Dedicated: The Rakim Q&A

Microphone fiend Rakim is back

by Ericka Blount Danois

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Michael Wong Photography

In 1985, DJ Marley Marl was working in his studio that doubled as his sister Belle’s second-floor apartment in the Queensbridge Houses—a sprawling ninety-six-building project, a small city of some thirty thousand residents in Long Island City, Queens. The apartment was sparsely decorated with a creaky couch that Eric B. slept on, reel-to-reels against the wall, records from floor to ceiling, and a drum machine that Marley slept with because he didn’t want anyone to touch it.

During the day, Marley worked at the Sergio Valente jeans factory. A barely teenage Roxanne Shante was becoming well known as a rapper and a booster—shoplifting for mothers in her building. Her own mother sold underwear to hookers from a shopping cart by the Dutch Kills ho stroll. A stone’s throw away was Hollywood’s second cousin, the newly minted Silvercup Studios where new movie stars were being bred daily. But inside Queensbridge, there was a different kind of movie rolling without the Klieg lights. Residents were robbing people for their sneakers, walking around with blades to snatch the patches off Lee jeans, and claiming the uninitiated for their sheepskins and leather goose coats. Foreigners to Queensbridge were chased out, and if they went in the wrong direction to get to the train station, “They’d find themselves butt naked by the river,” recalls MC Shan by telephone with a wicked laugh.

Rakim was putting on basketball clinics on the courts in Queensbridge, displaying a mean crossover in pickup games. Some of the hottest rappers in Queens at the time—LL Cool J, Salt-n-Pepa—would come by to hang out at the courts near the black-and-white-checkered card tables. On 12th Street and 40th Avenue, you could sit on the bench all day and hear ciphers from MC Shan, Shante, Jazzy Ra, Infinite, and Prince Wally. In the summer across the street at River Park, the Disco Twins would DJ park jams, boosting electricity from a low-level apartment (because most residents didn’t have to pay for electricity), stretching extension cords across the street. Nobody complained about the noise. The parties lasted all night.

This was the golden era of hip-hop where being a hood star was a reputable ambition, a $17,000 advance for a record deal meant you were rich, and prodigiously gifted MCs never left their own neighborhood.

Michael Wong Photography

In a time where everyone fashioned their own style, Rakim stood out—he was a former stickup kid with a cerebral and physical presence, a cloak of spiritual protection from the Five Percent Nation, and a jazz sensibility who rocked Dapper Dan customized Gucci leathers and hailed from the suburban hood of Wyandanch, Strong Island. At the time, Eric B., working as a mobile DJ for radio station WBLS, introduced him—fresh out of high school, heading to college—to Marley Marl and MC Shan, and all of a sudden college was forgotten and they were recording a LP.

“We heard ‘My Melody’ from the windows,” recalls Queensbridge resident Ricky Winns. “It was a rough cut. Marley was doing a remix of it. We thought it was funny. It was droning, dragging, mundane. We didn’t know who they were until after the fact.”

Winns wasn’t the only one laughing. “Me and Marley laughed at Rakim. We had never heard a sound like his before,” says Shan. “We would go on the other side of the wall laughing while he was rapping and come back out like we never laughed. We would have inducted him in the Juice Crew if we knew he was gonna be like that.”

The artwork on the debut single was prescient—a visual metaphor—a giant, freshly manicured hand was illustrated dropping pyramids in a nearly barren landscape. In 1987, when the uber-classic Paid in Full album dropped, Rakim had the last laugh with a flow that was aided by a mastery of literary tools like metaphorical imagery, internal rhyming, and personification. If those lyrical feats wouldn’t get an English teacher moist, then his voice wouldn’t disappoint—authoritative, but unaffected, urgent without being eager—and his laid-back delivery and flow was something that before only an instrument was known to produce.

“When I played ‘Eric B. Is President’ on KISS, they were like, ‘YO, RED, WHAT’S THAT?!’ It was all ooohs and ahhhs,” remembers DJ Red Alert about the single that came out on Harlem’s Zakia Records and featured multiple samples—including Fonda Rae’s “Over Like a Fat Rat” and James Brown’s “Funky President”—that sparked a firestorm about using unauthorized samples when the Godfather of Soul sued them.

“The audience was vibing on what we were bringing to the table and what was the next thing,” says Red. “That was the next thing when Rakim came in ’86. Dr. J changed the game in professional basketball, and that’s the way I look at Rakim. He changed the game with his style.”

“When he came from that angle from the streets, from the movement, the righteousness, it was love,” says DJ Kool Herc speaking on a panel at National Geographic on hip-hop’s roots. “His platform was from the man in the street.”

In D.C. in 1986, go-go music was king. A few bands were melding go-go with hip-hop, mostly performing covers. But they were few and far between. I was fourteen years old and headed to a go-go at the Black Hole on Georgia Avenue and Park Road, a dangerously sweaty literal hole-in-the-wall. My girlfriend was thumbing through my father’s record collection—a Kemp Mill record store manager, he would later become a radio station DJ. She paused on “Eric B. Is President,” then played the line “Thought I was a donut/You tried to glaze me!” over and over until I was hooked.

That was then. Old school has gotten old. Red Alert, with a graying beard and a grandpa’s sweat suit, walks with a gait to match. The G.O.A.T., Rakim Allah, the Keyser Soze of hip-hop and the father of four young adults, is more effusive. He’s traded his neat parts that complemented his fade for a baldie. But there’s no trading the nostalgia for a time that was much better than anyone originally thought. The amalgamation of talent that came out of an apartment in the projects produced a perfect storm, of, well, perfection. Of course, 1986 was about the music, but it was also about the feeling.

It’s the feeling you get watching an inexorable Rakim Allah, aka the God MC, as he returns to the stage to promote his first album in a decade, The Seventh Seal, released in November 2009.

At the Black Cat, a club in D.C., fans wave all of his albums, some of them limited releases—albums they’ve been clinging to like an old woman to a compliment. The trumpets come crashing in and the disembodied blare of horns precedes an announcement: “I’ve been watching you, watchin’ me/Looks I received made it hard to MC.”

Later in the show, he co-opts the turntables from DJ Technician, bluffing like a pool shark that he doesn’t know how to DJ, and mixes and scratches Chic’s “Good Times” with the precision of a sniper, his brown Yankees cap flung to the back, his gold medallion swinging, and that feeling comes rushing in—the feeling that all those cried-over bad times were really good after all.

I enjoyed your show in D.C. I heard in some shows you’ve performed “Mahogany” with a live band. I was hoping that would happen in D.C.

Touring around the world is always a real eye-opener—seeing different cultures and hearing what the streets is saying in each town. We like to mix things up a little with the way we put on shows and the elements we bring in. My dude Kid Capri has held us down on the ones and twos year after year. We’ve had live bands. Questlove is a great musical director, and he has put them together for us, and then the Rhythm Roots All-Stars held us down on the “Hip Hop Live” tour in 2007. For this tour, we chose some more intimate venues to start testing out material from the new album and brought along Technician the DJ who is a beast on the decks. We’ll be back early 2010 to support the release, and I’ll see what I can get poppin’ for you.

For the first single off the album, “Holy Are U,” what you’re talking about it? Is it a metaphor for the transformation of hip-hop, where we are as Black people, the coming of the apocalypse, or more personally your own spiritual growth? Or all of the above?

I think it’s closer to all of the above, really, but specifically with that song and the whole Seventh Seal album. I was trying to bring the light to some of the lessons I’ve learned over the years and let people know that some of these things we are seeing have been written about, not just in the Bible, but the Koran, Mayan prophecies, the Sutras, and so on. They are speaking of wars and fires, plagues and earthquakes, great storms and tsunamis that all lead up to the apocalypse. I ain’t saying I’m sure it’s all gonna end in 2012 or that swine flu and Ebola are gonna wipe out humanity, but you can’t deny we are seeing a lot of these things happen in the world today. Metaphorically, it’s what we need in hip-hop, tsunami the whole thing out and then step back and take the best of what remains from each style and region—which there is a lot of—and build back up the Kingdom. In “Holy Are U,” I also introduce the concept that all men are Gods. That takes from some of the lessons you build on with Five Percenters and interpretations direct from the scriptures. Without paraphrasing the exact text, the message in the end is that each individual is in many ways the center of their own universe and has the power to affect the world around them with their words and acts.

What does the Seventh Seal represent for you?

The album is my music for the listener. A lot of my writing in the past focused on my own actions, my own skills. With this one, I tried to interpret what’s going on in the hood, what’s happening in the individual lives, and shine a light on that. Whether it’s tracks about the struggles in the streets or in your house, conflicts with your faith or your loved ones, I tried to relate the experiences people are having out there and, over the course of the album, how that fits into the broader view of the world. I also had to throw a couple on there like “Still in Love” and “Put It All to Music” that are straight up props to the whole hip-hop scene and, with a track like “How to Emcee,” let the world know that this is still Rakim, and I still do what I do.

 

Michael Wong Photography

What has the time period that you’ve been out of the industry taught you spiritually?

I actually have been going harder into the industry then out of it. After coming back from California with Dre, I wanted to take a minute and put my executive cap on…build on twenty years experience in the game, get my own label, and put the finances and the team together so I could come out with a project more on my terms. It’s not as public a process, but it’s a process nonetheless.

But that doesn’t take away from spiritual growth. A lot of that comes from watching my family—seeing the kids grow up and looking at things through their eyes as well. I read everything and listen to everything non-stop, so from the day I first gained knowledge to today and tomorrow, I keep building on that.

I was reading where you said that part of your differences creatively with Dre had to do with what he wanted you to talk about on wax—some of the things you’ve experienced on the streets, or some of the experiences of people you know.

Ahhhhhhh, that’s the “What happened with Dre?” question popping up again. I’ll keep it simple. I don’t speak on what’s happening or what happened in the hood in specifics. I speak on what’s happening with me and me alone, and, for this album, I use some third-party observances to set that scene. Dre is my dude, one of the best if not more that’s out there. But I do what I do and keep my business to myself, which is tough in such a public spotlight.

You’ve focused a lot on family in this time period. Your daughter Destiny is on the album, and one of your sons is following in your footsteps—both with football and with music. Your wife travels with you on tour. Was there a time period when your family took a backseat to your music?

Nah, my family is what makes me create the music. When I was a kid and into my teens, my mother, my brothers, my aunt Ruth Brown, everyone made music and drew from one another in that way. I got my brother playing on those first albums, so having the next generation come along was not really a question. They may not do it professionally forever, but the music is always there. I’ve always tried to spend as much time as possible with my family and even back in the day we would take the kids on the tour bus and keep us together. Nowadays, the kids are a little older and they’ve done that whole on-the-road scene, so they’d rather stay at home doing their own thing for some of the tours, but we talk constantly, and as you make that turn and start inching closer to home, you know I get anxious. That’s why I pull out of the last show before we get back, don’t even stop at the hotel, and blast straight home.

I heard that you’re reluctant to fly and that you often travel to tour dates—sometimes across the country—by car. Is that true?

The flying thing doesn’t come from one specific incident. Just a series of things over a few-year period in the late ’90s—some rough flights, security hassles, and other things that after spending so many years in the air—first, when pops and my brother worked at the airlines, and then for the job—I just got tired of. Plus, I do what I do to try to be on time for things, but sometimes you know those airlines just won’t work with my schedule. [laughs] Being on the ground, I can control things—leave when I want, stop where I want, be with who I want—and it’s a good way of seeing what’s really happening out there instead of just shuttling from the airport to the hotel to wherever it is I have to be. If there was no way around it and the opportunity was a no-miss, I might get on a plane, but me and my team are real good about finding ways around it.

What college were you going to go to and what were you planning to study? What would you tell your kids if they wanted to give up their education for the music industry?

There were a few schools I was looking at, like Stonybrook and some others. For me at the time, there was a definite focus on football combined with philosophy and music studies, but it went the other way, and I can’t regret that. For my kids, they have to find what they want to do, and I support them fully in it. My pops told me I couldn’t go to sleep until I told him what I’d learned that day—in class or outside—and if I didn’t have anything, I had to go find something. That’s something I pass on to my kids. They study hard, get the grades, and know the consequences if they don’t. Not just at home but later in life. If they want to experience something outside of education, and they showed the drive and focus needed to be successful in it, they’d have my support, but it better be a pretty strong drive.

What has starting your own label, Ra Records, allowed for you musically, creatively, and for business?

Starting the label is a three-fold process for me, and we’re just now coming into the third stage. First, there was making sure the business was correct. Handling the investors and financials, lining up distribution, and getting the right team in place. We brought on the best consultants and marketing partners in the business, and it really gives you a sense that you control your destiny. In the second stage, I can take that confidence into the booth and know that the people I have assembled are looking out for me creatively as well. There’s no one on the team who’s a “yes man,” so if a track ain’t working, I definitely hear about it, but there is also no one on the team with a different agenda asking me to do something that doesn’t quite fit. Next stage is me stepping out of the booth with the CEO cap on and looking at what talent we can develop.

Describe the scene in Marley Marl’s studio (his apartment) when you were recording your first track, “Eric. B. Is President.” Where did you think hip-hop was going then?

Hip-hop was all over the streets back then, but there were still only a few people that were making it happen on a larger stage. When Eric B. came to me and had that radio connection and took me up to see Marley, I realized that stage—and maybe a bigger one—was now set for me. I try to be a humble dude, but I still wanted to step up and show them the skills that I had, and obviously they caught on to what I was trying to do. I take it all seriously, but, at that time, I wasn’t really sure where it was going to lead, so I kept my other opportunities open and had some fun with it. As things started to really explode, I stepped back to evaluate everything and start charting a course, and now here we are—still putting out new records, touring the world a couple decades later. Making those subtle moves and trying to stay true to my principles has blessed me with that longevity. I’m still an underground rapper, but as others have dropped off or gone left, I’ve still got the lights shining on me for doing what I do, which is something I’m proud of and, more importantly, thankful for.

What did Mr. Magic’s death mean to you?

Rap Attack! You know that was blasting everywhere and really set up the sounds on the street. I’d defy any MC to pick up a mic and try to say that Magic isn’t an influence, even if they don’t know it. His passing was a hard thing. It was October, and I was literally in the studio finishing the final mixes for The Seventh Seal and getting ready to pull out on tour when the phone started blowing up. Clark Kent, Kid, my dudes on the block, execs in the boardroom, everyone started calling. It’s like losing a family member, because that’s what he was.

You and Nas are both similar in that your flow and style is smooth, fluid, and reminiscent of an instrument. Do you think that is a direct result of both of your jazz influences and you knowing how to read and play music—the alto and baritone saxophone?

The thing about the way I styled my rap, drawing from Coltrane and Parker or James B., and building off the flow that they had, that was because that’s the music that surrounded me, and you see an artist like Nas, being in a similar situation as I was with family providing a foundation—Olu as his guide, the ’90s streets as his escort. That’s the circumstances that create a conscious artist. And now my man has number one records and still spits that awareness rap and isn’t afraid of saying what he’s saying. All rappers, all musicians have similarities, but Nas is doing what he do. When we did that “Classic” record together, you can see how artists can take in similar beginnings but put their own mark on the experience.

I was blown by the song “Dedication”—one of my favorite tracks on the album and a serious tribute to your mother. I heard that you were driving back and forth from Connecticut to be with her while she was sick and needed a kidney transplant. And that the process was a long one. You finally got a donor but she didn’t make it through. What did that mean to you to be with her when she needed you the most? Did her health play a large part in your absence from the industry?

First, you got some great sources. My family life is something I like to keep private, but I will tell you that making that track was a process. We had the beat early in the session and everyone knew it was something special given what I wanted to do with it. And how I would open the door a little—my people gave me the room to keep it for the very last track that I would lay down. I worked on it for months—couple of years if you include the time I had to think before picking up the pen. And some of the more specific details I included in the track came in, got pulled out, and were brought back in again. We finally laid it down at a studio called Odds On off the Vegas strip after I had three days on the back highways to really take it in and decide how I wanted to go at it. It’s a track that’s different from things I’ve done before on many levels, but it’s one that I’m proud of, and one I hope she is proud of too.

What do you think about the statement “in hip-hop’s darkest hour, you’ve returned.”

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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