When Jay-Z went to Twitter for a rare tweet storm, he shouted out a host of artists that influenced him as well as some of those he admired. While I am sure many artists scrolled the @S_C_ Twitter feed looking for their names, there were probably even more fans looking and asking, “Who’s this?”, “Never heard of them”, “What in the world is a ‘Run caz LL”. The first name on that list was Rakim and that’s who I want to talk about.
Why would Jay, arguably the greatest rapper of all time, decide to put Rakim first on that list that is tacked on someone’s wall right now? The answer is simple – before folks called Jay the GOAT, it was Rakim who wore that crown. People can debate 2Pac, Biggie, and Nas all day. Younger folks can make their cases for Eminem (ugh!) or cite Drake’s billboard dominance, but there is no other MC who changed the art of Hip-Hop like William Michael Griffin Jr. aka Rakim Allah, the original god MC.
Rakim created and transformed what we now recognize as the MC. Prior to him, the MC or rapper was a showman. He/she was the frontman of the band whose main purpose was to ignite the crowd and keep the party going. The MC was Grandmaster Caz, Cowboy, and Kurtis Blow. Leather outfits, headdresses and choreographed steps. When Melle Mel dropped “The Message” in 1982, Hip-Hop began to see the MC as spokesperson, griot and town crier. With RUN DMC, we saw the MC lose the sartorial trappings of disco. Platform shoes were replaced with shell toe adidas. Hip-Hop artists looked less like George Clinton and more like your cousin who just came home from ‘upstate’.
It was Rakim who combined all these elements into a juggernaut of artistic expression. He had the style, the persona, the message and the lyrics. He was Dapper Dan jackets and gold ropes combined with the strength of Mel and the rawness of Run. But what he really introduced was a singular focus on the art. He was not here to entertain. He had a point to make and you were going to hear it whether you liked it or not. That is why I like to call Rakim the ‘Miles Davis of Hip-Hop’. Miles used to famously play with his back to the audience much to the dismay of crowds. Miles’ argument was that he was not here for them, he was here for his fellow musicians. Miles was not interested in the Louis Armstrong style of jazz. He was a classically trained musician who saw his trumpet as an extension of his spirit. Rakim used the mic the same way. To Rakim the mic was a weapon, and the ammunition was his lyrics.
It seems silly to say now, but there was a time when what you said was not important. The pre-Rakim era was eerily similar to today. Most MCs had simple rhyme schemes that were specifically designed for the listener to follow along. Repetition, fantastic lyrics creating a hyper masculine persona with the goal of escapism. Escapism gave a forgotten socio-economic class a way out of their dead end lives. Rakim was one of the first to turn their gaze not out to the suburbs and the material trappings of American life, but inwards toward the brothers and sisters on the street fighting every day. KRS, Chuck D would also join him and eventually give birth to J Cole, Kendrick and Chance.
Rakim took what good middle class Black folk saw as a jailhouse religion and translated it for millions. The Nation of Gods and Earths or the Five Percent Nation became the belief system of Hip-Hop thanks to Rakim. That is not to say Rakim was the only god on the mic, but he was the best (sorry Kane). The Supreme Mathematics seemingly guided every word. He infused his songs with numerology that would take folks years to grasp.
He rhymed about being the sole controller of the universe, nominated his DJ for president (something that this writer at 13 year’s old took seriously), and had us thinking far beyond the confines of the NYC subway. The teachings of the Five Percent Nation became Hip-Hop’s culture. We ended our sentences with ‘peace’. We jumped into ‘cyphers’ to rhyme. Rakim started a revolution of the mind. We finally saw the invisible prison we were locked in and began to plot our escape.
But the reason why Rakim is arguably the greatest of all time, why Jay-Z put him first on that list was his attention to the word. Rakim was the first ‘rhyme book’ rapper. He was the first rapper the world saw who seemingly had volumes and volumes of verses, densely packed stanzas with double and triple meanings, and he existed to spit these verses to us. His albums become sermons. His couplets became mantras. Whether peer or student, after ‘My Melody’ came out there was no way Rakim did not influence you.
So when you listen to a young Jay-Z on ‘Dead Presidents”, you are listening to a Rakim fan getting a chance to spit his poetry. You are witnessing another young student of the Nation of Gods and Earths trying to civilize the uncivilized. A poet from New York City with so much on his mind. So as we celebrate Jay-Z’s 13th album we also celebrate the inspiration for S. Carter and for millions more. The Microphone Fiend, The 7th Letter, The R, the one shifted the world on its axis.