The Songs Remain the Same
PREFACE by Michael A. Gonzales:
In the same way that rock critics are often accused of being failed musicians who’d rather be jamming with Jimmy Page than writing a few hundred words about his guitar solos, scribes who scribble about hip-hop often get pegged as undiscovered rappers who never got their Def Jam contract in the mail.
However, having never bust a move or spit a freestyle in my life, I came to hip-hop journalism as a fan of the musical genre that began developing on my hometown streets when I was a teenager.
Coming of age in New York City in the late seventies and early eighties, I had seen DJ Hollywood and Lovebug Starski rock a block party, was classmates at Rice High School with Darryl McDaniels, who later joined forces with Run and changed his name to DMC, and had been a roadie on the set of the Fearless Four’s 1983 video shoot “Problems of the World,” directed by my late friend Jerry Rodriguez.
While I hung out in post-punk spots like Danceteria, trying hard to be new wave, or went to see synthpop band Level 42 at the Ritz, as a Harlemite there was no escaping the sound of continuous rap music that blared from crack dealer’s cars, the boomboxes that thumped on uptown subways or bass that rumbled in my chest as I passed Broadway International.
The “Black noise” of rap was everywhere and, in a strange way, sometimes it felt as though the music chose me instead of the other way around. Yet, while I nodded to the beat and hung-out at various downtown hip-hop clubs named after candy bars, it wasn’t until I heard Rakim’s voice on his debut single “Eric B Is President” during the summer of ’86 that I fell in love with with rap.
Serving as an introduction to his hulking DJ Eric B, as well as his own immense skills on the mic, “Eric B is President” was the launching of a legend. In the same way old school jazz cats heard the early be-bop genius in Charlie Parker’s horn, I felt a similar sensation in 1986 when Rakim declared, “I came in the door, I said it before/I never let the mic magnetize me no more.”
Indeed, it wasn’t just Rakim’s lyrics, which were as Black and beautiful as a Panther rally, but also the power and the timbre of his voice.
In the next few months leading-up to the release of the duo’s first album Paid in Full the following July, Rakim and Eric B released a few more jaw dropping joints including “I Ain’t No Joke,” “I Know You Got Soul” and the album’s classic title track.
While each song was obviously meticulously written to seem effortless, Rakim displayed a love for the rhythm of language that was pure and artful. Like the best writers, including my heroes James Baldwin (essays), Chester Himes (fiction) and Ntozake Shange (poetry), the brother was both street smart and intellectual.
The following year, which was the mystical rap era of 1988 that gave Planet Hip-Hop such prized joints as the second Public Enemy album and EPMD’s debut, Rakim dropped the Black sci-fi single “Follow the Leader.” When an album of the same name was released a few months later containing the tracks “Microphone Fiend” and “Lyrics of Fury,” Rakim’s legacy as a master wordsmith was sealed.
“From century to century you’ll remember me/in history, not a mystery or a memory,” he declared on “Follow the Leader,” speaking the truth. While critics were already referring to LL Cool J as “the Shakespeare of rap,” it was obvious that Rakim was the real b-boy bard.
Like most New York City based rap fans during the late-eighties, I watched Video Music Box (shout out to Facebook friends Ralph McDaniels and Lionel “The Vid Kid” Martin) every afternoon, but was disappointed when the “Follow the Leader” clip began broadcasting.
Though the retro gangster visuals would’ve been cool for anybody else, it was my belief that the director should’ve created something more science fiction funky on par with Fantastic Planet or Blade Runner. Nevertheless, the song at least, remains a favorite in my personal lexicon more than two decades later.
In 1997, a few years after Rakim severed ties with Eric B. and was about to release his first solo joint The 18th Letter, I got a call from one of the ego trip boys, more than likely my forever friend Jeff Mao, about interviewing the R.
Although I had taken my music fandom to the level of a professional pop journalist documenting soul and rap for The Source, Vibe, RapPages and others, I was skeptical. Besides the fact that Rakim had a rep for having writers wait hours for his arrival, there was also the chance that he would be an asshole whose mere presence would turn me against him and his singles forever.
At the time, Rakim was signed to Universal Records, where my homie Dino Delvaille was his A&R and “whatever else” liaison. “It’ll be cool,” Dino assured me, steering his ride towards some hood in Queens. Unlike the jiggy generation who recorded at flashy spots the Hit Factory or Sony Studios, old school Ra was comfortable at a hole in the ground called Track Factory.
Much to my surprise, after waiting less than an hour, Rakim showed-up for the interview. In addition, the master blaster couldn’t have been more gracious, humble or cool as we talked about everything from his early career to working with DJ Premier on his then-new single “It’s Been a Long Time” to the un-sportsmen behavior of his ear biting buddy Mike Tyson.
By the time our conversation was over, my inner fanboy was on twelve. With a photographer in the room, I took a Polaroid snapshot with the “God MC.” In over 20 years as a culture chronicler, I’ve only taken photos with a handful of special folks including Grandmaster Flash, Kool Herc, RZA and, the only real writer of the bunch, Rakim.
Much has happened in the 15 years since I wrote this article for ego trip, including the expiration of a few loved ones and the near death of myself. Yet, a few things remain the same, including my love for Rakim’s artful lyrics and the powerful voice he projected on those poetically complex songs that changed my life forever.
The Resurrection: The Original Microphone Fiend Rakim Returns
Words: Michael A. Gonzales | Photos by Annalisa
Originally published in ego trip #11, 1997
Lounging on a worn black leather couch in 1988 as Eric B. & Rakim’s “Follow the Leader” came floating outta the radio like a cyberfunk orchestra (“In this journey you’re the journal, I’m the journalist/ Am I eternal or an eternal list?/ I’m about to flow long as I can possibly go…”). Stetsasonic’s self-proclaimed leader Daddy-O sez, “What is that shit?” Under the Lite Brite glare of fluorescent bulbs, he frowns. “Who wants to hear that? It might be cool for some folks, but kids on the streets of Brooklyn don’t want to hear that mess.”
Being one of the sect one might describe as ghetto elitists (ones who were raised to believe that their dark streets of broken glass and pissy backstaircases gives them authentic hip-hop rights over their soul brothers in the suburbs), Daddy-O sez, “Fellas like Eric B. & Rakim grew up in areas where they could afford to buy all the latest records and study the tracks. So they could make better jams.”
“You thought I was a donut/ You tried to glaze me,” screamed the chilling voice from the belly of Babylon, ice-skating on sharp aural razor blades without dripping rivers of blood onto the awed faces of the bewildered listeners. Post be-bop Dapper Dan Harlem cats stand in front of brightly lit bodegas, sipping frosty bottled brews on a humid summer night, Sony boom-box blasting the latest Long Island poet until the twilight finally gleams. Funky skyrockets explode from the mix that his ornate jewelry wearing DJ, Eric B., drops, spinning vinyl that invokes Harlem barbershop legends of James Brown on stage at the Apollo (“…dat nigga was not only processed, he was possessed.”). “Not just another impoverished lyricist trying to claw his way above the temple of our hip-hop familiar,” I thought, as I heard Rakim for the first time in 1986 – eleven years ago during that golden age that baggy, Hilfiger-wearing brats now refer to as the old school: you know, back in the days when brothers had to bring real verbal skills to the prose battles – throwing jazzy phrases like Ironman Dolphy at Birdland and punching like Muhammad Ali waxing Foreman’s ass in Zaire. In other words, the team that was Eric B. & Rakim was the real shit, more popping than Wacky Pack bubblegum. “Go Rakim/ Go Rakim/ Go!!!” the crowd inside the collective head of hip-hop culture screamed, absorbing the deep beauty, Five Percenter discourse and proud Nubian fortitude that would become a soul sonic force in rap history.
Perhaps my most vivid memory from the summer of Ra ’86 is working in the recreation department (i.e. babysitting smart-mouthed BeBe’s kids while their slack-jawed mamas sat in the park guzzling 40 oz. joy juice) at the Catherine Street Shelter – a grimy family center built on the edge of Hell: the smell of garbage vaporing like a cheap perfume through the blistering hallways, cracking linoleum floors and stale air drifting on invisible clouds of germs. As I prepared to take a group of kids to the rowdy lunch room for a serving of the mysterious cosmic slop that was delivered from a massive kitchen three times a day, one of the older hoodrats slinked down the hall blaring “Eric B. is President.” Stopping at the pay-phone to call his junkie homeboy, Jitterbug, who was doin’ time upstate for bugging on angel dust, the stylish teen put the radio on the floor. Chattering along in their youthful voices, the kids began to perfectly recite Rakim’s lyrics as though they were verses from The Bible. Looking like they were starring in a blaxploitation musical directed by Melvin Van Peebles, the kids broke into the latest dance craze of that period – the Wop. “Taking off my coat/ Clearing my throat/ The rhymes will be kicking until I hit my last note,” declared Ra. As the children popped their necks and swayed like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz taking the Scarecrow down from his pole, the legendary Marley Marl flipped the riffs of disco-diva Fonda Rae’s “Over Like a Fat Rat” to sound like the new birth in the age of Black sonic wonders.
“I always saw Rakim as a kind of king of the cosmos,” gushes his former Rush Management publicist/present Mouth Almighty president Bill Adler. “A kind of cosmic sound ruler on the same level as an artist like Jimi Hendrix. Ra was unique for his time because of his coolness. With the possible exception of Spoonie Gee, all the other rappers were shouters. In the jazz sense, Louie Armstrong was a shouter and Lester Young and Miles Davis were cool. Ra was cool like that.”
Another old school trooper from the Rush Management daze is the alluring, dreadlocked Lisa Cortes. “I used to always joke with Rakim [before press and photos] that it was time for him to get off his magic carpet,” she laughs. “But in retrospect, I would have to interpret Ra as having descended from the Dogon people of Africa. In their art, there are images of space travel and astral planing. And those are the qualities that Ra always displayed in his own work.”
From that moment in 1986, I became just another member of the cult of Eric B. & Rakim: glassy-eyed from too many blunts, bugging out with too many stunts, we gathered at the aural alter and awaited the glimmer gifts that would descend like chocolate-winged angels form Hip-Hop Heaven. Digging in their dusty crates for classic tracks (“Follow the Leader,” “Microphone Fiend,” “Lyrics of Fury,” “Let the Rhythm Hit ’Em” and countless others), basement DJs still manage to rock the house with these fat beats.
“I saw ’em dudes when they played the Apollo in ’92,” recalls Jitterbug, his teeth stained from too many Newports. Jitterbug be claiming Rakim concerts like it was the same as marching with Martin Luther King. “Brothers were throwing money on the stage.”
In fact as I rewind the ill-kid, Hype Williams-esque video in my skull, I can see blurry images of the only time I experienced Eric B. & Rakim on stage, touring behind their last album, Don’t Sweat the Technique, at the Ritz. After drifting for over an hour in the sweltering venue, hanging with my homegirl, Devin, chilling with our posse and gulping lethal mixtures of Long Island ice teas, the house lights finally dimmed and the dynamic duo bopped out without a care. Yet minutes into the pure Negro sci-fi of “Follow the Leader” (“… Pull at my weapon and start to squeeze/ A magnum as a microphone murderin’ emcees…”) the cacophony of 9mm blasts drowned out the music, followed by a stampede of sneaker feet and bloody chaos on the dance floor. The senseless events would later be immortalized on the Gang Starr composition “Soliloquy of Chaos,” but the evening’s most lasting image was that of Rakim. With a puzzled gaze on his beautiful, brown face, he and Eric B. ducked down and broke out. This would be the last time many would see Rakim. Like a kind of Thomas Pynchon of da ’hood, he disappeared, apparently turning his back on the new breed of Babel rappers who now stalked the sound factories of hip-hop culture. Every now and then some fans would swear they heard that “Ra is in a West Coast studio with Dr. Dre,” but those were just ghetto myths of a better tomorrow that never seemed to come.