Music

The Greatest Rapper of All Time

Rakim Is the Flower Revolution of Rap

The Greatest Rapper of All Time

RAKIM The rapper who completely reinvented the form on his own.

  • comments (17)
  • Print

Let's begin here, a place that seems furthest away from the universe of "The R" (as the veteran rapper Rakim often called himself): Back in the 1960s, the American anthropologist Loren Eiseley famously and poetically wrote that flowers dramatically changed the appearance of the earth 100 million years ago. Before this flower revolution, the earth was dull and monochromatic; after the flowers, there was color everywhere. Eiseley wrote, "A little while ago—about one hundred million years, as the geologist estimates in the history of our four-billion-year-old planet—flowers were not to be found anywhere on the five continents. Wherever one might have looked, from the poles to the equator, one would have seen only the cold dark monotonous green of a world whose plant life possessed no other color. Somewhere, just a short time before the close of the Age of Reptiles, there occurred a soundless, violent explosion. It lasted millions of years, but it was an explosion, nevertheless. It marked the emergence of the angiosperms—the flowering plants. Flowers changed the face of the planet."

I mention this because it comes close to how I see Rakim's impact on the world of rap. Before he came onto the scene in the mid 1980s, rap was very simple and stiff—basically no better than Mother Goose rhymes. True, there was the urban realism of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message," and even the futurism of T La Rock's "It's Yours" (Def Jam's first single). But as a whole, there were only two types of rappers: good wack rappers and bad wack rappers. Roxanne Shanté was, for example, good wack; the Real Roxanne was bad wack. In short, nothing was not wack. After Rakim released five groundbreaking hiphop tracks in 1986 and 1987 (in this order: "Eric B. Is President," "I Ain't No Joke," "I Know You Got Soul," "Move the Crowd," and "Paid in Full"), something was finally separated from the monochromatic wack. And for the first time, we could see rhymes in living color. (A quick note: The Beastie Boys were a part of the wack rap moment in hiphop—though of the good variety—and never really parted with it, but preserved it, even to this day, like a kind of fossil. One more note: Listen to "Down with the King" and you will hear the difference between rap's pre-Rakim moment [Run-D.M.C.'s section] and post-Rakim moment [Pete Rock and CL Smooth's section].)

Let me put this another way: Before Rakim, all rap was like listening to a jazz saxophonist playing everything strictly within the structure of "Mary Had a Little Lamb"; after Rakim, rap sounded more like John Coltrane's "Giant Steps." With an elasticity that was completely new to the form, Rakim could expand a rhyme to a dizzying length in one line and then compress it into a microsphere in the next. The essence of his accomplishment was to transform rapping into an instrument.

I will now get right down to it and say that Rakim is the greatest rapper of all time. It's not Jay-Z, or Tupac, or Biggie, or Eminem—all of these rappers came on the scene after much of the difficult work had been done. To recognize the highest accomplishment of the art, you have to go back to a rapper who had to completely reinvent the form on his own. That rapper is Rakim. Yes, there were other rappers who might have been more talented than Rakim (history always works like this; there's always someone we have forgotten, someone who could blow our minds out of the sky—I must mention Rammellzee, whose 1983 track "Beat Bop" was not only out of this world, but produced by Jean-Michel Basquiat), but Rakim was the one rapper who became a huge success and was able to sustain his popularity over a wide span of time. After his five initial groundbreakers, he released four more: "Microphone Fiend," "The R," "Lyrics of Fury," and "Follow the Leader." To be the greatest ever, you can't be a flash in the pan or someone who never made it out of obscurity (like Rammellzee, who sadly died in 2010 at the age of 49).

"Follow the Leader" is the greatest track in hiphop history. For one reason, Rakim rhymes about travel like never before—they travel "at magnificent speeds around the universe." (In Icons of Hip Hop: An Encyclopedia of the Movement, Music, and Culture, Mickey Hess described the song as "an event horizon that defined the stock in trade of the rap soloist"—there is no way to improve on that description.) The other reason is the futuristic beat, which was produced by the underappreciated Eric B. Recall the end of the movie Wild Style, one of the founding documents of the movement—it's prophesied that the star of hiphop will not be the graffiti artist or the dancer but the rapper. This certainly did eventually happen, but before the spectacular rise of the rapper, the star of hiphop was the DJ. Though revolutionary for their time, Eric B. and Rakim formed a very traditional unit, which is why in the duo's moniker, the name Eric B. (the DJ) came first and Rakim (the rapper) second. This is also why the first track they released was not called "Rakim Is President," and why even in "Follow the Leader" the rapper makes sure to expend some lines on the superpowers of his DJ: "There's one R in the alphabet/It's a one-letter word and it's about to get/More complex from one rhyme to the next/Eric B. be easy on the flex." This was the old-school way. By the late 1990s, the DJ was completely out of the picture.

"First to ever let a rhyme flow down the Nile," raps Rakim in the DJ Premier–produced track "It's Been a Long Time," which celebrates his achievements as a rap pioneer (it was released in 1997 on the album The 18th Letter). Above all, Rakim was not a poet but a rapper. He did not bring poetry to rap but raised rap, on its own terms, to the condition of art. recommended

 

Comments (17) RSS

Oldest First Unregistered On Registered On Add a comment
1
I totally agree that "Follow the Leader" is a milestone in hip-hop history...video YouTubewww.youtube.com/watch?v=95gP3m-uB…
Posted by bookworm on February 20, 2013 at 9:53 AM · Report this
redbelt 2
What about KRS-One?
Posted by redbelt on February 20, 2013 at 11:18 AM · Report this
3
KRS-One is in the conversation...but Rakim is the answer!
Posted by ColdComfort on February 21, 2013 at 4:20 AM · Report this
4
@2 KRS One = Good Wack
Posted by jmhenning on February 21, 2013 at 3:53 PM · Report this
5
If music could be raped, "rap" would be the child that should have been aborted.
Posted by ExitOnly on February 21, 2013 at 6:51 PM · Report this
6
wow, what a controversial position
Posted by GrandRomanticGesture on February 21, 2013 at 7:46 PM · Report this
7
to tell the truth, only BUSHWICK BILLS' everclear, has held a complete message that can be swallowed by a generation of wannabes' and those with dreams. Now, I know that there are controversies surrounding music right now: for example, Somebody I used to know.
I can see Rakim emphasize the USED TO KNOW, as if its the anthem from DONT TOUCH ME, I'm Close TO THE EDGE.
What do you want me to say? reciprocity, hurry tell ERNIE. Get at the lodge round OLIVE for some EVILFORGAZZIN and a free pair of Brooks runnin shoes. Dude could be cool, like he could make it in Houston...theres' a solution, calm, ineffective swagger alongside the Prince of PINK, you know who i mean, right? yeah, that guy.Tour de force, slow motion JUVENILE style. Everybody gets it wrong sometimes, like personally, I thought it was gonna be the year of the JAGUARS. I also thought that both Mister Alexander and Shaun Alexander were gonna rep in the league alot longer than they ever did, and so on.Eminem is the best.
Posted by dann on February 22, 2013 at 2:49 PM · Report this
8
@ExitOnly;Let me guess;you're racially "White",right?*rolls eyes*.Go back to your country-music station,you effing hick!
Posted by 5th Columnist on February 23, 2013 at 3:17 PM · Report this
9
Rakim was revolutionary in hip-hop, no doubt. At the same time, this statement is inaccurate:

"Let me put this another way: Before Rakim, all rap was like listening to a jazz saxophonist playing everything strictly within the structure of "Mary Had a Little Lamb"; after Rakim, rap sounded more like John Coltrane's "Giant Steps."

The first example coming to my mind that dispels that sentence? Kool Moe Dee/Treacherous Three. I'd say do some research and then present your argument in a way that doesn't dis the history of hip-hop before it.
Posted by scorintha on February 25, 2013 at 2:55 AM · Report this
10
i dont know, macklemore is pretty dope guys....sick rhymes, dope beats, fresh hair. Nigggahs got it all.
Posted by xnotsoancientalienx on February 25, 2013 at 6:53 AM · Report this
Charles Mudede 11
@9, are you kool moe dee? the same one who sold out hiphop at the grammy awards? i'll tell you this: kool moe dee was the ultimate good wack.
Posted by Charles Mudede on February 25, 2013 at 3:08 PM · Report this
12
Charles, Eric B is not a producer and hence is not an "underrated" producer. Eric B was the business man. Rakim produced a lot of the first 2 Eric B & Rakim albums himself (also Paul C is in there -- the last track he ever worked on was an Eric B & Rakim track, RIP Paul C). "Producing" was different in those days though. The engineer might've hooked up a lot of the beats, worked the MPC or SP and the named "producer" just gave the engineer the sample.

Find the book "Rakim Told Me" or "Check the Technique" (same book basically) by Brian Coleman and read the Eric B & Rakim chapter. It is illuminating on the subject.

Also, using "Down With the King" to demonstrate changing rap styles is kind of weird. I love Pete Rock, but have you heard his verse? It's not quite coming from the Rakim school... Plus Run's verse and especially DMC's verse are pretty sophisticated. Is that "great wack"?
Posted by Went big, now home on February 25, 2013 at 7:45 PM · Report this
Charles Mudede 13
@12, im right about "down with the king," so will not waist my breath on that. as for being a producer, i refer you to my essay on the turntable (http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=…). it will explain that i'm aware of the distinction, but for the sake of brevity in this article collapsed the two. but back in the day, all djs were essentially businessmen.
Posted by Charles Mudede on February 25, 2013 at 8:57 PM · Report this
14
@Charles Mudede, no, I'm not Kool Moe Dee. All I can say is, I respectfully disagree with your perspective on some aspects of this article (in particular, Rammellzee's opinion of Basquiat comes to mind, which makes pairing them in a sentence entertaining). Rakim did provide a pivotal moment in hip-hop, is one of the best to ever do it, and he stood on the shoulders of giants, IMO. Peace.
Posted by scorintha on February 25, 2013 at 10:42 PM · Report this
15
Seems like a silly claim to say anyone is a the greatest at anything when the criteria is totally subjective. Aside from the unsubstantiated claim, you really aren't saying anything we don't already know: Rakim is game-changing rapper. Thanks for the history lesson, but those of us who have been around hip-hop as long as hip-hop as been around don't need it. Seems like this was written more for people like ExitOnly who clearly don't know anything about hip-hop's rich tradition and cultural heritage (perhaps you're baiting the rest of us into a G.O.A.T. argument?).
Posted by Someone Stranger Than You on February 26, 2013 at 12:12 AM · Report this
16
Seems like a silly claim to say anyone is a the greatest at anything when the criteria is totally subjective. Aside from the unsubstantiated claim, you really aren't saying anything we don't already know: Rakim is game-changing rapper. Thanks for the history lesson, but those of us who have been around hip-hop as long as hip-hop has been around don't need it. Seems like this was written more for people like ExitOnly who clearly don't know anything about hip-hop's rich tradition and cultural heritage (perhaps you're baiting the rest of us into a G.O.A.T. argument?).
Posted by Someone Stranger Than You on February 26, 2013 at 12:30 AM · Report this
17
I'm a white dude from South Philly who started listening to hip-hop in the mid-80's. I disagree that Rakim is the greatest rapper of all time. I say this only because I consider the term "rapper" as a commercialized form of being an MC. The criteria is a little different. Rakim was a true MC. He moved the crowd. A beat, a turntable, and a mic was all he needed and he could flow ALL DAY LONG. A rapper can spit a rhyme over a track. A rapper can sell 10 million units but still be a weak MC. A rapper might have crossover appeal, but not enough street cred and lyrical content to battle in a cypher or appear on a legit mixtape. JayZ is arguably the greatest rapper of all time based on shear consistency in the rap game. Eminem is a lyrical beast but he often raps about absolutely nothing, however, there is no denying that he is a lyrical genius who knows how to string words together for shock value. But as far as MC’s go…I have to go with RAKIM hands down. He didn’t stand on any shoulders because before him all of the other rappers sounded pretty much the same other than RUN DMC, Kool Moe D, KRS One, and Kool G Rap. Just my opinion!
Posted by DGeezy on July 26, 2014 at 7:27 PM · Report this

Add a comment