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Rakim on Being Part of a Movement

The rap innovator reflects on a difficult youth and how music helped him find his way


Part of the AARP Hip-Hop at Middle Age series

I didn’t realize until a short time ago that you actually don’t curse in most of your raps. Where did that come from?

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That came from Mom and Pop. I always wanted to impress them. You know, I always had respect for them. And they taught me so much about music, so I felt that I was giving back to them by taking the craft like I did and having a little discipline and just respect for the music.

Hip-hop right now is a billion-dollar industry. What happens in the inner cities affects the world, it affects culture. But at the time when you were coming up, there weren’t cameras coming to the inner cities. No one was really paying attention to what was going on. Can you paint the picture of why hip-hop was so important at the time?

Hip-hop was a genre that was created right in the neighborhood. It gave us a feeling of importance. When rap came out, it felt like it was; it was for us. You know, my mother had Ray Charles. And later on we had Little Stevie Wonder. And then we had Michael Jackson, you know, young stars that made young kids feel like they can be stars, young stars that made music for the younger kids. But when hip-hop came, it was like that feeling — ”Oh, this, this is our music.” And it gave us a sense of direction; it gave us a feeling of being a part of something.

Hip-hop is close to 50 years old now. How does hip-hop evolve to be inclusive of not just youth culture, but then our culture as we get older?

We have to accept that all the listeners and all of the consumers are not 18. And we have to let it grow, man. In order for it to be a respectful genre, we have to let the influences and let what made it this big continue. You know, no disrespect to the younger artists, but I don’t know if they can push the genre where it’s supposed to go, because you know they’re not experienced enough.

Something that I really respect about your journey and your lyrics is that you had one foot in the street life, but you never glorified that in your raps. I really felt like when I listened to your music, it was about seeking knowledge, it was about observing. Why was that so important to you, to have that perspective?

I had a whole different outlook on life and always felt that I should be teaching instead of being a part of the problem. And then I think when you actually lived it and did it, it’s not that beautiful, man. You know what I mean? Like, you know I had a gun charge at 12. I don’t think I spoke about that in rhymes.

Nope.

Because at 12, I got locked up, you know what I mean?

With older men, and they didn’t even believe you were 12.

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They thought I was a grown man. And you know I lived it, and it wasn’t all that dope after you lived it. I’m not happy about some of the things that I had to go through, but, you know, things happen for a reason and some of them same things made me a wiser person at a young age.

If you were to talk to your younger self, now that you’ve experienced what you’ve experienced and seen what you’ve seen, what advice would you give yourself?

I think I would have told me to slow down, take my time. I think I would also tell myself that sticking to your guns is one of the best things that I could possibly do and that’s one of the reasons why I’m here today. But I think just telling myself, “Man, just believe in what you’re doing. And keep that passion.”

As part of the groundbreaking duo Eric B. & Rakim, this 51-year-old rapper changed the game in the late ‘80s. Rakim’s style, his flow, has influenced countless other rappers since.

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