Rakim – Big Up Miss Bonaparte

Siobhán Kane spoke with the hugely influential rapper Rakim ahead of his show at The Button Factory next month.

It might seem like a grandiose statement to say that there would be no interesting hip-hop without Rakim, but it’s true. William Michael Griffin Jr grew up in the seventies; a time when hip-hop was gestating, stretching its legs like a newborn, tentatively looking around, groping for understanding. Those who evolved hip-hop in the early stages weren’t just looking to be understood, they were looking to express themselves. Politically and socially it was a very tormented time for African-Americans, and Americans in general, for a variety of reasons. In the shadow of the Vietnam war, the amount of unrest and gap between the ‘have’s’ and ‘have nots’ was widening. The ‘have nots’ consisted of so many different ethnic groups, all poor, oppressed and misunderstood, with no real salvation in sight, and assassinations of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and two of the Civil Rights supporting Kennedy’s, the African American community in particular was feeling completely marginalised. In part, hip-hop was an unusual, organic way of fighting back, as well as minimising frustration and violence within the African-American community, as Tony Tone of the Cold Crush Brothers would later say, “hip-hop saved a lot of lives“, with Afrika Bambaataa’s Universal Zulu Nation becoming a working example of this fact, reaching out to street kids, inspiring them to create rather than fight.

If you go back to the early imaginings of hip-hop, its power is potent, thrilling, spiritual – full of meaning, anger, passion, brilliant ideas and burgeoning talent ,and a sense of ‘making things right’, or at least better. It is hard to reconcile those central tenets with a lot of the pop hip-hop that abounds at present, but for every genius in hip-hop, as in all musical forms, there is a less talented, more commercial cousin waiting in the wings, an ‘All About Eve’ figure, the less brilliant but more manipulative Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), biting at the hem of the effervescent Margo Channing (Bette Davis). Hip-hop was the underdog’s turn, the ‘invisible man’, as Ralph Ellison put it, but as Mos Def said in his track ‘Hip Hop’ almost fifty years later, ‘invisible man, got the whole world watching‘, and that’s how far hip-hop has come, and it’s not finished yet. In some ways hip-hop emerged out of young African-American’s desire to show their own version of the Civil Rights movement, to expose its previous limitations and the creative ways it could go forward, in a sense reworking the concept put forward by brilliant intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois, ‘for us, by us, about us, near us‘.

One of the key figures in hip-hop’s history and evolution is Rakim, he embodies that particular Du Bois philosophy. He is probably the most referenced rapper of all time. He is in the pantheon of greats along with Big Daddy Kane, Slick Rick and KRS-One, and in truth their contributions moved hip-hop along immeasurably; creatively, lyrically and stylistically. Slightly before they emerged, figures like the brilliant turntablist Grandmaster Flash and acts like Sugarhill Gang and Kool Herc were well known, making a crossover of sorts into more mainstream culture, but when rappers like Rakim came along, the face of hip-hop completely changed. This is mainly because Rakim almost invented a new way of seeing hip-hop, relating to it, rapping and writing about it, he saw it clearly as a culture and a movement with potential, and so many of his poetic lyrics were in complete opposition to the ‘bang bang boogie say up jumped the boogie/to the rhythm of the boogie, the beat‘ of tracks like ‘Rappers Delight’ (though something like the Furious Five’s ‘The Message’ was good social commentary). Take something like ‘I start to think and then I sink into the paper like I was ink/When I’m writing I’m trapped inbetween the lines,/ I escape when I finish my rhyme‘ from ‘I Know You Got Soul’ (1985). He was the first to introduce the internal rhyme, essentially a single line of verse that rhymes, and his unusual take on language was encouraged by a supportive family who enjoyed his curiosity. He is unusual because he has never really compromised, though linking up as Fate would have it ,with Eric B was never going to be without its constraints and troubles (although Eric B’s soul-filled love of sampling would foretell where hip-hop production was going), but it launched Rakim, and the differences between the two; the mysterious, reflective Rakim and the more ‘businesslike’ Eric B provided a vivid kind of tension that leapt out of the gate from the beginning.

Their four records records together, Paid in Full (1986), Follow the Leader (1988), Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em (1990) and Don’t Sweat the Technique (1992) contained some legendary material, from tracks like ‘I Know You Got Soul‘ through to ‘Microphone Fiend‘,’ It’s Been a Long Time‘ and several more – and they are iconic, familiar and yet somehow still inaccessible; Rakim in particular a kind of almost mystical figure, who has become a patron saint of sorts of a ‘golden age’ of hip-hop, a purists idea of a time when hip-hop was the most creative force on the planet. Now it is the most commercial force on the planet, and yet we still have our independent creative heroes, from the late J Dilla through to the very alive Madlib and Flying Lotus, and young upstarts such as Odd Future’s, labels like Stones Throw and a lot of other interesting west coast luminaries; some may argue that the place that originated the form has lost its vibrancy of late, that the west coast, and the south are flying a more interesting flag, but that’s not really true; most of the truth flies under the radar, and it is a comfort to know that Rakim would dispute New York’s fallibility – in his eyes, it is as potent as ever, and with brilliant labels like Definitive Jux and passionate individuals like El-Producto, Aesop Rock, Homeboy Sandman, Cannibal Ox, Immortal Technique, YC the Cynic and the recently reformed Company Flow (yes!), the list goes on, but in terms of lists Rakim tends to top every single one of them, every time.

His own solo records The 18th Letter (1997), The Master (1999) and 2009’s The Seventh Seal benefited from working with producers such as Pete Rock, long time associate DJ Premier, DJ Clark Kent and Nik Wiz, as well as artists like Rahzel; but his most recent record is particularly important, perhaps because he released it on his own label, as ever, staying true to himself, but also because it came after a ten year period of turbulence, and a kind of absence due to the strange experience with Dr. Dre’s Aftermath label, though he collaborated with various people in that time; Truth Hurts on ‘Addictive‘ (2002), Mobb Deep on ‘Hoodlum‘ (2006) and Kanye, KRS-One and Nas on ‘Classic‘ (2007). Why doesn’t he collaborate more? In an age where so many hip-hop records have collaborations with those heavyweights that have gone before, the answer is probably to be found in the song that he wrote when he was a teenager ‘My Melody‘, ‘I am not a regular competitor‘, but sometimes it feels like he’s still the only one that matters.

Ahead of his Irish dates, Siobhán Kane talks to the greatest rapper of all time, and as he says on ‘I Know You Got Soul’, ‘no-one’s been this awaited since Jesus‘.

It is twenty-five years since Paid in Full came out, it must be satisfying, but at times surreal to perform the entire record live?
No doubt, Paid in Full was all the way back in 1986, but when I get on stage it brings back the essence of what I was thinking, feeling and going through when I made it. The response I get from the crowds is amazing, and it lets them know why I am here, it is inspiring and I attribute a lot of response that I have had in my life to that particular album.

You have often talked about the respect you had for your parents, that they instilled not only a valuing of music from jazz to opera [Rakim’s mother was a singer], but more than that, a valuing of life and of the delicate nature of life.
They instilled all of that in me, and both my parents have been gone for a while, but I still do things as if they are still here, I hope they can see me and feel me, they had such a big influence on my life. You know, they are one of the reasons that I don’t really curse on records. Whenever I made a record or would go to the studio and record, the first people I would play it to would be my mother and father, so I always kept it clean, and I knew that there were other people out there, that would enjoy that too, that is was listenable without people feeling they could turn it off. I try to pass on exactly what was given me to my kids, and we are in a time now where a lot of the values that we grew up with are disappearing, some of the old fashioned values.

This partly explains your curiosity, because it was encouraged when you were younger.
A lot of it came from my childhood when I was real young. I remember one time in particular at my grandfathers house, when we were visiting him in St Agustine, Florida. I respected him so much that I was almost scared when I was in his presence, I was always a little nervous, but one day he sat down beside me on the couch, and said ‘how you doing today?’, and I was like ‘I’m alright’, then he’s like ‘did you learn anything today?’ and I was about to lie and say ‘yeah’ but then I thought that he would ask me what I learned, so I said ‘no, I didn’t learn anything today’, so he looked at me and said ‘don’t go to sleep’, and we just sat there and watched a cartoon, but the whole time I couldn’t stop thinking about what he said, ‘did he mean in a bad way? That I can’t go to sleep until I learn something? Or is he just trying to spook me out?’, and I sat there for an hour,which turned into the next forty years of my life. I want to keep that advice alive, and understand the meaning of that, and try and learn something every day, and if I don’t, then I feel the day was a waste.

You have previously talked about this continuous journey of the knowledge of the Self – so many people think they have the answers, without really applying themselves to the question, and acceptance that it is all a process.
That’s a good point, because we try to search for as much information as possible, and try to better ourselves, but at the end of the day maybe we will never know what our purpose is. I think of it in relation to the bee that pollinates the flower, I don’t think he knows what he is doing, he is just trying to get something to eat. I think we are the same way, but for me I am trying to figure out what that my real purpose is, the more you try to know, the more you get some understanding. I think we are here to strive for greatness, it is one of the things the conscious think about, but we all need to think about these things, what is our agenda? What is our purpose?

There has always been a sense of mystery about you, perhaps because of your more philosophical leanings, and yet you are one of the most synonymous figures in what is now commonly termed the ‘golden age’ of hip-hop. Looking back, you wrote your first track ‘My Melody’ when you were so young, and somehow connected into the world of Marley Marl and Eric B; those who were making ripples in New York at that time, do you feel there was a certain serendipity to it?
‘My Melody’ was written when I was sixteen or seventeen, it’s true, and you know, I am the kind of person that likes to believe everything happens for a reason. A childhood friend of mine Alvin Toney, who played football with me since Peanut League, knew Eric B, and brought him to my house. I had made a tape before I was supposedly going to college to play football, Eric B heard the tape, then one thing happened after another. In the back of my mind I had always wanted to make a record, but I never thought it was possible, and for someone to literally knock on my door who knew Marley Marl…it was magic, like opportunity literally knocked on the door [laughs]. I appreciated it, and me being as young as I was, it took someone like Eric B to pull it together, because if it was up to me I would have probably gone to college, played football and blew my knee out in the first season, and now be sat watching ESPN by myself right now. I appreciate the elements and the stars lining up, and that first album put me where I am right now.

Eric B was always so different to you, and you could even sense that in the visual side of some of the videos, in particular something like ‘Don’t Sweat the Technique’; the mansion, the girls, that didn’t really seem like you.
Yeah, no doubt, we clashed on certain things when it came to that, and as I got older I got a little more stubborn with my vision, but it worked at the time, and I don’t think it did too much damage to the image and the nature of what we were doing. Some artists were doing pop records, we never did that, but our videos were sometimes like that, an element of life that people were enjoying at the time.

Yet so many of your videos are so unusual, something like ‘Paid in Full’ has so many different elements, the cut and paste of the old footage, formal video announcers, the dancers and odd lip synching. So many hip-hop videos are lacklustre now and formulaic, so much started going downhill in the nineties in hip-hop visually.
They have no substance, it’s true, but one of the good things that hip-hop is going through right now as far as records are being made, is that it is young in lots of cities right now, so hopefully it will mature in some of the new places it’s at, though the consumer also needs to have a birds eye view on the game, and know how to support it. There is definitely room for the new artists and the older artists that are still somewhat important to hip-hop, it shouldn’t be an ’80’s view on what hip-hop is – if I wasn’t an artist, and I’m in my forties now, I would still be listening to hip-hop, and in my fifites, I will still be listening to some kind of hip-hop. I am at the point where I can’t just turn it off, I grew into this and it is a part of me, it is the way I think, the way I walk, the way I talk, the way I dress, it’s not something I can take out of me at this point, and I know a lot of consumers are the same way, so we should have a proper genre in hip-hop to serve that.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote that society cannot appropriate Shakespeare until Shakespeare has appropriated society itself, and this seems to have happened with hip-hop, it’s power permeates so much now, from clothing to language. With this in mind, there is a responsibility that comes with that kind of power, and you have said that artists should look to invest in themselves, evaluate what they are doing, and think of the long term effects of decisions, just as you have done with the way you put out records, you got an investor and went straight to the distributor, is this the way forward?
Going through that process made me realise how important the deal itself is, and how you can take control of it and make it more lucrative for yourself. I was out with my team looking for investors, and a lot of these rappers don’t need investors, putting out a record is something they can do easily, but you can cut out the middle man and go straight to the distributor, so why don’t three or four successful rap artists get together and get their or our own distributor? The distributor is the biggest machine in music right now, they get half off the top, so we should have our own distribution companies, which we don’t. I don’t know why it is not happening, it could be that many rappers are not aware, I mean, I wasn’t really aware until I started going down that road. I can’t see any other reason that explains the way it has been going, especially when people have power now, and we should have been taking advantage of that, but hopefully in the future.

Hopefully they will start noticing the example that you, once more, are setting.
I hope so, and you know, that was one of the things we definitely looked at when we started down this road, we wanted it to have a chain reaction, and we knew it could be something epic if we could pull it off, so maybe people will follow suit. Maybe some things will start changing, to make it more fair, you never know what can happen.

Going back about ten years, when you went to Aftermath, and that whole experience with Dr. Dre – you have acknowledged that it was a strange time in many ways, you are so different, not just because of East and West coast hip-hop cultures (especially at that time) but because he is so formulaic, a hit-maker – which seems his main concern, and though you did some great collaborations with Truth Hurts among others, it seemed like a difficult period.
It was exactly that. I said one time that we didn’t know how different we were until we started working together. His formula is what it is and he don’t like to change it in any way. I found that complicated to deal with, especially at that time in my career, I had done that already, and said what I needed to say in that way, and there are certain things I feel I didn’t have to say anymore. The creative differences were there, but I learned a lot when I was there insofar as the different styles of hip-hop, and being out in California for a while, and seeing what makes hip-hop out there tick, it just gave me a broader sense of style, but going through that is what led me to doing what I am doing now, so everything happens for a reason.

Is it true that he offered you the melody and beats for what would later become Mary J Blige’s ‘Family Affair’?
He gave me that track and he kind of gave it to Mary as well, and when I first heard it I thought it was a good track but a bit too RnB for me, so when he told me Mary had listened to it as well, I was like ‘let Mary rock with that’, and sure enough it was one of her biggest records.

However, there are certain people who are a great fit with you, in particular DJ Premier,who recently said that you and Mobb Deep are two of his favourite sets of people to work with, but that you can be a bit of a tricky curmudgeon, as you don’t like anything he does initially, and then eight months later will ring him and say ‘I want that track now, let’s do it’. He said that you are the only person in the world that can do that with him because you have ‘leverage’.
[Laughs] Yeah, I’m real picky with music! When Premier first sent me the track for ‘It’s Been a Long Time‘, I liked it so much, but was thinking ‘why didn’t he put the rest of the sample on the song?’,[Cecil Holmes’ ‘Call Me, Come Back Home’] so I called him up and said ‘I love the track and the sound, but you should have put the rest of the sample on there’ and he was like ‘nah, it goes a bit boom boom later,’ trying to explain to me without really telling me, until I found out myself because I got the original record, and found out there was singing on the other part of the sample, and that let me know the genius of him, to chop it like that, because there was singing on most of the song, but he got the best from it, so you got to really understand Premier to appreciate what he does. When he sends you a track sometimes it is so abstract and you don’t get it, then you might be riding down the street with that track and suddenly get it, and that’s when I be ringing him up telling him ‘Preem, I need that track!’, I have big love for Premier, I’m hoping to be working with him again soon.

When you did that 2007 track ‘Classic (Better Than I’ve Ever Been)’ with Premier, Kanye, Nas, and KRS-One it was pleasing for many fans because that part of your verse, ‘Timeless – so age don’t count in the booth/ when your flow stays submerged in the fountain of youth‘ is so true in terms of the bar that you set. It was fitting that it is you sat with Premier in his studio in the video, and that you are the first verse, and also the last frame in the video, it seems that Rick Rubin, and everyone involved really wanted to honour you in many ways.
That was one of the first times you had a mixture of artists on a record, what people consider the old and new school. The way it all came together was dope. Everybody did their part individually, I did the verse in my house then sent it out. Nike was putting it together actually, they didn’t have much money in the budget, so we kind of did what had to be done, and it was a good thing because Nike is so synonymous with hip-hop and also showed the old and new schools, and that there should be no boundaries.

You are almost like the narrator on the record, and have a link in some way with everyone involved, whether through being their inspiration; for example, with Nas who watched you record Follow the Leader in the studio when he went along with Large Professor, and Illmatic is so influenced by it, or KRS-One – you were telling people to ‘stop the violence’ long before he evolved that ‘movement’, and Kanye, who is an obvious admirer, but again is very different to you.
I definitely take that pat on the back, you know? [Laughs] Kanye is a smart artist, and he definitely understands what rap is, he really dissects it, that is why his music does what it does. Not only that, he understands the promotional part of hip-hop and isn’t afraid to step out of the box with his music, what he is saying, how he is dressing. He loves the publicity, he lives for it, but what he does that is different, is that he is smart about it and knows when it is coming, so he prepares and practices for it, and it works well for him. Kanye is one of the biggest artists in the game right now, and you have to love someone like that, and you know, he is such a narcissist that to hear him show love to someone else is like ‘wow’, so I definitely appreciate that he showed me a lot of love when we did that project, that came from the heart, big up to Kanye.

He probably took a few style tips from you and your mid eighties Dapper Dan and Gucci look.
Oh yeah, we used to go heavy with the fashion back then [laughs].

You are in the studio at the moment, what have you been working on?
My new album, which is my top priority, but at the same time we are doing a Paid in Full 25th anniversary reissue which we would like to get out this year, I suppose in a way it is about putting a kind of cap on my career, so I can go out the way I want to.

What are you saying? You are not going anywhere yet, you mustn’t.
I’m optimistic, but at the same time I want to make sure that what I do from hereonin definitely enhances my career, because it was so long from that period with Dr Dre, that to me it was like being absent, and there was so much I wanted to say and so much time that I missed, and I have so much to get off my chest, and I want to be able to sit back, and know if anyone plays my music that from beginning to end they can get a sense of who I am and the music I love.

You have such a unique way of rapping, and your lyrics are some of the most recalled and referenced in hip-hop history, one of my favourite references is when Mos Def used a sample from ‘Paid in Full’ on Black on Both Sides’ ‘Hip Hop’. Do you think that your own way of writing and even seeing hip-hop up to your last solo record The Seventh Seal has changed since you first started out?
Yes I do, it’s a lot more pre-meditated now. I was telling someone not too long ago that when I did my first album I was really inexperienced, things were moving at a rapid pace, but I was so inexperienced that we would go in and do the beat on the spot, I would just write the rhymes on the spot, and wouldn’t take the time to learn the rhymes and would just read them, so when I listen to certain songs today I can hear that in some way, instead of owning it, I could have conveyed it a little better, it was just one of those things, but I am a lot more conscious now, from the writing process to the booth. I know I still want to say something, but figure it all out better, it is a lot trickier now than ’86 or the nineties, but I love the challenge and I love the music.

In some ways I have always thought you have more in common with Saul Williams than ‘traditional’ rappers, and he says you are one of his biggest inspirations, perhaps it is because you share a real love of language, as he says in ‘Twice the First Time’, “not until you’ve listened to Rakim on a rocky mountain top have you heard hip hop.”
Saul gives me a lot of shout outs, and I really appreciate him too.

This love of language, it started so young, I believe you really enjoyed school and learning?
That was my time! I try to explain to my kids that what made me a better writer was my schoolwork, I said I don’t want to sound corny, but that’s true, it was my Social Studies teacher that kept the class interested, and I participated to the point where she would let me get up and describe my own take on things – big up Miss Goldstein for letting me teach the class a few times!

That kind of advice is probably more persuasive if your Dad is Rakim.
Ha! I don’t know, they are still kids, sometimes they are like ‘oh no, not another one of your stories again, Dad‘,but it keeps me grounded, it doesn’t matter if I am out there rapping, when I come home I am still Dad, I don’t separate myself from the two, but they know it’s Dad when I am home, not ‘Rakim’. You know, while I am thinking about school, Miss Bonaparte was another teacher who pointed me out and made sure I prided myself and encouraged me with my book reports and essays, I learned how to paint pictures with words – that English class was so important, so big up Miss Bonaparte, I love you too! My Science teacher Mr. Gusamato was also my football coach, and when I used to ask him questions he would say ‘okay, research that and I will tell you tomorrow’ but it would get to the point where he said to me ‘look, I am just a football coach, where are you getting all this from? What are you reading?’ and I said ‘I’m reading what you’re reading!’ but I was so interested in the unknown that I would always ask him questions that he would find hard to answer and had to eventually tell me ‘look I am just a football coach’ [laughs].

Do you think that your interest in spirituality is what keeps you in a way removed from all the excessive side of hip-hop, and life in general? It has always seemed like a central part of who you are.
No doubt, that is my measuring stick, that is what I base my life on – all the things that I study, and the person it teaches me to be. At the end of the day that’s my goal, if I can do that and stay true to what I believe in, my culture, it will make me a better man, a better Dad, a better rapper – I definitely owe a lot of my success to that foundation, which is so much part of my culture.

Who are you excited about at the moment in hip-hop? I know you have always supported New York acts like The Diplomats, but is there anyone else at present that is really exciting to you?
That is a question I haven’t thought about for a while, I think that The Diplomats are great and it is good that they got back together, not just for New York rap but rap itself, we need that balance. When everybody do what they do and stay in their place then hip-hop is a beautiful thing, but once everyone starts following one thing it becomes bad. When Puff started doing his thing, it wasn’t until everyone started following Puff and doing his thing that it became a very bad thing. It’s when everyone starts biting that it becomes a problem. If an artist comes out and wants to make radio friendly songs then that’s fine, but when everyone starts doing that, it’s no good, and I am just using Puff as an example, but if everyone stays in their place then you have a balance, we need to stay focussed and stick to our guns. I think hip-hop is in a weird place right now, and I hope that changes soon, it is going to take the artists and the media as well to really reprogramme things, rap is a genre that has many styles in it, and just like anything else you have to study your history, and whatever it is you are dealing with, and know it much better, I think the consumers need to start studying it better too, it would help to elevate the culture, and give a broader ear for hip-hop.

Perhaps you might look outside of hip-hop, and instead go off and play on a Kate Bush composition, you could dust your saxophone off.
[Laughs] Word up! You never know. The saxophone is one of the things that got me interested in music, when I was young, and before hip-hop came out I was into all that marching band stuff, I loved that, and wanted to be in one, it kept me interested, so when I made the transition to hip-hop I took what I had learned in music and took it over to hip-hop, it was all part of my journey, part of my story, it’s never just been about hip-hop.

Yet you are still the rapper that is seen as being a true pioneer of the form, but perhaps because you have all of these disparate influences, and your lovely, stoic delivery. It is hard to place you, and yet you are the reason so many got into hip-hop, Raekwon said something similar quite recently about you.
Wow, that’s big. When I see him we sit down and talk a lot, he is one of the rappers in the game that I respect a lot. He has always been the rapper that New York needs, a real representative, he has always kept it Wu Tang, and kept it Raekwon, he has never sold out, so to hear that from him helps me to keep going.

You have so many records, but over your almost thirty year career, which is most special to you and why?
That’s a good question because different songs have such different significances in my life, but when my Pops passed away I wrote ‘Ghetto’ and it is one of those songs that I can put myself back to where I was, and what was going on and the whole reason I wrote it. There are a few songs in my career that have made statements, and helped to catapult my career and go higher, but if I had to say one that I enjoy the most I think it is ‘The 18th Letter’, because that song explains almost all of me in the song, what I love, what I am about – because it deals in a lot of things I love and study, and what I want to become as a person.

Reading and studying seems to be another central aspect of your life.
I try to read as much as I can, and still study a lot. When I study I can’t help but have a lot of different books on the table, so I know what I am learning is valid. I read everything – some things are put there to make a statement, like in the Bible, it is my belief that so much of that is parable, something to make you believe one hundred percent, and it is up to us to figure out what that is, what really took place, that is why I like to have lots of different views, I like to have many versions of things, if I am reading something about the deportation of the moon, I want astronomy books on the table, books about the solar system, just to make sure what I read is true.

It is that pursuance of knowledge of the Self again, that philosophical impulse.
It is. One of the things that remains baffling to me and inspires me to know more in general is the Pyramids for example, I look and go ‘what?’ It is such a world wonder, one of those things that literally makes you wonder, and it keeps me wanting to pursue for the answer to that, or anything, it keeps me on point, keeps my eyes wide and my mind open, and it’s good for my confidence as well.

And yet your infinite muse still seems to be New York. When people think of you, they think of New York, just like Woody Allen.
I can’t leave New York for too long at a time, especially if I have to do some creative writing or anything creative, as New York was always my self-esteem, it’s all bound up in New York, everything. I used to say in a rhyme, [‘Untouchables’] ‘Coming over the bridge, take a peek at the skyline,/ cos that’s how I want to shine, not only when I rhyme‘ – just seeing the city, it inspired me to be bigger, better, and even now – the competition in the city, everything about it is still wild to me. It is one of the most inspiring places, you can never know everything about it, so you climb to know everything, and anything that keeps me on my toes like New York do, keeps me interested, keeps me on fire.

Going back to something you said at the beginning – that you don’t really curse too much in your music – that has never really been the norm in hip-hop, you are quite unique that way also. Maybe you’ll bring out a Sesame Street version of some of your classic records, using words like fiddlesticks and such for the few times that you do curse?
Heh heh, you know, I always thought there were so many other amazing words I could use to explain myself without having to resort to cursing too much, but yeah, ‘fiddlesticks’, maybe, who knows? I always like to bring out something for the kids.

Rakim plays The Button Factory on Friday 6th May. Tickets are €20 from http://www.tickets.ie


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