Following The Leader

By Andrew Kay | 09 May 2011

Rakim, the most gifted and greatest rapper of all-time, is quite simply the holy grail of artists any self-respecting hip-hop fan would want to speak to. Ever since the Marley Marl 1986 single 'Eric B. Is President' came on the scene, Rakim has always been a rapper to notice. School dances back in the 1980s were littered with Rakim's rhymes on 'I Know You Got Soul' and the slower 'I Ain't No Joke.' For those of you of a certain age, Rakim was probably there, somewhere, as his influence caught the ear of hip-hop fans and future rappers, such as Nas, Biggie and Jay-Z. Perhaps it's Rakim's gift for vivid journey-taking through poetry and his incredible multi-syllable delivery, which was never a gimmick, and which he made his own, that makes him rap's greatest lyricist?

 He's "taken a phrase rarely heard... flip it... now it's a daily word" ('Follow the Leader') He's "trembled like a Gremlin" ('MIcrophone Fiend') He's "fucked around and missed the show" ('Mahogany') and predicted the original 1993 World Trade bombing: "remember Pearl Harbour? New York will be over G" ('Casualties of War'), and showed a spiritual path to achieving a knowledge of self: "Take a trip through the mind and when you get back understand your third- I seen all of that. It ain't where you're from, it's where you're at" ('In the Ghetto') 

But to interview Rakim is to refer mainly to his first four albums from 1987-1992, as this was Rakim as his most high profile, at his most prolific and influential. It can be argued that rappers of these days and times pay homage to Rakim, either through lyrics or borrowing of cadence or rhyme flow, or just in how a story is told, especially in the choice of imagery.Cancelled shows in the U.K have added to his mystic- it's as if his history has been written in his absence. 

His comeback album in 1999 showed promise, but for a generation of heads, tracks like 'Microphone Fiend' and 'Don't Sweat the Technique' (for which Rakim caught flack in certain quarters for having white girls in his video) crystalise the "R". For younger cats, Rakim is someone their older brother might know about. I deliberately avoided annoying Rakim by not mentioning his break-up from Eric B.  It's the stuff of speculation, with most of it probably not being correctly reported. 

But I did ask about his move to Aftermath in 2002, to work with the great Dr. Dre. I have to confess I did gush on occasion in the interview- he's is the greatest rapper, in my opinion, but, by going off the page a bit, the interview gleamed some nuggets and insights from this ellusive of individuals.  Here's what he had to say on the eve of his Paid in Full Tour, beginning on May 10th at the Hammersmith Apollo and in June at the Nottingham Rescue Rooms and London's Jazz Cafe on June 2nd. 

After over 25 years, you're still considered rap music's greatest lyrcist. Your verbal dexterity and vivid rhyme schemes taking audiences on a musical journey have been copied over and over again by rappers such as Biggie Smalls and Nas. Do you consider yourself to be rap's greatest lyricist? 

Life has been a blessing for me. I'm trying to maintain that reputation. I do believe I am rap's greatest lyricist, even though I'm a modest guy. It's a wonderful thing being able to inspire people and it's heartfelt that other rappers rate me as well. 

What were you up to be between 1999's The Master and 2009's Seventh Seal albums? 

I was trying to set up my own label and start a family. I was also with Aftermath and Dr. Dre. I was there for about three years and we did our best to work together, but it just didn't work out and we decided to go our separate ways. What looked like the perfect harmony of rapper and producer just didn't pan out the way it way it might have on paper. Never say never in terms of it happening in the future. I don't bare any anamosity to this day. And, besides, the results at the time were bootlegged, should any be interested in checking that out. 

Do you consider the 1988 Coldcut remix of "Paid In Full" to be groundbreaking, given that it was several years before middle-eastern music and vocal samples were used by Timbaland on Big Pimpin' and DJ Quik on Addictive? 

Everyone thought that myself and Eric B. hated that remix, but it was just a case of not knowing about it when we got to Top of the Pops. We hadn't heard it before. Hadn't heard who was doing the remix, so our reaction at the time was based on miscommunication. I do believe it's a groundbreaking remix. I'm grateful for its existence as it made us more popular. 

As a student at NYU at the first ever academid hip-hop course taught at a university, I chose to analyse ' In the Ghetto'- which repeats your often quoted phrase of "It Ain't Where You're From, It's Where You're At"- to what extent is that phrase true for all of us, especially rappers? 

It's at the heart of everything. The world is a big place. When you go on tour, you maybe reppin' Brooklyn or the Bronx. Whilst you rep those areas locally, if you can't do that overseas then it ruins your credibility on the world stage. So, the phrase is at the heart of all that anyone does, including rappers. No one really cares where you've come from, what counts is what you're up to now. 

Do you think young rappers like Lil Wayne have enough understanding of hip-hop's history to be both respectful of its legacy and move it forward in a meaningful way? Which current rappers are holding up the skills of emceeing set by yourself, Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap? 

I don't think it matters. Lil Wayne does his thing and I respect that. It's not something I would do, but hip-hop is big enough to have all kinds of artists inside its genre. I do rate the Lox, Fabulous and Raekwon as rappers who are doing similar things to what I was doing back-in-the-day. Things have moved on since the 1980s, and Wayne is commercially viable and shifting units, which is the bottom line these days. I don't speak on rappers or people I hate. There's sports teams I hate, even people in my neighbourhood, but I don't mention those people. I'm a positive guy and do my best to remain so. 

With the landscape changing so much in hip-hop, what's your take on the current scene and where does Rakim fit into these days and times? 

Well, I was never a radio-friendly rapper. I don't make songs for the radio, which makes my job that bit harder. I find it harder to get a deal because I don't have that agenda of pushing a certain album or singles to make the label happy. Which is why I set up my own label, so I could do what I wanted and hopefully a certain aspect of the market would respond well to that. But just by being Rakim doesn't guarantee an album deal or record sales. But I remain a humble, modest guy and that, and my family-keeps me grounded. 

I read somewhere that you want Bob James' 'Nautilus' played at your funeral? Is this true and does it have something to do with the track's other world soundscapes relating to a similar spacey vibe on 'Follow the Leader'? 

I was listening to Bob James after my pops past away. When he died all I listened to was Bob James and Miles Davis. I like Bob James because his jazz arrangements take me to different places in a spiritual sense.  'Nautilus' contributed to the spacey feel on 'Follow the Leader'. As far as I'm concerned I sample artists who speak to me in ways that enhance my rhymes and make the track as exciting as possible, to create the tone and effect that I'm trying to get across. In fact, I would like 'Nautilus' played at my own funeral. Let's hope that's a long time coming before that happens! 

Given recent U.S foreign policy, is your track 'Casualties of War' more pertinant than ever before

Well that track was about U.S soldiers in Iraq in 1991/1992, but given what's happened to Osama Bin Laden and the inappropriate response of cheering by the Americans outside the White House, it seems to have a certain resonance- history sort of repeating itself. I caught a lot of flack and also respect when I kinda predicted the World Trade bombing, the one in 1993. But there's been a legacy of rappers predicting uprising or other events- Cube hinted at things in L.A a year before on 'Death Certificate', for instance. 

How hard is it to for someone like Rakim to get a deal to make a new album? 

It's very hard for anyone these days to get a record deal to make a new album. That's why I went out and got my own label. It's still a struggle, but worth it, if it comes together. 

What inspired you to come up with your rhymes and concepts on the first four albums? Where do you think you got your gift for vivid poetry? 

From my life experiences, especially with what I see and how I see things. It informs my concepts and what I want to get across to the audience.  As far as having a gift is concerned- that's a blessing, which I'm truly humbled about, and I'm grateful that I have that ability and still considered by different generations as the best rapper. The fact that people still rate me is a beautiful thing. 

What can we expect from the live shows? 

We're gonna have a lot of fun, man. Anyone coming down can expect me to go back to the classics and they'll be a few surprises too.


Read Ryan Proctor's live review by clicking here

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