Feed Me Hip-Hop And I Start Trembling




In my memoir, I talk about a buddy who, whenever he was about to get jumped, use to recite the last half of Rakim's Microphone Fiend. It was like armor for his nerves. I think about that whenever I hear society mocking the mask which young black boys don in urban America. We manufacture the conditions, and then rail at kids for creating a code of survival in response. 

In my time, hip-hop was an art-form based on that code. If you were a kid living in a city, and thus acclimated to the rules of that city, if you spent time trying to understand which blocks were off-limits, if you ever assembled friends, in the manner of land-lords assembling vassals, if you never went to see your girlfriend solo, if, in other words, you lived with the threat of random violence, then hip-hop was the language of your life.  

Hip-Hop, at that point, took the pose and iconography of the streets and melded it with the traditional job of the party MC--moving the crowd. From that fusion, you got a mythological figure--the MC as a literary swordsmen who, in a violent world, dispatched his enemies with words. Rakim, to me, was the first person who really took that imagery, that melding, off into the stratosphere.

When I heard this...

I'm everlasting, I can go on for days and days
With rhyme displays, that engrave deep as X-rays.
I can take a phrase that's rarely heard
Flip it. Now it's a daily word.
I can iller than all nam, a killing bomb,
But no alarm--Rakim will remain calm.
And this:

So follow me or where you thinking you were first?
Let's travel at magnificent speeds throughout the universe.
What can you say as the earth gets further and further away,
Planets as small as balls of clay.
Astray into the Milky Way, world's out of sight,
As far as the eye can see, not even a satellite.
Now stop and turn around and look,
As you stare into darkness, your knowledge is took.
So you keep staring and suddenly you see a star,
You better follow it, cause it's the R...
...it was one of those moments that clarified what I wanted to do. I can't tell you how many afternoons I spent, as a kid, trying to write something like that and then taking it up to Wabash, with my brother Bill, and struggling with the beat.  Here's the thing: I was a horrendous MC. I mean just abysmal. But those were basic lessons about writing, that stick with me to this day. Constrained by form, be it blog post, sonnet, or the beat, how do you say something original and beautiful? How do you do it with potency and economy? There's a reason why "I can take a phrase that's rarely heard\Flip it, now it's a daily word," is, perhaps, the most hailed couplet in all of hip-hop. It's two lines of braggadocio which are worth about ten verses from your average battle rapper. But it's also a beautifully circular statement about the power of words.


More than that, I just loved Rakim's imagination. He took that concept of the MC, and infused it with surrealism, mythology, hints of narrative. He built a world around it and there always felt like there was more going on in the song then what you were actually hearing. It harks back to our discussion on Dragon Age and the iceberg. Rakim would give you the tip, but there was always this big unsaid left hanging in the room. It could come from something like this:

You're stepping with 007, better make it snappy
No time to do your hair baby, brothers are bussing at me.

Or:

This is off limits, so your vision is blurry,
All you see is the meters of volume pumping lyrics of fury.

I would hear that and what got me, was not what was said, but what was left unsaid. Who's the girl with no time to do her hair? Where are they? What happened that you can only see the meters? Did they really take Rakim's mic when he was kid? I didn't get it at the time, but in retrospect, I loved all the caverns and nooks which Rakim's lyrics left behind, all of those spaces where the listener's imagination could explore and build their own narrative.

I write this because Rakim has a new album out, which I bought, and didn't 't like very much. Whatever, I didn't expect to like it. I hope Rakim makes records till the day he dies. I'll certainly buy them until the day I do. I owe him plenty.

Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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