Microphone Fiend

William Griffin the great

He was the first million-dollar MC in hip-hop and he didn't waste a dime of it, and though his partner Eric B. got rap's early presidential endorsement, Rakim would go on to win the popular vote and then some. He's perched on the tip of about every best-MC-ever poll, and he even earned a biography-in-song from next-gen MC Nas, who put it simply and reverently in a few matter-of-fact lines: "January 28, 1968/Born into this world as William Griffin the great/Chapter one, Wyandanch, Long Island/Scientific rhymin' invented a new sound when he met with/Eric Barrier from East Elmhurst/The melody they created was the first."

Which it was: hip-hop took a step with Rakim, who was barely 17—and with some rhymes that he'd written two or three years before—when he and Eric B.'s debut single started up in the stores. "Eric B. for President" was on top, and on the back was "My Melody," a song Rakim said he made just to put on a cassette tape to take away with him to college—where he hoped to start up a semi-pro football career—so he could put it on when dorm life got too draggy. Just to remind him of home, you know. And it would have been fairly hilarious if the only lives rearranged by Rakim ended up being a few eavesdropper frat boys across the hall—like Hendrix tooling around at the corner coffee shop for tips, or Keith Moon pursuing his percussive talents as a boxer instead—but the more business-minded Eric B. persuaded him to try for just one rap record and see what happened, and if it didn't work, he could always go back to football. As it happened, he never went back to football.

"My Melody" and "Eric B. for President" pried hip-hop delivery open wide. Rakim put unprecedented depth and dimension in his technique: he'd start at the bottom of the page and write his rhyme backward; he'd list out 24 random but promising words and wire them all together; he explained to one interviewer that he sometimes takes a page, divides it into three columns and then writes lyrics across so that every column rhymes every way down—every line with three separate rhymes, aligned to fit with the line after and after. Math calls these matrices, and basic ABAB/AAAB hip-hop rhymes sort of sounded like baby talk after Rakim, who was—just to remind you—only a senior in high school when his first album, Paid in Full, came out, and only about 19 when he and Eric B. signed to MCA for a million the next year. He bought a monster stereo system for his jeep and got a good accountant for the rest; today he can still afford to work when he wants, and he told one writer he still wonders about that football career.

In interviews, he's very humble—he started rhyming in fourth or fifth grade, and, as the scientists note, the best time to learn a new language is before puberty makes the brain go dead around the edges—and he mentions Monk and Coltrane more often than even James Brown, remembering early childhood sax mess-arounds and explaining that's where he lifted his syncopation: "Back in the day, rappers were 'bump-bump-ba-bump-ba-bump,'" he said in an interview (part of an excellent hip-hop interview series at Halftime Online, actually). "I was like bababa-bump-bump-babum-ba-babump-bababa-bump." And didn't Keith Moon say just about the same thing at the Isle of Wight in 1970? Zeno's paradox makes good lessons for the percussively minded: every beat is an infinitely reducible rhythm, and a high school kid from Long Island used that to make tracks that still boggle hip-hop's most agile acrobats.


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