An Interview With Mutant Academy

Olivier Lafontant speaks to Mutant Academy emcees Fly Anakin, Big Kahuna OG & Henny L.O. about the process of forming a collective, their first joint LP Talk Soon, locking themselves in the studio...
By    May 30, 2024

Image via Jack McKain

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Olivier Lafontant recently added 5 years of his life by eating a bowl of Frosted Flakes.

Mutant Academy is the last of a dying breed. The 10-man Richmond, Virginia-based group arrived in 2015 during a renewed mainstream interest in hard-hitting jazzy production. Today, MA is one of the few large rap collectives still kicking it. Between the group’s three emcees (Fly Anakin, Big Kahuna OG, and Henny L.O.), seven producers (Ohbliv, Ewonee, Graymatter, Sycho Sid, Unlucky Bastards, and Foisey), and its comic book-inspired name, the Wu-Tung comparisons feel like an obvious callout. Of course, Ghostface and company were a formative influence for founding members Fly Anakin and Henny L.O..

Buffalo native Big Kahuna OG matched this energy after joining in the mid-2010s; Mutant Academy has put on for Richmond on an if-you-know-you-know basis, garnering respect from their peers in the underground. Across dozens of collab tapes (Kahuna & Anakin’s Big Fly series) and rapper/producer joints (Henny and Ohbliv’s 2020 tape Sages), methodical wisecracks and earnest images get caked into smoky boom-bap vignettes. In his distinctly shrill cadence, Anakin says it best on the 2020 track “Cartoons” with Kahuna: “We do the most to get the scraps that they throw.”

The group’s path has been anything but linear: Henny has previously shed light on their collective roadblocks, citing MA’s break-up in the past and his personal travails with corporate America as catalysts to where they are now. For each member, it’s only ever been natural to fall back on their crewmates. Even as Fly Anakin’s prolific output has seen him embark on projects with underground nomad Pink Siifu, you’ll still find MA members like Foisey, Ohbliv, Kahuna, and Graymatter front and center in the credits.

This past week they released Talk Soon, an impressive four-track appetizer marked by slick bravado. The years-long chemistry between the mutants is palpable on first listen. On lead single, “SODA,” Kahuna, Anakin, and Henny surface as seasoned veterans over pristine keys from Ewonee, ushering in the summer with raps you could wake-and-bake to.

More importantly, Mutant Academy is finally ready to drop their definitive debut LP. Over Zoom, Henny L.O. spoke with me from his home in Richmond as Anakin and Kahuna joined in while driving to Chattanooga, TN for a show. There’s no shortage of quips and callbacks to past memories among the trio, especially when Anakin and Henny get to reminiscing on childhood escapades. We discussed their new music, the tight-knit nature of MA, and the shortcomings of being rap purists.

The timing of this interview is cool because my brothers and cousins are big comic book nerds, and they’ve been talking a lot about the new X-Men ‘97 show. With the Mutant Academy name being tied to that, I thought that was interesting. Could you describe the moment when y’all landed on that name?

Fly Anakin: It was that n****. [referring to Henny L.O.]

Henny L.O.: Yeah, I mean, originally it did stem from X-Men a little bit, but it was like a combo of X-Men and Wu-Tang. Just thinking about what the X-Men represented, being based off of the Civil War. And then putting the meaning behind it was just being a fan of Wu-Tang. The mutant is a unique individual and the academy is life. So just letting it have a life of its own and putting some real purpose behind it. We all branch off and do our own things throughout.

You guys formed really before the big mainstream SoundCloud boom, and that was still a point where people were learning how to really make a collective through the Internet. A whole generation has kind of gone by since then. How do you think you guys have maintained your closeness and your network and the span of all that time since then?

Henny L.O.: We really brothers, you know what I mean? That’s the simplest way to put it. Like muhfuckas can sleep on each other’s couch, muhfuckas would give up they bed, the shirt off they back. I really love them dudes. Everybody in the group at some point or another has looked out for each other. Yeah, it’s music and that’s what brought us all together, but like, we really got close. So the SoundCloud era, that was just a playground for us really.

After dozens of projects released within the group, there’s still no definitive Mutant Academy record. Why do you guys think now is the time to finally put out your first LP and what can you tell me about the process?

Big Kahuna OG: Now is the time to do it ’cause we got the financial backing, we got the power now. Before we could have did it and it wouldn’t have come out exactly how he wanted to do it ’cause the imagination was bigger than the budget. And the fans could feel lucky just like we feel. ‘Cause it cost a lot of money to get n****s to link up. Like, we’ve all only linked up maybe two or three times in the whole existence of Mutant Academy being together.

Henny L.O.: Meaning everybody.

Big Kahuna OG: And every time we do it, it’s to make a album, man. We tried it a couple times before but it just didn’t come to fruition all the way ’cause it takes a lot.

Henny L.O.: By now we probably on the fifth fuckin’ version of this album, dawg.

Big Kahuna OG: And if this shit go right then we gon’ take it there again and again and again. And then n****s could be like, “Okay, them n****s really had the potential and they lived up to it,” on some LeBron James shit. They’ve been looking at us like LeBron, but n****s have been in high school the whole time, n****!

Henny L.O.: We really about to smack shit, bro. I really believe my n****s is the best. When I be around these n****s, I be having like the Ol’ Dirty energy like, “Nah n****, do what you want, I don’t give a fuck.” It’s gon’ be sweet.

What does it look like when you guys are working together in the studio? I’ve heard the phrase “iron sharpens iron” when it comes to rappers and songwriting. What does that specifically look like for y’all?

Fly Anakin: It really don’t look glamorous. Like we just be in separate spots of the room writing, and then n****s just kick the verses. But the thing with me is like, I usually don’t even let n****s hear what I write until we record it. And I usually just let that shit be random ’cause I feel like we make the best songs when n****s don’t plan it. So everybody be in they own bag.

Henny L.O.: Yeah, and we keep it honest with each other too. If that shit don’t slap, no matter who it’s from, it don’t go. Sometimes you gotta say it to yourself like, you’ll get through a verse and it won’t smack. It just be like that.

Does the physical setting you’re in influence what you’re writing or how you guys are feeling in the moment? Do you feel like a song that you make in your hometown is different from a song that you could make in LA or in New York?

Henny L.O.: I would say, yeah. I feel like things that I think about but am not able to convey because I’m in the same space on a day-to-day––when I go to LA, New York, DC, wherever, I could [write about them] a little bit more clearly.

Fly Anakin: On my side, I’ve moved around for a couple years, so truthfully, whenever I get to a place where I have to be on my rap shit and I can focus on it, it don’t really matter where it is. As long as it’s a spot with a mic in that muhfucka, and [if] I can smoke. Once I’m in the space where I can do that, I’m cool. At one point in my life, it used to feel like I made better music in Richmond, but that was ’cause I never left Richmond.

Henny L.O.: We grew up recording ourselves too. At a point in time when you either by yourself or it’s just you and your man, those thoughts fill up that room, so you gotta find a way to either clear those thoughts out or you gotta move around.

Fly Anakin: I couldn’t even write around this n****. You remember that? (to Henny) I had to leave the room to get my shit done. I never understood that, I don’t know what the fuck happened with that.

Henny L.O.: Meanwhile, I love writing around them (Mutant Academy)! When I’m around them I have more fun.

Fly Anakin: I go crazy when I’m by myself, bruh. I feel like I be rushing when I’m around n****s. If I could take a day to write a whole verse, I’ma love that verse. Like a lot of times I can write that shit in 15, 20 minutes, but it be the ones I take my time on that really be making me feel good about myself. This shit happens in phases, but right now it’s the most professional era.

Henny L.O: But we come from small spaces too, bruh. Like when you really think about it, we would have a small space and then barricade ourselves in that bitch. So I could see why you would need some fuckin’ breathing room.

When you say barricade yourselves, what do you mean by that?

Fly Anakin: Be in that bitch for hours and days making music.

Henny L.O.: The dynamic when it was just myself and [Anakin], it was just us as kids from middle school going into high school. So it was my mama house and his dad house. It wasn’t no professional studios. We had two older brothers that did the rap thing, but they wasn’t taking us to the studio. Or we would be there, but they wasn’t letting us rap. We took “no’s” and we went and did our own shit. So we would learn, get on the phone, “Yo, I figured this out. Check this, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.” Mind you, that would be Monday through Friday. We writing, recording, building and what have you. Then we’ll come through on a Friday, record mad shit together, on Saturday record the rest of whatever we did, and then Sunday learn how to mix. But that would be in my fuckin’ bedroom or in his bedroom. Literally barricading ourselves.

In an old interview you guys called yourselves ‘90s babies who were raised by the ‘80s. You mentioned the Wu-Tang influence, and specifically I know Ghostface is a big influence for y’all. Would you guys consider yourselves traditionalists in that sense?

Henny L.O.: Not anymore.

Fly Anakin: I’m not. I was a purist at one point, now I just like whatever makes me move. I just fuck with music. Like I don’t really try to be stiff about what I’m hearing. If I like that shit, I just like it. I ain’t gon’ say I barely listen to the type of shit we make because of course I do, but I really be listening to a lot of ratchet shit. I love trap music.

Like who?

Fly Anakin: We been listening to Future like a mothafucka, of course. That n**** Paco Panama… I been listening to Yeat. That n**** Los from Detroit, Los & Nutty. It’s so many people!

Henny L.O.: For me it’s Future, Rio da Yung OG, [Bfb da] Packman. I fuck with them n****s from Michigan specifically because even though I’m not as much of a purist as I used to be, I still love certain techniques. So them n****s just got a certain way of doing punchlines and keeping this cadence that I love, Rio specifically.

Fly Anakin: The source of a lot of this shit is Young Thug. I think when Thug came around and I became a big fan early, that shit just kind of loosened my whole mentality about music. But I was definitely on some traditionalist shit in the beginning. And I think that’s what fucked me up ’cause I feel like I pigeonholed myself for real, for real.

Henny L.O.: Specifically when it comes to Thug, he just would find pockets that you ain’t know existed, bro. That man different. But I feel the same way about a Young Dro, he was just before him. I be like, “Damn bro, I’m descriptive and animated as hell, why the fuck I ain’t say that?”

Yeah, that’s the thing, I feel like artists in their lane get a bad rap for not being good enough writers but it’s just a different delivery of it. I find joy in the sense of humor in it. There’s so many Thug bars that make me laugh or the way he might say something just kinda makes you scratch your head. But like Anakin was saying, you don’t have to pigeonhole yourself into one certain style. Even when it comes to just being a consumer.

Fly Anakin: I was just being a kid about it. Like, “I gotta do this and only this” because I was listening to straight Wu-Tang and fuckin’ Nas and Biggie all fuckin’ day. High school was a drag.

Henny L.O.: Yeah, word. Looking back we was damn near trying to be rebellious to times changing for real, for real.

Fly Anakin: On God! And that was the lamest part!

For the new record, do y’all have plans to put out physical records? How does that go into the creative direction for whenever you guys are piecing together a body of work?

Henny L.O.: I mean we still fans too. That shit fun to us. Yeah, muhfuckas sell merch and all that, but I like artwork. I like being able to look and see the credits on some nerdy, fun fact shit. Seeing who did what, who said what, and who produced what. It’s always important to do that shit.

Fly Anakin: One summer when I was a kid, probably like 13-14, I was downloading OD illegal music, just going on Pirate Bay and downloading n****s’ whole discographies and shit. It got to the point when I was like “Ight I like this album,” and I wanted to have the physical copies of shit. But when I go about making physical shit, like the Skinemaxxx vinyl, I try to max and do all the coolest shit that I can do. I definitely got one of the best vinyl packages ever and that’s what it came from.

Obviously you guys have years worth of songs on the backend. Are y’all piecing together a tracklist of both old and new songs?

Henny L.O.: We being real meticulous about it. Some stuff still smack years later, some of it don’t, you feel me? All of us have gotten a lot better too. We not leaving nothing on the table. And like I said we really fuck with each other, so honesty don’t necessarily cause no disruption within our function. We get to it and we just make it happen. So when I say we on probably our fifth version of this album, it’s literally that, because we either keep getting better or circumstances just change.

What’s the long-term vision past this album?

Big Kahuna OG: This for the bitches. *laughs*

Henny L.O.: It is very much for that.

Fly Anakin: What I really wanna do is have the group be able to move around and do shit together or separate. Without too much pushback from anybody. I just want everybody to be respected, basically. Respected and paid. Whatever happens after that is gon’ happen.

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