Rakim: It’s time for hip-hop to take a stand

Boston Globe, August 4, 2006

For lovers of classic hip-hop, tomorrow’s Peace Boston concert on City Hall Plaza offers a rare chance to travel back in time with some of the genre’s defining artists. The top draw is Rakim, considered by many the greatest rapper of all time. He’s joined by CL Smooth, Nice & Smooth, and an assortment of Boston acts from then and now. Los Angeles-based female MC Medusa and Boston’s DJ Nomadik will host the event, a production of the City of Boston and local hip-hop activists. With gun violence spiking in Boston this summer, the concert, a reprise of last year’s highly successful event, will highlight “conscious” themes of community building and civic peace.

Every artistic tradition possesses legends whose contribution to its development is so great it is impossible to imagine it without them. Ask hip-hop connoisseurs which artists, in the genre’s three-decade history, have had this sort of impact, and if there’s one unanimous pick, it is likely to be Rakim.

As the rapper and writer in the duo Eric B. & Rakim, which released four classic albums from 1987 to 1992, the Long Island- raised MC left a furious imprint, mixing intensity of purpose, lyrical imagination, and technique to a degree that remains unequaled.

But while hip-hop morphed into a commercial behemoth, Rakim retreated to his Connecticut estate to work at his own pace. He has not released an album since 1999, and he eschews touring in favor of infrequent gigs.

All this makes Rakim’s appearance tomorrow a major event. He also has a new album in the works, titled “The Seventh Seal.” His return fits into a revival of interest in older hip-hop artists who offer relief from the formulaic material that dominates today.

“It’s getting too monotonous today,” Rakim says on the phone. “I respect the game, and I respect some rappers and where they are taking the game. But hopefully things will start changing up.”

Conformity was once anathema to hip-hop. Now it is the opposite: “It’s majority rules. If everyone is saying black, they’re going to say black. If you come along and say blue, then that’s a little foreign to them.”

Blending social and spiritual themes, esoteric flights of fancy, and blunt braggadocio, Rakim’s lyrics stand out even among those of peers such as Chuck D or Big Daddy Kane. His delivery, at once urgent and calm, and his proficiency with pace, meter, and internal rhyme give his writing an intense, jazz-like musicality.

“Coming up in a musical family, my parents listened to everything from opera to jazz,” he explains. “Every day waking up in my house was a music show. My sister sang, my brother played piano, my other brother played sax. I played sax and some drums. Having that musical reference, once rap came along, I tried to apply everything I’d learned … and incorporate that into my rhymes.”

Rakim links his serious manner to being in the womb when Martin Luther King was killed. In the 1990 song “In the Ghetto,” he returns to the womb, honors his late father, mind-travels to Mecca and Africa, and delivers a trenchant critique of inner-city life, all in three taut verses. It’s vintage Rakim, just one of many gems.

A 1992 track, “Casualties of War,” the closest he’s come to political writing, rings eerily true today. It describes the trauma of a Muslim US soldier in the Gulf War.

“That song right there scares me,” Rakim says. “It seems that recently things have come full circle.”

In a summer when urban violence is flaring again, including in Boston, Rakim hopes that hip-hop’s “old heads” will live up to their responsibilities.

“It’s we the people,” he says. “Conscious people have to do something. I mean, we’ve got Bloods and Crips in New York! That’s ridiculous, that’s 1979. But you know where they get it from? They get it from television, and from rap records. It’s a deep situation. It’s going to take brothers like me, like yourself, our generation, to start change. Because it’s senseless. We have to show them the right way.”