Rap idol: Rakim talks ‘back in the day’ with Jim Car­roll,

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Front Page -

AF­TER A life­time of ups and downs in the hip-hop game, Rakim still re­mem­bers her name. She was the one who started him rhyming. “I owe it all to Miss Bon­a­parte,” he says. “She was my high-school English teacher, and she saw that I wasn’t the trou­bled kid I thought I was go­ing to be. I cut class some­times, but she put the foot down and brought the best out of me. I learned how to re­ally write and use words and paint a pic­ture with words in her class. That’s where it be­gan, that’s where rap­ping grew on me, man.”

Rakim is a hell of a long way down the road from that class­room in Long Is­land. It has been an event­ful ca­reer. The golden era had Eric B and him as kings of the hip-hop fron­tier, ef­fort­lessly throw­ing around those stone-cold clas­sics such as Paid in Full, Fol­low the Leader, Eric B Is Pres­i­dent, Mi­cro­phone Fiend and I Know You Got Soul.

When that part­ner­ship came asun­der, a ticker-tape pa­rade of a solo ca­reer should have fol­lowed. It be­gan with the best of in­ten­tions on The 18th Letter al­bum, but an un­sat­is­fac­tory stint with Dr Dre and the Af­ter­math la­bel scup­pered him and led to years of in­er­tia. By the time Rakim ex­tracted him­self from that one, he’d lost mo­men­tum and mojo.

But he’s still in the game be­cause of what he did back in the day and be­cause he still has those skills. You don’t lose those at­tributes eas­ily. With­out the heavy­weight rhymer and mi­cro­phone fiend in the hip-hop frame, we’d have a com­pletely dif­fer­ent pic­ture. Rakim took the poise, pitch and po­et­ics of rhyme and took things to a whole new level. On the mic, Rakim was in­no­va­tive, thrilling, smart and deep. There may be lots of MCs jostling for the great­est-of-all-time crown, but Rakim is in the fi­nal shake-up with them.

Rakim has mixed feel­ings when he looks at the world he helped cre­ate and shape. Hiphop is now a global in­dus­try with fin­gers in ev­ery imag­in­able pie. When Rakim was start­ing out, though, no one was think­ing about brands. Dif­fer­ent time, dif­fer­ent place, dif­fer­ent pace.

“It’s hard for me some­times to talk about hip-hop now, be­cause some of the artists to­day do not un­der­stand where hip-hop came from and the strug­gle we’ve been through to get here. But at the same time, rap is young in a lot of places around the world. It’s still only get­ting to some places, and we have to let it grow.

“In the Bronx years ago, when rap first came out, it was all about the hip, the hop, the hip to the hippedy, you don’t stop. It was fun and they’re hav­ing fun with it now in a lot of places where rap is only be­gin­ning. But it’s go­ing to ma­ture and artists need to re­alise the power of hip-hop as much as the fun and the money.”

Al­though Rakim ap­pre­ci­ates that hip-hop is still grow­ing and de­vel­op­ing, it’s clear that he’s none too happy with some changes. “Some­times, what hip-hop has be­come dis­ap­points me. I find some of it to be a lit­tle sad, and I don’t know if that’s be­cause of my age or be­cause I feel hip-hop should be some­thing else. When some­thing be­comes so big and in­ter­na­tional, you want to make sure

“There’s a real lack of selfaware­ness. There’s none. Main­stream hip-hop does not talk about things we could do to im­prove what’s go­ing on. It’s more on the de­struc­tive path”

that it’s not too com­mer­cial.

“But there’s al­ways go­ing to be some­thing you don’t agree with. We just have to take more con­trol of what’s pop­ping off. The con­sumer and the lis­tener have to take a lit­tle more con­trol too, and be a lit­tle more dis­cern­ing and picky.”

Rakim once rapped about how “self­es­teem makes me su­per, su­perb and supreme” and it’s this lack of self-aware­ness that irks him most about the new school.

“That’s not there any more,” he says. “I don’t know if that’s down to the con­scious level in the hood or if it’s just the hip-hop con­scious level in the hood, but there’s a real lack of self-aware­ness. There’s none. Main­stream hip-hop does not talk about things we could do to im­prove what’s go­ing on. It’s more on the de­struc­tive path.

“We could blame the la­bels or the ra­dio sta­tions, but some­thing is mak­ing us make mu­sic in this way. For the young kid who’s try­ing to come with that con­scious­ness, he’s prob­a­bly go­ing to get turned away. Ra­dio won’t play him, la­bels won’t re­lease him. It’s like a mon­ster which is grow­ing, and it needs to be tamed.”

He men­tions Fred the God­son (“New York needs some­one like him right now”) and Lupe Fi­asco as MCs he likes. “Lupe brings that aware­ness we need in main­stream hiphop back. For a young artist to do that is good, be­cause the con­scious level in young hip-hop is zero. I like to see brothers com­ing through and hav­ing sub­stance.”

His own run-in with main­stream hip-hop didn’t end well. Dr Dre signed Rakim to his Af­ter­math la­bel in 2000 with great ex­pec­ta­tions, but there was a dif­fer­ence of opin­ion and that was end of that. Rakim wanted to record a Rakim al­bum and Dre wanted a dif­fer­ent Rakim al­bum. Two big beasts in the same field and nei­ther was for the turn­ing.

“We were both in the game for a long time and we both knew what we wanted, but that wasn’t what the other one wanted,” says Rakim. “I was stuck on go­ing one way and Dre wanted a dif­fer­ent al­bum. It was night and day.

“It def­i­nitely left a bad taste in my mouth. As an artist, when you sit down to write, a new al­bum is an ex­ten­sion of the last al­bum. Be­cause the world has not heard that al­bum, it’s like a gap in my life. I knew it was go­ing to be a prob­lem, but I didn’t know how much of a prob­lem un­til the next time I sat down to write.

“When you feel you say im­por­tant things that peo­ple should hear, and you write about cer­tain things in your life and that piece of work goes miss­ing, not through any fault of yours, you feel lost. But there were things go­ing on in the world which were far more im­por­tant than where I was at with my ca­reer, so The Sev­enth Seal [his 2009 al­bum] re­flected the hood and the world.”

De­spite all of this, Rakim is still op­ti­mistic. He talks about plans for an­other al­bum (“We’re just try­ing to get the pro­duc­tion and the peo­ple to­gether, and mak­ing sure ev­ery­one is on the same page”) and en­thuses about play­ing over­seas again.

“I re­mem­ber the good times very well. I re­mem­ber stand­ing on stages all over the coun­try per­form­ing as things just got big­ger and big­ger. And yeah, man, I do get nos­tal­gic for what they call the golden era. Back then, hip-hop was just tak­ing off and ev­ery­body wanted to show their orig­i­nal­ity and where they were com­ing from. Ev­ery­body had their own style. Now, you don’t get that. It’s be­come one-minded. I just hope peo­ple will be­gin to go a lit­tle deeper into it in the fu­ture. We need to re­mem­ber to be in­di­vid­u­als.”

Rakim plays Róisín Dubh, Gal­way (May 3), The Pavil­ion, Cork (May 4) and But­ton Fac­tory, Dublin (May 6)

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