Rapper Rakim has long been considered a preeminent talent in a genre whose leaders are often quickly replaced. Billed as a hardcore East Coast rapper because of his penchant for blunt imagery, he has nonetheless avoided profanity and held to an unfaltering message that deplored violence and praised God and peace. In some respects a throwback to the 1960s, this emcee and lyricist has offered listeners a markedly updated twist on the peace-and-love philosophy of that era. Employing the accelerated beat of turn-of-the-century rap and hip-hop, he remained immensely popular among his peers even as other early rap artists fell into obscurity. After coming to fame as the emcee of the Eric B. & Rakim duo, he emerged as a solo artist in the mid-1990s. Rakim signed with Aftermath Records early in 2002 before breaking out independently in 2003.
Born William Michael Griffin Jr., on January 28, 1968 in Wyandanch, Long Island, New York, Rakim was the product of a predominantly black community on Long Island. His father, William Griffin Sr., was a sensitive and soft-spoken man whose family was artistically inclined. Rakim's mother sang jazz and opera; his brothers played an assortment of musical instruments. By the time he converted to Islam at age 16, he had proved to be gifted not only as an artist but also as an athlete, and he aspired to a career in professional football. During his early forays as a hip-hop entertainer, the then 17-year-old Rakim called himself Kid Wizard; he later adopted the name Rakim, in honor of the ancient sun god Ra and the ancient Egyptian kingdom of Kim.
It was disc jockey Eric Barrier of radio station WBLS who first recognized Rakim's talent while seeking an MC to complement his experiments with sampling in 1985. Barrier took Rakim as a protégé, and the two performed as a duo, with Barrier topping the marquee. Originally billed as Eric featuring Rakim, they recorded a single track, "Eric B. Is President," as a demo in 1986. Zakia Records, an independent Harlem-based label, released this demo track as a two-sided single, paired with "My Melody," that same year. In the lyrics of this early song, which became a summertime street hit, Rakim glorified the influence and power of professional MCs such as himself. He pondered the microphone, the tool of his trade, describing its lure: "Biting me fighting me inviting me to rhyme/I can't hold it back I'm looking for the line … no mistakes allowed/Cuz to me, MC means move the crowd."
By now called Eric B. & Rakim, and hoping to capitalize on the success of their debut single, the Queens-based pair accepted a contract with the 4th & Broadway label and issued two singles, "I Ain't No Joke" and "I Know You Got Soul." Both were successful. The 1987 debut album of Eric B. and Rakim—recorded with hip-hop colleagues Sefton the Terminator, Chad Jackson, and others—found a spot in the R&B top 10. This early success led to a contract with MCA's UNI label and solidified Rakim's reputation for delivering songs with provocative lyrics, devoid of profanity.
In the words of the album's warning-filled title song, "Paid in Full," Rakim told listeners that "I used to be a stick-up kid … ain't nuthin' funny … But now I learned to earn cos … then maybe I'll stay alive." The album was certified gold for sales of 500,000 copies on December 4, 1987, and less than one year later, on September 27, 1988, a second album, Follow the Leader, earned gold certification after reaching the top 10 as well. Still partnered with Barrier, Rakim gained crossover legitimacy in 1989 when the duo joined Jody Watley on a Top 10 pop single called "Friends." He and Barrier meanwhile pursued their signature style, which rested on righteous-minded rhymes and inventive remixes. Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em was released in 1990 and was certified gold that same year.
In an unfortunate footnote to its fame, Paid in Full generated a web of copyright infringement lawsuits from James Brown and Bobby Byrd, with each claiming damages resulting from the use of the recordings Barrier had sampled in the popular remixes contained on the album. Indeed, much of Barrier's reputation and popularity rested on his talent for the remix, and some critics contended that the Eric B. & Rakim mixes were superior overall to the recordings they were taken from, including those by Brown and Byrd. Legal disputes and controversy notwithstanding, Paid in Full was certified a platinum million-seller on July 11, 1995.
Still together as an act, Rakim and Barrier remained with MCA until a rift in 1989 led ultimately to the dissolution of the duo in the early 1990s. In 1992 MCA released a final recorded collaboration by the two, called Don't Sweat the Technique.
Rakim chose to remain at MCA as a solo artist following the split, but his progress toward that end was stymied by Barrier's hesitation in signing a formal release that had been required by Rakim's handlers. Rakim re-signed with the MCA/Universal label in the late 1990s, with these legal matters finally in order. But he had spent five years in relative creative silence. During this period of limited visibility, he performed in cameo slots and with basketball star Shaquille O'Neal contributed a duet called "Heat It Up" to the soundtrack for the 1997 Mario van Peebles feature film, Gunmen.
After Rakim's solo debut album, The 18th Letter, appeared in 1997, it sold over one million copies. Abounding with the characteristic imagery of his earlier work, Rakim's solo efforts sustained his appeal among a much larger generation of rappers and hip-hop followers. He proffered a vision of peace and hope, with timely lyrics and a memorable beat. As in earlier recordings, he aspired to bring his listeners to a better place through the imagery in his words, to take them from the violence of ghetto streets to an idyllic environment. Rakim alluded to ancient wisdom found in the Bible, in hieroglyphics, and in the Koran. "What, uhh, yo …" he proclaimed in the title track of The 18th Letter, "I spit flows that be ferocious … split seas for Moses … made waves for Noah … when it was one mass of land … one nash' [nation] of man …under one master plan." Rakim's solo debut was also released in a double-disc package that included a collection of his songs from the 1980s, called The Book of Life. Both the single- and double-album offerings of The 18th Letter were certified gold by the year's end.
Rakim teamed with rap duo Mobb Deep on the 1997 soundtrack for Hoodlum and contributed a track called "Take the Train" to The Rugrats Movie in 1998. He released a follow-up solo album, The Master, in 1999. At times fatalistic in its title-track message, the album nevertheless contained positive elements. Angus Batey in the Times of London hailed Rakim as the Bob Dylan of his genre, as an "abstract visionary." Conjuring imagery of darkness in its opening lines, "The Master" evolved into optimism and praised the power of light in a religious context: "From the slums of New York, to the gutters all over the world … my mental windows refuse to close … where the poison wind blows … I had a gift to … teach the youth and speak the truth … I'm ragin', rippin' up the stage."
For the Record . . .
Born William Michael Griffin Jr. on January 28, 1968, in Wyandanch, Long Island, NY.
Gave solo performances as Kid Wizard in high school; teamed with Eric Barrier as Eric B. & Rakim and released four albums with MCA, 1985-92; solo career, 1997–; re-signed with MCA, mid 1990s; released solo debut, 18th Letter ; contributed to soundtracks of Gunmen, 1993; Hoodlum, 1997; and The Rugrats Movie, 1998; signed with Aftermath Records, 2002; left Aftermath Records, 2003.
Early in 2002 Rakim announced a new partnership with hip-hop artist and producer Dr. Dre, but he had left Dre's Aftermath Records by the end of the calendar year to work independently. Labeled by music critic Mark Anthony Neal as the "Poet Laureate of the HipHop Nation," deserving of "top-shelf scholarly love," Rakim ranked, according to Neal, as one of author Grant Farred's "Black Vernacular Intellectuals." Rakim's skill, this critic contended, could be attributed "not [to] payola … [but rather to] the love of the art."
Singles (with Eric B. & Rakim)
"Eric B. Is President"/"My Melody," Zakia, 1986.
"I Ain't No Joke," 4th & Broadway, 1987.
"I Know You Got Soul," 4th & Broadway, 1987.
"Just a Beat," UNI, 1988.
"Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em" (vinyl/cassette single), MCA, 1990.
Albums (with Eric B. & Rakim)
Paid in Full, 4th & Broadway, 1987; Platinum Edition, 1998; Deluxe Edition, Island, 2003.
Follow the Leader, UNI, 1988.
Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em, MCA, 1990.
Don't Sweat the Technique, MCA, 1992.
20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection, Hip-O, 2001.
Classic, Universal, 2003.
18th Letter/Book of Life, Performer, 1997.
The Master, MCI/Universal, 1999.
Billboard, November 27, 1999, p. 40.
Business Wire, October 7, 1998.
New York Daily News, November 18, 1997, p. 46.
New York Times, December 7, 1997, p. 2.40; January 1, 1998, p.1.
Newsday (combined editions), January 1, 1998, p. B3.
Times (London, England), November 27, 1999, p. 12.
Vanity Fair, November 2002.
Village Voice, November 25, 1997, p. 76.
"And Bless the Mic for the Gods: Rakim Allah," Pop Matters Music, http://www.popmatters.com/music/features/031119-rakim.shtml (December 9, 2003).
"Eric B. & Rakim," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/ (December 9, 2003).
"Eric B. & Rakim: Biography," VH1.com, http://www.vh1.com/artists/az/eric_b_rakim/bio.jhtml (December 18, 2003).
"Rakim Leaves Aftermath Entertainment," AllHipHop.com, http://www.allhiphop.com/hiphopnews/?ID=2123 (December 9, 2003).
"Rakim—Long Live The King," The Music Monitor, http://www.penduluminc.com/MM/March/Rakim.html (December 11, 2003).
Born: William Griffin Jr.; Wyandanch, New York, 28 January 1968
Best-selling album since 1990: The 18th Letter (1997)
Hit songs since 1990: "What's on Your Mind" (with Eric B.), "It's Been a Long Time"
In the mid-1980s Rakim broke the conventional, uneven staccato delivery of rap with a new flow that was smooth and direct. His spiritual and complex rhymes often read like poetry, rewarding the scrutiny of the printed page.
A year later he met Eric B., a disc jockey and producer, and they released their independent debut Paid in Full (1987). The contrast between disc jockey and rapper gives the album its edge. Eric B. sounds as if he created his dance-ready beats in a crowded nightclub, while Rakim seems to have composed his lyrics comfortably seated, listening to soft jazz. Indeed, Rakim often wrote his rhymes while lounging to soothing instrumentals. The debut's title track is the model for all of rap's rags-to-riches stories, one of the genre's popular themes. "Thinking of a master plan / There ain't nothing but sweat inside my hand" is not just Rakim's coming-of-age tale, but the whole history of hip-hop. The album was a cultural watershed and went gold. Eric B. and Rakim signed to MCA Records for a reported sum of $1 million and in doing so helped usher in the commercial era of hip-hop.
In Follow the Leader (1988), their second album, Rakim and Eric B. diverged further, to radiant effects. Here, Eric B.'s soundscapes are more urgent and frenetic while Rakim's words are more calm and introspective. By 1990, the release year of Rakim's third album with Eric B., Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em, the world of hip-hop was enthralled by new exotic sounds, like those of Native Tongue groups De La Soul and the Jungle Brothers. Nevertheless, Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em glitters with originality, particularly the mystical realism of "The Ghetto," and the soulful dignity of "Mahogany."
Don't Sweat the Technique (1992) was Rakim's last album with Eric B., and the only one not to win a gold or platinum plaque. It features the clever word play of "Know the Ledge" and "The Punisher," but fans were beginning to doubt Eric. B's musical ability to showcase Rakim's extraordinary talents, and the duo split. Rakim emerged years later with a solo effort, The 18th Letter (1997), which entered the Billboard pop charts at number four. The 18th Letter did achieve a cohesive sound due to Rakim's retention of producers who catered to hard-core hip-hop fans, DJ Premier of Gang Starr, Pete Rock, and Clark Kent. This album adheres to the fundamentals of hip-hop, using old school cut and scratches, and underscoring Rakim's affinity for 1980s rap, with the rapper assuming the role of elder statesman, particularly on "It's Been a Long Time" and "Remember That."
The Master (1999) attempts to echo the flashy sound of late 1990s hip-hop. Rakim reaches beyond his typical zone of underground producers and straightforward delivery. He slows down his cadence on "Flow Forever" and attempts a pop hook on "Finest Ones." These efforts confused die-hard fans and failed to convert new ones. The Master did not achieve gold status.
Regardless of record sales, Rakim has made steady contributions to hip-hop. While many rappers jump from topic to topic in their rhymes, Rakim adheres to poetic cohesion, weaving single images throughout his songs, like the cinema theme in "The Saga Continues," from The 18th Letter (1997). Poet Sonia Sanchez considers Rakim a gifted artist and she recites his rhyme, "Casualties of War," during her own readings.
Recent years have found Rakim linked to Dr. Dre, the great hip-hop producer. Together, they created the 2002 hit single "Addictive" with artist Truth Hurts. Nearly every contemporary rapper, from Eminem to Nas, expressed an indebtedness to Rakim. Many artists, critics, and long-term fans consider him one of the most influential rappers of all time.
Paid in Full (4th & Broadway, 1987); Follow the Leader (UNI, 1988); Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em (MCA, 1990); Don't Sweat the Technique (MCA, 1992); The 18th Letter (Universal, 1997); The Master (Universal, 1999).