Rakim made his debut in '86, with a melody and a president's mix. Over two decades later, William Michael Griffin is still calm and humble as they come. He sits comfortablely as the man who your favorite rapper bit his rhyme style from, one of the most respected wordsmiths ever, and one of the best rappers to ever bless the microphone.
Next year marks the 25th anniversary of Paid In Full, his legendary debut alongside his estranged partner Eric B. And this year the R was nominated for a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Needless to say, the man is a living legend.
So when The 18th Letter recently stopped by the Complex offices, we talked about his upcoming album, how he's a big fan rappers like Eminem and Jay-Z, and his reaction to finding out ASAP Rocky is named after him. So pump up the volume and keep following the leader...
Interview by Insanul Ahmed (@Incilin)
What have you been up to?
Just doing some shows. I just came from overseas a couple weeks ago. [I spent] a couple months over there. I haven’t been over there in 15 years. Just trying to stay focused. I’m about to start on another album.
I’ve got a few tracks and I’m working with some real important people on this one. I’m looking for some real good production. I’m trying to keep it on the low because I don’t think they really gonna expect some of the people that I’m working with. Hopefully, I’ll have some fun on it, make a few statements, and continue the legacy.
I’m a big fan of Jay-Z’s whole movement. I’m a big fan of Eminem. I’m a big fan of people like The LOX, Wu-Tang Clan, and different rappers like that. Just watching from afar, knowing where it came from, to see where it’s at now and see how rap impacts the world is unbelievable.
At the same time, I want to take it back to the roots with some of the cats that I love working with: DJ Premier, Pete Rock—some of them cats. I’m definitely not changing what I do, but just getting with a couple cats that people wouldn’t expect or people that I haven’t worked with before.
Are there any young MCs who impress you today?
I’m still a fan. I love hip-hop. I’ve got a wide range of different artists [that I respect]. I was an underground artist, but the underground status was successful. Coming from where I came from to see where rap is now, now artists are selling from a million to eight million copies. It’s a little scarce today, but I’m a fan of watching different rappers take the torch and run with it.
I’m a big fan of Jay-Z’s whole movement. I’m a big fan of Eminem. I’m a big fan of people like The LOX, Wu-Tang Clan, and different rappers like that. Just watching from afar, knowing where it came from, to see where it’s at now and see how rap impacts the world is unbelievable. It’s a good feeling to see that it’s still a major genre in music.
Have you heard of A$AP Rocky?
He’s a young rapper coming out of Harlem. When he was born, his parents named him Rakim, after you.
Wow. I’ll keep my eye on him. It’s our 25th anniversary for Paid in Fulland longevity in the rap game is a little short, but it’s a blessing to be around and somewhat relevant today and to have influence on different people and artists. Besides my kids, it keeps me going. To the know the love that I get and the impact that I have on the game, it’s a blessing. My kids listen to rap, so I try to keep up with as much as I can.
To see young artists coming out today, I’m always interested in seeing their struggle: Where they come from, what got ‘em into rap, why they love it, and what they stand for.
To see young artists coming out today, I’m always interested in seeing their struggle: Where they come from, what got ‘em into rap, why they love it, and what they stand for. Everybody’s not gon' be “conscious this” or “pro that” or “this and that,” but everybody got a story.
It’s interesting knowing half of my story is what made me who I am. So to hear other rappers, the first thing I am is curious. I wonder, "What's that brother’s vibe? What has he been through? What pushes him?” To me, sometimes things outside of rap inspire me to rap. It’s interesting to know what makes other people check the method to they madness.
What inspires you to this day?
Everything. My kids [inspire me]. Of course, I read a lot of literature and I love watching the world turn. Music in general as well. It’s a big part of what keeps me going. I got my little Serato set up in the crib. I got two big piles of waxes so my old heads don’t get it twisted—I got nothing but classic music in the house.
I get up and I might DJ for about two hours straight, just playing music that inspires me. I don’t care how many times I hear it. Sometimes, I know my kids be like, “Dad! Play something from the last five years!” I guess it kinda bears a story for me, so when I hear it, it’s just that euphoric feeling. It still do what it do.
I'm proving you can be over 40, still be relevant, still be nice on the mic, and you can still be a beast.
Music, life, a lot of the things that we go through in the world. A lot of questions that we have about the world inspires me.
Recently, you were nominated for a spot in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. What was your reaction when you heard the news?
I was speechless. You can almost say, “Yeah, I made it,” getting nominated to that right there. It’s a big accolade. If I get in, it’ll definitely put the icing on the cake. To be noticed on that plateau, for me, is enough. It definitely lets you know that you’re noticed, appreciated, and somewhat made it in music.
But I’ve got other things to prove. I don’t know why, but now it’s like [I'm] proving you can be over 40, still be relevant, still be nice on the mic, and you can still be a beast. All of these things. It don’t stop with me. I guess with the titles that I’ve been handed through the years, it inspires me to keep that up. If not, push it further.