing on tradition or ideas so that people can develop new ideas and also so that people can find themselves.

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