He’s at his apex, and others are below. They’re just a milliliter. He’s a kilo. (Rakim portrait by Grant Siedlecki)
This was a nerve-wracking experience, trying to formulate coherent questions while that voice was on the other end of the phone line. It sounded sort of tired and harried, but it was still that voice. Rakim was missing in action for a couple of years before doing a couple of shows at BB King’s earlier in the year, and now he’s finally putting together another album, though he doesn’t want to reveal the details yet. He’s doing a show with at Central Park with Common and Lupe Fiasco on Thursday. He’s one of the greatest rappers of all time. You should maybe go to that.
You were at Summer Jam last night as a surprise guest. How did that come about?
Pretty good, it was pretty good. Busta Rhymes had a little situation where he brought a few people out. A New York statement, I guess you could say. He brought myself, Wu-Tang, Slick Rick, Big Daddy Kane, Q-Tip, a few other people out. It was pretty good.
It’s probably been a minute since you’ve had an opportunity to perform to a crowd that size. Did it bring back memories?
Oh, no doubt. It felt good to be out there, and it definitely brought back a lot of memories.
One of the people you came out with was Big Daddy Kane. There’s been all kinds of speculation for years that back when the two of of you were running the city that you had an under-the-table rivalry that was never made public. Do you care to comment on that?
I guess you could say the media, like any other situation, used to compare me and Kane and say that we had a little beef or bickering here and there. But it was never no beef. I like Kane, got respect for Kane. In the rap game, it’s a lot of games that a lot of people play. People do expect certain rappers to play certain games. It’s one of the reasons why I always kept my distance, so I wouldn’t get involved with the rap bickering and all that. For the most part, we never had words, never had no problems. If anything, the media kind of perpetuated everything.
You came out with Busta Rhymes last night. He has this album coming out on Aftermath. You were signed to Aftermath for a while, and the idea of you doing an album with Dr. Dre seemed almost like it was too good to be true. Do you want to talk a little bit about what happened there?
Yeah, it was just basically creative differences. He wanted one thing, and I wanted to go in a different direction, so at the end of the day, we had to go different ways. Bus is a better type of artist for that situation as far as the way Dre likes to do his thing. I told Busta congratulations on the deal. I’m glad he pulled it off and everything went good, but I think as far as myself, I’m not that type of artist. As far as the direction Dre wanted to go, I had to hold my ground and turn away from that, but I wish him and Dre the best.
Between you parting ways with Aftermath and the shows you did at BB King’s earlier this year, we didn’t hear too much from you. What was going on during that time?
What I did was came home and found a better situation for myself. It’s taken a little while to put it all together. We at the final stages and the final contracts now. At the same time, I didn’t want to sign with a label that was going to give me ten percent of my work, so I had to wait for the right situation. But everything’s kind of good now. I’m looking forward to putting the single out in a couple of months and the album shortly after that. I don’t want to speak on it too much, but I got a real good situation that’s about to take place. As soon as it happens, I’ll go ahead and make a big thing out of it, but I don’t like to count my chickens before they hatch. Hopefully in the next couple of weeks, everybody should hear about it.
You’re doing this show on Thursday with Common. How did you get involved with that?
Marc Ecko. I did a process with Marc Ecko, did something on his video game thing, so I basically started a little tour. It’s love.
So it’s going to be a tour as well?
A small tour. A couple cities.
You haven’t toured in a while.
I didn’t tour, but I do shows, spot dates. Up in Cali, I did at least twenty-some shows out there. But at the same time, I don’t like to do shows when I don’t have a new record out. I don’t like to ride off my old-school bandwagon. I’ve turned down hundreds and hundreds of old-school shows and tours. I’m just waiting, trying to put something new out, get out there. I don’t like to wear my welcome out.
That seems to be an emerging market, the rap nostalgia shows. You see a ton of them in New York now. It’s interesting to hear that you’re not interested in doing that.
I don’t like to keep performing, doing the old records. We’re trying to do a new record. I feel we’re shortchanging the crowd. I like to put something new out, go out there, and perform. At the end of the road when I’m not putting out no records, then I’ll go ahead and do old-school tours for a couple of years. But you got to keep yourself in the market. The more you pimp your product, it starts deteriorating, and before you know it, you out there doing shows for $2500 a night. I refuse to do that, so I have to fall back, take my time, do what I got to do, do something important. After that, I can hopefully get out there on the road and do some shows.
You brought so much to rap with the stylistic advances you made, the complexities, the internal rhymes, the lyrics that you had to pick apart. Do you feel like there’s anybody in rap right now who’s carrying on what you started with that?
I say it all the time; the conscious level is kind of at zero, but slowly it’s coming back. The so-called gangsta rap had its run. The young rappers, I can year it in the fight nights and I can hear it in the raps, in the streets, the new material that’s coming out, rappers want to get a little more conscious and start speaking on something. Not just what’s going on in the neighborhood but some of the things that we can fix in the neighborhood, why there be some of the problems with what’s going on in the neighborhood. Rap is definitely getting a little more, you could call it, street-conscious. Street awareness will eventually bring awareness. The younger kids, man, the younger teenagers, a lot of people are talking about the difference between gangsta rap. Before that, it was a little more conscious, so the kids know they got a choice now. In order to be a complete rapper, they know they got to spit. At the same time, they know they got to get a point across, make a statement, and people will respect them as not only being a rapper but being a lyricist.
Is there anyone in particular who you feel is doing that?
You got Saigon; he kind of started the rage of the young conscious rapper, letting the game know that the conscious level is at zero. He came out with it, made a statement, because nobody wanted to do it two years ago. You got people like Papoose; he’s a little conscious with his lyrics too. He’s always letting the hood know that it’s differences and choices that we can make. It’s a lot of young rappers that I see that’s coming up that’s trying to get on the conscious thing. It’s going to take time. Right now, the majority rules. If everybody talk about black, and somebody come out saying blue, of course they going to alienate it for a minute. But the more people you get talking about blue, people going to realize that it’s a scale, and they can pick a side. It’s going to be power on both sides, and eventually, hopefully, the consciousness will come back around. I think it is, and I think that’s why people wouldn’t mind hearing a Rakim record right now.
You’ve been around to see most of the entire history of recorded rap. You’ve seen all these styles come and go. Is there a particular musical style or production style that you like rapping over more than any other?
Yeah, I prefer the, I don’t want to say sampled music, but I prefer the New York-style music the most. It’s kind of what I grew up on, something with a little energy, something that sound like what I’m used to hearing. Rap changed a lot; we got a lot of areas doing different things. I respect the Dirty South for what they do. They do what they like doing; they not trying to be the West Coast, they not trying to be the East Coast. At the same time, they showing the rest of the world what they do and how they live down there, so I respect them for what they doing. I respect the Midwest. And it’s also what’s making me respect the East Coast more now. I feel like I got to be an East Coast artist and do what East Coast artists do. I think the Midwest, Dirty South, and California appreciate that: an East Coast rapper being an East Coast rapper.
One last thing I wanted to ask you about was your writing style, the amount that you’re able to cram into every line. What do you do when you sit down to write? Do you have a particular time of day or a particular setting that you like to write in? Or do you do it all on the fly?
That’s a good question. It’s hard to say I’ma sit down and right at seven tonight. At seven tonight, my mind might be somewhere else. I try to stay at it as much as possible, but at certain times, it’s just time to write, and it flows the way I want it to flow. It’s almost like I get numb and it just happens. It’s funny, man. I just try to stay at it and keep it popping, man. My style of writing, I love putting a lot of words in the bars, and it’s just something I started doing. Now it’s stuck with me. I like being read. The way you do that is by having a lot of words, a lot of syllables, different types of words.
Voice review: Greg Tate on Rakim at BB King’s
Voice review: Miles Marshall Lewis on Rakim’s The Master