A Stop-and-Go Hip-Hop Show

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 2, 2006

Went to a Rakim concert Saturday night, and some sort of karaoke summit broke out. Not exactly the ideal way to spend a rare night with the microphone messiah: A Rakim show should be a clinic in verbal dexterity, in which the rapper himself is the vocal star; you do not go to hear the 21 wannabe emcees around you living out their hip-hop fantasy-camp dreams at full volume.

Rakim is without question the greatest rapper of all time -- an influential giant of the genre who first began thrilling hip-hop heads 20 years ago, when he and his former collaborator, deejay-producer Eric B., bum-rushed the scene with their monumental first single, "Eric B. Is President," and its equally memorable B-side, "My Melody."

Both tracks were included on Eric B. & Rakim's debut, "Paid in Full," a perfect album that was also a paradigm-shifter, thanks to the rhythmic innovations of Rakim's delivery. His wholly original flow elevated the form and gave Rakim immediate access to the pantheon, where the Long Island wordsmith seems to have been hiding out in recent years: He hasn't been heard from nor seen much since releasing his second solo album, "The Master," in 1999.

The 38-year-old rapper born William Michael Griffin is attempting a comeback, though, with a tour and a new solo CD, "The Seventh Seal," which is expected to be released in coming months. Saturday (actually, early Sunday morning) at the 9:30 club, he premiered one of the new album's songs -- apparently called "It's Nothing" -- in which he declared a state of emergency in hip-hop. No argument here. Not with simplicity and repetition ruling the day via the Southern-rap likes of Rick Ross, Dem Franchize Boyz and Yung Joc, whose music is a far cry from the complex, metaphysical-street-poet aesthetic that Rakim defined.

"Who put the fire out?" he seethed, his flow measured and menacing as always. He then lowered his voice and whispered: "Real hip-hop is dying out."

Later, in a freestyle rap, he asked rhetorically, and in the third person: "Can he revolutionize hip-hop again?" Rakim suggested that the answer is yes, of course, and spent nearly 70 minutes dipping into his catalogue to remind the audience of his credentials for the job.

In portraying himself as hip-hop's savior, he sounded fantastic -- at least when you could hear him. Frequently his mesmerizing, golden-toned vocals were buried beneath the backing music played on turntables by the iconic New York deejay Kid Capri, or they were obscured by Capri's grating hype man barking. Rakim also appeared to get tangled up with his own recorded vocals on some of the records, such as "Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em." With one Rakim lagging just behind the other (it was difficult to tell which was which), the effect was an annoying double-tracked "duet."

Most inexcusable, though, was Rakim's penchant for interrupting his own classic rhymes to let the audience interject. On "Follow the Leader," "Move the Crowd" and "I Know You Got Soul," he never ran through more than three or four bars without stopping abruptly so that the crowd might jump in. The worst was "Paid in Full," the great Eric B. & Rakim story song about the get-money ethos of the streets. Rakim rarely got through a complete lyric without bringing the audience into the fold simply by pulling the microphone away from his mouth.

Rakim: "Thinkin' how . . ."

Crowd: "COULD I!"

Rakim: "Get some . . ."


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