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