Talking with the rap legend about the state of hip-hop today, the state of hip-hop when he started—and how he ended up living in suburban Connecticut
Rakim, also known as Rakim Allah, Ra, or simply as The God, is one of the most influential artists in the history of hip-hop. From his first single, “Eric B. Is President,” released in 1985, Rakim (born Michael William Michael Griffin Jr. in the working class suburb of Wyandanch, Long Island) mesmerized listeners with a combination of laid-back menace and an introvert’s version of emotional directness, and a mastery of technique that seemed startlingly complete for an artist who was only 18 years old. His wildly innovative rhyme patterns and unique storytelling gifts helped transform rap from urban block-party music based in New York into the dominant American popular art form of the past 25 years.
Rakim’s rhymes were so good that they created not one but two new generations of rappers, from Nas, the Wu Tang Clan, and Biggie Smalls, to Jay Z and Kanye West. He’s also, in many ways, among the most humble performers imaginable in a genre defined in large part by lavish boasting about cars, gold chairs, expensive watches, private jets, etc. Soft-spoken and bearing strong if eclectic attachments to Islamic beliefs, Rakimwas never typical of anything in hip-hop, even before the Bentley and Gulfstream era. Now 44 years old, he remains married to his high-school sweetheart, with whom he has raised three children in Stamford, Connecticut, where he dwells in a post-preppie McMansion just down the road from the comedian Gene Wilder.
I went to visit Rakim after following Jay-Z and Kanye West across America because he is so widely respected by hip-hop fans and artists alike, and because we used to be neighbors in Chelsea. He welcomed me into a home whose spacious interior included a large picture of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, several large dogs, and hundreds of well-thumbed books. We talked for about three and a half hours in his snowbound study about Kanye and Jay-Z, the evolution of hip-hop, and how he wrote some of his greatest songs.
When I listen to the artists that I love, from Nas to Kanye West, when I hear that interior voice, of a rapper creating self-aware characters with complex emotions in rhyme, I hear you. And some of those artists are name checking you and quoting you, and some of them are not. But they all heard you as kids and then took what you did in their own direction.
I definitely was reaching for that unique sound and a style that I could call my own. I was always a laid-back, subdued person, and I just try to let that speak through my music.
One line I remember so well was that beginning line of “Paid in Full, “Thinking of a master plan / Ain’t nothing but sweat inside my hand.” The dynamics of that verse are perfect because all the possibilities of that song, the directions that character can go, are created by the opposing force of those two first lines.
No doubt. I guess to put the whole song in a nutshell, you know, every good plan starts at nothing. You know what I mean? We’re all in the same predicament, man. So I just start “Thinking of a master plan / Ain’t nothing but sweat inside my hand.” I figure that a lot of people can relate with that, for the crowd that I was reaching for, for the people that felt they wanted to do better.