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Rakim: The MC Reveals His 'Seventh Seal'

If the bards of 20th century hip-hop are ever immortalized in an anthology, there's a good chance that Rakim will sit atop that list.

He was a teenager when he started working with DJ Eric B in the 1980s. As Eric B & Rakim, he was a part of arguably the most influential rap duo in history, with Eric B sampling and mixing, Rakim as the MC.

"I think what I was trying to do was incorporate my musical influence," Rakim tells host Guy Raz. "I came up in a household [with] a lot of different music: my mom playing jazz to R&B, soul; my brothers and sisters with the Earth, Wind & Fire to Michael Jackson. So I was trying to incorporate different rhythms in my rhymes. And it kind of worked out good, you know?"

Many say Rakim is the greatest rapper of all time. He is credited with pioneering the technique of internal rhyming in rap music — which he started as a teen.

"At the time, I didn't know it was going to be this different," he says. "You know what I mean? But I was shooting for something different. Like, some of my influence was John Coltrane — I played the sax, as well. So listening to him play and the different rhythms that he had: I was trying to write my rhymes as if I was a saxophone player."

But for a rapper so often cited by the biggest names in hip-hop today — Jay-Z, Nas, Eminem, 50 Cent — Rakim is comparatively obscure, a quiet purist. Now, for the first time in nearly a decade, he has released a solo album, called The Seventh Seal.

'The God MC'

Rakim says the title is a biblical reference. He says he's been reading the Book of Revelations for two decades, and he points out the comparison to the wars and natural disasters of today. But he also uses it as a lyrical metaphor.

"Metaphorically, I wanted to use it in hip-hop as far as, that's what I want to do with hip-hop," Rakim says. "Tsunami it out, hurricane, earthquake and get rid of everything that's bad. And hopefully, start the new with everything that's good."

The lead single off The Seventh Seal is called "Holy Are You." It's a showcase for Rakim's lyrical ability, and it throws in several religious references.

"You know, I don't want to throw religion on nobody — but just take theyself a little more serious," he says. "And this is my view of what the creator wanted us to see, and wanted us to be, you know what I mean? It's definitely a deep statement."

Many of today's younger or more popular rappers, including Jay-Z on his newest album, look up to Rakim as the "God MC" — a title he embraces himself.

"It's a blessing," Rakim says. "It's a blessing, man, 'cause rap is one of the most cockiest genres of music out there, you know what I mean? So to get love from my fellow artists, man, it's a blessing."

Quarterbacking

As a high-school student on Long Island, Rakim pursued rap as a hobby and planned to attend college. And then he played a demo tape for Eric B.

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"At the time, I was trying to go to Stony Brook [University] and play quarterback," Rakim says. "I love football. ... I had a little tape that I had, ready to go to college with me; just in case there was any rappers up there, I can just put my tape in, you know?

"But I played that for Eric B, and he was interested, told me, 'We can make a record.' And things turned out where I couldn't go to college. I had to focus on my rap career; things kind of took off fast. Man, I had no idea it was going to be that big. And I stopped growing — I'm only about 5'9" — so that's another reason why maybe football wouldn't have been a good thing, you know what I mean? It's a good thing, and I appreciate everything that came from it.

More recently, Rakim has gone on record saying that some contemporary hip-hop is shallow. He says many rappers these days are "compromising."

"Some rappers that may have been a little more conscious when they came out — they're a little more party-rap right now," he says. "We gotta let hip-hop grow. We gotta let it go through its different phases throughout the different places that's accepting it. But I feel: Certain places, like New York, we need to keep our integrity and make sure that it's doing that thing that caught the world's ear in the beginning."

Part of that, he says, is a lack of emphasis on language and poetry.

"Lyrical content is getting a lot of slack right now, and it's making hip-hop look less of what it is," Rakim says. "If we can get back to the essence of it — I'm trying to make it a little more melodic, where people are respecting it more as a genre."

A Legend At 41

As for his own music, Rakim paints a mixed picture on The Seventh Seal: optimism about President Obama's election, mixed with the struggles of people losing jobs and homes.

"It's hard to have fun, and make a fun album, when you know that it's something that you need to say," he says. "I'm definitely one of them artists that loves putting the track on and having fun with it, but in my own way. I'm more of a wordsmith, so I like taking different words and trying to see what I can do with them — as many things as possible. But on this album here, I definitely wanted to get a message out: more 'conscious,' and let people know that I'm aware of what's going on and what they're going through."

As musical legends go, Rakim, 41, is still relatively young — "I try to feel like that, man. My kids, they tease me, but they keep me young," he says.

It doesn't prevent people from considering him a hip-hop pioneer.

"It's one of them things where you try not to let it get to you," Rakim says. "It's definitely a lot of weight, but it's a title that I love to have."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

Mr. RAKIM ALLAH (Rapper): Check one, check one, check, check, check. Yes, sir.

(Soundbite of song, "I Know You Got Soul")

Mr. ALLAH: (Singing) It's been a long time, I shouldn't have left you without a strong rhyme to step to�

RAZ: If the bards of 20th century hip hop are ever immortalized in an anthology, there's a good chance that Rakim Allah will sit at the top of that list. This song we're hearing is "I Know You Got Soul" by Eric B. and Rakim, recorded in 1987. Together, they were perhaps the most influential rap duo in history - Eric B. sampling and mixing; Rakim as the MC.

Rakim was just 19 at the time but already a legend in the making.

(Soundbite of song, "I Know You Got Soul")

Mr. ALLAH: (Singing) I start to think and then I sink into the paper like I was ink. When I'm writing I'm trapped in between the lines, I escape when I finish the rhyme. I got soul.

RAZ: Rakim pioneered the technique of internal rhyming in rap music. Before he came around, no rappers were doing it. Many critics say Rakim's the greatest rapper of all time, and yet you won't see him passing bottle of Cristal or hanging out in San Tropez. In fact, for a rapper so often cited by the big names in hip hop today - Jay-Z, Nas, Eminem, 50 Cent - Rakim is comparatively obscure, a quiet purist.

And for the first time in nearly a decade he's released a solo album. It's called "The Seventh Seal." And Rakim Allah is here in the studio with me.

Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

Mr. ALLAH: Yes, sir. Yes, sir. Thank you, thank you.

RAZ: For those who might not be familiar with your work, when you started out in the mid-1980s, what were you doing that was different to all of the other stuff out there?

Mr. ALLAH: Well, I think what I was trying to do was incorporate my musical influence. I came up in a household, a lot of different music. My mom playing, you know, jazz to R&B, soul. My brothers and sisters with the, you know, Earth, Wind and Fire to, you know, Michael Jackson. So, I was trying to incorporate different rhythms in my rhymes and it kind of worked out good, you know?

RAZ: You were trying to do something that nobody was doing.

Mr. ALLAH: At the time, I didn't know it was going to be this different, you know what I mean? But I was shooting for something different. You know, like, some of my influence was John Coltrane - I played the sax as well. So, listening to him play in the different rhythms that he had, I was trying to write my rhymes as if I was a saxophone player.

RAZ: I want to ask you about your new record. It's called "The Seventh Seal," and I take it it's a reference to the Bible.

Mr. ALLAH: Yes, sir.

RAZ: The Book of Revelations.

Mr. ALLAH: Yes, sir. I've been reading the seventh seal since, like, '89, and it's always wowed me. But it seems, you know, we 2009 now and it seems like we're looking into the seventh seal right now as far as the signs, you know, the storms, the hurricanes, the earthquakes, we're back at war, you know, the plagues, you know, which is the swine flu now, you know what I mean?

RAZ: Right.

Mr. ALLAH: So, it's like, you know, it�

RAZ: Like, what's going on?

Mr. ALLAH: Exactly. It seems like this is what we're looking at now. Metaphorically, I wanted to use it in hip-hop as far as, you know, that's what I wanted to do to hip-hop - tsunami it out, hurricane, earthquake, and get rid of everything that's bad, and hopefully, you know, start anew when everything is good.

RAZ: And there's a track on this album that seems to just consolidate all of your talents as a writer and an MC. It's called "Holy Are U."

(Soundbite of song, "Holy Are U")

Mr. ALLAH: (Singing) I know you find it hard to believe, and it is why they call me the God MC, the lyricist. Grace and style to the roots from genesis, the world wonder, still standing like pyramids. The (unintelligible), every brick, it got a story to tell. My rhyme grew different like a hieroglyphic, mind prolific, infinite, like Mad Max�

You know, I don't want to throw a legend on nobody but just take they self a little more serious, and this is my view of what I felt the creator wanted us to see and wanted us to be. So, you know, it's definitely a deep statement.

RAZ: And you talk about the term the God MC, and that's what a lot of other rappers call you - a microphone fiend. Jay-Z, probably the biggest - not just rap star, probably the biggest star in the world right now, pays homage to you on the song, "Run This Town." Microphone fiend�

Mr. ALLAH: Microphone fiend - yeah, no doubt.

(Soundbite of song, "Run This Town")

JAY-Z: (Singing) To Eric B we are, microphone fiend, it's the return of the God, peace God.

RAZ: How do you feel when you hear that, when you hear all these young rappers paying homage to you?

Mr. ALLAH: It's a blessing, man, 'cause rap is one of the most cockiest genres of music out there, you know what I mean? So, to get love from my fellow artists, man, it's a blessing.

RAZ: You were just a kid. You were barely 18 years old when you started working with Eric B. And you were planning to go to college.

Mr. ALLAH: At the time, I was trying to go to Stony Brook and play quarterback. I love football.

RAZ: And you grew on Long Island.

Mr. ALLAH: Yes, sir. So, Eric B told me, look, you know, if, you know, you want to make a record - I played him a couple of songs. I had a little tape that I had ready to go to college with me just in case there was any rappers up there I can just put my tape in, you know? But I played that for Eric B, you know, he's interested, told me we could make a record. And things turned out where, you know, I couldn't go to college. You know, I had to, you know, focus on my rap career. Things kind of, you know, took off fast.

Man, you know, I had no idea it was going to be that big. And, you know, I stopped growing - I'm only about 5'9�. So, that's another reason why, you know, maybe the football wouldn't have been a good thing, you know what I mean. So, you know, it's a good thing and I appreciate everything that came from it.

RAZ: Rakim, I've seen you quoted as saying that you think contemporary hip-hop is shallow. And you even have a lyric in the song "Won't Be Long" that says, I question the state of hip-hop.

(Soundbite of song, "Won't Be Long")

Mr. ALLAH: (Singing) Back when my (unintelligible) opened my heart, it's just a matter of time when I come up, they told me us who never prolong but I got caught up in the struggle like a slow song. 'Cause my love and respect for this is so strong, I question the state of hip-hop, major labels, etc. and so on.

RAZ: Rakim, why do you question the state of hip-hop?

Mr. ALLAH: Because a lot of people is compromising. The party thing is big and, you know, you got to - you may have�

RAZ: Has the Hennessey and Cristal and stuff like that.

Mr. ALLAH: Exactly, you know what I mean. And it's selling right now. So, you got a lot of rappers compromising, some rappers that may have been a little more conscious when they first came out, you know, they a little more party rap right now. So, we got to let hip hop grow, we got to let, you know, it go through its different phases throughout the different places that's accepting it.

But I feel certain places, like New York, we need to keep our integrity and make sure that we're still doing that thing that court the world's ear in the beginning.

RAZ: So, you think there's less of an emphasis on the language and the poetry?

Mr. ALLAH: Oh, indeed so. Our lyrical content is getting a lot of slack right now, and it's making hip-hop look less of what it is, you know what I mean? So, if we can get back to, you know, the essence of it from the sound, I'm trying to make it a little more melodic where, you know, people respect it a little more as a genre.

RAZ: You talk about the old days in the song "Walk These Streets."

(Soundbite of song, "Walk These Streets")

Mr. ALLAH: (Singing) I was born in cities, hoods and slums to bestsellers drum(ph) and money is the only thing that get love. They say don't let it make you, but that's how they rate you. And the more you got, the more they hate you. That's okay too. Just don't get in the way 'cause at the end of the day, my agenda's make sure I get them ends to get paid. Don't stack a grand to the math expand, it's the man with the master plan.

RAZ: This song is a look back, in a sense, on your life.

Mr. ALLAH: Word up, word up - in a nutshell. Going on tour and doing this thing for a long time, it's like, you know, the world becomes your boss, the listeners become your boss. And the end of the day, you know, you try to please as many people as you can. And then, you know, at this time, you know, it's a lot of negativity in rap and in the streets as well.

So, I wanted to kind of, you know, let people know sometimes when you're trying to do what you do it ain't easy. It's a lot of things that go against the positive forces that you're trying to deal with. So, you know, it's a struggle and a lot of us go through it. You know, it's something that we got to live with and hopefully it'll get better, man. It's one of them things where, you know, it's, like, how long; not long. Hopefully it'll get better.

RAZ: Rakim, you're just 41 years old, right?

Mr. ALLAH: Yes, sir.

RAZ: So, you're still a young man and yet you're considered�

Mr. ALLAH: You know what I mean? I try to feel like that, man. My kids try to, you know, they tease me but, you know, they keep me young, you know what I mean. And I hope I am, man, word up.

RAZ: But, I mean, you're sort of considered a hip hop pioneer, a legend at such a young age. Are you comfortable with that?

Mr. ALLAH: No. It's one of them things where, you know, you try not to let it get to you. It's definitely a lot of weight but it's a title that I love to have.

RAZ: That's Rakim Allah, better known as Rakim. The legendary MC has a new record. It's called "The Seventh Seal." Rakim, thanks for coming in.

Mr. ALLAH: Hey, thanks for the welcome mat, man. Appreciate it, word up.

(Soundbite of song, "Holy Are U")

Mr. ALLAH: (Singing) Get serious for a minute. Holy are you�

RAZ: And that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Have a great evening. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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