Rakim is to hip-hop what Jimi Hendrix was to the electric guitar – a game-changer, a man whose influence is impossible to avoid, and an artist whose work broke down barriers in his chosen idiom.
Sadly, it seems to me that many contemporary hip-hop stars have not taken the time to learn the history of their art form and have glossed over Rakim’s ground-breaking work, replacing its linguistic complexity, rhythmic depth, and positive thematic elements with lazy rhymes and lyrics that favor a simple worship of material goods and the fleeting pleasures of the flesh.
Which may be why Rakim is playing to 1,000 people at the Town Ballroom, while far lesser artists in the same genre are selling out hockey arenas.
So it goes. The up side of this artistic imbalance?
Those “in the know” are able to get up close and personal with hip-hop royalty. Which is what happened on Friday evening when Rakim offered a guided tour through “old school” hip-hop and reminded us why he is one of a handful of artists who truly defined the genesis of this music.
Twenty-five years after the release of “Paid In Full,” the Eric B. & Rakim album MTV named “the greatest hip-hop release of all time,” the rapper still commands the stage with a low-key ferocity, stalking the boards and spitting some of the most intelligent and sophisticated rhymes in rap history.
Rakim took a few minutes to warm up and ease into the groove on Friday - the sound man spent that same few minutes getting the mix in order, perhaps responding to those many members of the crowd who screamed “Turn Rakim’s mic up!” during the opening number.
The majority of the set was culled from the Eric B. & Rakim albums “Paid In Full,” “Follow the Leader,” and “Let the Rhythm Hit ’Em.” No one was complaining – these are seminal hip-hop recordings, and they form the cornerstone of Rakim’s legacy. “I Ain’t No Joke” set the scene, and laid down Rakim’s form of elegant braggadocio with the lines “I ain’t no joke/I used to let the mic smoke/Now I slam it when I’m done and make sure it’s broke/When I’m gone, no one gets on, cuz I won’t let nobody press up and mess up the scene I set.” By this point, the Town Ballroom crowd was bouncing in time, arms aloft, with many doing their best to rhyme in time with Rakim.
Backed by DJ Technician, who prefaced the man of the hour’s arrival with a highly virtuosic set of classic hip-hop mash-ups, Rakim tackled “Microphone Fiend,” “Lyrics of Fury” and “Know the Ledge” with a growing sense of urgency, as he warmed to the crowd and found control of his lyrical flow.
“I Know You Got Soul” – widely held to be the recording that was a watershed for the technique of sampling when it was first released in 1987, with one of its hooks lifted from the Funkadelic recording “You’ll Like It Too” – was perhaps the most on-point performance in the set. “Paid In Full,” the song that started it all for Eric B. & Rakim, and by extension, kicked off hip-hop’s golden age, formed a fitting farewell from Rakim.
The set felt a bit too short, and Rakim kept the audience waiting until roughly 10:30 before making his appearance, but these criticisms aside, Friday’s show delivered the goods and was worthy of the man’s status as a legend.