by Dave Nason
The question of just who is the greatest MC of all time has been in the forefront of my mind over the last six months. This quandary has no doubt been spurred by the recent verbal battle between NAS and Jay-Z, BET Rap City's notarization of the 50 greatest MC's, and the remembrance of Big's passing. Now I'm a fan of Biggie, and think that as an entire package, Tupac is one if not the greatest entertainer to come out of the Hip-Hop nation. However, when the discussion turns to who is the greatest MC of all time, Jay, Z, Nas, Biggie, and Tupac although legends, still fall short of the moniker "greatest." I know BET has deemed Tupac the greatest and The Source in a recent anniversary issue dubbed BIG the greatest. BET, however, also put Nelly in their top twenty. Now I'm not one to hate and I appreciate that Nelly is doing his thing by bringing his Midwest swing to the game, but the brother only has one album with average lyrics that breaks no new ground, and placing him in the top twenty would seem to belie the ages, and apparent limited histrionics of hip-hop lyrists of those who complied the list of the 50 greatest MC's hence the reason I believe so many current artist were so high on the list.
With all due respect, the greatest MC did not die on March 9th, or Sept 13th, but is indeed alive and well. In this era of revisionist's Hip-Hop history it appears that the greatest MC of all time is slowly but surely being relegated to the margins of historical recall. Similar to the many civil rights activists such a Fred Shuttlesworth, James Bevel, and Bayard Rustin who profoundly influenced their more famous brethren Dr. King, Rakim Allah is becoming all but forgotten as the greatest lyrist in the young history of rap music. In conjunction with giving rappers the courage and blueprint to put forth philosophical, theological, and social concerns on wax, Rakim also changed the way rappers could flow. His slow, deliberate, and unique delivery provided the foundation for post 87 hip-hop.
Until Rakim came on the scene most rappers performed with an over the top style, utilizing dancers, outfits, and other props that were quite reminiscent of 60's Motown. And with good reason, these first generations of hip-hopers grew up on the music of Motown, and were consequently influenced by the style of groups like the Temptations and Four Tops. Even though they were on the cutting edge of a musical development they were still mimicking, style wise, prior generations in show production. In quite a number of ways Rakim is to rap what Charlie Parker and Dizzy were to Jazz. Although the art form already existed and was relatively young Byrd and Dizzy introduced Bee-Bop and changed the sound, style, and direction of Jazz music forever. Rakim is the same in the world of rap music.
In any endeavor especially the sports and entertainment, one need not necessarily a large but a reasonable size body of work to climb the mantle of the "Greatest." Ali was not considered the greatest boxer of all time simply because of his two victories over Sonny Liston. No it took time, failure, and recapturing of glory for pugilist enthusiast to grant him such a title. In my opinion Biggie has too limited of a body of work, and lack of originality to anoint him the greatest. Lets be honest, as intelligent and clever as Biggie was, he simply put an East Coast perspective on so-called "gangsta rap." The "R" was dropping mob references and pushing the gangsta style in 88-89 with Follow the Leader.
Tupac, although great at combining the thuggish with the conscience, was also working within a parameter already set by Rakim. It was Rakim who could "put on the phat gold chain" while reminding, "with knowledge of self there's nothing I can't solve." Although Jay-Z now has an extended body of work, and is as clever a story teller and employer of metaphors as anyone to ever play the game, his over use of others' rhyme schemes and style leaves him devoid of any real claim on the title of greatest. Rakim, however, embodies every part of what these aforementioned brothers are individually great at. Rakim was and remains an original largely due to his understanding of how to straddle the line between thuggish, materialistic, and divine, while never indulging to the point of appearing overly criminal, hedonistic, or self-righteous.
Contrary to Nas's claim in 'Ether', it is Rakim's name that should be put forward in the question "name a rapper I didn't influence?" Since 1987, no other rapper has had the same profound affect on the music as Rakim. The most immediately recognizable change Rakim brought to the game was his style of flow. Until the arrival of Rakim most rappers flowed in exaggerated cadence just short of a yell. For many of the pioneers this was quite necessary since Hip-Hops genesis was in the parks of the Bronx and they had to compete with the DJ's sound system to be heard. Not to mention the point of the MC at the time was to hype the crowd at the party. Rakim, however, was the first MC to understand that in the studio one did not have to rhyme in a manner that was competing with the music, but like Frank Sintra, Rakim became an instrument in the song. Rakim's smooth and laid back flow was something that was practically unheard of in Hip-Hop when Paid in Full dropped. In fact, the first time I heard him I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. I recall reading a piece in which I believe MC Shan was working in the same studio as Rakim while he was recording Paid In Full. Shan recalled in the article commenting to someone that he thought this guy's flow was too eccentric to ever make it. But like most forms of art that aren't immediately understood it was the beginning in a shift in phenomena that would forever reshape the landscape.
The second innovative twist Rakim brought to the fold was the incorporation of serious philosophical and socio-political reflection utilizing both street and academic lexicon. Granted groups such as Grand Master Flash, and Run DMC produced some songs with relevant issues such as The Message, and It's Like That, but none took it to the level Rakim did. Flash and DMC songs highlighted the struggles of growing up black in inner city America, specifically New York. Rakim however, not only reflected upon what was going on, but also engaged his audience to look beyond their immediate circumstance. Rakim, before P.E., X-Clan, Paris, and even BDP, was also providing knowledge of Black world history.It was Rakim that introduced an entire generation of hip-hoppers to the religion of Islam by discussing his Five Percent lessons on wax (I am completely aware of the claims and counter claims that the Five Percent Nation is not a sect of Islam per se but is often classified as such because of its use of Islamic vocabulary and its growth out of the Nation of Islam so for now I digress). Many of us who may had ignored, were unaware, or had a passing interest in the religion of Islam soon were out researching the religion and eventually expanding this pursuit of knowledge to numerous other intellectual endeavors.
It was Rakim in a song called The Ghetto who not only reflected on the blight of poverty-stricken life but also pondered on how it got that way. It was Rakim who prophesized in the track Casualties of War, the after affects of the war in Iraq and American Middle Eastern polices:
…Now I'm home on reserves and you can bet when they call, I'm going AWOL
In most of Rakim's songs one will find not only musical genius but also social genius the likes of post What's Going On, Marvin Gaye. All of which gave birth to the rich tradition of groups like Public Enemy, Jungle Brothers, PRT, Paris, The Coup, Dead Prez, etc. Groups who utilized the blueprint laced by Rakim and were inspired to unapologetically put their politics on wax and utilizing the music not only as entertainment, but edutainment, to coin a phrase form KRS-1.
Rakim's, dark flow and lessons from the Nation of Gods and Earth's also opened the gates for a new generation of rappers. Groups like Mobb Deep, Nas, EPMD, and yes-even Biggie are direct descendents of Rakim's innovation. All of these MC's in one form or fashion employ a part of Rakim.
Mobb Deep has continued the legacy of proselytizing the lessons of the 5% nation and utilization of melancholy beats and lyrics in narrating their travel through urban life.
Nas has carried the torch of the Philosophical, knowledge, and street side (unlike Rakim, NAS has often found himself loss in the abyss of hedonism). Jay-Z has continued the tradition of vivid storytelling and clever metaphors, a penchant many claim he got from Big, but both are a direct result of Rakim's influence. No one since the foundation layers of the art has anyone had as much of a direct influence on the game and a particular coast except arguably NWA.
Rakim's most telling attribute has been his ability to never betray his commitment to the culture. All of the aforementioned MC's- no matter how real they have been- has at some point sacrificed their art for money, record sales, or being positive ambassador for the culture. Rakim maybe because of his aloofness has never seemingly revealed himself to be anything other than an MC committed to the mic as sincere as Malcolm was to the people.
Though Rakim lacks the notoriety that many other artist have those in the business and aficionados of classical hip-hop music know very well what Rakim means and continues to mean to the art of lyricism. I think most would agree that although Kenny G has out sold and is better known than John Coltrane, no one would argue that Kenny G was as innovative and influential as John Coltrane on sax players. Rakim is indeed the John Coltrane of Mc'ing, although he did not invent the art form, he has been unafraid to create and explore all the reaches of his mind creating a unique sound that is indeed "a Love Supreme. Biggie, Pac, and those other contenders sure to come will all go down in the annals as great but Rakim will remain the Gretzsky of rap "The Greatest."
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