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Searching for Ra

The Positive Side of Hip Hop

By Kevin Britton · April 27th, 2005 · The Ledge
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"Doc (Dre) wanted me to bring the guns back out ... but I don't think the world wanted that from Ra ..."

-- Rakim Allah, January 2004

A wise and intelligent MC once told me that Hip Hop was 5 percent music and 95 percent business. So it should come as no surprise that Rakim Allah (nee William Griffin Jr.) -- the man almost universally considered the greatest MC to ever pick up the mic (and the inspiration for the name of this column) -- is virtually nonexistent on the current, members-only Hip Hop landscape.

Fortunately, it wasn't always this way. Griffin, embracing the tenets of the Five Percenters and changing his name to Rakim Allah, became an instant legend when the single "Eric B is President" first dropped in '86. Ra effortlessly rattled off complex rhyme couplets and goaded would-be challengers while his then-partner-in-crime, DJ/producer Eric B., supplied classic Soul samples and bass-heavy tracks for their catalogue of danceable radio and club classics throughout the late '80s and early '90s.

While other MCs at the time were relying on basic rhyme patterns (i.e., early LL, Run-DMC and MC Shan), Rakim's style of rhyming was nearly five years ahead of the competition, using "internal rhyming" where words are rhymed in the middle of a line instead of exclusively at the end: "In this journey, you're the journal, I'm the journalist/Am I eternal, or an eternalist?" Some years later, as a testament to Rakim's influence on Hip Hop culture, Biggie, Nas, and even Eminem would be among the handful of MCs who would successfully and credibly take this technique to the next level.

Yet, like so many who fell victim to Rap's West Coast takeover during the 1990s, Rakim remained well below our radar until the release of his acclaimed 1997 LP, The 18th Letter, and 1999's less-than-stellar follow-up, The Master. It appeared as though Rakim's lyrical dynasty had finally fallen.

So those of us left without a strong rhyme to step to thought that Ra's resurrection was imminent in March 2002 when he announced that his next album -- tentatively titled Oh My God -- would be produced by Dr. Dre for Aftermath Records. A sudden groundswell of expectancy swept the Hip Hop community in anticipation of the meeting between the God MC and the Grand Architect of the G-Funk era.

Yet, there were naysayers (including me) who struggled to imagine Rakim's place among Dr. Dre's past and present stable of first-string rappers: Snoop, Eminem, 50 Cent and The Game. I could already see the Source Magazine cover: "Rakim Joins G-Unit to Promote New Album for Aftermath Records." Oh my ...

god.

That's about the time business happened.

According to Rakim in a January 2004 interview published on "Doc (Dre) wanted me to bring the guns back out ... but I don't think the world wanted that from Ra ..."

-- Rakim Allah, January 2004

A wise and intelligent MC once told me that Hip Hop was 5 percent music and 95 percent business. So it should come as no surprise that Rakim Allah (nee William Griffin Jr.) -- the man almost universally considered the greatest MC to ever pick up the mic (and the inspiration for the name of this column) -- is virtually nonexistent on the current, members-only Hip Hop landscape.

Fortunately, it wasn't always this way. Griffin, embracing the tenets of the Five Percenters and changing his name to Rakim Allah, became an instant legend when the single "Eric B is President" first dropped in '86. Ra effortlessly rattled off complex rhyme couplets and goaded would-be challengers while his then-partner-in-crime, DJ/producer Eric B., supplied classic Soul samples and bass-heavy tracks for their catalogue of danceable radio and club classics throughout the late '80s and early '90s.

While other MCs at the time were relying on basic rhyme patterns (i.e., early LL, Run-DMC and MC Shan), Rakim's style of rhyming was nearly five years ahead of the competition, using "internal rhyming" where words are rhymed in the middle of a line instead of exclusively at the end: "In this journey, you're the journal, I'm the journalist/Am I eternal, or an eternalist?" Some years later, as a testament to Rakim's influence on Hip Hop culture, Biggie, Nas, and even Eminem would be among the handful of MCs who would successfully and credibly take this technique to the next level.

Yet, like so many who fell victim to Rap's West Coast takeover during the 1990s, Rakim remained well below our radar until the release of his acclaimed 1997 LP, The 18th Letter, and 1999's less-than-stellar follow-up, The Master. It appeared as though Rakim's lyrical dynasty had finally fallen.

So those of us left without a strong rhyme to step to thought that Ra's resurrection was imminent in March 2002 when he announced that his next album -- tentatively titled Oh My God -- would be produced by Dr. Dre for Aftermath Records. A sudden groundswell of expectancy swept the Hip Hop community in anticipation of the meeting between the God MC and the Grand Architect of the G-Funk era.

Yet, there were naysayers (including me) who struggled to imagine Rakim's place among Dr. Dre's past and present stable of first-string rappers: Snoop, Eminem, 50 Cent and The Game. I could already see the Source Magazine cover: "Rakim Joins G-Unit to Promote New Album for Aftermath Records." Oh my ... god.

That's about the time business happened.

According to Rakim in a January 2004 interview published on thaformula.com (source of the quote at the top), Dr. Dre only produced three tracks while Aftermath's in-house production staff (likely up-and-comers still making a name for themselves) managed the boards for the remaining 15.

Interestingly, Aftermath also turned down a number of solid bangers from outside producers, including DJ Premier. Sounds like the label invoked the old "our tracks or no tracks" clause.

And with the release of 50 Cent's Get Rich or Die Tryin' a month earlier, Aftermath might not have been ready to embrace Rakim's layered, deeply encoded rhymes. I can envision an over-paid label exec poking his head into the recording booth every few minutes and begging Rakim to somehow work the word "beeeeeyotch" into his lyrics.

The meeting between Rakim and Dr. Dre might have been the one instance where the East and West coasts should not have come together.

Ultimately, "creative differences" would be the official reason given for Rakim's departure from Aftermath in July 2003. Oh My God -- certain to become a show-and-prove moment in Rakim's Hip Hop career -- was officially shelved. And if not for Nas' well-researched "UBR (Unauthorized Biography of Rakim)" from his 2004 Streets Disciple LP, Rakim Allah would likely have faded from our collective (and fickle) memories.

I don't think we've seen the last of Ra. His 2002 collaboration with Truth Hurts on the hugely popular single "Addictive" left loyal fans fiending for more of his laid-back, mesmerizing flow. Though he's currently hovering on that nebulous plane of existence where start-up labels are a dime a dozen and distribution deals are hard to come by, he still has his popular Hennessy "Never Blend In" print ads and an endorsement deal with Reebok, both inked by the entertainment attorney/manager Zach Katz.

By the way, it sounds like that MC friend of mine was right. Label politics likely killed Rakim's last album, leaving the 36-year-old Hip Hop pioneer on the fringes of the very industry he was instrumental in popularizing. But we know Rakim's still the best. Nothing personal; strictly business.



KEVIN BRITTON writes about Hip Hop music and its impact on popular culture. His column appears monthly in CityBeat.
 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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