Rakim Turns 50: “It’s A Blessing To Be Around This Long”

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“Ask the teenagers, OG’s and nasty kids
What their definition of “classic” is
Timeless, so age don’t count in the booth
When your flow stay submerged in the fountain of youth”

-Rakim, “Classic (Air Force One Remix)

For over 30 years, hip-hop legend Rakim has been lauded as hip-hop’s premier MC because of his flawless flow on the mic. From his first album out the gate, Paid in Full in 1987, Rakim as cemented himself into the halls of the hip-hop hall of fame.

“It’s a blessing to be around this long and I’m still mentioned with everybody’s favorites,” says Rakim to Billboard. “It’s a hell of feeling, man. [Laughs.] I just appreciate the love that I get and support from hip-hop. I’m gonna stay focused and do what I do. Hopefully, within the next couple of years, I can do some good things to help finish the legacy off right.”

Born William Michael Griffin Jr in Wyandanch in Long Island, New York, his aunt was the legendary Atlantic records R&B singer Ruth Brown, while his mother sang jazz and opera. He showed an early talent for music, playing baritone sax for the Wyandanch High School band. He also joined a number of different rap groups at school, including the Almighty 5 MCs and The Love Brothers. DJ Belal, who would later be part of the Uptown Records group Groove B Chill, told Longislandrap.com that: “This dude sounded so good at 12… that most MCs could not even come close. So I stopped rhyming.”

His precocious talent is evident from old recordings of the time, including a 1985 high-school performance alongside future star Biz Markie, where he billed himself as “Kid Wizard Rakim.” He’d adopted the name Rakim after joining the 5 Percent Nation, an offshoot of the Nation of Islam.

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Rakim, Eric B. and Marley Marl all tell conflicting stories about how the three came together to record Eric B. & Rakim’s 1986 debut single, “Eric B. Is President,” but Rakim says it came about through his friend Alvin Toney, who brought Eric B. over to his house unannounced. In an interview with The Atlantic’s David Samuels, he said Toney greeted him with: “Well, this is Eric, he’s trying to look for a rapper. He knows Mr. Magic, Marley Marl. He asked me who the best rapper out here was and I told him, you.”

Eric B. took Rakim to Marley Marl’s home recording studio where they laid down a couple of tracks — “My Melody” and “Eric B. Is President” — released as a double A-sided single on the independent label Zakia. Marley Marl claims he produced the tracks; Eric B. says that he did. But no matter, either way, history was made.

Rakim’s procedure for writing lyrics is insane. The way he sees words and phrases are unlike most. He sometimes writes a rhyme backwards–yes backwards.

“I’ve been writing rhymes for so long I got like five or six different ways I write a rhyme. It might be from the last word in the verse to the first or sometimes I sit there, toy with it and I might come up with sixteen of the illest words I can and write the rhyme to fit in. That’s just when I’m f**king around or when it’s a little slow for me and I’m not in the mood to write I know how to force it out. I’ve been writing for so long I got a lot of different ways to write. Everything becomes too normal after a while. I’ve been writing for so long it’s like…