Interview: Rakim On His Legacy, Hip-Hop Today, Upcoming Projects & More

Without a shadow of a doubt, Rakim is one of the most important, and one of the greatest rappers in the history of hip-hop. Both as a solo artist and as one half of the groundbreaking duo Eric B & Rakim, he changed the very definition, and sound and rhythm of hip-hop as we know it. At only 18 years old, William Michael griffin Jr and Eric Barrier began to record Paid in Full, one of the most influential golden age albums in the genre’s history, beginning with landmark single Eric B Is President. 

Rakim was the very first rapper to incise his bars with a dexterity and flexibility that we take for granted today. He was the first rapper to introduce a more complex structure and flow into his verses, and the first to tackle internal rhymes and varied couplets, the likes of which were quite literally unprecedented when he first emerged in 1986. He was fast, too; authoritative and verbose, with clever insights and remarkable self-awareness. More than that, the lyrical content also paved the way for what came to be considered conscious hip-hop: soulful, socially aware, spiritual, anti-violent and so on. The duo were also among the most important artists utilising extensive sampling and jazz influences at the time, both landmarks of hip-hop now considered essential to so many.

After four albums together, Eric B & Rakim split up, and Rakim has gone on to release solo albums, the most recent being The Seventh Seal in 2009. While he may not be receiving the same attention and radio play as younger generations, his fingerprint can be felt in every aspect of hip-hop, right down to the lyrics. For instance, the chorus to Eminem’s incredibly famous track The Way I Am were inspired by, or sampled Eric B & Rakim’s As The Rhyme Goes On (“I’m the R the A to the K-I-M / If I wasn’t, then why would I say I am”). Timbaland and Aaliyah‘s famous Try Again features the hook “It’s been a long time, shouldn’t have left you, without a dope beat to step to” a slightly tweaked line borrowed I Know You Got Soul (the original ends with, “…without a strong rhyme to step to.“) Raekwon has entire song called Rakim TributeNas has one called UBR, or, Unauthorised Biography of Rakim. And that’s just a few of hundreds of examples.

Although musically he may sound outdated to those more accustomed to hip-hop of the 2000s, but his legacy is unparalleled, and his lyrical creativity is groundbreaking at every turn. Put simply, hip-hop would not be what it is today if Rakim had not done it first. He constantly features atop All Time Greatest Rapper lists and the like, and even if you don’t know his music that well, I guarantee your favourite rapper does.

Howl & Echoes is incredibly honoured that Rakim found some time amid his current US tour to answer some of our questions. Below, we speak about his legacy, the state of hip-hop today, and about what we can look forward to throughout the rapper’s fourth decade in this industry – including a documentary and 30th anniversary celebration of Paid in Full.

How are you and how has life been treating you of late?

I’m feeling really blessed right now… I’ve got a great balance and a strong focus. We are out on the road a lot, but we’ve been able to switch up shows… Sometimes doing festivals, sometimes working in clubs and theatres, sometimes DJ, sometimes live band… The changes keep engaging, for me and hopefully of the fans. When I get home….a lot’s going on.  I’m back in the lab… I think what I’m working on right now will surprise some people and maybe open up some conversations about the Hip Hop culture. I been playing with getting on camera and got a taste for film, so there’s a few projects and I’ve got a book that should excite everyone. Most importantly, I’ve got my family behind the door every time I open it.  Definitely blessed.

Your influence on hip-hop’s sense of accountability and depth is unparalleled, with songs that weave together messages of world issues, race and self-respect that resonates with so many around the world. When you first started this journey,  what did you envisage for yourself and your hip-hop career achieving?

I wasn’t sure at all, man. I could have been a football player. But, here I am… A little dude at that point sitting with everyone around the table in the cafeteria waiting for my slot to drop a verse… And all of a sudden I’m up and they are just looking and listening. A few years later I got knowledge of self and realised not only would they just listen, but they would think as well.   

You have been regarded as one of the most influential lyricists in hip-hop and are often listed as one of, if not the best rappers of all time. While recognition is great, lyrics with meaning and purpose, that stand the test of time, are of course more important – and you can lay claim to both. What are your thoughts on the rankings you have received over the years, and of your peers? Is it something you ever pay mind to?

How can it be any less than a true blessing.  I look to pioneers before me… in Hip Hop, in Soul, in Blues, in Jazz, Gospel, R&B, Funk, Rock… Wherever you are in a community of creativity and someone lays out the welcome mat, you are just thankful.

You paved the way for more in-depth rhythms, internal rhymes and a more poetic jazz-influenced approach to hip-hop. What are your thoughts on now seeing a lot more jazz and blues being reintroduced into mainstream hip-hop?

Is there any way that could be a bad thing?  Hip Hop is influenced in many ways by many musical forms and its what the artist takes from it all and evolves to their own that moves us forward… but Jazz will always be a pillar, a building block for what we do. At least what I do.

For nearly three decades your voice has not only set an incredible rhythmic and lyrical standard, but you have spread important messages. When you’re writing, do you consider the audience, and how people of different cultures and backgrounds will perceive you?

The audience is the only thing… but the music brings them together. When I was first coming up in New York, first hearing my songs on the radio, I would do a show and everyone from my home town would be shouting out every verse.  Then I’d jump a plane to Tokyo and, even though they might not know any other English, the crowd would be shouting out every verse.  Conscious, Positive, Fun music, over a good track, is universal.

In an interview last year you spoke about how Seventh Seal was conscious, and that you were making a statement with it – but that on your next album you want to have fun with it and enjoy hip-hop. It is interesting that “conscious” and “fun” are definitively separated. Do you feel as though an artist can or should only do one or the other at any given time, and why?

The Seventh Seal was an album that took some time for me to put together and I wanted to say some things that weren’t being said though the medium of Hip Hop, but should be both about the industry and the culture we live in. After a lot of business and creative back and forth, we got it out… and this weight lifted. I just thought now I get a chance to do something fun.

You have spoken about J Cole, and about Kendrick Lamar as keeping the torch of real hip-hop alight with a conscious new fuel. Does hip-hop have a responsibility to be conscious or have a message?


Paid in Full, Follow the Leader, Let the Rhythm Hit Em, Don’t Sweat the Technique, The 18th Letter, The Master and The Seventh Seal are all stellar works of hip-hop art. How do you feel each album changed you during its creative process?

We build with every project. From production, to lyricism, to message… I just try to grow, interpret and integrate all that is available around me.  

Where do you think your music is headed to in the future and what are you currently working on right now?

It’s busy man! I’ve got a few features dropping this summer, we’ve got a new release ready for this fall, we are wrapping a documentary I just produced behind the camera and  I’m going to be in front of the camera for another announcing soon…. And there is that whole 30th anniversary of Paid in Full coming up… Let’s see what we do for that.

Co-written by Lauren Ziegler & Maxine Johns

Image: worldhiphopmarket