In this journey, you’re the journal, I’m the journalist / Am I eternal, or an eternalist?
—Rakim Allah, “Follow the Leader”
That’s from Rakim’s “Follow the Leader”, though it could be Roland Barthes convincing us that authors are the creations of texts and that texts are the recreation of closed cultures and close readers . . . the crisis thrown up in Rakim’s rhyme-the poet pondering whether he’s a modernist or a postmodernist, a creative God or a revised body of texts-is rendered moot in the next line: “I’m about to flow, long as I can possibly go / Keep ya movin’ ‘cause the crowd said so. Dance!” Here Rakim locates his immortality in African culture’s call-and-response continuum.
—Greg Tate, “Diary of a Bug”, The Village Voice (1988)
When Greg Tate published his groundbreaking essay “Diary of a Bug” in 1988 it was an event—17 fragments, a literary mix-tape from the seminal Afro-Pomo-Boho of his generation—the birth of Black Popular Post-Structuralism. And when he finished name-dropping the sources of his inspiration—F. Scott Fitzgerald and Cuban novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante—and finally got down to critical business at hand, the first “text” he took up was none other than Rakim Allah, the Poet Laureate of the Hip-Hop Nation. Indeed there’s never been a hip-hop artist (with apologies to my man Mike Dyson and his muse Tupac Shakur) who deserved top-shelf scholarly love from the camp of the Blackademe Niggeratti more than Rakim.
Four lines from the b-side of that first 12-inch single—“I take seven MCs put ‘em in a line / And add seven more brothers who think they can rhyme / Well It’ll take seven more before I go for mine / And that’s 21 MCs ate up at the same time”—and the lyrical gauntlet was forever thrown down, forever reified, as every up-and-coming ghetto wordsmith (Big Daddy Kane, Nas, Rass Kass, Treach, Canibus) is introduced as “the next . . .” and 17 years later we can only say “still . . .” The recently released Paid in Full: Deluxe Edition captures those initial lyrical moment, in the career of hip-hop’s greatest MC.
Rakim—the “R”—earned his reputation as the poet laureate of hip-hop largely on the strength Eric B and Rakim’s two-sided indie smash “Eric B is President/My Melody”. When “Eric B is President/My Melody” dropped in the summer of 1986, it quickly became the “Wop” anthem of the year (the “Wop” was a popular social dance among black collegians and others in 1986). The 12-inch’s status as the most danceable hip-hop recording of the year seemed to suit Rakim fine, as so many of his lyrics envision a man totally mesmerized with the idea of “Moving the Crowd”. And thus the constant refrain throughout “Eric B. is President”: “Eric B, make ‘em clap to this”. Though Rakim is generally regarded as the most cutting edge of hip-hop’s then new school—a generation of artists that includes KRS-One, Public Enemy, Big Daddy Kane, De La Soul and Audio Two—like his contemporaries LL Cool J (20 years in the game next year) and Biz Markie, Rakim had a deep appreciation for the old-school showmanship of cats like Kurtis Blow, Grand Master Caz and of course Melle Mel. You had to take Rakim at his word when said “Cuz to me, MC means move the crowd.”
Given his immersion in Five-Percent Nation ideology—paving the way for future artists like Brand Nubian, True Mathematics and Lakim Shabazz—Rakim is easily one of the most esoteric rap artists of all time. But the “move the crowd” ethos of his lyrics, personified an artist who was committed to being “one” with the people. Thus when the “R” suggests in his later classic “Follow the Leader” that “since you was tricked / I have to raise ya / From the cradle to the grave / But remember / You’re not a slave” you understood that this was a poetic figure who sees himself as every bit of the organic intellectual that Gramsci mused about in The Prison Notebooks. More specifically Rakim embodies what Grant Farred describes as a “vernacular intellectual” in his new book What’s My Name?: Black Vernacular Intellectuals (University of Minnesota Press). According to Farred, the “vernacular is defined by an immersion in the language of the popular, the particularities, idiosyncrasies, and distinctiveness of vernacular speech; the vernacular is marked by its ability to speak popular resistance and popular culture to power.” (12)
There’s little doubt that Rakim saw himself as an intellectual, pointedly stating “I’m the intelligent wise on the mic / I will rise right in front of your eyes / Cuz I’m a surprise / So I’ma let my knowledge be born to a perfection” on the brilliant” “Move the Crowd”. But it’s in the first verse of the song, where Rakim openly asks “How can I move the crowd” that you also understand that he didn’t view himself as the Griot forced to the margins (though his stealth-like existence between album projects suggested otherwise), but one who “move(d) on the dancefloor when they put something smooth on”. There’s also little doubt that Rakim saw his rhymes as the vehicle to “teach’ finding value not just in the “word” but in delivering the word (as those cats WAR talked about back in the day). So he begins that first classic “My Melody” with the lines “Turn up the bass, check out my melody, hand out a cigar / I’m letting knowledge be born and my name’s the R” making it clear the “word” don’t really matter, if the flow (both musical and rhetorical) ain’t there. For Rakim his rhymes are a literal life-force: “The only time I stop is when somebody drop / And then bring ‘em to the front / ‘Cuz my rhymes’ the oxygen.” (“As the Rhyme Goes On”)
But Rakim’s role as a vernacular intellectual—he wasn’t a rapper, but in his own words the “microphonist”—was not solely rooted in traditional notions of “raising the dead”, but also in the deftness in which he employed the battle rhyme. In the aftermath of the bi-costal antagonisms that likely led to the deaths of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G., many critics were turned off when commerce and jealously came together in the recent tiff between Jay-Z and Nas. But the battle rhyme has been a pillar of hip-hop culture from the beginning and has led to seminal moments of greatness like the exchanges between KRS-One and MC Shan, LL Cool J and Kool Moe Dee, and MC Lyte and Antoinette. Discussing Muhammad Ali’s role as a vernacular intellectual Farred puts the role of the battle in an intellectual context: “his physical actions, his skills as a boxer, are indistinguishable from his cerebral contemplations . . . Ali’s ‘muscular-nervous effort’—his skill as a boxer—was an articulation of his ‘intellectual elaboration’—the ways in which he conceived himself not only as a fighter but as a black boxer who understood the ideological demands of his historical moment.” (8) In a world not yet given to accepting the poetic genius and complexity of the “rapper-God”, the battle rap was the one place where Rakim would be taken seriously.
Though Rakim has never been implicated in calling out any of his peers in rhyme (true indeed he is peerless), it doesn’t mean that he wasn’t invested in the kinds of old-school boasts that had regularly circulated among black male culture (though sistas got in the mix also) in the form of “The Dozens”. The original battle rap was little more than rhetorical sparring on wax. But it was with the eloquence and economy that Rakim took out those 21 MCs that earned legendary status. Twenty-one MCs in three lines and those original seven MCs (in a line), becoming time-tested metaphors for a “Critical Beatdown” as them Bronx cats Ultra Magnetics once described it. Even Rakim had to appreciate his work, urging would be foes to “freeze or you’ll be one of those seven MCs” on Paid in Full‘s “I Ain’t No Joke”.
Trying to make a name for himself on a little indie label with a marginally known DJ, “My Melody” represents Rakim’s coming out party and he was up to the challenge stepping to his un-named foes with “So now a contest is what you owe me / Pull out your money, pull out your cut / Pull up a chair, and I’ma tear shit up.” And then in a move, reminiscent of Nikki Giovanni’s “Ego Tripping” (“even my errors are correct . . .”), bruh deconstructs his name “My name is Rakim Allah / And R & A stands for ‘Ra’ / Switch it around / But still comes our ‘R’”. Responding to those folks who found his flow a little lazy and monotone, he hits back “My wisdom is swift, no matter if / My momentum is slow, MCs still stand stiff.”
Rakim’s impact on the industry could be measured in the number of couplets that he dropped that immediately entered the lexicons of hip-hop and street culture. “It ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you at” (from “I Know You Got Soul”) is Rakim’s late 1980s take on hip-hop meritocracy creating a space at the table for Eminem a decade before he came on the scene. The best example of Rakim’s impact, though, is the title track to Paid in Full, which became an international dance hit, courtesy of the “Seven Minutes of Madness” remix by Cold Cut, which featured vocals by the late Israeli songstress Ofra Haza. “Paid in Full” prefigures notions of “keeping it real”, (a strictly 1990s convention) but it is the response to why some rappers felt compelled to keep it real in the first place: “don’t nuthin’ move but the money.”
The song used a sample of “Don’t Look Any Further”, a hit in 1984 for former Temptations lead Dennis Edwards (likely the last cross-generational hit within black pop until Barry White’s “Practice What You Preach”) and represented the industry shift from the pop glories of Motown to the coming commodification of the ‘hood in hip-hop. Critical to this ‘hood aesthetic (especially before cultural opulence of the Clinton era made people forget just how dire the Reagan-Bush era was for some folk) was the mainstreaming of the black hustler’s ethos and Rakim was dead on with he said “I need money/ I used to be a stick up kid . . . I used to roll up this is a hold, ain’t nothing funny”. Rakim was in the game to pay the bills and Biggie dutifully acknowledged Rakim’s prescience on “Juicy” detailing his own come-up from “stick-up kid”. Years before we are forced to witness MTV’s “Diddy watch”, Rakim was totally consumed with getting some “dead presidents”—Rakim’s spin of a ghetto colloquialism for “money” later echoed in Nas (“Who’s World is This”), Jay-Z (“Dead Presidents”) and the Hughes Brothers (Dead Presidents)—and it was his skill, not payola, streets teams and Viacom power moves that earned him his money. It is perhaps why Rakim remains a deity to those cats who “do it for the love of the art . . .”
There continue to be rumors about the great Rakim comeback recording—like he’s some king awaiting to re-take his throne. There’s been a few sightings—1997’s The 18th Letter, cameos on Truth Hurt’s “Addictive” and with Jigga on the lame “The Watcher”—that have been mostly uninspired, save “It’s Been a Long Time” (1997). But as a rapper who earned his crown the old-fashioned way, one has to wonder if Ra surveys the current scene and decries the lack of a challenge (stand the five best selling rappers of today in a line—Nelly? Chingy? Ja Rule? Ludacris? And yeah even Em—and you think any of them can out-flow Rakim?). Such is the case when you’re the peerless poet laureate of the Hip-Hop Nation and the only one charged to “bless the mic for the Gods . . .”.