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Rakim is among the most universally revered MCs. Growing up in Long Island, the self-described microphone fiend teamed up with Eric Barrier to form Eric B & Rakim, one of the most formidable duos in hip-hop history. In 1987, the group dropped the timeless Paid in Full, and Rakim's flow demanded respect as he showed that he could rock the party as well as tell a captivating story. His lyrics revealed a writer developing his craft. After Paid in Full — an essential record for any hip-hop fan — Eric B & Rakim created some classic tracks, but eventually the relationship went south, and Rakim went off on his own. His solo efforts, 1997's The 18th Letter and 1999's The Master, generated mixed reactions. Expectations were high in 2000, when Rakim signed with Aftermath to record with Dr. Dre, but the two never meshed aesthetically and ended up parting ways. Now Rakim is set to launch his label, Ra Records, with an album he says will "help put hip-hop back to its right state."
Westword: When is The Seventh Seal coming out, and what is the significance of the title?
Rakim: We're going to drop the album at the end of January next year. The significance of the title is where the state of hip-hop is. I'm using a metaphor of the Seventh Seal, and I speak about Revelations and hip-hop.
As a respected elder, when you talk about the state of hip-hop, how would you like to see the culture improve?
Lyrical content. At this time, I would like more rappers to take responsibility for some of the things going on in the hood. Like it or not, we are role models. I think the main reason is because hip-hop is closer to home than a Hollywood movie to a lot of neighborhoods that buy hip-hop. So we definitely have a heavy influence on the kids in the neighborhood. I just want a lot of us to realize that so we can make a little more conscious music and save the state of hip-hop and save the neighborhoods at the same time. It is possible because hip-hop is that powerful.
Speaking of cultural influences, how much did jazz have an influence on you?
There wasn't a day in my house that we didn't hear a jazz record. My mother sang opera to jazz music coming up in Brooklyn, and my father loved every music that was made; we had a lot of music in the house. My brothers and sister played instruments — my sister sang, and I also played saxophone and a little drums. So it was definitely a big influence. When I started rhyming, my favorite rhythms were from John Coltrane and some of the things he did on sax. And certain rhythms that I hear on drums, I try to emulate with my words, dropping on the same patterns that them beats or them notes would hit. So I started developing a style, and it was all right.
What would you like to be known for as far as your contribution to hip-hop goes?
I guess somebody who love what he do, somebody who respected the genre, somebody who respected the hood and was one of the greatest ever. If I can keep that on my title, I think my job is more than done.
Visit Backbeat Online for more of our interview with Rakim.