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 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.