An Interview with Rakim
In the early 1980s, Rakim, who then went by the stage name Kid Wizard, took part in a freestyle competition at Wyandanch Memorial High School, on Long Island, in New York, where he grew up. The performance was caught on tape, and there’s a clip of it online. You have to hear it. He was only fifteen or so but already one of the best emcees in New York, and his voice is readily identifiable as the seductive, fluid baritone that would help propel him to fame. Lyrically speaking, there’s not much that hints at his future greatness, except at around the 6:55 mark, when he drops a version of the “seven emcees” rhyme that eventually found its way onto his first single, “My Melody”:
Take seven emcees,
put ’em in a line,
add seven more brothers
who think they can rhyme.
It’ll take another seven
before I go for mine.
Now, that’s twenty-one emcees
ate up at the same time.
It’s how the lines are delivered, with a structurally odd syntax and breathless phrasing, that sets Rakim apart from the older and more established rappers onstage. Comparatively, he seems lit by a special charge, as if he’s about to swallow up all of the room’s oxygen in one gulp.
He was born William Michael Griffin on January 28, 1968, the youngest of five children, to Cynthia, a nurse, and Willie Griffin, a mechanic and jack-of-all-trades. As Rakim tells us in his new book, Sweat the Technique: Revelations on Creativity from the Lyrical Genius (with Bakari Kitwana), music was everywhere in the Griffin household: Cynthia was a trained opera singer; all of the kids played instruments or sang; and Rakim’s “aunt” Ruth Brown—a close family friend—was known as the “Queen of R&B” in the ’50s and ’60s (for a time, Atlantic Records was known as “the house that Ruth built”). So it’s no surprise that Rakim gravitated to music. His first love was the saxophone. He was into Bird, Miles, Dexter Gordon, Coltrane. In a roundabout way, Trane’s My Favorite Things, a delirious free-jazz interpretation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein score for The Sound of Music, led to an early artistic breakthrough.
“I couldn’t do that with a horn,” Rakim writes, “but I could do that with a mic. I started thinking about my flows and asking myself, What would Coltrane do?”
Another influence, which he discovered around the same time, was the Five-Percent Nation, or the Nation of Gods and Earths, a religious movement founded in 1964 by a protégé of Malcolm X’s named Clarence 13X, who’d broken away from the Nation of Islam. Clarence 13X’s teachings, like Coltrane’s music, had a seismic effect on the young Rakim. Sweat the Technique can be read in part as an alignment of these two foundational spirits in his work, one seamlessly overlaying the other.
He became a hungry reader, devouring theology and history and poetry. “I was constructing my true identity,” he writes of simultaneously discovering the kind of person he wanted to be and the vocabulary with which to express it. “The dictionary was my best friend.”
Until his senior year of high school, Rakim’s plan had been to play college football (he was a star quarterback at Wyandanch High). But an encounter with Eric Barrier, a well-connected Queens DJ, led to a studio session with the producer Marley Marl, who had hit records with Roxanne Shanté and MC Shan. Marley initially hated Rakim’s poised, unhurried delivery, which was contrary to the windy bombast of basically every other rapper at the time, and asked Rakim to deliver his rhymes with more energy. When Rakim refused, Marley stormed out. He eventually returned, however, and their meeting became a threshold moment in hip-hop. It was so important, in fact, that rap’s golden age is often dated to that afternoon in late ’86 when Rakim cut “My Melody” in Marley’s Queensbridge studio, followed closely by “Eric B. Is President.”
A few months later, in the summer of ’87, Eric B. & Rakim released what is arguably the greatest rap album of all time, Paid in Full. A lot was happening in hip-hop that year: the albums Yo! Bum Rush the Show, Criminal Minded, Bigger and Deffer, Born to Mack, and Rhyme Pays dropped. But Paid in Full was something else entirely, more thrilling and imaginatively free, with an aura and a language—“With knowledge of self / there’s nothing I can’t solve. / At 360 degrees I revolve”—that were almost inscrutable at the time, and which you knew emcees would be trying to track down for years to come.
The partnership lasted seven years and three more albums—some good, one great—but fizzled in 1993 over a business disagreement. It has been more than ten years since Rakim’s last solo album, The Seventh Seal.
Now fifty-two and recently reunited with Eric B., Rakim is touring, writing, and preparing to record a new album. We spoke by phone, going far over our allotted time, as Rakim talked at length about his art, the contours of his spiritual calling, his hot-and-cold friendship with Eric B., and why, until now, he never took credit for producing most of the music on his first four albums.
I. WHO FRANK SINATRA WAS
THE BELIEVER: Do you recall when you first heard hip-hop?
RAKIM: I was about six years old. It started to emanate outward from the Bronx and quickly took hold on the outskirts of the city. Long Island was one of the first stops on that expansion. Pretty quickly it was playing in cars, then in parks and on street corners, and before long, in school cafeterias, where, years later, I tried out some of my first rhymes. It was mostly break beats at the time, with some elementary emceeing, but the beats were probably what first caught my attention. I already knew a lot of the original tracks that the beats came from, because my moms and pops had a real deep record collection, but hearing those breaks spun and repeated gave them a new essence. You could create a whole other song just by using records and turntables. I was lucky because my family was musical and I had access to instruments, but a lot of kids in the neighborhood didn’t, so forming a band was difficult. But now you had a way to make music without a four-, five-, or ten-piece orchestra backing you up. If you knew how to spin, cut, and sample, it was all right there.
BLVR: You had a pretty sophisticated understanding of music from an early age. How did that translate to emceeing?
R: I remember writing rhymes in my mother’s basement and feeling like maybe I had an upper hand or a cheat sheet or something, seeing as I knew so much music and, more important, that I knew and understood jazz. Jazz taught me how to see and hear music. A lot of the jazz records my mother used to play were instrumental, but you’d see and hear exactly what the band wanted you to see and hear, in terms of the mood they were trying to present, how they wanted you to listen to it. That allowed me to listen to beats and figure out what exactly they called for lyrically. I always tried to fit my rhymes with the energy and mood of the music. Jazz also taught me time and space. I’ve played instruments since kindergarten. I played the recorder at first, all the way to third grade, then in the fourth grade I started playing the sax. But at that time, I loved R&B, not jazz. My brother Ronnie taught music at a community center in Wyandanch, and on one of the first days—I remember it was drum day—he started teaching us about jazz theory and timing. That was way different from what I wanted to play. I wanted to play something soulful and up-tempo. But Ronnie, instead of having us play, you know, boom boom bap, d’ bap d’boom bap, had us play, boom… bap… boom… bap… boom… bap… boom… bap… [cymbal] psh psh psh psh psh psh psh. I thought it was the most corniest shit! I argued with him all the way home. But when I started rapping, I realized that I wasn’t using a regular rap time signature. Hip-hop has the easiest time signature of 4/4: 1, 2, 3, 4… 1, 2, 3, 4. Jazz can be very different. For instance, Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” is 5/4: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5… 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Having grown up on that, I could fit a whole lot more rhythm into hip-hop’s four bars than most people could.
BLVR: In your book, you call John Coltrane your “musical North Star.”
R: When I started writing rhymes, the closest thing I could identify as being like what I was trying to do was Coltrane. I started incorporating into my delivery how Coltrane played the sax. Like, I tried to rhyme so you couldn’t hear me take a breath. I was implementing different rhythms, syncopated rhythms, and different styles into my delivery. You could say I was feeding my ego and building a style at the same time. As the albums went on, it got more intricate, but it all came from mastering time and space through jazz. Listening to Coltrane—unless he was playing a hook, you’d never hear him play the same riff twice. So I trained myself to never spit the same style in a song twice. I would start with one style and never repeat it.
BLVR: I was surprised to read that, growing up, you also loved Frank Sinatra.
R: In our house, we watched what my mother and father watched, and if there was a show on with Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, then it was on the TV in our house. I remember seeing Sinatra and realizing just how good of a showman he was, admiring how he captivated the crowd, how it felt very intimate. I saw lots of people perform, but it always felt like a “performance,” like the crowd was just watching. With Sinatra, it seemed more like he incorporated the crowd into it, into this intimate setting. He got them to interact with him. It was all about mic control. You have to control that crowd. That’s very important. The way he carried himself onstage, it’s another standard. And, you know, songs like “Fly Me to the Moon”—he sang them perfectly. The way that song is put together and the way he sang it, it gives you a glimpse into who he really was. If I let my imagination run, I can kind of see people for who they really are through their art and their music, and Sinatra was like that. He told you who he was.
BLVR: Speaking of the stage, how does it feel to be on the road again and performing at age fifty-one?
R: I stayed on the road. I’ve always done shows. Sometimes I take for granted how strong the pull of the stage is. But I still feel it. Maybe a month ago, I hurt my knee. I had a show that night, and I called up my manager and said, “Yo, I’m gonna do the show, but my knee’s hurting, so I might have to perform sitting down.” I went out and bought a knee brace, limped around all day, limped to the venue, got onstage and didn’t feel no pain, didn’t limp at all. Got offstage and started limping again. I had to ask someone, “Was I limping onstage?” They was like, “We couldn’t even tell.” So I can’t explain it, but onstage there’s a numbness, to the point where I feel like nothing matters, there’s so much to keep me focused, make sure that I’m pleasing the crowd. That energy is very real.
II. KNOWLEDGE OF SELF
BLVR: One of my favorite scenes in the book is of you accidentally shooting yourself in the thigh with a .22 and almost bleeding out in your kitchen while your mom was on the phone—she didn’t realize how serious it was and made you wait until she was done talking. You had a fascination with guns early on, hustled a little bit, felt pulled by the streets—and your father, for one, seemed to sense that you were on a dangerous path. Can you imagine a different version of yourself today, not rapping but, I don’t know, working at Best Buy or, worse, had rap not come along?
R: Nah. I never hustled. I was just runnin’ the streets. I hung out with kids that was in college when I was eleven, twelve years old. Being in that environment, I always felt I was a little ahead of my time. I had different views than the kids my age. I caught my first charge when I was twelve, just from being in the street. You know, I was young, and there’s this macho image of rap—I don’t wanna blame it on rap, but rap contributed to it—and I got caught up in that. But I think it allowed me to calm down in my later teens, to slow down and realize what was important. I’m not glad it happened, but I learned from it, and it made me a smarter and better person.
BLVR: Another of my favorite scenes is of you slap-boxing with LL Cool J on the Def Jam tour in ’87 and trying to snatch his hat, which he never took off. You guys didn’t like each other. You say there was too much competitive energy on tour for rappers to be chummy with one another, and that LL resented you because you were the new blood. Did you ever patch things up?
R: Rap is so egotistical. When you young, you think you have to guard the throne, put up a facade, especially with your peers, and we fed right into that. The animosity was childish. That’s the temperature of hip-hop for some reason. R&B artists, they hang out, see each other at awards shows, love each other. But hip-hop artists, we would see each other at awards shows and wanna kill each other. To this day there’s still a lot of artists that wanna kill each other. But as you get older, some of the people you had problems with become people you respect most. You grow up and it turns 180 degrees in the other direction. With some artists, it may have gotten a little more personal. Some wounds don’t heal so easy. But I got the utmost respect for LL. Looking back, he was trying to do the same thing I was, trying to be successful, and deep down I knew he was my competition. So no, there’s no beef.
BLVR: There’s a recording of you rhyming at age fifteen or sixteen as “Kid Wizard” at Wyandanch Memorial High School, about a year before you became “Rakim” and recorded “My Melody.” In a year’s time, you went from some fairly accomplished but conventional rhyme style to basically reinventing the form. What happened?
R: I call that my quantum leap, man. I guess when the time came, I realized, All right, this is serious now. I’m gonna make a record. Before that, it was just something we did in the neighborhood. Again, I was way into music, so when rap came out, it was easy. DJing and rapping was easy. I did it because everybody else wanted to do it. Early on, in ’85, I was a regular little knucklehead kid, know what I mean? I rhymed the way a regular kid would rhyme: talk crap, curse. But then I decided to put everything I knew into it and was conscious of what it could mean if I did it right. It made me draw every bit of inspiration out of myself that I could. At the same time, I knew I needed guidance. So that’s why I got knowledge of self in ’86.
BLVR: That’s when you joined the Nation of Gods and Earths. Does that account for the change?
R: Yes, a big part of it. I was about sixteen, seventeen years old, and it gave me purpose. It made me open my eyes, made me more conscious of what was going on around me, and helped me know myself better. Reading the literature I was reading—the 120 Degrees [The 120 Degree Lessons: The Knowledge of Self for the Black Man]—I felt that I had a job to do. I felt it was my duty to get this information out. I was reading everything I could get my hands on. When I read the Bible, I felt like I was able to decode it. I got my hands on the Torah, then started reading the Koran. I would feel so empowered by what I was reading, because it knocked down all the barriers and walls between us. I knew we was all the same. But I also didn’t want to offend anybody. My ideologies are my ideologies. I’ve read enough to know that nobody holds the sword. Who am I to say somebody’s not studying right, that they’re not part of the right culture? So I had to be careful about what I was saying. But I also had to make sure I was saying enough. I knew if I did it right, I could communicate with anyone. Being laid-back like I am, I’m not a talkative person. I speak through song, know what I mean?
BLVR: Do you recall what set you on that path? Your family wasn’t particularly religious, but you write of feeling “a spiritual force at an early age.” Why do you think that is?
R: I think deep in my genetics is a thirst for knowledge. My great-grandfather was a preacher. But also, back when I was growing up, there was no internet, man. We had to go search for knowledge. And I guess the journey taught me things along the way. I tell this story in the book, how me and a friend met somebody one day who was trying to get back to Queens. He asked us if he could borrow a couple of dollars to get on the train. We had, like, candy money on us. Being young in the streets, one of the first things you learn is: You don’t have no money. Even if somebody just seen you put money in your pocket on the way out the store and they ask you for it, you never give nobody no money in the street when you a kid. But the way this brother was talking to us, the vocabulary he used, I never heard nobody talk like that in my life. I respected him. He could’ve robbed me and my friend. He seen us in the store with the money. But he just told us a story. He sounded so sincere that we wanted to help him, and we did. A few years later, when the Gods got more popular in Wyandanch and I started hanging around the ciphers [A “cipher,” in the Nation of Gods and Earths vernacular, is “a person, place or thing in your surroundings that is complete within itself.” It can also mean “the completion of a circle or 360 degrees of Knowledge, Wisdom and Understanding.”], I realized that the brother I’d met was a messenger. He helped me understand what Islam could do for me. If I could be a good person, if I could be a respectful person, somebody you can trust, someone who does things other than just for himself, then I was all in.
BLVR: This was also a process of, as you write, finding your moral center. What does it mean to you to be a moral person?
R: I think it means a lot when you trying to communicate with people. I connect the two: having principles and trying to reach people as an artist. They go hand in hand. To understand that there’s a deeper meaning to yourself, a purpose, and to fulfill it, is like a bee pollinating flowers. The bee don’t know what it’s doing, but the bee gonna pollinate them flowers all day. We don’t know what we doing, but we have a purpose, and we doing it all day. If we can understand that and make it useful, then at least we’re trying to do something right. Everybody resonates at a pitch. The earth resonates at a pitch. You hear people say, “Peace and harmony.” Well, peace and harmony have a bigger meaning than we know. Peace is what we get when we understand our purpose. And when we understand our purpose, we resonate at a pitch that’s in harmony with the earth. And when you in harmony with the earth, you pollinating flowers. It gets a little deeper than that, but I wanna leave the meaning up to the reader.
III. BIG MOUTH
BLVR: You’re obviously known for your lyricism, but I don’t think people realize that you also produced most of the music on your first four albums. I always assumed it was Eric B. But he just did the instrumentals while you did mostly everything else. Did you play that down for the partnership’s sake?
R: Yes. I knew that the group looked better if people thought Eric did the beats and Rakim did the raps. I also thought of us as a collective project. We would get together and be like, “Let’s do this, let’s do that.” But I did the majority of the work. It could be because I knew what kind of music I wanted to rap off of. A lot of the beats that we used was from records that I had rhymed off when I was young and in the park: the Dennis Edwards bass line for “Paid in Full,” Keni Burke’s “Risin’ to the Top,” you know what I mean? The J.B.’s “Pass the Peas.” These are all songs I used to love rapping off of. So we’d go into the studio and I’d say, “All right, let’s loop this record right here, do this, do that, do this…” As it turned out, I did 90 percent—maybe 88 percent—of the first four albums.
BLVR: What was your relationship with Eric B. like? You take a few shots at him in the book: “He was the brother I never wanted”; “The more I knew the less I liked”; “I’m really hip-hop and Eric really wasn’t.” Were you guys ever close?
R: Yeah. In the beginning there was no, I guess, expectations. We didn’t know we was gonna make records. We was optimistic, but nothin’ was on the line. And we developed a cool relationship. I trusted him as far as the business deals went. If he said, “Yo, Ra, we should go with Cara Lewis, or we should go check out so-and-so,” I trusted his word. All I wanted to do was write rhymes. I didn’t care about meetings. I didn’t care about interviews. I just wanted to be in the studio. Eric handled the business. On tour—that’s when you really bond with somebody—it was us against the world. We became family. As time went on, it got a little shaky, and then the business went sour. The kind of person I am, if me and you break bread and say, “Yo, this is what it is,” then that’s what it is. If you go left on me, I got a real problem. So at a certain point, I didn’t consider him family. I didn’t consider him a brother. I didn’t consider him a friend.
BLVR: You guys parted ways in ’92 over a business disagreement. He thought you were going to cut him out of a record deal or something?
R: It was a deal that he came up with. Eric said, “Yo, Ra, we got three more albums left on our contract. A cool way of doing it would be, I’ll do an album and keep all the money, you’ll do an album and keep all the money, then we’ll get back together and do a third album, finish the contract, and get more money. Then we’ll sign a new contract.” Sounded like a great plan. All right, Eric B. So he did his album and, long story short, when it came time to do mine, we got into a problem. He didn’t want to do it. That’s when the love was lost. But, you know, time heals all wounds. I realized it was bigger than me and Eric. We sat down and put our differences aside. We family again.
BLVR: You say in the book that there tends to be repetition in art, that artists find it hard to break the old molds until someone comes along who “changes the tempo.” Who’s a good example of that in hip-hop today?
R: Might be a little too early to tell. I’m at the point where I can be a fan, regardless of what new artists are doing, whether it’s good or bad. There’s some artists that’s pushing the envelope, trying to keep the torch lit. I may not like all of the music, but I grew up when people said rap would never be lucrative. So to see it still be relevant and very much involved in the world feels good.
BLVR: I can’t help but notice you didn’t name anyone.
R: You know, back in the day it was “a hip-hop, hippie to the hippie, the hip, hip a hop.” Now, I guess this is just their version of that. But that’s why I’m optimistic, man. The younger generation, they’re young. I was young in hip-hop too. I loved brothers like Kool Moe Dee, Melle Mel, Grandmaster Caz, Grandmaster Flash, all these brothers. I don’t really compare myself to other rappers, but I felt like I wanted to get their stamp of approval. At the same time, I knew I had to create something different from what they were doing, even if it was just to paint a picture of how somebody lived so other people could understand it, or paint a picture of injustice. One day it’s gonna become evident that hip-hop is the chosen genre to enlighten people, know what I mean? We can change things through art. This is the genre to do it. But we gotta wake up fast.
BLVR: It’s been over a decade since your last album, The Seventh Seal. Are you working on anything?
R: Yes. Even though I’m laid-back, I always have something that I wanna tell y’all, something I feel needs to be heard. You gotta picture somebody with a big mouth that hasn’t been able to talk for ten years.
BLVR: You were signed to Dr. Dre’s Aftermath Entertainment for a while, but an album never materialized. In the book, you say that Dre wanted to turn you into a gangsta rapper, but you refused. As with Marley Marl, you said no to the producer of the era—in Dre’s case, perhaps the biggest hip-hop producer ever. And that’s where the book ends, almost two decades ago. Can I ask why?
R: It’s not the end of my story, but it was the end of a significant chapter in my life. Going against Marley could have stopped my career before it started, and walking away from Dre meant walking away from a major label structure and a large and lucrative deal. But my life and my learning continue. There’s always more to come. On my terms, when I’m ready.