Rap music wouldn't be where it is today without the foundation Rakim helped build. Some people call him God. His government name is William Michael Griffin.
Rakim's manager, Matthew D. Kemp, helped facilitate a query session with the MC, where he talked about rapping on the Rugrats soundtrack, the importance of Scarface to Southern rap, what it was like to work with Dr. Dre, his advice for raising kids and the origins of a very special Marly Marl mix of the bar-setting "My Melody."
You don't have to be some crazy rap nerd to know about the beef between Rakim and Big Daddy Kane. Or, maybe you do. But what's really notable about this piece of hip-hop radio history is that Marly was the lead member of the Juice Crew of which Kane was a part. And none of that got in the way of him adding his stamp on this classic.
Houston Press: Can you tell me more about a "My Melody" remix by Marley Marl that's floating around the web? Is it the real deal? Why wasn't it released?
Rakim: That started floating again around 2010 and comes up every once in a while. I see Marley all the time, but haven't kicked it with him about the mix. It's got his fingerprints on it. Back when Marl was on [major 1980s New York City hip-hop show] Rap Attack, they used to get loose and drop things they sometimes came up with right there in the booth. [Host, Mr.] Magic and Ty knew they had this voice of the culture, that the streets would record the show back to front, and the cassettes were like currency, who had the latest, what tracks did (radio stations) WBLS cop over WRKS.
For rappers, hearing your voice on this radio show we had to ourselves was a moment, and it was kind of a competition, so Marl had his hands on a lot of the raw recordings. He's a beast on the boards coming up with pieces no one else could do. Those tracks were all cassette tapes recorded live from the radio on boxes on the corner, so now there's a lot of them sitting in the back of desk drawers that are just starting to get noticed.
With respect to other DJ/producers like Marly Marl, you've worked with some of the best ever. Tell us about what it's like to work with (Houston-born) DJ Premier and Dr. Dre. Especially Dr. Dre, you might have made a masterpiece with him.
Dre's got a unique vision and a huge amount of talent, so we were hoping that I could get with him and make history. They say we both changed the game in our own ways, so it looked simple. It ain't always simple, though. I learned a lot out there, but when you're trying to coordinate creativity, sometimes you just have trouble getting on the same page at the same time. He's still my dude, though. No regrets.
Preme's like an encyclopedia of music and a master of hip-hop history, so when he sees something or feels something, he knows just how to put it together in a way no one else can — knows just what sound something needs. I've been trying to get the key to his crates for a while but he keeps it close. He's one of those few people who's opinion I trust as much more than just a producer. He'll make his own dope beats, no doubt, but also looks at the whole project to see what element pulls it together.
You've worked a lot on soundtracks, from kids' movies to hip-hop classics such as Juice and 8 Mile. How did you even decide to put your music on soundtracks? What's that process like?
Are you talking about that Rugrats joint? That one was for my kids. Juice just kind of flowed out of me after they let me see a rough cut of the movie. I was running around and living downtown in New York at the time and they came to me with the idea. I had been thinking about ways of painting a picture around what real dudes was experiencing on the street, so I just shut myself in my own room, started diggin' through crates and found that [Cannonball] Adderly bass sample, got on the drums — cause you know I was kinda nice on the skins — and laid that underneath, then these three verses came out pretty smooth.
At Universal [Records], Kathy Nelson was like my big sis and was always looking out for ways to take what I was doing to the next level, so she played a big part of putting my music up on the screen. Sometimes she'd have an idea and come to me to do something specific, sometimes she'd just see something and know I had the perfect track.
On R.A.K.I.M., when I got out with Dre in Cali, around 2001, we was working on my own album, but Em was also doing his projects and his man [Denaun] Porter was putting together some dope tracks for those. This one joint clicked and we was all in it together, so I think they saw the fit for it over here on 8 Mile and, what Em did with that movie, with that soundtrack, that just blasted it off.
Can we expect to see more soundtrack work from you?
No doubt. Working on movies and TV and other visuals brings even more creativity into the room. You sit down with the director, the screenwriter, the cinematographer, see their vision and all these elements that build together to make something that's a whole different form. I use my words and my attitude to help tell a story and, in a perfect world, they use that to help tell theirs. It's a collaboration that elevates the finished work, so one plus one equals ten.
You've said in the past it took you a while to really appreciate rap music from Houston, but that Scarface really changed that for you.
When you look at hip-hop, New York sort of laid out a blueprint that other areas followed.
I ain't saying it sounds the same or it's copied because everywhere has their own style, but, like [with] New York, the blueprint starts off with that party rap, like the 'hip-hop-hippy-to-the-hip-hip-hop' in NYC. But then there's that moment when a rapper comes and takes it to that next level; lyrically, flow-wise, content-wise.
Scarface was that dude in Houston, maybe in the whole South. He was the turning point for me when it was like, aight, now we got some conscious cat coming at things from a higher perspective and really solidifying their voice and the voice of that part of the culture. Big ups to Scarface for being that dude. Hoping he'll be coming through the show.
Has the way you structure you raps changed at all? Has it evolved?
Everyone evolves. You learn new things and have new experiences that shape the way you view the world. That maturity has got to make its way into what you write if you're conscious of your message. I don't want to pull back the curtain too much, but I usually sit down with an idea in mind, some rhymes in mind, but then I just start piecing things together. I'll grid out a track and know what I need to say, sometimes in the first bars, sometimes in the end or in the middle, and then I see how things start to fit.
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Is there anything you regret about your career in the music business?
I don't really have no regrets. I know that sounds like what you supposed to say, but this year is 30 years since Paid in Full dropped and I can come to Houston and still get that love. It's a blessing, man. It used to be MCs were like football players — they have some strong seasons, but then after six or seven years things kind of move on.
To see the crowds — and we talking generations now —- still come out and know the lyrics and still jump up when I hit the stage, to still get the calls from the younger artists and the older execs, I can't regret what I've been doing. It's all a blessing.
In closing, we hear you're quite the family man. Any advice on raising kids?
It's almost like how can you rise up together. I try to teach my kids what's right, let them learn from some of the lessons I have, but I also support them as they experience things on their own; and my sons, my daughter, I learn from them too. We've got rules, we've got expectations, but we don't bury them with them. I come from a very close family, where everyone expressed their opinions whether we agreed or not.