Rakim is not only one of the most influential rappers of all time; he has long been one of the most mysterious. With renewed attention to his music in the wake of rumors (sadly debunked) of an Eric B. and Rakim reunion, Ra gave a rare in-depth interview to the Juan Epstein podcast.
The long-running show, hosted by Hot 97's Peter Rosenberg and DJ and comic Cipha Sounds, has featured everyone from Kid Capri to Jay Z to Vic Mensa. But rarely have the hosts been as excited as they were to talk to Rakim Allah. The rapper rewarded their anticipation in spades by revealing a bunch of classic stories from his long and trend-setting career.
Ra began by talking about growing up as the "spoiled" youngest child in a musical family (his brother performed with Kurtis Blow and his aunt is the late R&B legend Ruth Brown). He moved into discussing his classic early recordings, and working with towering figures like Marley Marl and MC Shan. He also revealed what he called his "secret" to his innovative rhyme style—he takes his cues from jazz. "I try to make my flow sound like a John Coltrane solo," he explained.
The MC is a noted devotee of the Nation of Islam offshoot known as the Nation of Gods and Earths or the Five Percent Nation, and the group's ideas have worked their way into his rhymes from the beginning. Ra talked to Cipha, a former Five Percenter himself, about how he got introduced to the group and what it has given to him over the years. After hearing a couple Gods speaking in his Long Island high school, "I knew that was for me," Rakim remembered. "I walked right to one of the head Gods at the time and said, 'I need knowledge of self.' And the rest was history."
In addition, the rapper shared his annoyance about being left off KRS-One's classic 1988 posse cut "Self Destruction." "I felt a way," he admitted. "That was KRS' record. It wasn't no disrespect back then, but I felt that there was a little tension between me and Kane [and] me and KRS."
Rakim talked about his relationship with later generations of rhymers. He shared an anecdote about running into Biggie for the first time, and mentioned getting surprise phone calls from 2Pac. "I knew what he stood for and what he was trying to do," Ra remembered. "I had nothing but respect for Pac." The God MC also discussed his thoughts on Kendrick Lamar and Drake. "Kendrick is nice," he said. "To be a young cat and to still have some of the traits that lyricists love, I respect that."
Rosenberg told Complex that this sit-down was two years in the making. "It was an adventure that included a trip to A3C for an interview that never happened [because] he somehow never got on the flight to Atlanta," the DJ said. "But it happened."
You can hear Rakim's entire appearance on Juan Epstein below. Make sure to subscribe to the show for more in-depth interviews with hip-hop legends.