THE SAGA BEGINS…
Rakim Allah was born William Michael Griffin Jr. on January 28, 1968 in Wyandanch, Long Island, N.Y. to a musically talented and working class family. Under the tutelage of his soft spoken and artistic father William Griffin Sr. and his mother, who sang jazz and opera, William Jr.’s innate musical abilities were cultivated at an early age. He and his two older brothers, Ronnie and Stevie, learned how to play a vast assortment of instruments early on. William Jr. learned how to play the saxophone and drums and developed an appreciation for all genres of music with an emphasis on jazz and soul. He was inspired by greats from Thelonious Monk to John Coltrane and latched onto the syncopation and rhythmic sophistication that jazz derived from. In addition, he was also the nephew of R&B legend and actress Ruth Brown, whose professionalism and artistic genius would have a profound effect on who he would become as an artist.
Growing up in Wyandanch played a significant role in molding William Jr.’s musical future. He began attending neighborhood block parties that showcased a number of DJ’s at a local park as well as spending time with family members in Brooklyn and Queens, thus prompting his relationship with Hip Hop. Almost instantaneously, he developed an admiration for the culture and became engulfed with all aspects of it. He started rolling with his crew the Love Brothers and perfected his DJing craft along with mastering the production boards. He would eventually construct his own beats and write rhymes to different songs he created. Influenced by the sounds of Hip Hop greats like the Treacherous Three, Grandmaster Caz of the Cold Crush Brothers and The Furious Five, he perfected his skill and was determined to take a unique approach to his style of rhyme. Once his skills were up to par, he began performing around town as a solo artist by the name of Kid Wizard.
Although William Jr. developed a love rhyming, his deep passion for football overshadowed having a career as an emcee. He became fixture on the local Hip Hop scene but kept his goal set on playing football. The mild-mannered teenager displayed his athletic prowess as a star player in high school and worked hard hoping to achieve his dream of earning a college scholarship and eventually a career in the N.F.L. He wanted to play football at Long Island’s Stony Brook University where his cousin had already received a scholarship. After being introduced to the coach at Stony Brook, he was told that he needed to get his grades up to be admitted. Even though his immense appreciation for sports remained, his musical background began to outweigh his prospects in athletics. Eventually an unexpected chain of events would begin to unfold, encouraging the talented emcee to pursue an astonishing career in music.
While William Jr. was battling between playing football and emceeing, he stumbled upon a culture that would fundamentally alter his life. He became intrigued with the wisdom spoken by members of the Five Percent Nation after encountering a gentleman whose eloquent mannerisms struck his core. William Jr. was a youngster when he encountered the man, who was asking for train fare to get home but the language he spoke along with his disciplined nature sparked an interest with the impressionable adolescent. He tucked the memory safely in his mind but never forgot about the man, whose knowledge of self impressed him significantly.
Throughout high school, he became more drawn to the Nation and its teachings and dedicated himself to developing a thorough understanding of the literature. The NGE spoke to him like no other religion or culture and shed a new light which matured and gave him a new view on life. Rather than just accept another person’s manifestation, William Jr. decided to surround himself with the Gods and commit his time to mastering his own understanding.
The connection he had with the lessons ran deep and he wanted an attribute that would encompass the knowledge and wisdom he acquired. After much thought, he adopted the name Rakim Allah that mathematically lined up perfectly within his circumference. He combined the name Ra, in honor of the Egyptian sun God and Kim, which was another name for Egypt and the ancient land of KMT (land of the burnt faced people). In addition, Rakim also meant writer which was a clear representation of his true destiny.
Rakim was already an easygoing individual but his new way of life also brought forth a discipline and respect that captured his followers for years to come. By the time he was eighteen years old, his new attribute would not only represent who he would become as a man but would also symbolize a new revolution in the world of Hip Hop music.
FOLLOW THE LEADER…
It seemed as though Rakim’s mission would have been a career as an emcee considering the unconventional approach he took to rhyming. But he was certain that was not the life he wanted. He continued to focus on his goal to attend college and become a pro-football player even though he remained a fixture on the N.Y. Hip Hop scene.
One faithful day, outside of perfecting his game, Rakim took a trip to the home of DJ Maniac who was a close friend of his older brother Stevie. Not expecting to do more than lay a few tracks, he made a tape showcasing his lyrical finesse to present to other emcees that would boast about their talent. He successfully recorded ninety minutes of different beats and rhymes, including “My Melody,” which eventually ended up in the hands of his soon to be group member, Eric Barrier.
Eric Barrier (Eric B.) was an up-and-coming DJ for a local radio station WBLS, who was in search of an emcee to compliment his beats. He wanted the best lyricist coming out of N.Y. and embarked on a mission to find who could accentuate his production. A mutual friend, Alvin Toney, linked Eric and Rakim together thinking they would be a good match. The two met and Eric was instantly impressed with what he heard and wanted to get Rakim on his beats as soon as possible.
Initially, Rakim was very skeptical and openly expressed that he was not interested in pursuing a career in the rap game. But Eric B. knew he encountered an emcee of a different caliber that would blend perfectly with his production. Eric respected Rakim’s stance and agreed to feature him as a special guest so Rakim would not feel pressure to sign anything. After much consideration from Rakim, he agreed to be featured on the project.
The duo began working on a demo that Eric could shop around for a deal. The tape contained “Eric B Is President,” which Eric and Marley Marl constructed and Rakim’s original recording of “My Melody,” with DJ Maniac which served as the b-side. Once the tape was complete, it began circulating around the streets of New York and created a heavy buzz. Never before had the Hip Hop world heard an emcee like Rakim rap with an unusually slow tempo while dropping a barrage of intellectual lines that were full of knowledge and grittiness. Rakim had an innovative approach to emceeing that no other rapper was doing at that time. He knew he could flow over a slow beat which gave him an opportunity to put more words in the bars. This forward thinking created the internal rhyming scheme he would become known for. This style of rhyming he coined gave leeway to triple his words and allowed him to introduce rap fans to a different lyrical realm. That psychoanalysis of his approach to writing became his trademark, thus propelling him into the “God Emcee” status of the rap world.
With the tape continuing to conquer the Hip Hop scene, Eric B. got to work on searching for a legitimate record company. He eventually came across Harlem based Zakia Records; an indie label founded and run by then CEO Robert Hill. After the chance meeting with the CEO, Zakia offered Eric B. and Rakim a deal. With Hill funding all the costs, the duo went to the studio and immediately got to work on more tracks.
With everything falling into place, it seemed as though a debut album would soon follow. Unfortunately, Zakia Records ran into some unexpected business problems and was eventually bought out by subsidiary label 4th & Broadway Records. Despite the minor stumbling block, the joint venture between Zakia and 4th & Broadway had little impact on the duo’s momentum. The two continued on in hopes of completing a full project and continued to work on new material.
Eric B. and Rakim released two more successful singles, “I Ain’t No Joke” and “I Know You Got Soul” and 4th & Broadway swiftly signed off on the release for a full-length album resulting in the ultimate classic Paid In Full. The debut album was released in 1987 and caused an unbelievable stir within the industry. The songs were filled with powerful and provocative lyrics minus an excessive amount of profanity over imaginative production from both Eric B. and Rakim. The album cover was even captivating showing the duo standing side by side in front of a backdrop of money, in a pose that was slightly different from the normal b-boy stance. Dressed in customized Dapper Dan apparel, they clutched stacks of dough, while giving off an aura showing they were successful street hustlers turned rap artists. The assumption was partly correct; Eric B. and Rakim were street hustlers but their hustle did not consist of drugs; it consisted of dope music.
The debut album from the newest group in the rap game proved to be a pivotal moment in Hip Hop. Paid In Full was a raw account of a new energy and shift in the rap game. Not only did it usher in the golden era but also introduced modern lyricism and production. Rakim’s lackadaisical approach to rhyming was a far cry from the thunderous and abrasive emcees of that era. He was an intellectual stimulant that wrote his lyrics backwards and laid his verses down in one hour. His precision and understanding of linguistics made Paid In Full lyrically mesmerizing. The production on the album that was mostly credited to Eric B. (although it was a collective effort with Rakim contributing significantly) also aided in the success of the album. The heavy sampling, intensity and eeriness throughout as well as Eric B.’s turntable mixing was a futuristic approach to creating beats. The album not only had sounds that were unheard of on rap records but incorporated three instrumentals that showcased nothing but production skill which was a unique entity that distinguished the album from its competition.
Paid In Full spawned five singles: “Eric B. Is President,” “I Ain’t No Joke,” “I Know You Got Soul,” “Move the Crowd,” and the title track. Despite very little radio or video play, the classic debut managed to reach number eight on the R&B/Hip Hop charts and number fifty-eight on the Billboard 200. To date, Paid in Full has sold over a million copies and was named “The Greatest Hip Hop Album of All Time” by MTV.
During 1988, the Hip Hop floodgates were wide open with phenomenal albums dropping consistently but it did not stop fans from anticipating Eric B. and Rakim’s sophomore release. Fans wondered if the duo could match the perfection of Paid in Full, along with being able to keep up with the influx of new rap talent. Eric B. and Rakim outdid themselves again with release of their follow up album, Follow The Leader. The sophomore effort did not disappoint and seemed to take each of their skills to a more complicated height.
Follow The Leader helped to solidify the duo’s status as number one in the industry regardless of the emerging talent in Hip Hop. It reached number twenty-two on the Billboard charts and number seven on the R&B/Hip Hop charts. Not to be outdone by their debut, Follow The Leader provided the same premise as Paid In Full and picked up where it left off. Rakim continued to expand his lyrical talent while listeners could hear the growth of Eric B. as a production master. The album also produced the singles “Microphone Fiend,” “The R” and the title track that were potent enough to capture and pigeon hold the rap game for the next twenty plus years.
From the release of their second offering, until the groups next LP two years later, Hip Hop fans became more intrigued by the duo’s reluctance for the spotlight. Eric B. was a little more visible than Rakim with his name being billed first in the group’s title (which was customary at that time for the DJ to be billed first). A lot of times fans confused him as the groups lead lyricist and even referred to Rakim as Eric B.
But it was Rakim’s low-key demeanor and piercing stare that seemed to make him even more captivating. He rarely conducted interviews and when he did, he was always very calm in his mannerism, which was unusual for most rap artists of that time. Some fans thought Rakim was a former big time street hustler because of his conduct, when in reality, Rakim was very spiritually dedicated to his Islamic beliefs. Overall, his reserved nature and underexposure actually helped to make the duo more popular amongst their fans and colleagues.
The respect and popularity the duo achieved contributed to the success of their 1989 collaboration with R&B sensation Jody Watley, on the song “Friends,” a single off her LP Larger Than Life. This was one of the first collaborations of a pop singer and a rap act. It was a risqué move for the duo, being that it was considered unpopular for rappers to cross over into R&B at that time. This could have cost any other rap act their street credibility but Hip Hop heads were glad to hear the duo perform. It proved to be a successful collaboration, as the song peaked at number nine on the Billboard charts.
After the success of the collaboration and a two year hiatus, Eric B. and Rakim released Let The Rhythm Hit Em that peaked at number thirty-two on the Billboard 200 and number ten on the top R&B/Hip Hop charts. The singles from the album (“In The Ghetto,” “Mahogany,” “Let The Rhythm Hit Em’”) performed fairly well despite the different approach in lyricism and production. Although the album was full of what made Eric B. and Rakim legends, the beats became even more melodic and soulful while the lyrics weighed heavier on the minds of their followers. It became another classic masterpiece that dispersed an even darker but smooth sound, equipped with a much harder edged delivery from Rakim. The album was also produced by Paul C (who was murdered before the albums release), Large Professor who finished Paul C’s contributions, as well as DJ Mark the 45 King, which was unlike their previous works where the duo covered most of their production. It seemed as though Eric B. and Rakim were losing some of their impetus but they held strong and released what would be their final studio album as a collective.
In early 1992, Eric B. and Rakim recorded a song for the upcoming film Juice. The song, “Juice (Know The Ledge)” was a gritty yet descriptive song in which Rakim delivered one of his best flows, while warning of the dangers of the streets. This song would also be featured on Eric B. and Rakim’s next LP Don’t Sweat The Technique, released in June 1992. This proved to be the group’s most experimental album with Eric B. taking on a jazzier, harmonious approach, while Rakim incorporated a looser delivery.
The single “What’s On Ya Mind,” showed the duo’s ability to cater to a more R&B/Hip Hop sound that was becoming widely popular. The title track was a classic with experimentally jazzed up production and Rakim displaying a more lively delivery style. But it was the track “Casualties Of War,” that proved to be one of the most gripping on the album. With President George H. Bush sending troops into the first Iraq war, many Americans felt personally affected and obligated to voice their disdain. Rakim used this experience to express his thoughts as he described the deadly situations that soldiers faced while in combat which showed a more conscious side to the “God Emcee.”
Don’t Sweat The Technique went on to reach number twenty-two on the Billboard charts and number nine on the R&B/Hip Hop charts. Although the duos successful chemistry of smooth production and perfected lyrics were still intact, it became evident that Hip Hop fans were beginning to lean more towards the hard core gangsta rap sounds of the West coast.
Shortly after releasing their final album, the two begin to fallout due to creative differences. On top of that, their contract with MCA was up. Rakim decided to stay with the label as a solo artist but Eric B., who was fearful Rakim would abandon him, refused to sign a formal release that would have allowed the two to go there separate ways. The legal matter placed obstacles on Rakim and resulted in a long drawn out battle in the courts that would hold up his recording career for the next five years.
After a tedious battle in the courts with his former partner, Rakim pushed on and signed with his friend Deshamus “Q=BOB” Salis, of Q=BOB Records but the record label did not last long enough for Rakim to release any projects. Soon after, he moved on. He sporadically recorded a few cameos throughout the mid-nineties, including the single “Heat It Up” for the soundtrack to Mario Van Peebles film Gunmen in 1993. In 1996, he performed “Game of Death” with N.B.A. superstar Shaquille O’Neal and recorded the title track to the Hoodlum soundtrack with Mobb Deep and Big Noyd in 1997. He would continue to have guest appearances and remain somewhat low key before finally releasing his first solo album.
Rakim returned to MCA in 1997 and released his highly anticipated solo LP The 18th Letter, featuring production from legendary producers: Pete Rock, DJ Premier and Clark Kent. For the first time, Rakim stood alone and reclaimed his throne as the king. The single “Guess Who’s Back” helped introduce a new generation of Hip Hoppers to his legendary flow as well as showed the world that, despite his long absence, he had not lost his touch. His delivery was just as crisp as it was during his prime and long time fans were excited to have “The Microphone Fiend” back. Even though some naysayers were reluctant thinking Rakim would not be able to keep up with the transformation of Hip Hop, The 18th Letter was a double disc filled with past works and current gems that Hip Hop fans and critics appreciated.
The album was sold as a deluxe set which included a book of life to bring the consciousness back to Hip Hop that Rakim felt was lost. The first CD contained new material while the second was fifteen of his greatest contributions with Eric B. By this time, most fans knew where Rakim’s studious and disciplined nature came from and this remained evident with the title he chose for his first solo effort. Rakim was known for picking up where he left off after every album and this record displayed where he was five years after closing the chapter on his legacy with Eric B. To name the album, the eighteenth letter, which signified the letter “R” in the Nation of Gods and Earths literature of Supreme Mathematics, was a testament to the “rules” that Rakim governed himself by. In true Rakim fashion, he also boasted in a sly manner that he was and still remained the ruler, which was also derived from the teachings of the Five Percent Nation.
A lot of emcees, who had prominent careers in the eighties attempted comebacks, but failed to match their past efforts and eventually faded into oblivion. But Rakim did not fall into the category of “has beens.” He brought back a maturity and sophistication to Hip Hop and showed current day emcees how real legends did it. The 18th Letter went on to sell over a million copies and reached number four on the Billboard 200 and number one on the R&B/Hip Hop charts.
Rakim followed the success of The 18th Letter with a sophomore effort in 1999 called The Master. Once again, Rakim proved he still had it but this LP was not nearly as successful as its predecessor. It did manage to reach number seven on the R&B/Hip Hop charts and seventy-two on the Billboard 200, but seemed to be a shift in the standard Rakim set for himself as an artist. Most of the album seemed to take a more radio friendly approach and shied away from the rugged street poetry that was layered in consciousness and drenched in intellectualism. The album was full of Rakim’s trademarks and production that complemented his rhythmic soul but did not represent as he would have liked. During a time when Hip Hop had shifted to a culture that was becoming unrecognizable to the pioneers and fans that watched it come to fruition, emcees of Rakim’s caliber struggled between staying true to their roots and succumbing to the corporate giant.
After The Master, Rakim continued to make guest appearances on other artist’s singles and in 2000, signed with legendary producer, Dr. Dre’s record label Aftermath Entertainment. To many fans, bringing Dr. Dre and Rakim together was the closest they would get to recapturing the magic that he created with Eric B. Many expected the merging of two of the greatest pioneers, who both exploded during the golden era, could bring the culture back to a nirvana like state and alter the direction it was headed.
Dr. Dre began working on Rakim’s next album that was set to be titled, Oh My God. The initial concept was to blow the minds of Hip Hop fans that were eagerly waiting for the rap savior to return. Dre and Rakim got to work but Rakim still found time to make a cameo appearance on the single “Addictive” by R&B singer Truth Hurts. The single reached number nine on the Billboard charts and number two on the R&B charts and gave us a preview as to what to expect on Ra’s third album. Rakim also appeared on the 8 Mile motion picture soundtrack as well as the single “The Watcher 2” with Jay-Z.
The suspense continued to mount and it seemed as though the pairing would be a match made in Hip Hop heaven but reports soon surfaced that the two were having creative differences. To many fans dismay, what most thought would be one of the greatest rap albums in history was shelved before it ever saw the light of day. Dre and Rakim differed on the direction they wanted the project to go in and amicably parted ways, which was a huge disappointment to legions of fans. Although the album was never released, some tracks were leaked onto the Internet and rumors emerged confirming Rakim would indeed release the album and include some of the tracks he did with Dre.
Always the pinnacle of a peaceful emcee, Rakim graciously moved on and continued to shop for a deal and continued to record sparsely. He was featured on “Streets of New York” with Alicia Keys in 2003, “Getting Up Anthem” with Talib Kweli in 2005, “You Know the Deal” with Lloyd Banks in 2006 and the climactic time transcending collaboration “Classic (Better Than I’ve Ever Been),” featuring Kanye West, Nas, KRS-ONE and DJ Premier in 2007. He also recorded “Subway Surfin” with Talib Kweli in 2007 and appeared on various other projects. Rakim continued to bless other works merely with his presence and then became somewhat of an enigma and maintained a low profile. Various rumors spread about his whereabouts and talk of his long awaited third albums status, but there was still no definitive for fans to hold onto. His third album became somewhat of an urban rap legend as the years rolled by leaving the Hip Hop community to wonder.
Through the years, Rakim’s fans and peers remained dedicated to him despite the longing for his return. Even through the countless release dates that never came to the barrage of hearsay about exactly what to expect, his supporters stance was cemented. In March 2008, some nerves were put to ease with the release of The Archive: Live, Lost & Found, which contained four new tracks and rare live performances. The album peaked at number ninety-nine on the Billboard Top R&B/Hip Hop charts and was received to mix reviews.
Rakim continued to tour and make guest appearances and eventually got back to work on his newly titled third solo effort, The Seventh Seal. The album was said to have some songs that were produced by Dr. Dre when he was at Aftermath, along with several new songs. Rakim also parted ways with his previous record label MCA and went back to the drawing board and decided to take more ownership over the direction of his career. He opted to release the project under his G&E Trust Label although no date had been set. Rakim kept quiet about what producers and collaborations he would have on the album citing he did not want fans to have preconceived ideas as to what his project would display and be left disappointed. He did reveal the importance of the name of the album which gave some indication of the concept behind the long awaited project.
Rakim’s culture was a huge part of who he was as an emcee and the number seven had a significant value to his way of life. The number seven corresponded with the letter G in the Supreme Alphabet of the Nation of Gods and Earths literature, which represented God. It also tied in with the seven continents, seas and some aspects of the Book of Revelations in the Bible. With this concept, Rakim wanted to put an end to what Hip Hop had become. His goal was to take it back to the neighborhoods and start with a clean slate filled with the essence of the culture he helped mold.
At the close of 2008, no word on the release of The Seventh Seal had been issued. But without a shadow of a doubt, Hip Hoppers remain on the edge of their seats waiting for their king to return after a nine year hiatus. Until the album comes out of hiding, Rakim’s legacy and importance remain untouched and the hopes that the long awaited album will be worth the wait.
Rakim emerged on the newly birthed Hip Hop scene as one half of the equally celebrated rap duo Eric B. & Rakim and rewrote the definition of master of ceremony. Initially known for raising the bar of mic techniques higher than it had ever been heard before, Rakim helped pioneer the use of the internal rhyme scheme within a rhyme. He discovered a unique way to express the lessons he learned from Islam through the rhymes of his music and became the face of a culture that would play a major role in Hip Hop. His intention was not to shove his way of life into thought patterns of Hip Hop’s children but rather speak to the inner city youth while challenging their minds with his intelligent lyrics.
Ra also brought forth a discipline and respect to the art of emceeing and transformed it into one of the core elements of Hip Hop. His forward thinking defined and held what the culture truly was in its infancy stages to the present. Those who were fortunate enough to develop an intimate relationship with the culture know the microphone fiends lyrics were like visual images etched across their frontal lobes with the stroke of his pen. And his importance and brilliance is the equivalent of what John Coltrane is to Jazz, Bob Marley to Reggae or Marvin Gaye to soul music. His worth and importance is so profound that the people that make up the Hip Hop generation bare witness to him as the “God Emcee.” He gave them great memories of the culture that shaped their lives just as much as it did his. And many emcees have even referenced Rakim in their own records and have gone as far as to make a song about his impact. If there were a Hip Hop Pulitzer, Rakim would definitely be in the running to receive the first accolade because without him, the history of Hip Hop would be fundamentally altered.
Rakim has earned the right to boast and brag about his legacy and the fact that he changed the story of Hip Hop. He is incredibly close to being unanimously accepted as the greatest emcee of all time and has several albums under his belt that are referenced as the best the culture still has to offer. His influence on the rap game is virtually beyond comparison in regards to how many emcees have patterned their own style and flow after his lyrical achievements. He revolutionized the art of sitting down and intricately crafting lyrics during an era where rap music was still in a nursery rhyme type of format. The pictures he painted through his rhymes invited the listener to see the world through his eyes with a behind the scenes access to the streets. The way he flawlessly commanded beats unfortunately gave many rappers the false impression they could attempt the same feat. Luckily, the patent law did not apply to Hip Hop otherwise several injunctions would have been filled for infringement on Rakim’s contributions. Even after twenty years, very few emcees have been able to effectively duplicate his combination of flow.
It has been very easy to say the man known simply as Rakim Allah was and still is the absolute embodiment of a true emcee in every sense of the word. His charisma and omniscient as an emcee was so profound he almost took on a mythical like presence. And he could without question, sit back and command checks for every verse, concept or idea that he created that future lyricists have copied that made them superstars; but on the contrary. This father and husband remains humble, appreciative and grateful that the younger generation and his peers embrace him and want to walk alongside him through his journey. He has gone through several trials and tribulations yet remains an unmarked emcee that gives so much of who he is in his music yet remains a mystery to those not in arms length. He has been with Hip Hop since its humble beginnings and is as dedicated to it as his fans are to him. His sheer love and respect for the culture make him a musical legend that turned rhythm and poetry into a culture that transformed America.