Get two hip-hop fans in a room, and within a few minutes, the conversation of Greatest MC Of All Time will invariably begin. Names like Tupac, Pharoahe Monch, Nas and Kendrick Lamar might have some place in said conversation, but even at their level of craftsmanship, there are few in the genre who inspire as much reverence as Rakim Allah.
Credited with near-singlehandedly introducing multi-syllabic rhyme schemes and internal rhyme structures to hip-hop, his place in music is arguably as important as John Lennon or Elvis Presley. When Paid In Full debuted in 1987, people didn't just note the emergence of a new emcee—they saw a seismic shift taking place inside the rap world (Seriously: tonight, get on Netflix, watch
Hip-Hop Evolution season 1, episode 3 because Darryl McDaniels, aka DMC, talking about the first time he heard Rakim is revelatory).
When Rakim talks, people listen—and when Rakim writes a book, it's something worth dissecting. But even after the November release of Rakim's Sweat The Technique, his literary first,the artist remains stoic.
"I never really felt interesting enough to do a book," he tells SFR. "I'm a modest cat, and I look at things different. So I didn't think a book would really resonate."
His personal misgivings aside, Sweat The Technique is quite the read. When autobiographical, itgives the reader a fly on the wall perspective into Rakim's early life on Long Island, New York; his first sessions with DJ, producer and emcee Marley Marl; and his partnership with Eric B, which all work to forge a personal bond with an artist who has been notoriously guarded about his private life.
"I was always kind of standoffish with my personal life mixing with my music," Rakim says, "so for me to be able to do this and give the consumer and fans an inside look at Rakim, I think that was important for me."
But Technique isn't just a recollection of one of the most lauded rappers from the golden era of hip-hop. Throughout the book are detailed notes on notable tracks, along with chapters on Rakim's creative philosophies. He says it's meant to give the reader a look into "the way I think, and trying to break down some of the intricate styles that I was doing—some of the styles that may have went over people's head."
Though the stories are excellent and worth the jacket price, it's in the relaying of creative content and process where Technique truly shines. Rakim has long been a man seemingly obsessed with transmitting knowledge, and having him guide you through firsthand experience feels less book-y, and more like an approachable yet high-level college course, or like a mirror to Rakim's ability to define culture, even as an outsider.
"I finally was ready to do the book, but I wanted a different way to do it, a different direction. I didn't just want to tell my life story or my history," he explains. "Rather, I wanted to inspire artists, and inspire people. Of course it details some of my history, but it was more to show the creative side of an artist and myself. What we go through, how we see our way through."
And just because he's writing books doesn't mean Rakim is out of the rap game.
"Of course I'll keep trying to create music, if the world lets me," he notes, adding that he wants to "do another album, see if I can push it as long as I can."
"It's just not something you let go because of a date or something that you did already," he continues. "For the people that love it, they can't stop."
Not stopping can look like a number of things, but for Rakim, a part of his current book tour will be pulling double duty—performing and speaking in one night—along with local hip-hop artist Raashan Ahmad and Public Enemy's Chuck D, a last-minute addition to the events and who will play the part of interviewer during the discussion segment.
Back to the book, it's important to point out that Sweat the Technique isn't just a tome for fans of rap, though every hip-hop head should definitely read it. More importantly, it's like a primer into a broader musical knowledge that taps into the raw experiences of creativity itself, all curated by one of the most influential artistic minds of the last century.
"I'm glad I did the book," Rakim says, "because it was a different justice at the end than completing the song."
One last note: when buying tickets from the SITE Santa Fe website, do pay close attention to the varying tiers and events. Some are for the talk only, others the show only, some come with the book and so on.
Rakim with Raashan Ahmad:
6:30 pm Thursday March 5. $25-$125.
SITE Santa Fe,
1606 Paseo De Peralta,
Editor's note: Some days after SFR's interview, we learned Chuck D of Public Enemy would be conducting the live interview with Rakim. Plan accordingly.