Rakim: 'We Need a Few More Kanyes'

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

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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.

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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 chains, expensive watches, private jets, etc. Soft-spoken and bearing strong if eclectic attachments to Islamic beliefs, Rakim was 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.

Now you want to say things that move the crowd. But you also want to reach for people and try to get them to either agree with what you're saying or know that what you're saying is for them—"Yo, that's my story he's telling."

One thing that's notable as I sit and listen to three decades of this music is the musical growth of hip-hop, and also the moments when the rhymes get dumber and less fun. There's the killing and the shooting phase, where MCs are making the aggression really literal in the lyrics. And then there's the Gucci, Versace, Gulfstream jet, Bentley phase, which shows no sign of ending anytime soon and creates a new dynamic with the audience. Instead of saying, "I'm a vessel for you," the dynamic right now is "I'm above you, I'm the thing that you might have some crazy dream about, but you'll never actually get there."

It's just not about the listener no more. It's about the artist, and this is how I'm living. I think it's almost alienizing it to the point where the listener feels like it's a world maybe that he will never be able to see, or it's a world that's going to make him envious of people who have what he can't ever have. It's confusing to me.

Maybe I'm too sensitive to the struggle, but I think a lot of people that listen to music are trying to escape. A lot of people listen to music, you know what I mean? And a lot of those people are what is always thought of as being less fortunate. As I grew up, a lot of the music was made to uplift the spirit.

The artists that you listened to growing up, like Ray Charles and Marvin Gaye, they saw uplift as part of their mission.

I guess being born and growing up around that, I thought that was what music was. Now of course the majority of hip-hop has always been boasting. It was funny. Now it's more of like throwing it into the listener's face. I think it brings the value of the journey down because now it's more like, "Look what I got" or ""You ain't got what I got" or "You got to get what I got." It's making the listener a little envious of what's going on, and it's almost demeaning. Because now it's like, "Well, not only I can't live that lifestyle, but they're throwing it in my face!"

I traveled across the country watching Jay-Z and Kanye's Watch the Throne tour. I went to eight different cities to feel the audience and watch their relationship evolve. And they're both amazing artists, right? But Jay-Z's a guy who makes $80 million a year off his huge talent, and he raps about his private jet. There's lines like that in Biggie, right, where he's flossing. But when he did it, it was like, "I got my honey on the Amtrak with the crack in the crack of her ass." It was distinctly unglamorous.

Now, Jay-Z and Beyoncé together, they're worth almost a billion dollars, from the strength of their own huge success. That's money that no sane person can comprehend.

Music was just inspirational. I don't care who listens to it. It inspires us to be better, think better, you know what I mean? I love Jay-Z, I love Kanye and I praise the way he's been able to bring more business out of the jungle. In my era, it was just a pen and a pad of paper. But now, it's like we can kind of monopolize with this thing. So I'll praise him for that.

Jay-Z, when he first came out, he was from Jaz-O, you know what I mean? He was spitting. So who created the monster? We don't know if the artist creates it, or the listener, or the media starts creating it.

I think Jay-Z was always kind of a different artist from Nas or Biggie. His genius is as a phrase-maker and a hit-maker who is also a brilliant businessman. He's a genius, but it's not the same as always writing the best rhymes—or to put it more directly, his aim is often to write hits. Think of the Jay and Nas battle, and why Jay won—it wasn't because his rhymes were better. He was doing something different. He wanted to dominate Nas by drawing a bigger circle around him.

When people ask me about the Nas and Jay-Z battle, I can't even compare the two because Nas was battling and Jay-Z was being so witty and his songs was still radio-friendly hits. Jay-Z was making songs like you said, and Nas was battling.

What separates Kanye from both Jay and Nas is that he's making his own beats.

Right. I love Kanye for that. Being a producer, making beats, and being a rapper. He does it all. Now, sometimes somebody can give you a credible track. But when you're searching for records or samples, only you know in your mind, in your intuition or your first instincts, what you need. When you hear that record, there's no denying it—"Oh my God, I've got to sample this." And he has that situation where he's lucky enough to love rhyming but can make his own beats, and that's like the perfect match. When he plays a record, his mind is on it right away.

So, being able to do that and the way he does it, Kanye is not afraid to reach. If you listen to his work, he did a lot of different type of music. He is not scared to just go where the track takes him. Like, "Jesus Walks" is one of my favorite Kanye songs. To this day, that song comes on, and I want to turn it all the way up. I don't want nobody to talk to me. I just want to enjoy that track, you know what I mean?

A lot of tracks he does, he's not afraid to go out the box where a lot of rappers might say, "Oh, I'mma do my 16 bars." Kanye just does whatever the track tells him to do—and that comes from being a rapper and being a producer at the same time.

Kanye thinks his music means something, and that intensity that he brings gets him into trouble.

At the end of the day, you've really got to appreciate an artist that's really outspoken and feels like his music can change the world. Don't even go to the studio if you don't think that your music's going to do something. You're wasting your time and my time.

You feel that in the award shows stuff where Kanye has these episodes, right? It's because he's passionate. If a lot of us don't take it that serious, then it's not going to be serious no more. People say, "That was his opinion, but he was so passionate about it," like that's bad. You've got to say, "Well, really?" We need that. We need the media to know that some of us are really passionate about music.

He has such a tortured relationship to material life. On one hand, there's no one that's more into fashion, and Gucci, and Versace, the good life, and whatever. Half of Kanye's songs are like that. And then, you feel him start to reach whether it's in "Jesus Walks" or whatever. Even the child support lines in "Golddigger"—"Got one of your kids, got you for 18 years." He's connecting to the people out and educating them about life, but then he flips, and he's like, "The good life, well that's the life I live." What's he doing as an artist?

Listen, it's a curse and a gift. Take money. You give the wrong person too much money, it could be a problem. Even myself, sometimes, I question some of the gifts just to make sure.

So I guess Kanye is living, like you said, the good life. The same amount of B.S.—being an entertainer and being a rap entertainer, there is much good stuff that comes, but sometimes the negativity comes right along with it.

Kanye is living both sides and realizing, "Shit, I love that new car that just got out." At the same time, "I've got a headache," you know what I mean? So, it's both sides of the coin. And Kanye lives hard. He wants to be in control of the moment.

I think he's maturing, and I think he wants other people to see it, too. That kind of helps explain Kanye. I kind of hear in his rhymes. He's living hard, and he's maturing now, and I think he's seeing both sides of the fence. We need a few more Kanyes, people that's really passionate about hip-hop and who keep it alive.

In the South, it's young down there. I know you don't like it, because you like old school New York hip-hop. But you can't knock them for the way they're shaping their rap culture, because it's a little different in different places. They don't have subway trains down there.

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David Samuels is a regular contributor to The Atlantic.

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