It is an opportune time to revisit Eric B. & Rakim’s classic Follow the Leader—released 25 years ago this week—a rare chance to judge a tree by the fruit it bears. I say this because the current number one album in the country, Jay Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail, is in many ways, the fulfillment of the ethos articulated on Follow the Leader. It was the title/theme/task. Truth is, Jay’s latter-day career is more Rakim than illuminati, more godbody than Basquiat. No, the Five Percent Nation chain Hov has been wearing does not belong to Rakim, but there's no doub that Follow the Leader set the #newrules way back in '88.
The difference between the two albums defines hip-hop’s evolution: Ra developed a mystique, Jay developed a brand. In that era, hip-hop was still in its embryonic stages—both more free and more limited than it is today—with much of its ambition still trapped in metaphor. It would take a quarter century for all that potential energy to be fully catalyzed.
Want to really understand the significance of Jay’s Samsung deal? Think Paid In Full and Follow the Leader taken to their logical, real-time conclusions. If there is any doubt of Ra’s influence on hip-hop’s (still) reigning king, count how many times Jay has drops the God’s name and/or verse and/or rhyme pattern on the last few albums; also take note of the Five percenter talk—one of Ra’s many contributions to rapspeak—on the opening of “Heaven”; check the chain he rocked on a recent interview emblazoned with the Five percent emblem and the cipher’s complete. MCGH is the God’s word made flesh, the latest incarnation of the Rakim continuum.
Want to really understand the significance of Jay’s Samsung deal? Think Paid In Full and Follow the Leader taken to their logical, real-time conclusions.
We hear the God in Wu-Tang, Mobb Deep, Kendrick Lamar, Eminem, his namesake A$AP Rocky, Jay Electronica and of course, Nas—amongst countless others. That most of the GOAT candidates are devotees should speak volumes.
Leader found Eric B & Ra at the height of their powers, in both style and substance. Think Nikola Tesla-level innovations draped in Dapper Dan Gucci leathers leaning on Eric’s burgundy Rolls. Ra embodied it: street intelligence mixed with a bebop demeanor. (Eric B., whose contributions, should never be discounted, added mightily to their credibility. Like Terminator X, he spoke only with his hands.) Lines like, "I’m everlasting/I can go on for days and days/With rhyme displays that engrave deep as X-rays," confirmed Rakim’s lyrical dominance back in those days, but more than that, it was a quantum leap in the psychology of rap. Ra measured his power in solar units and was as credible battling MCs amongst the stars as he was chilling in the cut.
Heavily influenced by jazz greats like Thelonius Monk, his fire came from his control, his kill came from his calm. Follow the Leader introduced a real jazz awareness to hip-hop, one that could describe infinite space and time and move the crowd down here on earth. More than two decades later, Leader’s contributions run so deep in our veins, has become so ubiquitous, it is sometimes difficult to trace back to the source. This week is the anniversary of this sonic masterwork, so we caught up with the God to talk craft, his widening influence and the sources of his genius. Here he is, Rakim.
Interview by Rob Marriott (@tafari)
What was the importance of Follow The Leader to your career?
After my first album, Follow the Leader, kind of solidified that I was who I said I was, you know what I mean? It was a good thing. I remember performing out at the Apollo before it came out. I’m pretty sure Jesse Jackson was there. It was like a big thing that they had. I just remember performing that—and usually we didn’t perform records that the people didn’t know—but I went on and performed that and I got a good response from it and it kind of let me know as well that I was taking off.
That time had a lot of hidden controversies. I remember listening to the album and thinking you were addressing a lot of things. It was a different rhyme style than the first record. Tell me why you switched up your style from the slow flow you had on Paid In Full, to what you did with “Lyrics of Fury” and “Follow the Leader.” What instigated that?
I think just the pace of hip-hop, you know what I mean? A lot of people was on a lot of uptempo tracks and you had a lot of creative dances coming out at that time. Before that, the dances was a little more laid back, but at that time there, I think that freestyle was almost like breakdancing, but it was more freestyle and I started addressing that, you know what I mean? At the same time, the lyric game was stepping up, you know what I mean? I kind of pushed myself to a limit where I had to go to the next level as well. I think it was just me growing and the times of hip-hop evolving and getting a little more intricate.
The thing that always struck me about you was how focused you are on composure. How your rhymes were talking about being explosive, yet you always sounded so calm. Was that just you or did you draw from somebody? Was there a certain inspiration? Because at that time, a lot of hip-hop was aggression without any pull back. I feel like that was one of your main innovations, rhyme-wise and even psychologically, that you brought to the music.
No doubt. I think that was me expressing what kind of person I’ve always been, a laid back person. Some songs will give you a nice vibe, a nice mellow vibe. Some songs will make you scared to speak, or stare back at you. Certain songs, I used to kinda let that aggression out. If I heard “Lyrics of Fury.” I was thinking horror-movie, slash, just going in, you know what I mean? Certain tracks bring that outta me. To this day, that was always my thing, that calm fury, that quiet craziness and I tried to put it in my music. I always knew I was laid back and at times I had to be a little more aggressive with it, so I kind of combined the two without stepping out my boundaries.
It was that album, too, that made a direct line from jazz and blues. You brought that Thelonius Monk. I always thought Thelonius was a genius because he played the notes in between the notes.
Exactly. A lot of jazz music attributes to my style, you know. I grew up on that in the house and I admired the way they put it down and how cool they was with it, you know what I mean? Even listening to an instrumental you can get a mood from it and see where they was trying to take it and that’s the reason when I hear a track I try to sink into what the music is saying so people will get the vibe from the music and then the vibe from the rhyme as well. Thelonius Monk, man, he was a genius, man. He went across seas to Asia and I think they have 31 notes in their music scale. So he heard some things over there and came back over here and was trying to repeat it. And what was crazy is they thought he was playing the wrong notes until they made him play the same song again! He’s a beast man.
It makes me shudder to think about what Thelonius Monk was doing because it was like listening to somebody conquering the music in-the-moment, you know what I mean? And you had that same feeling because when you go through “Follow the Leader,” the actual lyrics, I don’t think anybody ever came with that in-the-moment descriptions the way you did.
Thanks, bro. I was definitely reaching for that extra element of rhyming, man.
I remember studying Islam and a lot of literature. I started dealing with actual facts, you know what I mean? I realized we was trying to mimic facts and you know, it was a different dimension I was trying to deal with mentally.
There’s that moment in the song when you go into the universe and then the planets fade away, you know what I mean? I think that was a quantum leap for hip-hop because nobody ever went that far literally, figuratively and metaphorically. Do you remember writing that rhyme and where you were and how that came together?
Like yesterday, man. It was in Power Play Studio in Queens. I remember studying Islam and a lot of literature. I started dealing with actual facts, you know what I mean? I realized we was trying to mimic facts and you know, it was a different dimension I was trying to deal with mentally and it just expressed itself in my rhymes, you know what I mean? It was definitely organic, it was just where I got to that point of the rhyme where I knew I was about take it there, you know what I mean?
Did you excite yourself when you came up with it?
Oh yes sir! It was definitely one of them bars where you sit back and you smile and you admire it. Like, Yeah, I got a little something here, nah mean? Just taking it there and hoping that the listener was seeing what I was saying so that they can expand and know that there’s more than what we see here.
I just want to thank you again for that. You’re the proof that rhymes can change lives.
Thank you my brother, word up.
In the end of the song, you kind of get at “fake MCs” or whatever you wanna call them, “the pretenders” or “the followers” and you dissect somebody in the rhyme. You take them apart piece-by-piece. I thought that for somebody to go into the universe and then come back and commit metaphoric violence on somebody on that level, it was quite a quantum leap. But I always heard you were kind of addressing the EPMD controversy.
Yeah it was a lot of talk going back and forth, nah mean? A couple things happened.
This was a Long Island situation?
Nah, it was just me and them, you know what I mean? We had a little problem, you know what I mean? And I kind of had to address it because my thing was, and still is, I don’t like to address a lot of things on record. I don’t even pay them no mind when I’m doing what I do. I don’t even like giving people the thought of day. But that there, there was a lot brewing and I just had to let them know, you know what I mean? We cool today, we’re really cooler now more than ever, man. I just did a show with them maybe a month ago and we kick it heavy now. That’s just that young testosterone—letting cats know can’t nobody can see me! That’s how I felt. I felt, This is my style.
There’s only one R in the alphabet.
Exactly! It was definitely one of them things, man.
Tell me a little about “Microphone Fiend.” Do you remember when you wrote that?
Oh, no doubt. Again, that was a Power Play joint in Queens. I just remember this cat I know kind of helped us find a record and when we finally found that record, Eric B. took it into the studio. It was one of the beats that he looped up before I even got there, you know what I mean? So I got there and heard it and as I was listening to it, the guitar was constantly driving, nah mean? So as I listen to it, I start thinking, Yeah yeah, alright. I came up with the first few bars, “I was a fiend before I became a teen...” And I said that a couple of times and I was like, “Yeah yeah this is that microphone fiend track shit right here,” and that became the name of the record. And I just keep feeding off the mic. I had a lot to feed off at that time because drugs in my neighborhood... I was seventeen or eighteen when I did that, you know what I mean?
How did you know when a rhyme was finished? How did you know when it was up to the level you wanted it at?
I don’t know. At the point, a lot of things was organic at that time, you know what I mean? In the beginning, we didn’t have a format as far as sixteen bars, eight bar hook, sixteen bars, three sixteens. We didn’t have a format. The melody was almost thirty bars the first verse. It was just trying to get my message across and once I felt I got it across, especially when I was near the end of the rhyme, then I felt that was good. Them early days, man.
We didn’t really have no format to working in the studio, neither. I didn’t know how to be a professional in the studio at that time. I was just putting down what I felt was good, and if when I heard it it felt good to the ear and there was no mistakes, then I felt it was done. We had a couple cats in the room and we would feed off their energy. “Yo Ra, I think you should do that part again..." Or, "Do it again with a little more feeling or do it with a little less feeling.” I always appreciated that creative criticism from the people I trusted in the room, you know what I mean? And one of them cats was Eric B.’s brother. He was always around and he always went on tour with us. He was always just a true cat, a sincere cat and tell you how he felt and I was always asking, “How this sound right here?” And he’d always let me know straight-up. It was just trying to go by your feeling. Again, we wasn’t professionals in the studio at that time, but we kinda felt we knew how it was supposed to sound like.