Abe Beame does more with his family’s Thanksgiving leftovers than most can do in a lifetime of home cooking.
One of my favorite random bits of color in Michael Mann’s brilliant, digital, showdown thriller Collateral comes in a jazz club, where the friend and soon-to-be victim of a hitman played by Tom Cruise holds court, regaling the table with a Miles Davis story, one that characterizes the legend as a Godhead fully aware he was one, the unapproachable, hardass, coolest motherfucker on the planet. I’ve always linked the story to how I feel about Rakim, who I went to see on a very shitty Monday night before Thanksgiving at the Sony Music Hall in Hell’s Kitchen.
It was the third time I had a ticket to see Rakim perform. The first time was at the old Knitting Factory in Soho, before it followed the logical trail of gentrification to Williamsburg (and is now on its way back to Manhattan for a fourth iteration of the venue). It was one of those industry showcases any rap fan in the aughts had to suffer through, where nothing ever started on time, and then you’d have to wade through four hours of also-rans and their army of hype men shouting songs you’d never heard before, and would never hear again, through cheap mics and shoddy speakers, before finally getting to the actual artists printed on the ticket.
Maybe half the venue had given up by 3 AM that night, when Black Thought and Questlove shuffled onto the stage, and those who decided to stay were treated to an unforgettable freeform set, with Quest simply digging out incredible, obscure breaks, and Thought delivering his standard level of excellence, with freestyles and snippets of verses mixed in chaotically, with no hooks or discernible pattern to anything. It was a one man cipher, a masterclass put on by two collaborators who’d formed a seamless mindmeld over the course of a lifetime of partnership. They exited around four, and a lot of the remaining crowd went with them, convinced Rakim wouldn’t show. (And if he did, he couldn’t possibly top what they’d just seen.)
I hung around because this was a time before hard outs, when few venues gave a shit about keeping the lights on past the time stipulated by their lease or community board, and mostly because I was young and had nothing else to do after 4 AM on a weeknight. Ra gave the Quest and Thought set the requisite time it needed to breathe afterwards, deference to a crowd that was understandably drained by what they’d just seen. But he did eventually hit the stage, and proceeded to tear it apart. It was masterful; there was no in-between song banter, no guest appearances (unsurprising for a rapper with few features both on his own shit or appearing on others), no false humility, very little eye contact. He seemed almost contemptuous of the crowd. As he ran through his catalog, littered with an impossible quantity of the greatest rap songs ever made, into the early morning, battering the few of us left with greatness, he seemed to demand, “What the fuck have you done to deserve witnessing this?”
When I left the Knitting Factory, God fingers of morning light played through the tree branches at the intersection of Leonard and Church, the air had a different feel, cartoon birds were singing show tunes and shit. It was one of those.
I open with that overlong anecdote you may or may not see because Jeff will inevitably ask me to trim, because it illustrates something about rap shows that I think has largely gone missing from our discourse when it comes to talking about them, and in many ways has never really been a part of the conversation. The live performance of rap has spent a lot of its history being oppressed, censored or being outright canceled by gestapo outfits like the NYPD and their hip-hop cops – particularly in the 90s and 2000s when a moral panic around rap and micro-policing led to many smaller venues being shut down. While larger ones refused to book certain types of artists or cater to their crowds. There’s always been a greater emphasis on rap as a recorded medium, and that’s fine because each medium has its specific quirks and particularities, but it’s also unfortunate, because there is an entire aspect of the music being missed out on for some.
There will never be Dead Heads for rap, fanboys and girls, who recite seeing shows in venues around the country like a true believer chasing saints through holy sites. My purely anecdotal impression of what the young rap fan values in a live performance is similar to what the young hypebeast sneakerhead values in a shoe: the exclusivity, the ability to be on the inside, perhaps backstage, posting their access when the next hot artist comes to town for the first time. It’s another slot in a massive collection the rest of the schmucks and simps waited on line for, or refreshed Ticketmaster over and over again before getting shut out in the seconds it took for the show to sell. Accuse me of chasing kids from my lawn and yelling at clouds if you will, and you’re probably right, but this is my impression.
I think there are a lot of good and logical reasons for this. Partially due to the systemic and institutional root cause laid out in the graph above, and partly because rap is fucking old. It’s achieved a continuous, dominant cultural longevity very few artforms ever have. As a kid, I had a passing curiosity in seeing the shit my parents grew up listening to, but it took me years to appreciate the music that informed that music, and that’s where rap has arrived at in 2022. At a time when music has never been more accessible, the majority of the nerds are aware of ’80s rap, and have given it a spin, but few are passionate about it, and why should they be? Well, here’s my argument for why it matters.
Rakim, like Miles, is an artist who has never been uncertain of his own greatness or beholden to anyone’s conception of what is relevant. The second time I went to see him, it was years later, at Le Poisson Rouge, for a brunch screening of Juice that featured a conversation with members of the cast as well as the director, Ernest Dickerson. It was supposed to follow a performance with Rakim- whose “Know The Ledge” is to that film what “Fight the Power” was to Do The Right Thing– but he didn’t show, and Black Thought was on the spot again to perform predictably incredible Rakim karaoke.
William Michael Griffin Jr. of Wyandanch, Long Island, is one of the few rappers from the ’80s who managed to preserve a mystique by avoiding the pitfalls of the pop culture cash grab. We never saw him in a bubble bath spitting nonsense in voiceover, never saw him on a UPN sitcom, never showed up on a dating show with a clout chaser half his age. He hasn’t participated in these packaged nostalgia tours or festivals rappers of certain eras now go on, giving parents the ability to go relive their youths for the price of two tickets and a single babysitter for a few hours. He doesn’t gripe in interviews or show up on podcasts demanding to be remembered and respected.
Aside from a mixed late-career album over a decade ago, and a memoir released in 2019 (with smatterings of press for both), he’s remained elusive. I want to make it clear that I endorse any and every way these artists get paid, as the founders and architects of hip-hop, who never got the opportunity to profit off their art in anyway resembling the scale the generations who followed them did, who couldn’t have made the music they made or been given the commercial opportunity they did without their ancestors’ contributions. I’m merely trying to explain that for me, Rakim stands apart. He’s still the coolest motherfucker on the planet. And for artists of a certain age in New York, he’s every rapper’s favorite rapper.
If Rakim isn’t on your subjective list of top five greatest rappers, there is little debate that he’d have to be included on any objective list of the top five most important and/or influential. On a technical level, he ushered in the modern age of rap, transforming it from a choppy, barking, performative style, to something more coherent and conversational, and that impression would last for over 20 years throughout the entirety of rap (and remains prevalent in New York today). He was subversive and formally daring, using complex rhyme schemes and sophisticated literary devices that stretched over multiple bars. Rap was always conscious, but along with his peers KRS and Chuck D, he introduced new ways to discuss Black spirituality like the former and nuanced views on Black politics like the latter (but neither matched him as an all around). And of course, he made huge, generation-defining hits. He was recognized as the greatest rapper who ever lived for multiple years in the 80s. Like Michael J. Fox playing Chuck Berry because he’d already heard him, Rakim is one of those rare instances of an artist who is beamed into history from the future, unfairly armed with decades of progress, and single handedly retcons everything that follows.
And so when I was presented with the opportunity to finally see Ra again, 15 years after that first, incredible experience, I leapt at the opportunity. The 54 year old should have many, many years left to spread his gospel, but with an artist like Rakim, who knows? Perhaps tomorrow, without notice, he’ll simply leave us behind for an unmarked cabin by a lake in upstate New York, or follow in the footsteps of Baldwin and live as an expatriate in Paris or Istanbul, in comfortable anonymity for the rest of his life.
The evening of the function, HIP-HOP was certainly, aggressively in the building at Sony Music Hall, a subterranean lounge dressed up to look more like Club Sugar Ray than a traditional rap sweatbox. I was, miraculously, one of the younger attendees in the packed out house. There were fat links abound, actual pairs of Cazal frames that may finally have earned prescription lenses, FILA tracksuits, but also suits and ties, dresses and furs, very “Grown And Sexy”. A younger attendee might’ve accused it as corny, and I get it, but despite my regular ass fleece and jeans, to me it was a crowd going to temple, and dressing appropriately for a high holy day.
Funkmaster Flex sparked the evening with a set filled with Strafe and Curtis Blow and Chubb Rock. MC Lyte was getting run back like “Otis.” You could tell he was genuinely thrilled not to be playing the same old Clear Channel standards at some club in North Jersey. Ja Rule, the organizer of the event, as part of his actually admirable cultural restoration series Vibes, was all over the place, clearly excited he had pulled this off and loving playing the macher. At one point, -can’t confirm but am nearly positive- Russell Simmons brushed past me in a tracksuit, which provoked a fascinating cocktail of personal emotions I’ll keep to myself. Oh, and of course, Eric Adams was there, popping bottles in the Lincoln booth.
I got there early to soak in the scene, and in a throwback to the bad old days of live rap in New York, Rakim was 40 minutes late, stretching Flex thin and emptying his 80s crate, but it was worth the wait. He emerged on a stage that looked like a mashup of an Art Deco set from a Prohibition-era speak and a Victoria’s Secret lingerie roll out. He was sitting on a literal throne in a black suit with a cane and a fedora on tilt, the opposite of what was once a roots and 5% God body aesthetic, but it felt completely earned and natural for rap royalty.
Rakim spent nearly the entirety of his stage time seated, sidelined by a broken foot suffered a few days before the show, but didn’t miss a step. There were no guide vocals playing over the seven-piece live band, and he didn’t need them, delivering each word with indefatigable breath control and crisp enunciation. There was no hype man, no need for punches or fills, (though he could have easily relied on the crowd, reciting the entire set in unison) just a backup singer for hooks and harmonizing. He didn’t even bother to take off his coat, fedora or sunglasses for an hour plus, only adding to the impression that the athletic feat was effortless.
We don’t often think of rap performance as virtuosic, but that’s what Rakim is. An incredible live performer no different than seeing a great horn player at the Blue Note or a diva at Radio City. There was a little crowd work and a newfound warmth that felt like the barest minimum of a concession, perhaps to time as he passes through it, and perhaps to a culture that no longer centers him as it once did. But the set was tight and brief, expert, stuck to the hits. He was there to perform, get his bread, and go the fuck home, a quintessentially hip hop work ethic. It was a sight every person who purports to care about rap should see once in their lives up close and personally: the technical mastery, the craft of what this thing actually is. You learn shit watching Rakim and the very few rappers that could be considered anything like him up close, it’s an important thing to bear witness to as a fan of the holistic artform.
On my own ride home I thought about the future of rap’s past. We can’t continue to rely on Ja Rule’s altruism to look out for our legends. There will never be Rolling Stones legacy tours for EPMD and I’m not expecting there should be, but I can’t help but feel that we are “losing the recipes”, and should make at least a paltry effort here, at the end of history, to stop that slippage. It’s partially a natural progression of time, technology, and the hundreds and thousands of new and shiny things demanding our attention, this century’s violent flood of more rap music on a weekly basis than we’ve ever seen before. In the struggle to keep up, it becomes increasingly difficult to look back. But that should be part of what we consider our jobs, not to simply wrangle clicks (while respecting the demands and realities of new media) but honor the responsibility media has to not just look forward, but reflect, create context, and tell histories.
So rather than just complain about it, hopefully I’ve done some of that work here and now with this piece, and I’ll also attach a mix I’ve made, compiling all my favorite Rakim tracks, which used to be a vital and necessary function of blogs like these. His catalog is consistent as it is iconic, so you likely have heard it all, but perhaps having it curated in one place will do for you what the second disc of The 18th Letter once did for me, a de facto greatest hits album attached to his very good comeback effort in the late 90s, that exposed me to a great, buried body of work in a time before file sharing or streaming, that reshaped my brain and helped me further understand the music I loved. It’s my way of saying thank you to a legend, not just for his records, but for that singular experience one night 15 years ago in Soho I’ll never forget.
1. Intro – The Master (1999)
2. The Saga Begins – The 18th Letter (1997)
3. Teach the Children – Don’t Sweat the Technique (1992)
4. Eric B. Is President – Paid In Full (1987)
5. What’s on Your Mind – Don’t Sweat the Technique (1992)
6. Run For Cover – Let the Rhythm Hit Em (1990)
7. Microphone Fiend – Follow The Leader (1988)
8. I Ain’t No Joke – Paid In Full (1987)
9. New York (Ya Out There) – The 18th Letter (1997)
10. The Crystal Method – Busy Child Vegas (1997)
11. Mahogany – Let the Rhythm Hit Em (1990)
12. My Melody – Paid In Full (1987)
13. No Competition – Follow the Leader (1988)
14. When I’m Flowin – The 18th Letter (1997)
15. Casualties of War – Don’t Sweat the Technique (1992)
16. Set Em Straight – Let the Rhythm Hit Em (1990)
17. Holy Are You – The Seventh Seal (2009)
18. Paid in Full – Paid In Full (1987)