A supreme stanza stylist and lyrical master, Rakim has long been considered one of the most skilled, influential vocalists to emerge from hip-hop’s formative years. Debuting in 1986 with the hypnotic single “Eric B. is President,” the wordsmith modeled his rhyme patterns after John Coltrane’s complex sax sounds and released a raging text-heavy style that proved to be seminal. With hit singles that included “Paid in Full,” “I Ain’t No Joke,” “Follow the Leader,” “Mahogany” and “Juice (Know the Ledge),” the title track from the 1992 Tupac Shakur-starring urban drama, the rapper put much fire into his material.
Decades later, Ra is still rockin’ the mic in the studio and onstage. “It’s hard to be in the game this long, and people not get tired of you,” Rakim, who headlines the 39th annual Odunde Festival this Sun., June 8 in a 7pm set, tells PW via telephone from his home in Connecticut. “I remember I used to think I would get tired of it, but I get my energy from the people. For people to say, ‘Yo, get on stage. We want to hear that,’ it’s a blessing.”
Having played Philadelphia venues since his pioneering days touring with former partner DJ/producer Eric B., with whom Rakim recorded four albums, including 1987’s groundbreaking Paid in Full and Follow the Leader a year later, the hard-hitting lyrical elder has always considered this city a favorite.
“I love their honesty,” he says of his local audiences. “If they don’t like something, they are going to let you know. As a rapper, you got to go through Philly to get that love. I appreciate and respect Philly, because whatever they love, they love it passionately.” He also shared a special Philly memory: “I got arrested there once years ago. There were some bootleggers selling some [of my] t-shirts and, you know, things happened,” he laughs. “Philly is one of those cities you got to go to, and when you go, you go hard. If you can’t go hard, you go back home.”
While Rakim and turntablist Eric B., who are often referred to as the best duo in rap music history, parted ways after the release of Don’t Sweat the Technique in 1992, the wordsmith continued on his own. Recording his first solo album The 18th Letter in 1997, which contained the booming DJ Premier-produced single “It’s Been a Long Time,” Rakim is currently preparing a return to lab for his fourth project, one for which he’s eagerly anticipating the recording process. His last LP, 2009’s The Seventh Seal, ended his decade-long absence from hip-hop after a stint on Dr. Dre’s Aftermath label.
“I met with Pharrell a while back when I was going to start the album,” he says. “Pharrell understands that bang theory from back in the day—the 808, the hard drum kicks, the slapping snares. We definitely are going to do a couple of tracks. I want to deal with some of the best producers in the game that fit with what I’m doing and make this album epic.” In singularly important news for Philly heads, he hopes to get the Roots in the studio to back him on a few tracks.
“The Roots are the ultimate hip-hop band, man,” says Rakim, who performed a one-off show with the Roots crew at New York City’s famed Blue Note in 2011. “Their vibe and the way they get down, I love being around those cats. The way Quest understands who he’s working with and just makes it work ... If it’s Rakim, if it’s Miley Cyrus, if it’s whoever, they just understand what it is. Of course, they all play well, so that’s dope.”
Not suprisingly, Ra is a fan of metaphorical protégé Black Thought. “He was actually doing the rhymes with me at the Blue Note,” he recalls. “One night, I was watching Jimmy Fallon, and I saw my man doing some Frank Sinatra shit. My respect level went up for him because he is a musician, man. And now I understand why he rhymes like he does: Because he loves music. Tariq? He’s one of my favorite rappers. And I feel he’s one of the most underrated rappers in the game ... baby paw is nice.”
While other old-school microphone fiends can be bitter and stingy when it comes to giving praise to rappers not of their era, Rakim has no problem distributing due props to worthy new-jacks. “Right now, there are a few out there that keep the torch lit,” he says. “It goes from cats like my man Fred the Godson to Kendrick Lamar. Some of these new cats understand what we’ve been trying to preserve and incorporate that into what they’re doing. I love and respect them, and it makes me want to keep doing what I’m doing.”
As skilled in the art of conversation as he is at crafting urban poetics, the mic god was struck silent after the death of poet Maya Angelou was announced on the early-morning news last Wednesday. “When I saw that yesterday, everything in the house stopped,” he says. “I remember the first time I saw her, I thought I knew her already. She reminded you of your aunt. She reminded you of your grandmother. She reminded you of the lady that tells you, ‘You better cut that out or I’m going to tell your mother and father’—that lady up the street. She just had that warmth and that vibe. You just respected her.”
Inspired by both Angelou’s words and her struggle, he continues: “What she’s been through and the way she was able to turn her life around and manifest [greatness] was a beautiful thing,” he says. “When I saw that [she had passed], I just sat and thought about her legacy and what she gave to us. She dug deep within herself and gave us all that.”
Having influenced every generation of MCs that followed the path this leader paved, perhaps the same could be said about the R.
Sun., June 8, 10am. Free. 23rd and South sts. 215.732.8510. odundefestival.org
The Pack A.D. are built for the road
PW's Music Issue 2014