May 11, 2011
Social rhymer ... Rakim is in the UK for two shows with De La Soul, Mos Def and Talib Kweli. Photograph: Ollie Millington/Redferns
William Michael Griffin Jr, aka Rakim Allah, remembers the first time he came to England. It was November 1987; the 19-year-old rapper, then partnered with DJ Eric B , had hardly ever left New York state before. Together with LL Cool J and Public Enemy – also on the bill – he flew to London for a show that would change not only the lives of many in the crowd, but a few of those on stage too.
"That gig Èwas like New Year's Eve," he says, sat in a hotel room in Dublin, the morning after a show. "The crowd all seemed to have tambourines and whistles; they put this whole new spin on what we were doing. The way that we were accepted and respected was very important to us all – it gave all of us a whole new sense of what hip-hop could be."
Over the next five years Rakim, whose first Billboard magazine review in 1986 noted how the "soft-spoken MC [has] fine rhymes, timing and syncopation", was responsible for some of the most forward-looking, conscious and exploratory hip-hop ever created. His lyrics were not about what he had or what he wanted, but largely about what he felt, what he knew, what he believed. You listened to him and you understood that this person's self-worth was determined by something infinitely more profound than his bank balance. Despite being routinely named the greatest rapper and/or lyricist of all time, Rakim's own solo career has spluttered into and out of life since ever since he split with Eric B (full name Louis Eric Barrier) in early 1993, with gaps as long as a decade between records.
Now he is back in the UK for two shows with De La Soul , Mos Def and Talib Kweli , artists who share a fundamental vision of hip-hop as not only a living art form but one capable of effecting positive mental and social change. Rakim (whose father was an engineer for American Airlines, but won't fly after "a few too many bad experiences") sailed along with his wife into Portsmouth a week ago after six days aboard the Queen Mary, before heading to Ireland for a string of gigs. "It's a real nice boat," he says. "We look on it as a vacation." They left their three children at home with their grandparents. He, like Posdnuos, Mase and Trugoy from De La Soul – like hip-hop itself – is coming to terms with middle age. How do you keep going? How do you stay creative? How do you retain an element of political consciousness in a business that only venerates cash?
"It's hard," Rakim says. "The conscious level is definitely low and the substance of the music is so much lighter, but you have to understand the game is young in new places. It's still growing."
In 1997, when Rakim's album The 18th Letter was released, he said: "The prophets once came with Qur'ans and Bibles, now they come with mics … " Fourteen years later, does he still believe that?
"It's not as true now as it once was," he admits. "We really need some of that consciousness, that fly on the wall that watches over us and comments. I like BOB and Lupe Fiasco a lot, they're both exploring the music, but I don't see a lot of artistry out there."
Rakim, who made headlines when he signed with Dr Dre's Aftermath label in the winter of 2000 – only for the deal to be annulled , with no music released, in July 2003 – says he has always resisted the outside pressure to change his lyrical style.
"I was an athlete in college," he says. "A quarterback, a leader, so people telling me what to do doesn't work. I stick to my guns – that's what keeps me going as an artist. Stevie Wonder never changed from what he wanted to do and each new album that came along was dope."
But Wonder also sold millions of records and had the support of a big label. That's not Rakim's situation. His last album, 2009's The Seventh Seal , sold only 12,000 copies in the States. So how does he actually survive?
"I'm very smart with my paper!" he says. "I stopped buying things for myself a long time ago – now I just buy things for my kids or my wife. Also, my wife is even more conservative than I am. She'll be the first one to say something if I go and get a new plasma TV with too many inches on it. My accountant has me on an allowance. He works out how much money is coming in, how much we have already and he makes it pay over the year. So some weeks we might have $1500, some we might only have $500, but my family understands all that. I'm not a mainstream artist. But I've seen my kids being born, I've seen them take their first steps, I've seen them grow up and start school. That's worth more to me than any umpteen million dollars."
De La Soul's Kelvin Mercer, aka Posdnuos, aka Plug One, will be 42 this August. He's sat in an agreeable hotel room in West London thinking about the brutally short if explosively popular lifespan of early 90s hardcore rappers Onyx .
"Those guys were huge for a minute," he says, "but they had a problem that no one could see at the time – you can't be crazy forever. I like a lot of 50 Cent 's stuff, but how is he going to feel about those songs about wanting to shoot someone when he's 50? People say to me: 'You don't like these hype new rappers like Gucci Mane or Waka Flocka , do you?' And, no, I'm not the biggest fan of their rhymes. I grew up with Rakim and KRS One – both amazing lyricists, but as a kid I loved Too Short just as much and he was the very opposite of conscious."
In one of the very first big De La Soul interviews, an excruciating piece in Spin magazine from summer 1989 written in faux-hip speak ("thiz iz duh daisy age & we need a buddy" etc), the trio are already being pitched against those rappers who only desire "a million dollars, [a] truck [and some] jewels."
"That's why it's funny to me that this discussion about conscious rap v party rap or gangsta rap still exists," smiles Pos. "Our first big tour was with the Geto Boys and NWA , artists with very different mentalities from our own, but we hung out all the time. I never missed an NWA show on that whole tour – they were amazing. Dre and Yella would come out first, then Ren, then Cube, then just when everyone was going crazy, EZ would wander on! We learnt a lot from them …"
Pos says De La Soul have survived because they realised, very early on, that they loved touring. In the 22 years since their classic debut, Three Feet High and Rising , they have released seven occasionally brilliant albums and have played in "every crack and crevice on the face of the earth. The touring pays the bills and feeds us and our families, but it's music that keeps us together."
De La Soul are now in a position where they don't need the record industry. "No one eats off De La," Pos says. "Just us. Rick Rubin hollered at us about making a record, and we would love to, but we didn't want to sign to Sony. Now he's left Sony – that shows you where it's going."
Pos says that, as a writer rather than an athlete, there's no physical reason he can't keep doing this for years.
"Chuck D can do Fight the Power for the rest of his life, it'll always be relevant. I can do Me, Myself and I forever; it'll always be a part of me. De La Soul still has a lot to say, we're really only just beginning."
Back in Dublin, Rakim leans back in his seat as he talks about records he loves, such as Miles Davis's Tutu or Nautilus Bob James's – the records he reached for when his father's death "tore something" out of him.
"I still want to tackle the things that people say can't be done in rap," he says, sounding as enthused about music as he has ever been. "Time passes, but I promise you this: I will always try to defy any sort of imposed gravity."