Q&A with Rakim

The November 8 Rough Mixes piece on Rakim was taken from the following Q&A. James Mayo spoke with the legendary framer just prior to his performance at Las Vegas’ Vegoose festival about his new record, his aborted project with Dr. Dre and some of the rhyming techniques he’s utilized to become one of the most respected rappers in hip-hop.

Westword (James Mayo): When is the Seventh Seal coming out, and what is the significance of the title?

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. Right now, it’s a little crazy with the creative controversy that a lot of rappers go through. The content that a lot of rappers use -- the violence, the negativity in rap now -- at this time now I just want to do what I usually do, drop a conscious album, let the kids and the streets know they got a choice and just try at the same time help hip-hop put back in its right state.

Who is working with you on the record? Are you producing any tracks?

I’m doing a little of producing. A lot of it, we want to keep it a secret. I still believe in the element of surprise, you know what I mean? But we definitely have a couple of collabos that we think people are going to like. We’re just trying to make a classic album. It’s a good time. A lot of things going on; a lot of things to say. It’s a good chance to bring back that pure hip-hop. I’m having fun doing the album. I’m just about done and hopefully the world will like what I did.

Why is the new label a better route for you than going with a major?

It’s on my own label Ra Records, and I’m trying to drop my album first. I’ll be looking for artists shortly after that -- you know, no disrespect to the majors, but I’m trying to cut the middle man off and at this stage in my career. I’d rather be in a little more control with what I do and how I do it.

I know there was huge anticipation for your record with Dr. Dre. Why did this project never materialize?

I think the main reason is because me and Dre is two different artists, night and day. Dre got a formula that works, and I got a formula that works for me. We didn’t really how different artists we were until we started working together. Some of the things he wanted to do and some of the things I wanted to do was totally different. So we came to a conclusion that we was going to shut it down, and I was going to come back in New York. And then I started setting up my label.

Will any of the tracks see a proper release?

A lot of ‘em was already leaked to the internet, at least five or six of them. And they was leaked about six or seven months after we shut down, and that was because a lot of different producers had rough vocal mixes. Some of the joints we did with them, it is what it is. I’m glad it didn’t go to waste; I’m glad some people got a chance to hear some of it. At the same time, I’m glad to be in the position where I am now and touch the hip-hop world.

If we can back track a little to the early days, what were some of the techniques you used to write your rhymes?

What was different back then, rhyming was more like an art. Myself, I played with words a lot, and sometimes I would learn different ways to write as far as different styles. And what I noticed is when you do things like that, you look at the paper, and the rhyme falls in the same spot. I would always rhyme sometimes in the middle of the rhyme and at the end of the rhyme. Then I started rhyming at the beginning of the bar, the middle of the bar and at the end of the bar. So when you look at that on paper, you see the rhyming words going down the paper, so I just started writing down the paper.

Recently, I’ve been writing a sixteen bar, from the sixteenth bar to the first bar. A lot of the things we do is premeditated. Like once we hear the beat, we start getting the idea of what we want to do. But sometimes, as you’re going through it, you see where you’re going before you get there. So the last sixteen bars, before the hook comes in, you know what you’re going to see, and so sometimes you take it from there and take it back to the first bar. That’s something that I do. I don’t know if it’s just playing with rhymes or just finding different ways to do it. I just have fun with it, because I’ve been doing it for so long and it comes out alright.

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 of 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 alright.

I know how to read music, watching my moms and listening to mom pay music. My aunt Ruth Brown was a jazz musician. I got hooked on it at a young age, understanding what John Coltrane was doing playing two notes on the saxophone at the same time, which is impossible. The reason why people thought Thelonious Monk was playing the wrong notes was because he went across seas and found out that the musical scale had more notes than ours. So when he played piano over there and came back over here, he was trying to get those chords that he was able to get when he was across seas. Learning these certain things, it kind of put music in slow motion for me, so I could really understand it.

Like a jazz musician, on this tour you’re working with a live band. How is this different than working with a producer or rhyming over pre-recorded beats?

It’s a little different, you can do a lot more with a band. With the records we made, once we make them and press them up, we can’t change them no more. But with a band you can alter it a little bit and do more breakdowns and you can bring out certain things in the music that might have been just a small sample before. Nothing compares to a live band. I’m looking forward to it. At the same time, I’m trying to express the musical side of hip-hop. Recently a lot of people have been getting less musical with the music. It’s a good time to show the true element of hip-hop.

I know there was time where you had to decide whether to play football or pursue rap. Was there a moment where you knew that you had made it and that you had found your calling?

We had no idea it was going to do what it did. Eric had a hook-up with Magic from 107.5 WBLS at the time, so basically we were just two cats who knew somebody in the business. And being that Eric knew Magic, we go to go to Marley’s [Marley Marl] studio to work for little or nothing with one of the best producers at that time. My thoughts was I always wanted to make a record. At this time, I wanted to go to college, but I was like “Let me see what will happen, see if it will work.”

You know, we sat down came up with an idea, wrote the rhymes, pressed the record up. To make a long story short, we still didn’t know what it was, because Marley didn’t understand my rhyme style. When I was doing “My Melody,” he kept on telling me to put energy in it, and I was like, “This is the way I want to do this.” And he kept asking me, “why don’t you stand up?” I was like, “Yo, this is what I’m trying to do. I want it to sound like that.” Not until it played on the radio and we started getting a response from people is when I knew we made a pretty good record, and from that point, I knew football was a rap. So rap was what it was. So I got back into the notebook, and we came up with Paid in Full.

One of my favorite songs of yours is “Juice (Know the Ledge)” from the Juice soundtrack. What inspired you to write that joint, and what was it like to be involved with that project?

They called up and basically asked me if I was available to do the title track for the movie, and I was definitely excited about it. They allowed me to sit down in Manhattan and watch the movie before it came out, so I could get an idea about what it was. And when I saw the movie, I liked the movie a lot; it made a lot of sense, as far as young kids coming up a little too fast and some of the things that can happen. So it was what I liked doing anyway. You know, trying to explain certain things, like certain things may look good in the beginning, but you don’t know what is at the end of the tunnel. Like I said, it was a perfect situation for me. I watched the movie and went home that day, and I made the track. I wrote the first 26, well it might have been twenty bars for Juice. And then the next day, they allowed me to go into the studio, and I laid down the track, and it came out pretty good. It is definitely one of my all-time favorite records.

You were a 2006 Honoree on VH1’s Hip-Honors show. What are your thoughts on these types of initiatives and do you think the culture does enough to honors its originators?

I think the Hip-Hop Honors is a good look for hip-hop. Any platform we can get to show the good things in hip-hop is a good look, especially in a time when our music is being pimped.

Do you ever see yourself working with Eric B again?

I think that is a pretty dead situation. It was pretty good while it lasted. It was just one of them situations where I don’t think we’ll be business partners anymore.

So it is fair to say that the relationship didn’t end up well.

Word up. But I wish him the best

You set the bar so high for your first record. Do you feel pressured to live up to the high expectations people may have for you?

Nah. I think it’s a good thing. You have a lot of artists that’s coming out and they try to set a bar, and they coming out unknown. I feel that I have an advantage; I don’t have to settle or sell myself. It’s more like they know who I am and know what I do and it makes it much easier as far as what I do. I’m a little wiser now and I’m a little better. I just want to make sure my listeners are ready to grow with me. Know what I mean?

Do you feel trapped or pigeonholed because listeners just want you to make another Paid in Full?

The first impression on a lot of fans is always concrete, but this is what I mean, that hopefully they going to grow with me. I’m not sixteen or seventeen no more, on the corner four or five times out of the week. I’m not in that state of mind that I was back in '86 -- hip-hop is not in that state of mind that it was back in '86. Times change. I change. As long as I can stay focused to who I am, I think they know the core of Rakim. They expect me to kind of mash it out. Tsunami the 'hood, landslides, floods and shut it down, and hopefully, we can build it back, and I’m going to do what I’m supposed to do.

What would you like to known for as far as your contribution to hip-hop?

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.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Dave Herrera
Contact: Dave Herrera