Words by Dylan Kemp
“… It wasn’t the records that made me Rakim. I was Rakim and I wanted to interpret that through my records” ~Rakim Allah
Morehouse College is the premier institution for higher learning for Black men, and it only made sense that Hip-Hop’s most premier emcee stopped by the school to talk about his new recently released autobiography, Sweat The Technique: Revelations on Creativity From The Lyrical Genius.
The all-male historically Black college was on a roll. Earlier last week, Oprah donated $13 million dollars towards her Oprah Winfrey Scholarship Fund. Days later Rakim graced the campus, providing an attentive audience of students an opportunity to see the “god MC” engage in a provocative conversation-style talkback with Morehouse College professor of psychology, Dr. David Wall Rice. The two discussed anecdotes about his life, challenges that he had to overcome, and the inspiration behind his memoir/ writing manual.
Dr. Rice introduced Rakim to a warm crowd of about 100 students and faculty. Despite the artist having his emergence in the late 80s, gauging the thunderous applause the millennials and gen zs in the audience understood clearly Rakim’s impact on Hip-Hop.
While this may seem like a “duh” moment, consider that Rakim’s career-defining debut album, Paid In Full, was released in 1987, almost released a decade before many of the students were born.
Dr. Rice asked Rakim, “How would you define yourself?”
Rakim responded with a calm and laid-back demeanor, “That’s a good question… you’re asking the wrong person. [I’m] Just a regular cat that grew up in Long Island. Loved sports; played football, basketball, baseball growing up. Played in a band, played sax… You know, I went through regular things that we go through. Just [had] an extra love for music and a deep understanding for it. And I think I was able to take that and convey it into what Rakim do… Just a regular person who grew up loving life. And a very humble person at the same time”
What makes you happy? What brings joy into your life?
What makes Rakim happy?… Being at peace. Being around my kids and my grandkids running around. Just being at peace. And for me you know it’s like, what do you do for fun? Nothing. You know what I mean? I tour a lot, move around a lot, move from state to state, city to city. When I get home, I like to do nothing. Just sit around and relax.
Rakim later revealed that he wasn’t originally interested in writing his autobiography, but then found a way to make it interesting by trying to inspire people rather than simply telling his life story.
Purpose was a common theme throughout the conversation. When asked how important his writing is to him, Rakim responded by saying: “It’s everything… It’s my way out”. He further shared that his purpose was to use his writing to “try to make everybody feel as if I [Rakim] was speaking to them directly.”
When asked a question from the audience about whether his purpose changed throughout the course of his career, Rakim responded:
“My purpose, I think, was instilled in me through my people and manifested itself in my work. I think who I am…that’s what makes me. I had a good sense of who I was before I started making music. My purpose, I think, was, from day one, to try to push the envelope, I wanted to make a statement in my work, I wanted to bring consciousness and awareness to music and the neighborhood… It wasn’t the records that made me or wanting to be Rakim. I was Rakim and I wanted to interpret that through my records.”
In addition to having students in the audience, he also had the adoring eyes of first grader Jack Streat watching him. Jack is a huge fan of the rap legend. His presence was a clear example of how Ra’s rhymes extend over generations. So it was appropriate that he shared something about character for the youngun’.
The highly regarded lyricist spoke about how he sees himself, attributing his awareness of self and humility to his upbringing within his family. He stated that his parents were no nonsense people. Doting on his parents, he let the audience know that they were good and decent people who were respected in the community and taught him good values. These values has carried him throughout his career. They have also afforded him the humility and grace that distinguishes him from other entertainers.
Young Jack is there with his father, a Morehouse man, and is squirming in his seat. He is nervous about asking a question. Finally he does. Jack pries, “Are you and Eric B still friends?” He said “yes,” but went into how complicated their relationship has been over the years. It was refreshing. It made the god MC more like a man. The conversation was no longer only about how great his life has been. It shifted into a peek into the challenges he has faced over the years. He placed a particular highlight on getting caught with his first gun charge at the age of 12, and his father’s passing. After his father passed, Rakim stated that he did not want to do music anymore. He felt as if rapping would keep him away from his father. He returned to his life-giving craft after six months after hearing the beat for classic song, “The Ghetto.”
“Long story short I went into his [Paul C] house and the first thing he played was “The Ghetto,” the beat. And when I heard that beat, everything came back to me. It was like, that track made me feel like alright, it’s alright to write a rhyme. That track just fit how I was feeling to a tee. I felt that I could talk to my father and at the same time it made sense to want to write again”
The last question to Rakim was “How do you want to be remembered?” Rakim kept his answer short and sweet.
“I want to be remembered as someone that had an idea… someone that did it his way… someone that loved music and pushed a genre… and a good person and dope lyricist.”
He will be remembered as a dope lyricist indeed, at least Jack believes so.
Backstage, after the students poured out. Jack inched his way up to talk one-on-one to Rakim and to get his book signed. What did he say to him once he was face-to-face with this star that he only knew to pump from his dad’s speakers? Ra was just as personable and careful with this young fan, as he has been throughout his career (as detailed in his book) as writing his rhymes. The question came up in the room about Jack actually knowing Rakim’s rhymes. The room hushed as the future Morehouse man told the “Mahogany” rapper his favorite lyric of all time. “Thought I was a donut, you tried to glaze me,” he said.
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Every day is a proud Dad moment, but today was extra special. My lil pup got to meet one of my idols, @officialrakimallah aka @rakimgodmc I was so proud of how he embraced the moment and asked Rakim a question during the Q&A session. He even made the God MC laugh when he told him what his favorite lyric was – “Thought I was a donut, you tried to glaze me.” Definitely was a day to remember. Big up my man @dwallrice for looking out??. #thejackattack #lilpup #lilstreat #myminime #fatherandsonmoments #fatherandsontime #fatherandsonlove #fallbreak #hiphopenthusiast #trainupachildinthewayheshouldgo #rakim #rakimallah #sweatthetechnique #iaintnojokeishisfavoriterakimsong #mineisericbforpresident #morehousecollege
That would sum it up for real, for real. Just like this line, genius in all its simplicity, Rakim can take what might seem common and change someone’s life. Yeah… he is not just a good person… but a dope lyricist too.