Rakim is scheduled to appear at Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater as a part of in their Tongues Of Fire Choir performance in celebration of the life and work of writer Sekou Sundiata on April 27th. The banner event, Blink Your Eyes: Sekou Sundiata Revisited, is being held for National Poetry Month. Rakim took a second ahead of the event to chat with The Revivalist. He discusses poetry as it pertains to his work as a hip-hop artist and the influence of jazz on his delivery – space and timing are crucial elements of the genre and the approach Rakim applies to his flow. Check what he had to say about it below:
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.