Before the COVID-19 pandemic took over the world, Rakim and Chuck D sat down for a very candid conversation at SITE Santa Fe in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was March 5, and the world wasn’t yet aware of what was about to hit nor the profound effect it would have on not just the music industry but also every facet of society.
But that evening, there was nothing but admiration flowing between the Public Enemy frontman and God MC as they discussed Rakim’s autobiography Sweat the Technique: Revelations on Creativity from the Lyrical Genius.
Naturally, their effortless rapport resulted in some unexpected revelations for the audience, at least for some. For example, Rakim was well on his way to a career in professional football but his smaller stature, which he described as a “buck-forty on a good day,” held him back. Luckily, Eric B. knocked on his door one day and the rest is history.
Rakim also recounted a day when famed jazz musician John Coltrane changed his life. He and his brother, a saxophone player, were listening to Coltrane’s 1961 album My Favorite Things when something caught their ear.
“My brother is just like me,” Rakim said. “We love music. Me and him were sitting in a room one day playing John Coltrane. My brother played the sax, that’s why I started playing it. Luckily, he was lazy; he’d just put it down and cut out. I’d try to play the same thing he just played by ear. Anything he did, I tried to do. We love music — analyzing it, critiquing it, enjoying it, whatever.
“One day, we were sitting there listening to John Coltrane My Favorite Things. We got to a certain joint, a live joint, and he played two notes at the same time. We’d heard the song before; we used to play it at least once a week. It was like a ritual.”
Shocked by what he heard, Rakim turned to his brother who asked, “Did you hear that shit?”
“I can’t tell you exactly what we was doing while we was listening,” he continued. “You get up in the morning and you light one up. All the times we heard it, we never caught it and the day we caught it, we caught it at the same time. It must’ve been some good shit that day. He pulled the needled back and we couldn’t believe it. Playing the sax, that’s impossible. Every time you change your finger, you change the notes. For him to play two notes at one time, we were like ‘Ah, fuck.’
“Trying to figure that out, I take people’s ideologies of what they do and try to convert it to Hip Hop. Now my thing is, if John Coltrane can play two notes at one time, what can I do with a pen and words? This is the innovators that push the envelope. That’s one of the reasons he’s John Coltrane.”
But Rakim didn’t even have to look to the greats for inspiration — they were right there in his household. His aunt Ruth Brown is often heralded as the “Queen of R&B.” The Grammy and Tony Award-winning singer helped bridge the gap between R&B and pop and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.
Rakim learned several valuable lessons from Brown growing up, especially when it came to mentally preparing for a live show.
“She used to babysit me,” Rakim told Chuck. “I was able to get a bird’s eye view of how she lived and did her thing. What was crazy is how laid back and how cool she was about it. I could be over there at the house and she’d have a show later on that night. I’d be sitting there relaxing, watching TV, eating Slim Jim’s and shit. I’m running around, snotty nose, doing my thing. Commercial come on, she’d jump up and go grab some clothes, and she had this big table where she used to her art and stuff. She’d throw her clothes on the table, go back sit down, finish watching TV. Commercial. She’d grab a big thing of glue and then grab some glitter.
“I’m sitting there watching and she’s like ‘boom boom’ — pocketbook, shoes, hat. When she put that shit on that night, it looked like she got that shit from the fashion gallery on 7th Avenue. It was a regular suit when she started. When she finished, it looked like she was ready for the stage. I always watched in awe. I try to incorporate that with how I do before my show, just try to be as relaxed and normal as possible. That should carry on to the stage. Big ups to my aunt Ruth Brown for schooling me on how to do it. Only thing I ain’t doing is doing my own clothes, we’ll work on that. But yeah, she was ill.”
Writing Sweat The Technique, Rakim was grateful he finally had the time to reflect on his career milestones and unconventional upbringing.
“Doing the book, it was dope because I kind of put myself back in those shoes,” he said. “Being entertainers, a lot of times we don’t get a lot of time to look back on things. We’re so busy preparing for something and concentrating on the future. The book gave me a chance to reminisce on a lot of things I’ve been through seen and experienced. It’s a lot different than writing a song.”
Of course, Rakim has written hundreds of songs since then. Eric B. & Rakim’s seminal album Follow The Leader turned 32 on Saturday (July 25) and the duo’s career has been nothing short of astounding. To commemorate the occasion, Fat Beats — along with the masterminds behind Follow The Jazz (Re-Imagined As Jazz) album Jonathan Hay, Benny Reid and Mike Smith — have released a special anniversary bundle, which includes limited edition Fat Beats exclusive t-shirts and CD bundle.
As Rakim told HipHopDX last November, “The trajectory of this project is the ultimate blessing. It’s tapping into a divine consciousness and showing how the universe continues to spin full circle. Eric and I were always heavy in our influence from the jazz genre. Then three decades in, we are influencing a jazz album, then that album is coming back around to influence Hip Hop production greats.
“We used to dig through the crates at record stores to pull vinyl instrumentals and sample them for our tracks and now Follow The Leader is on vinyl for another generation to expand on with next level music. It’s breaking new barriers, which is the core of Hip Hop culture.”
Find the bundles via Fat Beats here.