With Black Music Month here, it’s a perfect time to reflect on the aural architects who helped shaped the noir soundtracks to our lives. Not just those who made the most money, drove the coolest car or had the most diamonds on their fingers (or, in certain cases, their teeth), but the rare ones who actually contributed to the art form—in innovative ways that have nothing to do with any Forbes list. Be it Bessie Smith or Robert Johnson, Tina Turner or James Brown, Betty Davis or Miles Davis, artists who actually defined or redefined the music of their chosen genres are the wunderkinds. In the world of hip-hop, no one is more special than Rakim.
Since he first hit the airwaves in 1986 with his debut “Eric B. for President” (a track that bigged-up his DJ and producer while giving the world a taste of his own aural delights), it wasn’t long before he was known as the “god MC” for his mesmerizing voice, with its jazzy flow and dope poetics.
Indeed, the brother had no problem being hardcore street, complexly metaphysical, and sweetly sensitive—sometimes all three in the same song. With hits like “Paid in Full,” “I Ain’t No Joke,” “Follow the Leader,” “Mahogany” and “Know the Ledge,” he was a lyrical monster on the mic, an inspiration to several generations of rhyming new jacks.
While Rakim and Eric B. are often referred to as the best duo in hip-hop history, they parted ways after the release of 1992’s Don’t Sweat the Technique, and the wordsmith continued on his own. Recording his first solo album The 18th Letter in 1997, the booming DJ Premier-produced “It’s Been a Long Time” became yet another jewel in Rakim’s gleaming crown.
Currently touring the country and preparing his next album (hopefully with Pharrell Williams and The Roots bringing the noise), EBONY spoke to Rakim about life, poetry, and of course, Black music. While others fight about who’s king of whatever, “the God” is still doing his thing.
EBONY: Maya Angelou just passed away. Poet to poet, can you tell me your take on her legacy?
Rakim: When I saw that, when it came on the news, everything in the house just stopped. I remember the first time I saw her, I thought I knew her already. She reminded you of your aunt, she reminded you of your grandmother. She reminded you of the lady that tell you, “You better cut that out or I’m going to tell your mother and father.” She just had that warmth and that vibe that you just respected her. What she’s been through and the way she was able to turn her life around and manifest it was a beautiful thing. When I saw that on the news, I just sat and realized the legacy and what she gave to us. She dug deep within herself and gave us all that.
EBONY: Paid in Full was your first album. What do you remember about recording that classic?
Rakim: To me, it’s like yesterday, man. Some of the most memorial things of my career. Paid in Full was the first thing I ever did. Going into the studio at Power Play in Queens, Long Island City. We rented the studio out for the whole month. We would go in at seven or eight in the evening. If we didn’t have to be there early, I would stay until seven in the morning. We would go into the studio not knowing what we were doing, what was going to happen. And before you knew it, we had “I Ain’t No Joke.” Grab the notebook, sit in the booth and start writing the rhymes. A few hours after that, I’d grab the mic.
The one thing I regret going to the studio that young, there were no directions. If it’s one thing I would’ve changed, it was memorizing my lines a little better. I was writing them, and then going into
the booth and reading them. That was it until the next song. It was organic, man, so that’s what it was.
EBONY: You once told me that John Coltrane’s sax playing inspired your flow. Can you please explain that?
Rakim: Coming up, Moms and Pops played a lot of jazz in the crib. And my brother Stevie Blast—who plays keyboards on some of my stuff—he used to play the sax. When I was a kid, I wanted to do everything that he was doing. He used to leave it around the house. When I was in kindergarten, I used to pick up his sax and try to play what he had just played.
As I got in school, my love for the saxophone just grew. And John Coltrane, what he was doing on the horn was just incredible. As I started realizing what he was doing, as I learned rhythms and different syncopations and different styles, I realized that cat right there hit every rhythm and style possible on that sax, to the point that he played two notes at one time. He was just incredible to me, so I was trying to do what he did on the sax with my rhyme patterns. Just coming up [with] different styles, but knowing that the rhythms in jazz was more intricate than in the notes in R&B or hip-hop. I just tried it and it came out kinda crazy.
EBONY: Who are you listening to now? Who are some of the new MCs that perk up your ears and make you curious?
Rakim: Right now, there’s a few out there that keep the torch lit. It goes from cats like my man Fred the Godson to Kendrick Lamar. Some of the new cats that understand what we’ve been trying to preserve, and incorporate that into what they’re doing, I love and respect them and it makes me what to keep doing what I’m doing.
EBONY: When you’re touring, does it get boring doing the same songs every night?
Rakim: I remember I used to think I would get tired of it, but I get my energy from the people. They don’t know you just did a show last night; they don’t know you’ve been touring for the past umpteen weeks or whatever. I had to realize it’s a privilege and a blessing to be able to do it, even if it’s just one song. It’s hard to be in the game this long, and people not get tired of you. It’s a blessing for people to say, “Yo, get on stage, we want to hear that.”
EBONY: The last big single you recorded with Eric B. was “Know the Ledge” from Juice. Do you ever catch Juice on television and just watch the whole thing?
Rakim: Oh, yeah, no doubt. It’s funny sometimes, and it’s happened on like eight occasions. I’ll just be sitting there channel surfing and then I’ll see the lights going fast, and then I hear that “doom-dah-doom…” and I’ll sit back and watch it. I’ll really be listening to the soundtrack. It’s been so many times when I caught it perfectly, right on time with that song comes on. I just sit there and smile, man. Reminisce and, at the same time, count my blessings.
For tour updates, find Rakim on Facebook.
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.