In celebration of National Poetry Month the Apollo Theater is presenting a new edition of ‘Tongues of Fire’ in celebration of the Sekou Sundiata. April 27th will be the opening segment of the ‘Blink Your Eyes: Sekou Sundiata Revisited’ series that features a number of events in honor of the the renowned poet and educator. Rakim will join celebrated artists including Amiri Baraka, Abiodun of The Last Poets, Regina Carter, Bobbi Humphrey, Wunmi, Vernon Reid, Liza Jessie Peterson, and Craig Harris’ music ensemble The Nation of Imagination. 

Rakim—one of the most influential and pioneering emcees ever—sat down with us to discuss the event as well as his lyricism, his connection and influence of jazz, and what he’s contributing to the hip-hop scene today.

Rakim Explains Rap Style

Michael Wong Photography

Revive: So how did you get involved with this tribute to Sekou Sundiata?

Rakim: I got hooked up with the event through Craig Harris who is actually an old family friend of my brother Ronnie. Ronnie used to be in a band with Craig. He basically used to babysit me at times. Hearing that he was putting together this big thing dealing with the poets, everything made sense.

Revive: Will you be performing?

Rakim: I think I’m going to perform a couple lyrics. Whatever Craig needs me to do, I’m there man. I can’t sing [laughs], but whatever he needs me to do is going to happen. I think I am going to be performing a couple of my songs to a couple of his tracks. We’re going to collab and create a mood and give thanks to all of the poets. We’re going to see if we can honor Sekou Sundiata and poetry month the right way.

Revive: Was poetry something that influenced your style early on?

Rakim: A lot of people consider my work poetry. I think it was just from the many influences that I had and incorporating as many elements of life as I could. It was a little different for rap at the time. At that time it was all party rap and things of that nature. But I thought it was time, after listening to Melle Mel and Grandmaster Caz and Kool Moe Dee, to go this direction. But I never wrote poetry when I was young as far as I can remember. Of course in school we all had to write a poem or two, but I never really wrote poetry. Just seeing life the way I did made it come out on the paper like it did.

Revive: What was going on culturally around the time that you were developing as an emcee that played a part in your development?

Rakim: It had a lot to do with my upbringing. I came up in a jazz-orientated household. It was a musically oriented family. My mother played a lot of jazz and my pops plays the soul and the Motown. Listening to the ideology of how they were seeing life and how they wanted us to come up and things of that nature. Seeing what was going on in the world and listening to my favorite artists at the time shaped me into what I am. I think being born in the late-‘60s and hearing what was taking place at that time—that was the mood my parents were in and that influenced me. And all the things we had to go through to get to where we are today—that rubbed off on me. We just wanted to make a difference and tried to make a difference. Like some of us say, “I always thought I could save the world.”

Revive: You played the saxophone early on as well. What is it about the instrumental jazz of Coltrane or Bird that you can translate into your flow as an emcee?

Rakim: I think playing the sax, learning how to read music when I was young, and listening to jazz allowed me to be able to understand the difference between like R&B and what the jazz artists were doing as far as the rhythms and syncopations. I fell in love with the sax and I was always a big fan of saxophone players from of course Coltrane to Dexter Gordon to Charlie. My eyes would just get wide when I heard them.

I started incorporating the rhythms I was hearing in jazz into rhyme form. One of the thoughts that I used to play with was trying to write in a John Coltrane solo style. That’s how a lot of my styles came up—in solo mode, you know what I mean? It’s just up and down the scale, any rhythm you want to hit, it don’t have to be no set rhythm throughout the whole song. It’s solo time, so I’m going to go where I want. That kind of created my writing style. I always thought I was writing in the vein of John Coltrane.

Revive: Before our interview I asked Chuck D what he thought your influence was and he said:

Chuck D's Twitter Post on Rakim

Did you know when you were developing your own style that it would be so pivotal and so different from what everyone else was doing?

Rakim: No, I didn’t think it would change a lot of things up. I was just always trying to do something different. I noticed with a lot of the slower beats, I could put more words into a phrase. There’s something about a slow song that’s just right for a hip-hop tempo. I was always kind of laid back, so I heard those smooth tracks I knew that was me right there. So once I started playing with them and found out how many words I could fit into a bar, I found more styles from rhyming to slower music.

Revive: Being at the vantage point you are at now and being able to see the full scope of the history and present of hip-hop, are you a fan of what’s going on today?

Rakim: Business-wise, yeah. A lot of artists are getting flak for their lyrical content right now. I understand what it is and I also look at it like it’s young in a lot of places right now. When hip-hop was young in New York and the Bronx, it was all:

Then we got more conscious and mature with it and realized the power that we had with it. I think it’s young in a lot of places and they’re having fun with it. The younger artists are having fun with it; we have to understand that. Hopefully they will see the power that they have and mature with it like we did. We  have to give them a minute to have some fun with their lyrical content and then hopefully they’ll turn it around. More important, the consumer has to be a little more picky with what they want and what they feel is hip-hop as opposed to rap or hip-pop. People say, “hip-hop is dead,” but people need to understand that it can come back alive. We’ve got hip-hop and from hip-hop we birthed rap and hip-pop.

We have to understand that this genre is so big that it’s branching out like jazz did. When you have a music that is so powerful and it gets so big, you’re not always going to get the Coltrane’s or the Charlie Parker’s. You’re going to get a couple people that love where it came from, but just like to play the sax a little different with different melodies or types of music. That’s what’s going on with rap now. You’ve got cats that like to take it different places because rap is allowing these kids to go experiment with it like that. But hopefully these younger artists see what kind of flak they’re getting and tweak that so that we’ll have no complaints.

Revive: You’re seen as a force within the music community. What do you hope to continue contributing to the music scene?

Rakim: Just good vibes man. Just a consciousness where we understand not only our contributions to music, but also bring that onto the streets as well. Some of the contributions that we give to music can help in society as well. Some of the young kids out there might need someone to tell them something good. They might need to hear something to influence them. “You might have failed a couple times, but if you keep trying you can get up and do what you got to do or make something good happen.” That’s what I try to do with my music.

Revive: Are you working on any projects lately?

Rakim: Yes sir, I’m actually working on an album right now. We’re also going to drop a Paid in Full anniversary album as soon as possible just to show our appreciation for that album. I want to thank everybody for all of the accolades we got and give them a new gift-wrapping, you know. So I’m doing that and also working on my album. I’m not trying to make too much noise; I know my position in the game. I love music and I’m not stopping for a while.

YouTube Preview Image

Revive: In closing, do you have a favorite sample from the Paid in Full album?

Rakim: My favorite Paid in Full song is “Paid in Full.” When I was young, I always used to rhyme off of Dennis Edwards in the park. That was one of my favorite records to rhyme to. When I got with Eric B. we put the song together and put a beat under it, but that was one of my favorite songs. Anytime I went to the park or went to a party in the backyard or at school or whatever, once I went towards the mic, the DJ would automatically grab Dennis Edwards “Don’t Look Any Further” [laughs]. That was my hero music, so word up.

Words by Eric Sandler (@ericsandler)

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Tongues of Fire Choir Presented by the Apollo Theater ft. Rakim, Amiri Baraka, Abiodun of the Last Poets, and more!—4/27/13

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