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.
You’d blown up after the first record and I know there was a lot of expectations for Follow the Leader. Can you describe what that time was like between records? Was it difficult?
Nah because at that point, I didn’t really understand the magnitude of what was going on. I like to stay humble, man. I love the accolades that I get and I love when people show me their appreciation for what I do, but I try not to let it get to me, nah mean? So I don’t care what was going on or what was being said to me. I know that I had to get better and that I could’ve done the first album better, nah mean? If anything, I was more eager to show them, Yo, y’all ain’t even heard nothing yet. Again, you young, eighteen, nineteen at that point, you don’t know that your first album then your second album is tougher, nah mean? Just feeding off that energy and just waiting to get back in the studio again, you know?
I know that I had to get better and that I could’ve done the first album better, nah mean? If anything, I was more eager to show them, “ Yo y’all ain’t even heard nothing yet,”
I think I saw you say in another interview that you saw your aunt Ruth Brown perform and be so good at what she does and was always regular and that kind of taught you that lesson.
Word up. She babysat me, man. I used to sit in her house and watch her before she would go to the Cotton Club or go to the Apollo or go anywhere. She was so laid back and natural at the crib. I realized that if you are confident in what you do and you love what you do, all the rest of that is just the way you take it. She was down to earth, man. She didn’t have to do the pre-show B.S. She sat at the crib, she had a box of Slim Jim’s on the table. I used to eat those with her. She would sit there and put glitter on her dress and other little things on it to make it stage presentable, nah mean? I saw her do all this before a show, man. It kind of let me know: Yo man listen, do what you do, get ready for the show, do the show and hope everybody like it when you get off stage.” I got that from her.
That balance is like the golden mean or something...being humble but having such grandiose, artistic endeavor, you know what I mean?
Yes sir, yes sir.
In my mind what Nas did, and what Jay Z is doing, is referencing the foundation you built with those first two two records. They seem like the blueprint for Wu-Tang. It’s the blueprint for Nas. Jay Z seems like he’s living out what you suggested on these first records. Do you ever look at what hip-hop has become? And how much credit do you take for setting the path?
Again, I’m a humble dude, you know what I mean? But at the end of the day, I’m aware of the styles and some of the wordplay and different ways that I came up with putting a rhyme together. I’m aware of that. And I hear it, you know what I mean? But I feel good because the same way that people used to ask me, “Why do you sample James Brown?” and I used to tell them, “Because I really love his music and I love what he do.” This is a little different, rap is a little different. But I don’t know, man. Maybe it’s like it rubs off on you if you keep listening to the way somebody do something you learn to do it that way, you know what I mean? Again, I felt a certain way sometimes when I felt like I don’t get the just-do for some of the things I started. But again at this time, you mentioned Jay Z, he mentioned me on his new album, you know what I mean? That’s homage, you know what I mean?
And it’s not the first time. He’s been mentioning you quite a bit for the last few albums. I don’t know if you saw this, but he was on Power 105 and he had the Five-percent Starburst on his chain. And then on one of his new records ["Heaven"] he opened with The Supreme Mathematics. ["Arm leg, leg, arm, head" acronymization of "Allah."] So I sense your influence on everything. Even the whole idea of Holy Grail is that he’s paid in full. That was the basis of all of it. But back to Follow the Leader, one of the ill things about that album was the cover. Do you remember that photo shoot and can you talk about what you were wearing and the concept behind the album cover?
Word up. For the album cover, we went to see Dapper Dan and he laced us up with that Gucci Gucci, baby! At that time, it was big ballers in the street who were wearing the Gucci Dapper Dan stuff. I got that from my people in Fort Greene. I did this little party for them in ’86 and when I got inside the party, it seemed like at least forty people in there had a Gucci suit, a Fendi suit, a MCM suit, a Louis Vuitton suit, and this is head-to-toe. And I seen my man, and I was like, "Dude!” He was like, “No problem. Tomorrow morning come through and I’ll take you straight through to see my man.”
We went to Harlem, and he took me to Dapper Dan’s spot. Introduced me to Dapper Dan, and I was like, “Dap, I seen what they were rocking last night.” And he was like, “Listen man, go back there and let my dudes tape you up, measure you up, and you tell me whatever you want and I got you.” My man Dap was putting it together, and when we started rocking it on the covers. Me and Dap, we speak to this day, and—Dap told me that people from Baltimore, people from Miami, Atlanta, Houston, and before you know it there are people coming from overseas—to this day, he tells me, “Y’all don’t know what y’all did for my brand.” It was dope. It was like a new time of hip-hop coming in and Dap kinda catered and made us look like stars.
Before that, when I talked to Melle Mel, I always tell him, “Yo, I appreciate your vision.” Coming from the hood, they wanted to be stars. They had the leather on, the chains on, they made it look bigger than it was. Rick James was killing them back then. Rick James kept a leather suit on. So at that time, I guess to look like a star it was leather. But Melle Mel and Moe D, if you remember Moe D he had the leather suits on, but he made rappers look like stars.
After the leather era, it was jackets and hats. Run and them came out with the hats, so we were kinda looking for something. So Dap came through and made us look not just like Hollywood stars, but urban stars. Stars from the hood. It was a perfect match. So big ups to Dapper Dan, he played a big, gigantic part in hip-hop.
Who came up with the catching y’all from the back on the hood of the car? What kind of car was that?
That was a Rolls Royce. It was because the artwork Dapper Dan put on the back. The “Follow the Leader” joint, it was like, “Follow us.” So, everything kind of worked out.
How long did it take you to do the album?
I can’t even remember that far back. Everything was kind of organic. Like, I wrote everything in the studio. I would go to the studio, listen to the track. Most of the time, I would clear everybody out, sit at the console, write the rhymes, and then go in the booth and read it. It might of took us three, four months.
There's a lot of Quran influence on the album. You were obviously doing a lot of reading. I remember, “I’m ever lasting, I could go on for days and days/With rhyme displays that engrave as deep as X-rays.” When did you have the time to do all this reading?
[Laughs]. I don’t know man. I always had a real hunger to figure out the universe. It just intrigues me. Just learning as much as I can out of the Quran, which was real complicated at first to read. That made me mad too. I was like, “Why can’t I understand this. It’s supposed to be for me.” But I understood that it’s like that for a reason. Reading and learning how to read that, then figuring out certain things and reading the Bible, then learning how to read the Bible and crack codes in the Bible, it just made me feel good. I felt like that’s what I was supposed to be doing and then I felt that if I learned something good then I could share it and tell somebody something that the most high wanted us to know. But I love reading.
For the album cover, we went to see Dapper Dan and he laced us up with that Gucci Gucci baby! At that time, it was big ballers in the street who were wearing the Gucci Dapper Dan stuff. I got that from my people in Fort Greene.
It’s crazy, I just did this song the other day. I can’t mention who it is, it’s a big surprise, one of the artists I did the song for, but I had to read the Bible and the Quran and I might’ve took about two days, spending about four to five hours each day just making sure that I got the right information for him and putting it together right. Putting it in there so that when people hear it, they can go to the Bible or the Quran and see where I got it from and draw their own understanding from it. So, whenever I get a chance. Sometimes my son will come down, Jabar, and me and him will go in there and open the Quran or the Bible and read a couple chapters and see if it makes sense, you know what I mean?
Does your rhyme scheme come from those sources as well? You really moved hip-hop from one lines rhyming at the end of a line to having internal rhymes and rhymes referencing each other two, three lines later. Did you have that evolution in your rap style or did you always rhyme like that from the beginning?
Nah, that kind of came about as I was learning. I started learning different ways to write. I don’t know how to explain this, but I guess it’s evident now, when I tried to explain it to somebody before they were looking at me like I was crazy, but I write down the paper. Like I write the rhyme across the paper, but the next bar, I’m rhyming everything all the way down the paper till I get to the end. That’s where the internal rhyme scheme came from, trying to rhyme the words in between.
What I thought I was doing was just writing down the paper, if it makes sense. But it came out kinda crazy. I don’t know if you heard one of the joints from Lost and Found, but I did this joint “Love 4 Sale” and if you listen to that it’s so internal that it goes all the way through the verse. The inner rhymes. Just having fun and hoping that someone will pick it up later on and say, “Oh you see what he did! He rhymed from the top.” Matter fact, I think it was all three verses, the internal rhymes rhymed off the same word. It’s just having fun and hoping people pick up on it and see that I put extra time into what I do.
I really think that’s the difference—how much you invest in each song. That’s why I think a lot of people are frustrated with the fact that you never put out more records. But, it seems like that had a lot to do with the fact that you put so much effort into each song.
Word up. I think that too. It got to a point where it seemed like there were always set backs and something going wrong. If it wasn’t me and Eric B., it was the label changing their staff. It seemed like there was always a setback. So after awhile, I just felt that things were taking place the way it was supposed to.
Did your relationship with music change?
Nah, not at all. That’s something I’m gonna love forever. I grew up around it. I think it was my first love, even before sports, when I was a little baby my mom would play it. That was my first love. Still to this day. It’s crazy, I wish I had more material out there as well, it’s one of the things where as I'm closing up my legacy it’s one of the things I wish I did more of, put more records out. Things happen for a reason and you gotta live with it.
Tell me about “Lyrics of Fury.” What was in your mind when you came up with that? Did you hear the record first or did you come up with the concept before that?
Yeah I came up with the concept. That was a George Clinton record that my brother Stevie Blast played. He used to play the keyboards on a bunch of my albums. But when I was coming up young, we would share rooms and he would play a lot of George Clinton. I came up on that as well. There was this one song he used to play, which was “No Head, No Backstage Pass.” But the sounds of it, man. I remember after I started rapping, I heard it again one time, but I didn’t have access, and I was just like, “Wow, that would be a crazy sample.” It just sounded so mean, nah mean?
You have people coming up in the game that aren’t scared to change it up, like Kendrick Lamar. I love the fact that he’s doing what he’s doing.
Finally, I went through my brother’s collection when he came back and left his records there. My mom had this big wall in the basement so he brought everything back and put it on the wall. I found the record and sampled it up and the sound of the record is what made me come up with the concept. It just sounds like one of the meanest samples that I had heard at that point.
Especially when you’re doing an album, you want a couple records on there that you can air out. I always look for one, on the other album it was “The Punisher.” I always have one on there where I can beast out. Let all that aggression out. I never like to point one MC out, but I would just say something and let all of them know, that was my way of doing my thing.
That’s what made you famous, that "seven MCs in a line" line.
Word up. We used to battle back in the day and it was always you against one. After you win a couple of those, you’re like, “I could take on a crew!” It’s that snowball effect. But I started writing my rhymes like, “I don’t have to concentrate on you. That shit you said in your rhyme was cute but I ain’t even thinking about that. This dude over here, you ain’t even ready yet.” So my thing was that I was just writing rhymes and if somebody feels a certain way about it then good, that’s what I want.
One of the things that made Bob Marley great was that not only was he an incredible lyricist and performer but he grew up in a moment in Jamaican music where he sampled everything. He was born just at the right time to capture ska and one drop and every time the music changed he was born in the right time. When I look at your career, I think about the fact that you were born at the time where hip-hop was coming up and corporate America hadn’t gotten its grips on it yet, but it was past the basic level of the house parties and park jams.
No rules yet.
So you were a part of what was creating the next thing. What do you think was particularly special about that time? Is there anything you feel like should be brought back into the music?
I think what was special about that time is what we just mentioned. There was no rules, we were free to express ourselves. I think originality was really big too. Everybody wanted to do their own thing and show what they could bring to the table. So there was a lot of creation going on at that time with the game too. I definitely think it was a good time for me cause I was able to come and express myself on what I wanted to do without no bars or no boundaries. If I wanted to flow for 52 bars, then I flowed for 52 bars. That was that.
I think what was good about that and what I think we should bring back is take some of the cookie cutting out of the game. Everything don’t have to be the same format and when somebody does something different we don’t have to look at it like something else. As long as it’s in that hip-hop vein, we have to understand that the brother wanted to express himself like that.
When I was coming up, there were certain artists that kind of made you cram to understand what they were on. Stevie Wonder, whenever he came out, was totally different from what everyone else was doing. When he came out with “Isn’t She Lovely” and all that, it was so different and profound, it was like, "Yo this don’t sound like what we listen to on the radio everyday at the time!" But it was so musical and talented that it was like, “Wow.” And I think that now some people are scared to step out of that cookie cutter. But, again, you have people coming up in the game that aren’t scared to change it up, like Kendrick Lamar. I love the fact that he’s doing what he’s doing.
I love that record.
He reminds you of California, but he doesn’t rhyme like nobody from California. He’s not doing the same style. He has his own style, he’s doing different things, and he’s not doing the cookie cutter way you’re supposed to do a song. So hopefully that will change and people will start saying different is good. That brother is different with his stuff but it’s still in the vein of hip-hop. So maybe people will say different is good, people will accept it. People are rhyming different, and bringing a new style. So big up Kendrick.
I think we can end it like that. But I wanted to thank you for something specificaly, because I remember the last time I interviewed you, the first question I asked you was, "Who is God?" And you'd said that you don’t really do interviews because you say, “Look, understand me on my record.” Then when the record came out, you had a song “Who is God?” And that was one of the illest records I ever heard, particularly because you answered my question so fully.
Thank you, man. It’s hard to do that in an interview. People used to always mix my words up, so a lot of times I didn’t like speaking on complicated conversations. No doubt my brother.
Thank you for the time and keep doing what you’re doing. You’ve saved a lot of lives, I could tell you that for real.
Thank you, that’s what keeps me going. Hearing the feedback that people appreciate what I do. Thank you too, my brother.