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Rakim's Rap Revolution: The Legendary Emcee's Life In Hip-Hop

Rakim performs at the Apple Store in Soho on Nov. 20, 2009 in New York City. (Jason Kempin/Getty Images)
Rakim performs at the Apple Store in Soho on Nov. 20, 2009 in New York City. (Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

Editor's note: Due to a scheduling issue, this segment did not air on Sept. 24, 2019 as planned.


With Meghna Chakrabarti

Rakim is considered one of hip-hop’s greatest emcees of all time. Along with writing lyrics, he’s writing his life story.

Guest

Rakim, rapper and emcee. One half of the iconic hip-hop duo Eric B. & Rakim. Author of "Sweat the Technique: Revelations on Creativity from the Lyrical Genius." (@EricBandRakim)

Music From The Show

From The Reading List

Excerpt from "Sweat the Technique" by Rakim

From Parks to the Studio

I began my senior year in high school thinking my next move was going to Stony Brook University to play quarterback. The head coach said it was possible I could start freshman year. I planned to go to college and focus on football, not rapping. I went to DJ Maniak’s house and made a beat and rhymed over it for 60 minutes, filled up both sides of a Memorex tape. My plan was to play that tape when I got to college to let everyone know who I was as an MC. I wasn’t gonna battle everyone there. I’d just play my tape so they’d all know who was the best MC on campus so I could shut the whole conversation down and get back to football.

A few days after I made that tape my homeboy Alvin Toney knocked on my door with some tall guy I didn’t know hovering behind him. Alvin was my dude, but I used to tell my friends, if you come by my crib, come by yourself and definitely don’t bring nobody I don’t know.

I opened the door and gave Alvin a look that could kill, which kindly might be interpreted as, What you doin?

"Yo, come outside for a minute," he said, sensing he had violated my trust.

“I got my shorts on, man,” I said, cracking the door open a bit, hesitantly.

“This guy knows Marley Marl and Mr. Magic,” Alvin said. “He wants to make a record. His name is Eric.” Those were two of the biggest names in hip-hop at that moment. Marley was the hottest producer in the game and he was really shaping the sound of hip-hop with the records he produced for MC Shan and Roxanne Shante. Mr. Magic was a powerful radio DJ on WBLS who was then one of the few jocks playing rap records on the radio. Someone who knew both of them had to be for real.

I said, “He can come in.”

That’s how I met Eric B.

He was working in promotions at WBLS. He’d drive around the tri-state area in a WBLS van and DJ parties in the community to help spread the name of the radio station. What they now call a street team. This took him all over but he was in Wynadanch a lot so he had a lot of friends there. He was thinking about making a DJ album where he presented a group of MCs, like all the best MCs he’d met traveling around for his job. So he was asking people in every town, “Who’s the nicest MC around?” When he asked that in Wyandanch, of course, he ended up at my place.

I put on the tape I’d made for Stonybrook and after five minutes Eric said, “Yo, we can go to Marley Marl’s crib and make a record right now.”

I said, “That’s cool but I can't sign no contract.”

“Why?”

“I'm going to college to play football. If I sign a deal I’ll be ineligible to play.”

"We can do it where you’re the guest on the record. If it’s my record and you’re the special guest, you don't have to sign a contract."

I was down with any plan that wouldn’t kill my football eligibility. About a week later Eric and I took the train from Long Island to Queensbridge, 45 minutes, to go to Marley Marl’s studio where so many hot records had been made with MC Shan, Shante, Biz Markie—we were going to the place where hip-hop was being built. The most important studio in the game. I was excited, overwhelmed, and a little nervous.

Marley’s studio was in his apartment on the second floor of the Queensbridge Houses, the now legendary housing projects in Long Island City, Queens, etched in hip-hop folklore by hip-hop figures who back in the day called it home: MC Shan, Marley Marl, Nas, and others. Marley’s “studio” was actually his sister’s apartment—but Marley had taken it over. I walked past the kitchen and into the living room to find his studio—the mixing boards, the keyboards, the speakers, the drum machine, tons of vinyl records—everything you need to record. The mic was on a stand in the middle of the room. We sat on the couch and started vibing about music and records and what we wanted to do in the session. We used the beat that I’d hooked up for my Stony Brook tape, but Marley worked on it a little as I sat on the couch and waited. When he was done he handed me the mic and I stayed seated on the old couch because I was really comfortable. I started laying the verse down. I used rhymes from the tape for Stony Brook, which I’d actually written a year before, and we called it “My Melody.” It felt good kicking the rhyme while sitting on the couch. I was relaxed.

Marley said, “Yo, that was dope! Let's do it again with a little more energy.”

Years before that moment, back when I was rhyming in the park, I would rhyme all amped up and loud because that got me heard in that loud outdoor environment. Plus, that was the way most people did it in the early days. That was the style of Run-DMC and LL Cool J. They kinda shouted on the mic as if they were giving a pep talk to a football team before the Super Bowl. It sounded forceful and tough. I respected those MCs, but I didn’t want to sound like that. I wanted to be more thought-provoking and if people were going to really hear my ideas and the intricacies of my rhymes, it was better to have a calmer delivery. I had to yell in the park, but when I went into the basement studios I saw that I could rhyme without yelling. I liked being more conversational because then I could have more control over the tones in my voice and you’d be better able to really hear me. If you could hear me, then you’d have to think about what I was saying. I put a good deal of effort into intentionally changing my delivery, and over time I taught myself how to remain calm while I rhymed. With that, I sounded like no one else—and I loved that. So when Marley asked me to do it with more energy he didn’t know that he was tapping into a journey I’d been on for a while. I knew the sort of MC I wanted to be and I wasn’t going to let anyone, not even the great Marley Marl, change me.

Still on the couch, I started again. I laid the verse down in the same, calm way I had the first time.

“I like the lines but try to put more energy into it.” After the fourth take he said, “Maybe if you stand up, it’ll have a little more energy.”

He was starting to annoy me. I said, “Yo, I could stand, I could sit, it don’t matter. It’s gonna sound the same.”

An hour later we were still at an impasse. Marley kept whispering to Eric B that I was wack, I was rhyming too slow, I was giving him a headache. “I did Shante, I did Shan, I know what an MC’s supposed to sound like,” Marley barked, like an old head fatigued with a young’n and clearly at the end of his patience.

“Marley, it’s a new day,” Eric replied, his words hanging in the air.

Then MC Shan showed up and went into the kitchen with Marley. Shan was the pride of Queens, one of the first MCs to get signed to a major label, but they didn’t know how to market him so they dropped him.

Marley left and Shan came back in and said, “Yo, Marley had to step out for a minute. He went to the store, so I'm going to produce the session.” We started recording again and Shan was blown away by my first take. “Oh my God!” he yelled. “This kid is ice cold! I write lyrics! I know what’s up. He’s amazing!” Then he said, “That was great but, yo Lord, why don't you put a little more energy in it?”

Here we go again, I thought.

Shan said, “Marley knows what he’s talking about. A little more energy won’t hurt you.”

“This is how I roll,” I told Shan unwilling to budge.

Marley came back and we finished “My Melody,” but he was frustrated. “He don’t take instructions, he don’t listen to no one. His rhymes are great but he’s gonna put people to sleep.”

On the Long Island Railroad train back to Wyandanch, I was buzzing with electricity. But I couldn’t help questioning myself a little. A voice in my head wondered if Marley was right about my style. I mean, he was the pro and I was just a kid. It felt like I was on that train for three hours just talking to myself about Marley and Shan. Should I have put in more energy like they said? Should I have tried it their way? Was I being close-minded? But I knew that my laid-back style was what I needed. It’s not like I was trying to be something that I’m not. I’m calm most of the time in life so that’s how I rhyme. I pledged to stick to my style.

Eric and I went back to my house and down into the basement. Moms had that old basement hooked up. She was always entertaining down there so there was records everywhere, and posters, and album covers. The place had a vibe. We looked through mom’s vinyl and I pulled out James Brown’s “Funky President.” Eric pulled out Fonda Rae’s “Over Like A Fat Rat.” I was drinking a strawberry wine cooler, I really liked them back then, but when E pulled out that record I spat it out all over the wall and burst out laughing.

I said, “Fonda Rae will never mix with James Brown!”

I started writing a new song in the basement of my parents’ house, sitting on a stool by the bar, feeling euphoric. I was like, World, here I come. and I just knew a lot of people would hear this one. Not a bunch of people in the park, but thousands. That feeling shaped the record. I wanted to make something that let people know who I was. The first thing I wrote was, “I came in the door, I said it before. I never let the mic magnetize me no more.” I said ‘never let the mic magnetize me no more’ to emphasize this: Although the mic used to have control over me, now I have control over it. It used to draw me in like a magnet but now I’m a real MC and in my relationship with the mic, I’m in control. I finished the record in a couple of hours.

The next night we went back to Marley’s. I was amazed by Marley’s ability to bring my James Brown beat and Eric’s Fonda Rae beat together perfectly. He played the bassline on the synthesizer and I got on the mic. “I came in the door…” This time Marley didn’t complain about my energy, he just let me go. Maybe I was giving it a little more pep, but I got the feeling that Marley was starting to see what I was doing.

Eric named it “Eric B. Is President” even though I never said that phrase in the song. He did that partly because the sample was from “Funky President” and partly because Eric wanted to be famous. Also, it was a time in hip-hop where the dj still enjoyed celebrity among the underground fan base that nearly paralleled Emcees. I love that record but I thought the title was corny.

Excerpted from Sweat the Technique: Revelations on Creativity from the Lyrical Genius for Life Copyright © 2019 by Rakim. Published by Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.


New York Times: "RECORDINGS VIEW ; A Rap Pioneer Defies the Odds" — "Rakim is to rap what Mick Jagger is to rock: an artist who helped give birth to a musical genre and yet remains relevant and popular today. Eleven years ago Rakim led a quiet musical revolution, introducing a soft-spoken rapping style. His raps were built on complex rhyming schemes, and while his Long Island neighbors in Public Enemy were bringing black nationalism to rap, Rakim, a member of the Nation of Islam, made allusions to a thoughtful spirituality.

"Then, in 1993, he and his partner, Eric B., split up; Rakim changed record companies, and for four years he did not release any new recordings. His latest album, 'The 18th Letter,' a two-CD set, is his first as a solo artist. It features gripping, richly textured backing tracks and kinetic wordplay filled with references to the Koran; his masterly command of rhyming has only deepened with time. The new album has sold more than 250,000 copies in the three weeks since it was released, according to Soundscan, and has earned widespread praise.

"The second disk of ''The 18th Letter'' (Universal Records) features most of Rakim's hits with Eric B., including the seminal 1986 recording of ''Eric B. Is President'' that began the duo's career. But it's on the dozen new tracks that Rakim had to prove himself, and it is striking that the effort doesn't show."

Dorey Scheimer produced this hour for broadcast.

This program aired on September 24, 2019. The audio for this program is not available.

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