Last week, Planet Ill sat down with legendary Hip-Hopper Rakim Allah to discuss life, legacy, and music. It’s always a treat to hear from giants, and Rakim Allah was gracious in sharing his history with us. We discussed a wide variety of things about his foundation, his progression, his hidden talents and things that motivated him to take his talent to rarely reached heights. Here is part one of that discussion.
Planet Ill: What role does religion play in the foundation of your music?
Rakim Allah: My culture plays a lot; it’s my world. Everything derives from how I see and how I envision the world. It plays a major part.
Planet Ill: You come from a musical family. Did that give you an advantage over other MC’s in terms of recognizing pacing and flow?
Rakim Allah: I think playing in the bands and learning how to read music; learning the theory of music breaks it down a little more and you get to understand it better. It helped me a lot with my rhythms and my syncopations.
Planet Ill: Which instruments can you play?
Rakim Allah: I played the sax in school. I play alto all the way up to baritone sax. Coming up in the house my older brother played piano, my middle brother older than me played saxophone, the drums. I tried to get my hands on whatever I could.
Planet Ill: You produced “Know The Ledge.” How much of your production work went unheralded?
Rakim Allah: A lot of the music that people listen to from Rakim, most of that I did. “Follow The Leader,” “Don’t Sweat The Technique.” “Paid In Full” Eric put the beat on, but like most of the albums was me. Later on in my career, the last couple albums there were other producers that I have, you know, Clark Kent, Premier, but most of the beginning was me.
Planet Ill: Marley Marl led much of that movement back then musically, but a lot of the guys said they picked the records and the samples themselves. We’ve heard that from Kane. G. Rap said that a couple times. Was it Marley’s ear or his engineering that made the records sound like they did?
Rakim Allah: Yeah. Like “Eric B. Is President.” “Funky President” was something I rhymed off in the park all the time. I was like yo, we gotta do something off this right here. Eric B. was looking through my mom’s records and he seen “Over Like A Fat Rat.” So he was like, “I want to use this bassline.” I’m like, “’Fat Rat’ ain’t gone sound right on these drums, man.”
Marley Marl, we did it at his house and he put his touch on it, we did the drum track over; Marley programmed that. A lot of people don’t know that’s Marley scratching on that. Eric cut the word “funky.” Marley’s sound, Marley’s touch back in the day. Like most of us, the rapper had certain tracks and certain samples that he liked, but Marley was hooking them up.
Planet Ill: Harlem is a long way from Wyandanch. How did you make that connection?
Rakim Allah: I was running around in Brooklyn, but to me, Manhattan was like the Mecca; there’s not much you can do without coming to Manhattan. I think me just trying to absorb New York and just stay in tune with things, man. I just made my way in certain neighborhoods. Got embraced by and gave back in terms of what I learned in Harlem, what I learned in Brooklyn, I conveyed it back in my records. When I walked those streets they appreciated what I did; they could tell I been through some of the same things they been through.
Planet Ill: What’s your favorite Rooftop [Legendary Harlem Skating Rink] moment?
Rakim Allah: See it used to pop off at Rooftop. I was there for many different joints. I did like 20 shows in rooftop…Doug E Fresh Birthday. The Rooftop was like the home of Hip-Hop back then. Just being there and having the chance to experience that…Brucie B on 1’s and 2’s. Some places you would go to, it was like we was always renting the spot out, you know? We used to go to Union Square down here, but it was like we was renting that.
But when you went to spots like Rooftop, the majority of people that were there were people from that hood, so it felt different in there like that was the way it was SUPPOSED to feel. Big up to the Rooftop, I grew up in there. I learned a lot there. That’s where I drank my first Moet, the little nips, nahmean?” It’s all love.
Planet Ill: Fashion was always important with how you put it down, with the Dapper Dan styles, etc. Rick Ross recently got called out for wearing fake shades, but none of the Dapper Dan stuff was real[Gucci, Louis Vuitton], but it was flavorful. Why do you think he got so much flack?
Rakim Allah: Well no, it’s a little different because rappers talk about how much paper they getting and how flashy they are. Back in the day, the Dap thing was more, we wasn’t up on Gucci, Fendi and all that. With Dap, everybody knew that it wasn’t real shit, but it was just the style, and it was paper, too. You had to have a little paper.
It wasn’t like we were trying to front. They knew we didn’t have Louis Vuitton Timberlands [laughs]. But yo they look fly, though with the jacket and the hat. So it was more of a style thing that we adopted from Gucci and Fendi, ‘cause Fendi wasn’t making the jackets that we was rocking; the pants or the shoes. It was more a style thing. But now it’s more of a designer thing now, so if you gonna do it, you gotta do it right.
Planet Ill: The question of who was better between you and Kane is basically a style thing, where it’s the witty, punch line style vs. the rich, poetic style. What are the merits of each?
Rakim Allah: The punch line style, of course is the wow effect. I was kind of different, my rhymes, you might have had to rewind it a couple times to really hear what I was doing. I think both had that wow effect but the punch lines hit you right away, but what I was trying to do took a little time and by the time they figured out what I was trying to do, it brought the wow effect too.
Tune in tomorrow for Part II of the Interview, where Rakim talks about his favorite Kane/Kool G Rap verses, discusses whether younger rappers should be leading Hip-Hop, his legacy, his love of music, an inside conversation with Nas on his battle with Jay-Z and more.
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