Platinum plaques cover every inch of the walls welcoming visitors to Downtown Music Services. The names under the shiny vinyl read Michael, Madonna, and Barbara, to name a few.
That we find William Griffin, now-and better-known as Rakim Allah, here at his manager’s office in downtown Manhattan serves as a reminder of his standing. Never one to have owned the Billboard charts and a decade removed from his last full-length offering, Rakim could’ve been written off as a titan of times past. However, like the other aforementioned single-named talents, his place in music as a whole-cemented by his genre-defining debut Paid In Full at just 19 years young-is assured and everlasting.
Now a father of four young adults, the 41 year-old sits calmly in a conference room, dressed in 501s and a black leather jacket, looking like he just exited the set of “When I B On The Mic.” With Yankee memorabilia all around, directly over Rakim’s head hangs a blue championship flag for the famed 1949 team. The likes of Joe DiMaggio and Yogi Berra suited up in pinstripes then, weaving their legends into the fabric of New York City. As perhaps the greatest at this New York invention that is hip-hop, he, too, has his legend sewn.
Finally ready to release his comeback effort, the upcoming The Seventh Seal, Ra opens up about his absence in-depth, from his departure from Aftermath to his take on his natural heirs. Peep the technique.
GIANT: Since your last album in ’99, was most of your time was spent with your family?
Rakim: Yeah, G. I used to go on tour and fly home every week just to be with my kids. And that’s what brings me joy at this point. When I ain’t touring, I really just like chillin’ with the family. It don’t matter if we just sitting home doing nothing.
GIANT: So what’s a normal day like for you?
Rakim: I get up in the morning… can’t tell you what I really do in the morning [laughs] but I get up in the morning, do a couple things, and I take a hot shower. And depending on what kind of work I gotta do, I just like letting the day kinda squeak by. I try to take shit as slow as I can. If I ain’t got no work to do, I might play around with a little music. And if my son plays video games all day, I might play a little Madden or something. I just try to be as normal as possible.
GIANT: Well, since you’ve been gone, TV has kept your music fresh with songs like “Don’t Sweat the Technique” appearing in Finishline ads, etc. With declining record sales facilitating that kind of usage, how do you feel about it from both a creative and financial standpoint?
Rakim: Well, the good thing about that is hip-hop is everywhere now. The bad thing about the decline in sales is there’s really nothing we can do about that but keep the genre alive. But when you look at where hip-hop came from to where it’s at, it’s like you can’t do nothing without hip-hop. I was sitting in the crib the other day, watching ESPN, man, and Kobe Bryant pops up on the screen for a basketball videogame and “Don’t Sweat The Technique” starts playing. Turn the radio off or the music videos off, and we’re able to go outside of the box and still hear hip-hop.
We got hip-hop slang being used by politicians, so it’s everywhere, which is good. But we gotta save it, though-keep that integrity up so that people take it serious. Then, maybe they’ll respect hip-hop as a real music genre and sales will start going back up.
GIANT: When Jay-Z was retired, a lot of rappers took shots at him and his standing in the game. You more or less occupy the same space as him. Why do you think nobody took similar shots at you on wax or in the press?
Rakim: I don’t know, man. Maybe because my situation is a little more… like, I never wanted to retire. I just had setbacks in my career that prevented me from dropping when I wanted. But I think Jay is at the forefront and he lets people know he’s at the forefront everyday. So once he starts saying he wanna fall back, or whatever he say he wanna do, he’s gonna be scrutinized. But me, I was just a little more laid back with it. I let the people say that I was that dude. And Jay is that dude, but he lets the people know he’s that dude, so it’s just that people are waiting for him to fail. People are just mad skeptical of everything he do.
GIANT: On to Dr. Dre, the story goes some of the beats from 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’ were originally for you.
Rakim: Well, what it was is Dre had a library of beats made before I came through. It was just one of them things where Dre will be like this [slides plate of food over to interviewer], “Try that out.” And if you don’t like it [slides plate over to friend], “Try that out.” If it don’t come out right, he just keeps passing it around until it fits. Like the beat for Mary J… [starts humming beat]
GIANT: “Family Affair”?
Rakim: Yeah, I had that track first. That’s the way Dre do. If he got eight beats he feel is hits, he’ll pass them to his camp until he get a hit off of it.
GIANT: So when you were working on the album, how did you feel about it shaping up around Dre’s signature sound?
Rakim: I think the main problem with me and Dre was what he wanted me to say on the tracks. Dre got a formula that he like to stick to because that’s his formula. It works for him. It just so happens to be gangsta rap. And that was the thing. Every time he passed me a beat, he’s like, “B, I want you to talk shit on that one.” I’m like, “What you mean talk shit?” He’s like, “Remember that shit you was telling me in the studio the other day?” I’m like, “Nah man, that was something that happened in the hood. And I just so happened to be talking to my man and happen to tell you, but nah, that’s not something I’m going to put on wax, man.” But that’s what Dre wanted me to do, man, in a nutshell. He wanted me to speak about a lot of the things he heard about and some of the things we spoke about, but to me that’s sacred. I got people that’s trying to get outta jail now, man-people that’s doing 25 to life trying to get a trial and things of that nature. Speaking on that is not gonna help them one bit. Like I said, his formula works for him. It just wasn’t good for Rakim at the time.
GIANT: So where did you envision the album would go when you first hooked up with him?
Rakim: Originally, I just wanted to make a good album and not have to worry about where I was getting my beats. I wanted more of a conscious album than a gangsta album.
GIANT: Another thing, you take a look at Rolling Stone and you’ll see Bob Dylan on the cover. But you take a rap magazine and you won’t see yourself or a KRS-One on the cover. Why do you think that is?
Rakim: Rap is today and like any newspaper, a magazine is trying to show you today. It gets to a point where they do their history thing and reflect back, or if an old artist happens to drop something new, I think they give him that love. But I think it’s more of them trying to be fresh and speak on what’s going on today and tomorrow. In a way, that’s not good because in our genre, we don’t leave room for an artist to grow.
You look at R&B at the 2009 Grammy Awards when my man Al Green came in and tore it down and he ain’t drop a record in forever [Editor’s Note: Green’s last album, Lay It Down, was released in May 2008]. Ain’t nobody in there cared, though, because that’s Al Green. In R&B, they keep up that integrity. With rap, we gotta follow some of the leaders that was in front of our genre to know how to keep it strong and to keep it valuable. If you was to let new artists come out and throw them in the garbage after so many years, rap won’t be as strong as other genres because what makes R&B what it is, is Al Green to Alicia Keys. You got that whole span of music that you can go back and listen to, and I’m sure out of all that, you can find something you like. With rap on the other hand, they just want you to listen to what came out last year. So, that’s what’s stagnating us, and that’s what’s allowing our substance to slowly die out and people to look at rap like it’s just a fad music.
We gotta respect what we got, respect what we started, and cherish it, and not let nobody else dictate how this is supposed to be done. We don’t have no spokesman for rap. We don’t have no guideline for rap. We don’t have no rules and regulations. So, until somebody get a committee and try to put some things in order, it’s gonna be handled a little unprofessional. I’ll say it like that.
GIANT: Older heads usually call Paid in Full the greatest hip-hop album ever, but cats who are slightly younger might say Illmatic. How do the two albums compare to you?
Rakim: Well, yeah, that’s what it is. When I dropped Paid In Full, my audience was in tuned with the movement and what was going on. That’s what made it a big album. Nas used to come to the studio when I was doing Follow The Leader. You watch people that see a movement and then you watch them come with their movement.
I don’t get mad when the times don’t play in my favor. A lil’ while ago, somebody asked me how I felt about what Jay said on his new record. For somebody to come out and it’s their time to say, “Well, we doing like Rakim did,” then I can’t find nothing negative in that. If Jay say, “Follow the leader,” what he’s saying is he’s the new me. You know, I feel good. It’s almost like James Brown. James Brown did his thing, and years later, people started picking up his records and sampling them. For a minute, James might’ve felt bitter. But you can’t tell me when he sat down and said, “These little rap bastards is sampling all my shit,” he didn’t think, “Yeah, that shit is hot!” You know at some point he realized his shit was so hot that we couldn’t leave it alone. It’s the same thing with me. Every now and then, I get a little upset. But at the end of the day, I sit back and say, “Yeah, I must’ve did my thing for this dude to come out with a brand new single and he’s talking about he’s the new me.” At the same time, he keeps me alive.
GIANT: Since you fathered a lot of cats’ styles, which emcees do you feel have carried on the torch?
Rakim: It’s a couple cats out there, but I don’t wanna say their names. They might take it the wrong way. I think the style that I brought out was… I don’t know if it was a transitional time where we was coming out of one era of rap. When I came out, Run [DMC] and them was hitting. It was just when I came, talkin’ what I was talkin’, it was just at the right time. I think it kinda caught people off-guard. Everybody else was rhyming one way, then I came out rhyming a different way. I think they gravitated to it. I think it was time for that next concept and I just happened to be there at the time. Yeah, you got a lot of rappers that kinda grabbed onto it but, man, I don’t wanna blow nobody’s spot up.
GIANT: You gave birth to a lot of cats’ fashion sense as well with the Gucci leathers and all that. Where did you pick that up?
Rakim: I kinda got that straight from the street. I was watching what people was doing in the hood. You walk up the block and see what sneakers everybody’s wearing. After a while, you got an idea of what sneaker is winning right now.
The Gucci stuff I got from Supreme Magnetic. He was doing his thing back in the day. Back then, it was only a select few that could afford that Dapper Dan thing. Everybody now talk about how it was fake, but back then, to kick out $3,500 for a suit, ain’t nothing fake about that. You know, it was the style. It was us bragging. We was like [motioning to all black leather jacket], “Yeah, check this out, baby paw. We got the Gucci all over the Timbalands.” And everybody know they wasn’t making Gucci Timbalands, but it was just that we could do it. We felt good, like [snaps fingers], “Throw the Louis Vuitton on there for me. Yeah, put it on there, too. Gimme that jacket, yanamean?” It was that door to say we can go through there and open that up. So, it was more of a swag thing than having the real thing. You just gotta get in where you fit in, do what you do, and stick to your guns.
GIANT: How did you take the rapping to a next level when no one else had done it?
Rakim: Umm, it was the weed, man [laughs]! Nah, nah. I grew up on music and I played in the band when I was young. I kinda got deep into the theory of music, like, I knew how to read music. I played instruments and shit. I think that, with my little bit of vocabulary that I had, man, and my hunger for more vocabulary-I think that with knowing the meaning of time and space, music as well-I think that pushed me to sound different and to affect people differently, yanamean. Then, once I knew that I had a little something, then I started going at the concepts. I think my thing was to try to converse with the people, like almost put myself in their shoes to the point where as they was listening, they can put themselves in the song. So I think that concept is what made me write in a different perspective. What it was, like why I don’t seem all that to me, is because what I was doing was just writing what the streets was thinking. And I think at that time, nobody was conveying the message from the street. It was rap songs, then. I think I came and started making the people feel I was talking about them or made them feel the records. That kinda tied the whole thing together, man.