Even as his recording career slips further away in time, Rakim is still regarded by many as the greatest MC of all. Before Tupac, Biggie and Jay Z had even uttered a line of rhyme, the man born William Michael Griffin was routinely jostling for position on the Greatest of All Time lists, alongside Big Daddy Kane, LL Cool J, KRS-One, Chuck D, Melle Mel and Kool G Rap. His finest years were as part of the golden-age duo Eric B. & Rakim, but Griffin’s solo career had its highlights, too, and he remains an inspiration to many. His back catalogue raised the bar for all the artists to follow.
Kid Wizard Rakim
Griffin was born in Wyandanch in Long Island, New York, on January 28, 1968. His aunt was the legendary Atlantic records R&B singer Ruth Brown, while his mother sang jazz and opera. He showed an early talent for music, playing baritone sax for the Wyandanch High School band. He also joined a number of fledgling rap groups at school, including the Almighty 5 MCs and The Love Brothers. DJ Belal, who would later be part of the Uptown Records group Groove B Chill, told Longislandrap.com that: “This dude sounded so good at 12… that most MCs could not even come close. So I stopped rhyming.”
His precocious talent is evident from old recordings of the time, including a 1985 high-school performance alongside future star Biz Markie, where he bills himself as "Kid Wizard Rakim." He’d adopted the name Rakim after joining the 5 Percent Nation, an offshoot of the Nation of Islam, and his faith would shine through in his lyrics, making him perhaps the most erudite spokesperson for the Nation.
Griffin, Eric B. and Marley Marl all tell conflicting stories about how the three came together to record Eric B. & Rakim’s 1986 debut single, "Eric B. Is President," but Griffin says it came about through his friend Alvin Toney, who brought Eric B. over to his house unannounced. In an interview with The Atlantic’s David Samuels, he said Toney greeted him with: “Well, this is Eric, he’s trying to look for a rapper. He knows Mr. Magic, Marley Marl. He asked me who the best rapper out here was and I told him, you.”
Eric B. took Rakim to Marley Marl’s home recording studio where they laid down a couple of tracks — "My Melody" and "Eric B. Is President" — released as a double A-sided single on the independent label Zakia. Marley Marl claims he produced the tracks; Eric B. says that he did. But this squabbling can’t overshadow the arrival of a sensational new voice in hip hop — Rakim.
'Paid in Full' Takes Rap Lyricism to a New Level
The duo signed shortly afterwards with Island Records and began recording their debut album, Paid in Full, at Power Play Studios early in 1987. Released on July 7th the same year, the album would quickly be recognized as an instant classic. The production was one thing — perhaps the gold standard for sampling-based music at the time — but the man on the mic was another. At a time when rhyming patterns in hip hop were either nursery-rhyme simple or full of bravado and bluster, Rakim’s voice was a quiet storm. He self-consciously steered away from the high-energy approach of the leading stars of that era, LL Cool J and Run DMC, despite his admiration for both.
Rakim’s calm, stately approach on the mic gave him a gravitas beyond his years. His smooth tones talked persuasively to you — he never yelled. The album would go on to sell over 1 million copies, spawn five singles but, perhaps most importantly, take rap lyricism in a whole new direction.
Eric B. & Rakim Part Ways
Catapulted into stardom, Eric B. & Rakim joined the worldwide Def Jam tour along with Public Enemy and LL Cool J, opening up new audiences. They still found time to skip the sophomore jinx, however, recording and releasing their second album, Follow the Leader, in 1988. They’d skipped labels to Uni, an MCA subsidiary, but much else remained the same — including the contributions of Rakim’s brother Stevie Blass Griffin on keyboards. It diverted from the James Brown sampling of their debut, saw them move into deeper, moodier territory and kept fans very happy. Reaching No. 22 on the Billboard albums chart, it was summed up accurately by Jonathan Gold in his Los Angeles Times review: “The new album might feel less revolutionary than last year’s Paid In Full, but it is far most consistent.”
Two more albums as a duo followed: 1990’s Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em (which was awarded a rare "5 Mics" review by The Source magazine) and 1992’s Don’t Sweat the Technique. Both were warmly received by fans, but sales had tailed off, and there were also more disputes about production, with claims that the Queensbridge rapper and producer Large Professor had contributed tracks to Rhythm without receiving credit. The duo split among complex legal wrangling over release contracts and ownership of the masters, and have never worked together since.
Ups & Downs: 'The 18th Letter' Succeeds, 'The Seventh Seal' Fails
After the split in 1993, many expected Rakim to quickly be snapped up by a label and embark on a solo career. It didn’t quite happen that way. Apart from contributing "Heat it Up" to the soundtrack of the 1993 film Gunmen, he didn’t release another record until 1997, having been dropped by MCA. That solo debut, The 18th Letter, came out on Universal Records and, despite the hiatus, sold 500,000 copies and rocketed to No. 4 on the Billboard 200. Bolstered by production from Pete Rock, DJ Premier and Clark Kent, it retained that trademark lyrical sharpness and depth. “Rakim ages gracefully… and without bitterness,” Robert A. Gonzales wrote in a review for Spin. The Master didn’t fare so well when it was released in 1999. It charted lower, felt shallower and the grab-bag of producers failed to find a unifying sound.
Rakim was then signed to his fellow veteran Dr. Dre’s label Aftermath Entertainment in 2000, fueling fan hopes that the "God MC" could reinvent himself for the new millennium and a fresh audience. Sadly, this was another period of limbo. An album, Oh My God, was worked on, but never completed and the only real fruits of this period were a guest appearance on the Dre-produced Top Ten hit "Addictive" by Truth Hurts in 2002.
He left Aftermath in 2003 and rumors swirled about another solo album, although none emerged until 2009’s The Seventh Seal. His final album to date, it sold poorly and received the worst critical notices of his career. “A record that has been made a hundred times or more,” penned the AV Club’s Nathan Rabin, while the LA Time’s Jeff Weiss felt that “all too often the God sounds like a mere mortal.”
Since that album, it has been largely silence from Griffin, except an under-the-radar 2013 collaboration with DMX on the track "Don’t Call Me." He lives in Connecticut with his childhood sweetheart, Fee, and they have three children — Destiny, Jabar and Tahmell.
Rumors persist of an Eric B. & Rakim reunion and tour, but whether or not that comes to pass, nothing can tarnish Rakim’s legacy and the new path it provided for a lot of rappers. The importance of his Islamic faith was handled subtly, at a time when contemporaries such as X-Clan and Poor Righteous Teachers took a more strident approach. He expanded rap’s vocabulary, introducing complex metaphors and similes in a period when many rappers lacked imagination. That slightly weathered baritone, even at a young age, sounded like something completely new. That’s why you’ll never be able to have a discussion about the greatest rapper of all time without mentioning the name Rakim.
(Profile photo of Rakim by David Corio/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
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