Today we celebrate the birthday of one of the greats. and show our appreciation for his contribution. As he turns 45 -a milestone worth noting -we want to remind those who know, and inform those who don't, that Rakim Allah was as dope as it gets.
Because of the vague and less than codified commercial environment that gave rise to the hip hop business of the '80s, it's not clear to many who weren't there at the time, that he is one of the greats. When mainstream media discusses the legends and pioneers, his name doesn't come up when Run, Chuck D, Q-Tip and the Beasties do because he wasn't with labels that were as deeply committed or as financially equipped to exposing his genius as the others were. But like his more troubled but equally gifted contemporary, Slick Rick, he was one of the two greatest and most influential MCs of hip hop's golden age.
When he and his partner Eric B dropped "Eric B Is President" the major labels were not quite in business with hip hop yet. Def Jam was two years past having released "I Need A Beat" the company's debut release by LL Cool J, and was early into a distribution arrangement with CBS Records. "The Show" b/w "La Di Da Di," the smash 12" single by Doug E. Fresh and The Get Fresh Crew ft. the inimitable Slick Rick on beat box and vocals had come out the summer before and introduced a new direction from Harlem, USA that would soon be dubbed the "New Jack Swing". Jive Records had yet to sign Blastmaster KRS-1, but they were enjoying a strong run at the Black Radio format with WBLS-FM DJ, Mr. Magic's proteges, Whodini. MTV had not yet launched Yo MTV Raps. Tommy Boy Records hadn't released De La Soul or Queen Latifah yet, and hip hop was heard in clubs, sparingly on the radio, and was embraced by a rabid underground fan base.
THE R AND ERIC B
On the whole, in New York, with few exceptions, rap records were confined to mix show exposure on weekends and the majority of them never received the regular rotation that would have given them longer life spans. WRKS-FM was chasing a youth demo and was the most likely to rock the realness with intensity, and so it was there on a Saturday night in May of ’86. I heard “Eric B Is President” for the first time. At the time, I was an independent promotion exec with the contacts, credibility and juice to get a rap record into a regular rotation, so I made it my business to be on the lookout for hot new releases that were signed to labels without the clout or connects to get their record rocked properly, so I listened to mix shows because I was on the lookout for opportunity and because hip hop provided hours of endlessly entertaining listening.
Red Alert was one of the weekend jocks on WRKS-FM with a mix show, and it was during his three hour weekly set that I heard the gravel voiced MC with the nasally delivery, and funky flow over the tricky stop and go kick drum program with the bass line from Fonda Rae’s “Over Like A Fat Rat.” At the time, Red didn’t crack the mike to speak, so I couldn’t tell who the brash newcomer was who was kicking it about how he, “came through the door/ heard it before/,” and how he would, “never let the mic magnetize me no more.”
The following week, I ran into Red on the set for the video of Run/DMC’s “Walk This Way” and asked what was the hottest new record he was playing at the time. He said, “That joint by Eric B and Rakim.”
“Who’s that?” I asked.
That joint where the kid says, “You thought I was a doughnut/you tried to glaze me.”
Very dangerous record. The previous Rock and Roll Hall of Fame class that included the Beastie Boys, left Eric B and Rakim on the outside looking in. True hip hop heads who are concerned about such matters were bewildered by the slight, and made their disappointment known. Questions of an uninformed voting body that didn’t recognize authenticity arose. Murmurs of racism could be heard. Personally, I am not certain that Rakim has recorded enough to be recognized, but if its a question of pure talent, there has never been a rapper with more. Happy birthday Rakim, everything changed after you got on the mic.