The Passing of the Mic


This isn’t a generation-gap piece, really. I ain’t even 30. But a lot of folks ain’t authentically feeling Rakim Allah; they just takin’ the “experts’ ” word on it. So dig this.

The Troopers were a crew rollin’ way uptown in the Bronx in the mid ’80s. Not really a street gang like the Black Spades, but a crew, hangin’ out around Co-op City, Gun Hill Road, and Baychester drinking 40s of Old E., Ballantine, or Private Stock, smoking up tré bags. Some were MCs; somebody always brought a JVC or somesuch along for Mr. Magic’s Rap Attack on ‘BLS, Red Alert on Kiss, or the Awesome Two on WHBI.

Somewhere around the time local Truman High had its first annual Crack Prevention Day, a lot of these brothers became gods: Derek, Ramone, and John became Shakim, Sincere, and Justice (whose older brother Unique dropped “F.R.E.S.H.” with the Fresh 3 MCs back in the day). They began building in ciphers on the lessons of the Five Percent Nation of Gods and Earths for fun. Peace and equality for all children everywhere; true indeed. (Yo, pass the joint.)

I’m told that mad brothers went through this knowledge-of-self spiritual grounding all around the five boroughs during this period, in search of wisdom and understanding. But don’t fuck with my sentimental education. Anyway, when Eric B. & Rakim released “Eric B. Is President” in ’86, the most verbally dexterous and highly respected MCs of the time were Run and L.L. Cool J. Rakim’s voice held the underlying menace with a Coltrane-cool level of laid-back. One got the feeling—without his ever having to mention it in a rhyme—that he scrambled drugs out there in Wyandanch, Long Island (there were unfounded rumors he was busted for this when his sophomore album, Follow the Leader, took so long to drop), or handled an Uzi or two.

With Rakim dropping science all over his Paid in Full debut, the Troopers had an MC representing their worldview over the airwaves, on wax, and at Union Square. “With knowledge of self, there’s nothing I can’t solve/At 360 degrees I revolve.” “I’ma manifest and bless the mic I hold.” “Now I learned to earn, ’cause I’m righ-teous.” For the gods, it was like being Jamaican and hearing patois on lily-white AM Yankee radio outta nowhere—like, oh shit! But you didn’t have to be god cipher divine to check for Rakim, either. Even my man Presweet, an ol’ school graf writer, would hang with the Troopers and acknowledge Rakim was on some next shit.

This is how it started. From the mouths of the hardest of the hardrocks everywhere: Rakim is the best MC in hiphop.

** Jay-Z is the best MC in hiphop. Vol. 3 . . . Life and Times of S. Carter (“S dot Carter,” like janet. was supposed to be “Janet period”) is the quintessential 2000-model hiphop album, and Shawn Carter is the finest MC the form currently has to offer. DJ Premier, Swizz Beatz, DJ Clue, and Timbaland really produce this music; the audio depth and crispness sound like there were definitely 48 tracks to slide, not unlike the latest record from Dre (who does the hook on “Watch Me”).

Like the electric-guitar reinvention of Jimi Marshall Hendrix, Rakim’s complex lyricism-overhaul of hiphop was an artful revolution that could only go down once. A clueless ’80s metalhead might’ve taken Hendrix for granted, vegging out on Eddie Van Halen or Yngwie Malmsteen. And for someone like 17-year-old Lil Wayne, Jay-Z is the man to beat. It’s not exactly “Rakim who?”—on the intro to the R’s latest, The Master, numerous MCs on hand in 1998 for Gordon Parks’s hiphop recasting of Art Kane’s Jazz Portrait pay respect to his legacy. But is The Master hot on the street?

A better question is, should it be? The Voice doesn’t pay me enough to trash Rakim, but the only lyric I felt inspired to jot down was, “The ep was in effect from dusk to sunset/She want a rimshot all over her drumset,” from “Real Shit.” Throughout The Master, the choruses seem forced and intrusive, and the songs just aren’t that strong. “Flow Forever,” “How I Get Down,” and “Finest Ones” are okay. “All Night Long” sounds almost like Flipmode Squad. Reviewing this record felt like baby boomers dissecting a Paul McCartney disc 30 years after the Beatles with a straight face. Like, do the kids give a shit? Producers Premier, Mark the 45 King, Amen-Ra Lawrence, and Clark Kent never take you into a zone. Sad to say, the god missed on this one, even worse than the last time around, his “comeback” record, The 18th Letter. I seen the same shit happen to Kane.

Jay-Z’s joint is 100 percent zone. Even the Annie-sample-sounding “Anything” and the Missy Elliott/Twista collabo, “Is That Yo’ Bitch”—available only on uptown bootleg—are superlative, as eminently quotable as the rest of S. Carter. (Speaking of which, I was at the Kit Kat Club that infamous night last month, and no, I don’t think Jay stabbed Un. But I’m thankful to whomever for blessing us with these bootleg tracks!)

Remember partying so hard in the sex, drugs & hiphop lifestyle night after night that you needed a few days to just chill? That’s “Do It Again (Put Ya Hands Up).” Beanie Sigel makes the most of his two minutes, and Amil’s asides make her a more-than-ample replacement for former Jigga foil Foxy Brown. “Snoopy Track,” a high-distortion Timbaland track with a Juvenile hook, is my favorite, and it wasn’t even gonna make the album until the bootleg drama. Remember pouring through college textbooks with highlighter, until the whole page was yellow ’cause all the information was worth savoring? S. Carter is like that. “It’s Hot (Some Like It Hot),” “S. Carter,” “So Ghetto”—you can’t even begin to quote Jay-Z because so many tracks are filled with witty gems.

Remember when Rakim was the best MC in hiphop?