In advance of local show, Rakim talks nostalgia, favorite MCs, and Baltimore memories
In case you hadn’t heard, legendary MC Rakim is coming to Baltimore next Sunday, the 19th, for a show at Paparazzi (formerly Sonar). In advance of the show, we emailed the microphone fiend some questions, and he was only too happy to chime in on his legacy, his favorite artists, and his memories of past shows in Baltimore.
City Paper: Rhyming has changed a lot since you started, and some of those changes were brought about by your own innovations — do you make any attempt to update your flows or your vocabulary to contemporary tastes when you write now, or do you still have the same basic approach you had in 1987?
Rakim: My concepts have evolved and because of that the rhymes flow where they need to, but I haven’t made a conscious decision to change my style. From my first days on the mic, people have always tried to say “do it like this” or “this is what’s hot now” but I think if you’re always chasing after what’s the new best thing, you’re not being true to yourself as an artist so I stick with what I do. I’m a hiphop fan, so I listen to everything and I’m a curious person, so I’m constantly seeking knowledge and there’s no doubt the genres direction, multiple directions, influence me and expand my thinking, but I don’t change the foundation.
CP: You’ve said your flows have been inspired by the melodies of your favorite jazz musicians — can you given an example of where one line might have those kinds of origins?
Rakim: I think it’s not one line, but the entire style that I try to emulate… it’s Coltrane when he breaks out into a solo… playing two notes at one time…and I play sax so I know that ain’t even possible but he does it. So Ill try to take what’s impossible and flip it. That might mean expanding 16 bars to 20 or crushing internal rhymes in where they’re not supposed to fit. Just drawing inspiration from what my icons were doing with their art.
CP: What is your favorite example of a record that sampled your voice, or flipped one of your lines?
Rakim: It might sound a little funny coming from a dude who remixed James Brown and George Clinton to make his own music, but to be honest, I prefer when people stay original with they own projects and leave mine to me. But I understand that its an homage or a show of respect. 50 once said his favorite rapper said check out “My Melody.” Jay incorporated “Follow the Leader” and some other stuff. Robin Thicke’s “Mr. Sexy” had my nieces dancing. It’s a blessing to be where I am and to get that kind of love.
CP: Do you think that the mythic status you achieved with your early work has made it difficult to make an impact with new music?
Rakim: I try to live up to my own expectations and those are pretty high. If I concentrate on elevating my lyrical content, that might in turn elevate all lyrical content or at least get cats thinking about it. I’ve always been an underground rapper so my influence is more on the foundation of the culture. If what I do can get a young artist to stop and think about what he’s rhyming, that’s bigger than a radio hit or a platinum plaque. That’s impact with greater meaning.
CP: You seem to be very appreciative of Eric B. for starting your career, but oftentimes he seems to get a bad rep from your fans, as the guy who put his name in front of Rakim’s but didn’t write any rhymes and didn’t produce all of the beats. Do you find yourself having to defend him, or the DJ/rapper duo format that hasn’t been as commonplace since the ’80s?
Rakim: You can’t take anything from Eric when it comes to what we did. There was a lot more to the music…and to the business…than what happened in one studio session or another. When we was coming up, Eric put a lot of people in the right place at the right time and there was an energy he brought that helped shaped the outcome. He doesn’t need defending.
CP: What are some of your favorite hip-hop records, albums or singles, of the last 10 years?
Rakim: That’s always a tough one to answer cause I’m a fan first, nahmeen. There’s a lot out there to love. You got people like Fab and Jay repping NY hard from the podium. People like Kanye, HitBoy, Pharrell, Ryan Leslie pushing production to new heights. Artists like Brother Ali and Bishop Lamont keeping things close to the truth. There’s a lot of good out there that elevates above the clutter.
Rakim: I’ve always believed that following trends, chasing after what’s hot instead of what’s inside you…that’s the biggest enemy of creativity, the biggest challenge to HipHop. There’s artists that do what they do and sell millions of albums but that doesn’t mean everyone should try to do what they do. When an artist stays original, stays true to their own vision, that stands out to me more than superstar status.
CP: Have you performed in Baltimore much in the past, and if so do you have any particular memories or impressions of performing here?
Rakim: I’ve done a few shows in B’More. About a half dozen years ago there was one where it was snowing out…like blizzard snowing with a foot or more on the ground…Now ya see, I don’t fly so it’s me driving into town and we are crawling. I don’t have time to go to the hotel or nothing, just get to the stage. And I get up there and, blizzard conditions outside, me late and still, that crowd is packed in the room and the energy is through the roof. That’s that B’More love. Don’t worry, I’ll be on time next week – no snow forecasted.
Rakim: There’s two sides to the sword, nahmeen. When I was coming up HipHop was a neighborhood thing and it was somewhat confined in both the expectations of what you were supposed to be rhyming and the access to resources to create quality music….and that’s coming from the first rapper to sign a million dollar record deal and help change the content of our rhymes. Now, the genre is a global phenomenon and artists have access to the best production and instrumentation in the business. I have some nostalgia for the street corner and park party days, but its a blessing to see this thing on an international level…and to have come along with it.