"I don't battle anymore! I uplift motherfuckers!" - GZA
Tuesday, October 03, 2006,4:26 PM
Hip Hop Honor Interview With Rakim

Authority, invention, and a definite sense of cool - the best MCs have to have all these bedrock elements in place if they want to turn heads. Rakim - in the estimation of many critics, one of the music's most riveting rappers - introduced his skills to the world with "My Melody" in 1987. It was immediately recognized as one of the most individual flows in rap, bobbing and weaving with intricate inner rhymes and sussing pockets of creative tension by surfing DJ Eric B's swinging beats. One album later the masterful Ra was telling us what it felt like to be a "microphone fiend." No question: his impact on the music is deep.


I played music. Played saxophone. Played in the bands. Just trying to stay busy trying to find my reason in life. I grew up in a musical household. My moms - she sang anything from opera to jazz, and my pops was a connoisseur, you know. I think I heard it all coming up in the house. My oldest brother Ronnie played the piano. He was in Kurtis Blow's band.


The neighborhood was buzzing before the first rap record came out. The beat-box and break dancing was fresh in the 'hood - you know, it hit us quick. I just woke up and it was like, "Yo, I want to rap." And you know, immediately, man, just picked up a pen. I grew up on Cold Crush (Brothers) tapes, Treacherous Three, Kool Moe Dee, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Kool Herc. Coming up a young kid, listening to this music was like standing there trying to read graffiti. It's like you can't read it, but you still going to stand there trying to figure it out. It ate us alive then and it's still eating us alive. I remember writing rhymes. Back then it was kind of funny, though, 'cause the rhymes are so simple you didn't even have to write them. But I remember making rhymes and having a couple up my sleeve and going to the park like, "Yo, can I get on the mic?" They said, "Shorty, man, back up before you trip over a wire or something." I'm standing there dead serious like, "Yo, man." I was passionate about it and I didn't understand the age difference, I just loved the craft. I had to wait a little while.


Eric B. - kid named Alvin brought him to the crib. Alvin knocked on the door. He's like, "Yo, Ra - yo, I want to introduce you to this kid. He made records. He knows Marley Marl, too." It was at the point where I wanted to go to college and I had this tape that I made. The cassette was loaded, man. I had a little bit of everything on the cassette. So I brought him in, let him hear the tape and he was like, "Yo, I want to take it to Marley Marl." I was like, "I'm trying to go to school, man. I love football." I thought I was going to be a quarterback, but you know, whatever - if you want to let him hear the joint, I'll make you a copy and you
can let him check it out. So a couple days later my man came back, knocked at the door, he was like, "Do you want to do a record? I got a way we can do it where you can still go to college and we can do the record." So now I'm like, "Okay, now you talking." He said he'd get the thing done and all I had to do was sign as a featured artist. That's why the first record was Eric B. featuring Rakim. But I had no idea that it was going to do what it did, and it just stopped my whole world, which was for a reason. 'Cause I probably would have broke my leg the first year in football. Things happen for a reason and I understood that, and when opportunity knock - you know, it's like, "The door's open. Go in, man." So I went in. You always want to make sure you making the right choice. I can always listen to music, but you don't always have a chance to go to college and play football. I thought that that would be the wiser thing to do, but looking back right now - I think this is what I was supposed to do, this is what I was here for. It was funny the way things panned out. But it was a blessing. I got a chance to talk to the world. I got a chance to talk to different 'hoods around the world and relate with them and work with them.


I still am a member of the Five Percent Nation of Islam and it affected me in a big way. Getting knowledge of self and starting to learn the world, starting to learn others, it helped me write much easier, 'cause I was writing from your point of view, his point of view, her point of view. I wanted people to feel like, "All right, I go through that, too. I've been through that, too. My pop said something like that to me. That happened to my brother." It's a little harder when you're trying to - I don't want to say preach, I don't want to say teach, but when you're trying to bring awareness through music. So you got to try to tap into something where you can get their attention and not make them feel like you're trying to shove information down their throat. So I just try to stay relevant, talk about some things that they may have been through or witnessed.


After learning how to write, I started trying to learn different ways to write. The norm was you write the rhyme and you rhyme at the end of the bar - kind of got tired of doing that. So I started rhyming at the beginning of the rhyme, then at the middle of the rhyme, then at the end of the bar. So I started to get intricate with it - learn different styles and bring new things to the table. And than I tried to triple up my metaphors. In the beginning it was like, "I wanna say something where they can take it both ways, like it could mean two things." Then after a while it was, "Well now I want to see if I can make it mean three things." And then after a while it's like, "Wow, if I say this like this, they will have to play with the phrase until they figure it out, then at the same time no two people will get the same understanding." I think my style reflected myself. I was always kind of a laid-back person. I just try to bring me to the table as much as I could. At that time rap was making its transition from the streets and then it went to a stage where Melle Mel and them was making it look like rappers were stars. And then when I came it was kind of going back down to the street image. I spoke to people on the streets, the way I felt a cool person should speak, you know what I mean? And it just kind fell into my notebook, man. Word up.


"I could take a phrase that's rarely heard, flip it, and that's a daily word." That was one of my missions when I wrote, and you say it to yourself subconsciously like, "Wow - now I need something that nobody said. I need a little phrase or word that nobody heard of." And sometimes when you thinking for something, what you're thinking becomes the something. Meaning, "Wow, Ra - say that, man. You know, that's what you doing." You keep digging for the far-out materials, and reel them in and give it to the world.


It's funny, man, because that's what you reach for. You wanna be one of the best but at the same time I couldn't really think about it too much because I wanted to stay focused, stay grounded, and not let it affect me. I acknowledge it, and it's a blessing to get put in a category like that. But for the most part I try not to think about that. I stay true to myself. Stay true to the game, stay true to the hood. I think that's why people respect Ra to this day.


You can't get away from rap no more. It's eating us alive, man. And it's like the windows to the world, because it's a lot of information being passed through the streams, a lot of controversy as well. But it's the heartbeat of the neighborhood. Hip-hop is becoming the dictionary of the hood. I think we gotta watch what we say because you got a lot of powerful words now, but hip-hop is like the Bible to the 'hood, man.
posted by R J Noriega
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