Rakim Opens Up About Rivalries With Big Daddy Kane, KRS-One, EPMD & More
Although he is revered as one of, if not the greatest, MCs of all time–Rakim typically shuns the spotlight. Even as rumors (and anonymously reported denials) linger about an Eric B. & Rakim reunion and corresponding tour, the 30-year professional musician has not come forward to confirm or waive off reports. This approach to media is one of the items that makes Rakim’s legacy one filled with mystique, patience, and wonder.
The Long Island legend appeared on Cipha Sounds and Peter Rosenberg’s Juan Epstein Podcast before a live audience. With audio exclusively available at Complex, Rakim sat for more than an hour to provide some rare background on his upbringing and family, open up about his secret rhyme-writing inspiration, and talk about onetime tensions with Dr. Dre, Big Daddy Kane, and even EPMD.
Opening the discussion, Rakim speaks about his childhood and musical coming of age in Wyandanch, NY. One of five children, the MC reveals that his older brother, Robert Griffin, is the voice heard on the chorus of Jimmy Spicer’s 1983 12″ Hip-Hop hit single “Money (Dolla Bill Y’all).” He discusses the abilities of his older brother Stevie Blass, who contributed to Eric B. & Rakim classics. “I [can] play the piano with one finger. I got an ear for music. I play the drums,” says Rakim on whether it’s true if he can play 12 instruments. “I’m aiight on the one’s and two’s too.” Earlier this year, Heads got a glimpse of Rakim’s DJ abilities. “You have to; I’ve got the Serato set up in the crib. I’ve got a whole room of vinyl too.”
The God MC opens up about getting Knowledge Of Self with the Five Percent Nation of Gods and Earths, “Just before I met, Eric B.” in 1985 or early 1986. Later in the interview, he details a powerful story in his life as a teenager that led him down the righteous spiritual path.
Confirming that his initial stage name was Kid Wizard, Rakim opens up about his musical inspirations at 12:00. “My biggest influence was [Grandmaster] Caz, [Grandmaster] Melle Mel, and [Kool] Moe Dee. Those are like my big brothers, man. It was my involvement with music, my being around music, my mother playing Jazz all the time—and me likin’ Jazz, and me being in a band and learning how to play instruments, I kind of learned time and space. My secret was John Coltrane. I used to listen to John Coltrane. I used to want to make my flow sound like a John Coltrane solo—you know what I mean?”
The Juan Epstein hosts ask, given Rakim’s advanced rhyme vocabulary, if he studied books of words. “I couldn’t look in the dictionary; it would kind of throw me off. You open the dictionary, now you see millions of words.” While Rakim’s nose was not buried in the Oxford, he was studying elsewhere. “I was always fishing for words, that’s what I mean [when I say I paid] a little extra attention in English class, and Social Studies and things like that.” He continues, “I used to absorb everything I could in the midst of living in [Long Island].” Later on, Rakim details his high-school experience—a diverse one that includes partying, playing high-school quarterback (at 5’8″) with reported college chances, and a deep a love of dogs. The MC also reveals that he met his wife when he was in ninth grade. Later in the interview, Rakim admits that he had weapons charges against him since he was 12 years old, too.
At 17:20, Rakim details the origin of his union with Eric B. He recalls their introduction, and tells the story of recording “My Melody” from Marley Marl’s couch. The Juice Crew co-founder and radio star encouraged the teenaged MC to stand and deliver his rhymes with more animation. “I said [to Marley Marl], ‘Yo, if I stand up, it’s gonna sound the same way,'” says Rakim. Reportedly, Juice Crew’s then-star MC Shan took over the direction and production of that session. “It ain’t that I’m sleepy or high, this is the way that I rhyme, man.” Shan and Rakim would eventually become label-mates through MCA Records. The same day he recorded the B-side to “Eric B. Is President,” Eric B. & Rakim made their performance debut at a Juice Crew show. “We split everything down the middle, from rip,” Rakim explains of the duo’s agreement. With collegiate football plans, Rakim explains why he was presented as a featured act on the debut 12″ Zakia Records single.
At 27:50, Peter Rosenberg jumps ahead to question Rakim about his 2001-2002 tenure at Dr. Dre’s Aftermath Entertainment. With plans to release Rakim’s third solo album, Oh, My God, the contract ended without a product. “I went out there and was working with [Dr. Dre] and everything. It got a lil’ timely. Dre had a lot goin’ on. After a while, I was like, ‘Dre, look, man. I been out here for a while, bruh,'” explains the MC. “He had a lot on his plate, I guess,” notes Rakim, who was then label-mates with Eminem, 50 Cent, Hittman, Truth Hurts, and others. “It got to the point where I said, ‘Look Dre, I appreciate the opportunity and all that. But man, listen: I’ma go back to New York.’ He was like, ‘Ra’, man, give me a little more time.'” Rakim honored that request. “I gave him a little more time, and it still ain’t work out. I came back and kinda started over. Big up to Dre, man, and good luck on everything on the future.” Rakim confirmed that there are unheard collaborations of him on Dr. Dre beats. “There’s a few.” During that period, Rakim would appear on Eminem’s 8 Mile soundtrack (“R.A.K.I.M.”). The lone Dr. Dre-produced track was “The Water 2,” a remix from the 2001 song that appeared on Jay Z’s The Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse. “The thing is… me and Dre may have only did a couple. But there was some other producers.” Going a bit more in depth, Rakim confirms that the songs he recorded for Oh, My God were not with Scott Storch or Mel-Man, both late ’90s and early 2000s standouts on Dre’s production ensemble. Asked if he ever collaborated with Eminem, “Nah” says the artist—revealing that the two did a press campaign together, though.
At 34:00, Rakim opens up about his often understated production on Eric B. & Rakim songs. Speaking about the pair’s final charting single as a unit, 1992’s “Juice (Know The Ledge),” Rakim details, “I played the drums on that joint.” Approaching a stack of vinyl, the artist reveals that Nat Adderly’s “Rise, Sally, Rise” was on the top of his speaker deck, causing him to use it. “Sometimes when you’re doing a record, you might have a certain vision or sound you’re trying to get to. You might get close; I’m not sayin’ ‘Juice’ was perfect, but it was [great for me]. I looped the beat up in this real tiny room in the crib. The wife kept crackin’ the door open on me. I wrote two verses. I went to the studio laid it down. Came home, wrote the other two verses, came back in, and the rest is history. The energy that I got from that movie, and the feelin’ I got from it, I knew it would resonate with Hip-Hop. When I saw it, that’s what came out.” Rakim admits he saw the Ernest R. Dickerson film starring Tupac Shakur ahead of creating the song.
Next, he drops anecdotes from his encounters meeting ‘Pac, The Notorious B.I.G., and his relationship with Jay Z. Asked about his Top 10, since he’s discussed those artists, Rakim waves off the notion. However, he does say that he personally holds M.O.P.’s Lil Fame and Billy Danze in incredibly high regard as lyricists.
At 54:00, Rakim speaks openly about his attitude at the height of his career, and peer rivalries. Asked about a long perceived competition with Big Daddy Kane in the late 1980s, Ra’ explains, “The silly shit started happening, when I thought Kane was poppin’ off [about me], and I guess people was tellin’ him I was poppin’ off too. I went and recorded ‘Let The Rhythm Hit ‘Em,’ and I think at the end of the first verse, I said something [directed to] Kane.” Presumably through Kane’s manager, and Eric B.’s brother Ant Live, the Brooklyn member of the Juice Crew caught wind of the lingering diss. “I remember sittin’ at the crib…Ant Live called me up, ‘Yo Ra’, Kane wanna talk to you, man.’ Kane was like, ‘Yo Ra’, man, I just wanna holla. Listen, man—Ant just played me the record. I just want to let you know, it ain’t no beef. People be trying to gas the situation and things like that, but it ain’t no beef.’ So I went back and took his name and [the corresponding bars] off the joint.”
Rakim acknowledges that he was not peer-friendly during the Eric B. & Rakim days. “You know, comin’ up, I try to be as humble as possible. But Kane was one of the MCs that was a problem.” He adds, “Being young and cocky, I used to look at him out the side-eye a lil’ bit. Recently…a couple years ago, we sat down. I got the utmost respect for him. Just like EPMD; I got the utmost respect for ’em.” The Juan Epstein hosts ask if Rakim had tensions with fellow islanders Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith. “Back then it wasn’t really good with too much of anybody. It wasn’t really a problem, it was just testosterone.” Rakim says his reserved approach to a close-knit industry may have rubbed people the wrong way.”I just tried to stay clear of a lot of industry things.” Explaining that decision, he says, “It was me just trying to stay normal and keep my sanity. I never wanted to appear better than anybody. It was just young, egotistical MC, knowing that I was kinda doin’ my thing. More than that, I think that was Hip-Hop then. It was chest out. It wasn’t a lot of friendly groups collaborating. That came after that era.”
Juan Epstein ask why Rakim was not on the Self Destruction’s “Stop The Violence Movement,” a KRS-One-orchestrated super-collaboration. “That’s a good question, man. ‘Cause I won’t front, I felt a way…I had to let it go. I wasn’t on some, ‘Y’all supposed to call me, man.'” Rakim acknowledges that there was a rivalry between he and Kris Parker. “That was another MC, like Kane, it wasn’t no disrespect—but I could tell there was tension between me, Kane, KRS, and a couple cats. Me and [Kool] G Rap—that’s my little brother. I never felt no type of way with him.”
At 65:00, Rakim reveals that late Queens, New York producer (and Large Professor mentor) Paul C. made the beat to 1990 single “In The Ghetto.” Paul was murdered in 1989, just one year after Rakim also lost his father—whom he refers to as a hero. “[Paul C.] gave me ‘[In] The Ghetto.’ That was the first thing I did [after my father] passed away…I felt the song was right, it had that feel.”
At 68:00, Rakim fields the question many wish to know—if he will release a fourth solo album. “For all the love that I got for it, I definitely want to make another album.” 2009’s The Seventh Seal was largely panned. “To this day, I love rhyming. I love writing. To this day, I feel like I got a lot more to say. I got too much love for music. I’m gonna sit down. I spoke to a couple people, a few producers. If it’s just for Rakim fans alone, I would love to end the legacy off right.”
Before closing, Rakim speaks up (again) about a longstanding rumor held high by Rap fans. Asked if he penned DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s “Summertime,” he declares, “Nah.” Eric B. & Rakim had been at work on a song with the same Kool & The Gang sample. “We was gonna bring it out, but never got a chance to do it after they did it.” Also questioned if he ghost-wrote for others, Rakim denies it, “Nah. I was too stingy with it.” While he says Eric B. propositioned him with paid opportunities to sell verses, the MC told his DJ/producer partner, “Nah, I don’t do that, bruh.”
In 2016, Rakim appeared alongside Stephen Marley and Kardinal Ofishall on single “So Unjust.”
Complex has the full audio of Rakim’s appearance on Juan Epstein.