Perhaps there is no greater test of a genre than the treatment of its heroes. The resiliency of Rock ‘N Roll is showcased by the reverence from Americans for Dylan, Presley, Springsteen, The Dead and Stones. But, it’s difficult to determine what will become of rap’s legends, if they don’t defect to network television (like Ice-T or LL Cool J) to remain relevant.
Like Hendrix and Jim Morrison, Biggie and Tupac found immortality as martyrs; fallen idols like JFK and MLK, taken from the American experience through random acts of violence. But, one has to wonder now whether Kool Moe Dee and Big Daddy Kane can walk through a crowded airport in New York or Chicago without being recognized or even asked for an autograph. That brings us to Rakim, arguably the greatest rapper of all-time. He first emerged on New York’s burgeoning scene in 1986 with Eric B. is President, a classic that marked the transition from leader-less groups like Funky Four Plus One to frontmen, and an individualist perspective.
We caught up with Rakim on tour to discuss his life, the impact the music had on America’s persona, and where the genre is headed.
Growing up on Long Island during the 1970’s, did you foresee a life of travelling the world and being heard by millions?
I was enthusiastic, but I thought I was going to play football. Music was a big part of my life, but I didn’t know it was going to be anything special. I developed a love for the craft.
Tying into your faith, do you think there’s a specific purpose why you’re here on this Earth?
I do, but I think we all have a purpose. It’s up to each of us to tap into and discover what we do best and project that. But, I definitely think I was put here to do this. The blessings I’ve been given are relevant to that.
Beyond a song, or a single lyric, what’s the most important message you’ve conveyed with the microphone?
I think self-awareness, self-esteem; I try to give people good energy. I wanted to make people feel better about themselves; to make them feel stronger and see the power that we have as human beings.
Being one of the first great MCs, what do people today not realize about how difficult it was to crack open the door into the music industry? Did you think you were going to make money?
When I got into it, I hoped for a livelihood. But at that point, not knowing if it would happen, money wasn’t really my ulterior motive. That was getting a chance for people to hear me rhyme, or getting the chance to go to the studio. And, the biggest thing for a young kid loving music was getting the chance to make a record. When I met Eric B. and he said he had the outlet, that was my goal, more music than livelihood.
Are you amazed how far the culture has come in 30 years?
Yes. When I sit down to watch TV and see how hip-hop has influenced the world, it’s more than just music. You see Mr. Kool Aid bursting through the wall with gold chains now. It doesn’t have to be music or the beat playing, but you see the power and influence it has on the world.
Has it all been for the good?
No. But, when you look at the attention we get on all different levels… we when first started out, we were learning as we were going, but we were still the black sheep. To see us rise above so many other genres now though is a good deal.
Questlove recently wrote a series of articles describing his view of how hip-hop failed Black America. Do you agree?
As far as what Quest said, that’s true. Where hip-hop came from and was supposed to be… it wasn’t supposed to be commercial. It was more of an expression. It came from the inner-city. It came from the parks. It came from the slums. And, that was not to be televised. Through the years, it’s been cleaned up. It’s been dressed up. It’s to the point now where it looks different, and even sounds different. For those artists who remain, it’s up to us to create a balance on the scale.
How do you bring back the iconoclastic sprit that was almost dangerous?
Sometimes you have to take it back to the basics. Back in the day, the streets dictated hip-hop, now hip-hop is dictating the streets. If the streets said something, it was ok to talk about it on the record. Music came from the streets. That doesn’t mean ghetto. But, the mood people gave off in the hood is where we got hip-hop. It stayed respectable. But now, it’s different. When I look at where hip-hop has been, where it’s at now, and where’s it going, it’s not a fad no more. This sh*t really had an impact on people’s lives, but all of it’s not good.
There are a lot of good artists out there right now. One of the young artists that makes sense and is trying to teach other young artists is Kendrick Lamar. He wants everybody else to look at their craft. It’s good to have a young cat saying something, because if I say something it sounds bitter. But with him, everybody will take heed and listen a little more.
Other MCs from your generation tried to adapt to changing times, from old school to the gangsta era, into the braggadocio of the late ’90s, and the buffoonery of the new century. You didn’t change. Why not?
Why? It wasn’t who I was. I was making conscious music. It still felt underground. It wasn’t too commercial. I made it a point to make sure my brand was different.
What’s up with the Linkin Park collaboration?
Well, they hollered at me. My man was working on the track and thought I was good for it. It was a done deal. But, I have mad love and respect for Linkin Park. They put it down. Speaking to him, I know they go through the same struggles I go through. When I sit down to write an album, I got a choice: to try to do what the kids is doing now, or what people expect me to do.
Does a part of you ever wish you’d gone the pop route?
I could have did a pop song, but that would have been my last song. A lot of guys did that, and you don’t see them dudes no more. I wouldn’t take anything back, everything happens for a reason, the good and the bad.
what advice do you have for new rappers, based on your experience?
Stay true to yourself. And stay true to the game. If you’re an artist, speak right from the heart. Don’t let the A&R tell you what you should be doing.