Your new album is titled The Seventh Seal. In The Book of Revelation, when the Seventh Seal is opened the world ends. What does The Seventh Seal mean to you?
What I’m trying to do is use that as a metaphor for what I’ma do to hip-hop. Seventh Seal is dealing with the end of the old and the beginning of the new and I wanna stomp it out and start it all over. That’s the metaphor. At the same time, I want to bring awareness to what The Seventh Seal means, like the sign of the times is taking place before our face. I want our people to kind of understand that and know that there’s something going on right now.
What’s the biggest change that you’d want to make in the game today?
The game of hip-hop? I think just the way that we appreciate what we’re doing now, the way we present our music. I want us to look at it the way the beat legends looked at their craft and not take it for granted, you know?
Is The Seventh Seal for all your hardcore fans that waited for a new Rakim album as opposed to trying to bring in younger fans?
Exactly. If I was concerned about that, I would’ve tried to make records that appeal to them. I think right now, I think the world knows what I do and I just wanted to bring awareness and things of that nature, man, and get in the streets as well. It’s crazy right now. I just wanted to dedicate this album to the listener, man, because most albums are written through how the listener sees things.
Even though you’ve only dropped songs sporadically in the last few years, do you feel like fans have extremely high expectations for The Seventh Seal?
Yeah, I definitely think that. The expectations on me are still crazy but I just definitely wanted to meet that and try to give them something that I thought they wanted me to do. But with rap so crazy, I couldn’t address certain things in hip-hop that I wanted to. I was too disturbed with what was going on in the street. But I think they expect me to be conscious and that’s what I like doing.
When you look at all your classic records, is it ever difficult to get past those and put out new music when fans hold your classics in such high regard?
Yeah, it’s kind of hard trying to break them out of that, that first impression. But it’s what got me here, man, so I appreciate it. But you know, nothing stays the same, as far as artists when it comes out. They kind of grow and some mature differently and get a little tighter with their craft, whatever the case may be. It’s hard, rapping like myself. I try to forget what I’ve done and keep it moving.
Did you ever feel at any point in the last few years that you lost some of the edge that made you Rakim or do you feel you’ve always had it?
It’s like a double standard. You got that cocky part of you that’ll tell you that nothing changed but then you got the other part that knows that if I don’t get back on the field and starts working out, then of course I’m gonna lose a step. It goes both ways as far as the cockiness and then the realistic side of you that says, Look, if I don’t get to the studio and keep up with my craft, I’m going to lose something.
Are you in better shape, lyrically, today than when Paid in Full came out?
Yeah, I think now I’m much more wiser, man, and much more mature, much more in tune with what I feel is going on in the world and what’s going on around me. But, you know, in the beginning, some of the things that I was doing is what made me me and what made the project what it was. I can’t knock the state of mind I was in. I can just try to keep growing and try to get the world to grow with me.
What did the gospel sample in “Holy Are You” bring out in you as an MC?
That song there was like the world itself kind of set it off for me. It was a song that I started opening up with at my shows and eventually opening up to it, I wanted to do a song to it and the bulk of what it says is what I felt was perfect for me. Better than that, I felt I could use that song to convey a message to everybody because it ain’t just me that I feel that record is speaking on, the way we use it. I wanted everybody that listened to it to get the same thing out of it that I got.
When Jay-Z said that he was “The God MC,” did you take any offense to that or did you look at it like he was just being lyrical?
You know, you got a lot of rappers who say they’re the god and they’re not really god by culture. It’s one of them things, one of them stands, that people are going to grab onto eventually and if anybody, Jay, people might not put the two together but his name is from Jehovah. If anybody else was going to use it, he might be one of the cats that can use it, you know? Big up to my dude Jay.
Does it bother you when people who aren’t of the Nation of Gods and Earths call themselves “Gods”?
A little bit, but at the same time, it’s kind of my fault. It’s like when you present something to people and you present it right, then of course what you want them to do is gravitate towards it. They gravitated towards it. I just think out of the concept of hip-hop, when somebody uses that, then yeah, it’s personal. But in hip-hop, we repeat so-called slangs and things of that nature, so by me using that, I knew that it was going to get repeated and I knew that there was going to be other rappers that referred to they self the same way. It’s kind of what I wanted, so yeah, it’s my fault.
No doubt. In “It’s Nothing,” you talk about how you tried working with Dre and it didn’t work out. It doesn’t sound like you took that situation not working out too heavily.
Exactly. You know, before I left, I even told Dre how I appreciated the opportunity. It’s like, things happen for a reason and there was no bridges burned. I think what it was that when we got in the studio, we realized how different we were when it came to making music. I got a grasp of that and told him I needed to come back to New York and start all over. He understood that. It was one of them things where it was like night and day and no matter what we would have tried, I think we would have had a hard time trying to piece it together.
Will that music ever see the light of day?
I think a lot of it is just gonna stay buried. All of it was in its rough stages. It wasn’t like nothing was really, kind of finished off. Most of the songs we did, Dre didn’t have nothing to do with. It was one of them things where I was working with some of the producers and then once we got all of that mashed out, Dre was supposed to go hard but we never got to that point. I think most of it will stay buried.
I would think you would get hit with a ton of offers to collab on projects. How do you treat those offers because you don’t do very many?
I try to do collabs that kind of fit what I believe. It’s just a lot of them, if they don’t make sense, I try to stand back. But if it makes sense with what I’m doing and it don’t tarnish my view on hip-hop and things of that nature, then yeah, I’ll do it. But it’s complicated for me to collab with rappers because we’re so different.
Even when the money’s right, it doesn’t sound like you don’t want to be a stripe on another rapper’s sleeve where they can say they worked with you.
Well, yeah. The money thing, that don’t help me make my decisions. It gotta be right. The song gotta be right for me where I feel I’m not compromising or anything of that nature and then it’s no problem.
On “It’s Nothing,” you say you’ll “pick up where Nas left off.” How do you feel about his song “Unauthorized Biography of Rakim”?
Well, I have mixed feelings about that, man. I have mixed feelings about that because it’s almost like telling your business to somebody the way it was done. And some of it was said for what? So me trying to understand that, yeah, I got mixed feelings about it. But you know, if he was doing it out of love, then you gotta appreciate it, man, appreciate it out of love. But if he was doing it spiteful, then that’s something else, and that’s what’s been yet to…I haven’t spoke to him, really, about it since he did it. He ain’t holla at me, say he was doing it. He ain’t ask me what I felt about it or nothing, which leaves more questions in my head. It is what it is.
Do you hope to talk to him about it in the future or is it not an issue for you?
No, it’s not an issue for me. It’s just how I perceive or how I feel about it. It’s really an issue to him as far as how I feel about it. I feel that he should have hollered at me or something or shout out or “Yo, Ra, I’m doing such and such” or “Ra, did you like the joint?” or “Ra, I did the joint, I hope…” Nothing. And that’s the thing. When you don’t get nothing, it leaves room for speculation. But when I listen to certain joints when he said certain things in it, there were certain things about me that I feel were personal. And for somebody to talk about your personal shit and don’t even holla at you about it, it makes you ask that dude, Why did he do that? Was he trying to say something or was it out of love. Until I speak to him about it, I’m going to have a question mark in my head.
That makes sense. I think a lot of fans would love to see you work with producers like DJ Premier and MCs like Cormega. Do you think you’ll link up with some of the other legends in the near future?
Yeah, man. Me and Preem, we was trying to get together on this album. I just spoke to him a few weeks ago. We’re definitely going to link back up. That’s the kind of thing I like doing – making a statement with a lot of New York artists that really laid it down and really represented what they were speaking. Hip-hop is so, I don’t know, man, you almost gotta present it to them in a certain way or they’re not going to acknowledge it, man. But I would love to do a joint with the New York legends and the brothers that paid the way and some of the brothers that was living what they was actually rhyming about.
You also worked with your daughter Destiny Griffin on The Seventh Seal. What was that experience like?
It was a crazy experience, just working with her. My daughter, it’s like she’s so much like myself that it was a real, how could I say it, it was like a delicate situation. She knows how to sing but she doesn’t want to be a singer. She just has it in her. But working with her and to hear her out of her element, I hear my daughter at home and around the house, but to hear her sing and to be able to sit down with her and put that thing together, it was a learning experience for me as well, having that sacred time with my daughter. You don’t think of taking your daughter to the studio or writing a song with your daughter. It was something that was spontaneous and it just happened but it was a beautiful thing and to me, it’s one of my favorite songs on the album.
Was it an intimidating experience for her? I would imagine it’s not easy being Rakim’s kid with the expectations that would carry.
Yeah, I think so, man. You know, I see it a lot in my sons too. One of my sons likes rapping a lot, but speaking to him and knowing what he would have to go through being my son, it’s like, it’s good but it’s a whole lot bad. They understand that and the main thing is that I understand it. I support them in whatever they want to do but I don’t push them to do what I’m doing.
You and Eric B. broke into the game as a strong MC/DJ duo. Why is that duo such a rarity these days?
I don’t know. I think it’s kind of like losing the elements slowly, man, from breakdancing and now we’re almost losing the DJ as well as part of the group. I don’t know, man. I think it’s becoming so, I don’t know, computer…The computer is taking over studio sessions now. Before, when I was coming up, we sampled a lot but we made sure that we incorporated the DJ scratching or whatever it was. Now it’s kind of fading away from that scratch. We need to bring it back and get back into that essence of hip-hop before it’s a little too late.
How important is the organic process of recording in the studio to you as opposed to sending files back and forth via email?
To me, that’s like the main thing. I try to write what I feel and write from the heart. So it’s like when I go to the studio, even my studio, the way I got it set up, I try to set it up where it’s not too clean. Like, I like things in there that remind me of what it used to be. I don’t want it to look like a professional-professional studio. I want professional equipment in there but I want it to feel like I’m in the basement almost. I want it to feel like when I was in my room writing. That’s important, man, because it was almost like you were standing on the corner writing a rhyme.
Are there any new artists that you really respect and enjoy what they’re doing?
I respect a lot of the artists out, especially the ones that have that original, their own style with them and it could be as abstract as Andre 3000 from doing that “Hey Ya” joint. Now that’s not hip-hop, but it was so original, which the game was missing at that time. Everybody was kind of doing the same thing and then you have somebody come by with something totally different. But I respect brothers that just have something original to bring to the table and I got respect for those that just love the essence of hip-hop and things of that nature. I love my D-Blocks, I love my Wu-Tangs, I love my Jay-Z, doing his thing right now. Fabolous is doing his thing. There’s a lot of different artists that I like.
Whether an artist emulates one of your lines or shouts you out directly in a song, do you try to keep up with those references?
I try to pay as much attention to that as I could, man, because that right there, it means a lot to me. It’s one thing getting love from a listener but when you get love from your peers and people in the industry that do the same thing, that’s kind of different because it’s hard to get love from your fellow artists and things of that nature, man. There’s so much competition and things of that nature. But when I get that love from the inside, man, it kind makes it all worth it.
What does it mean to you when MCs tell you that you inspired them to start rhyming?
Trust me, that means more than words can say, man. When you puttin’ everything you got on a piece of paper, don’t matter what you get, you expect more from it. It’s like you write a rhyme and you might get played and you might even get an award, but you still want more for that. You want as much as you could get from it. If you get love from people that do the same thing, the feeling, you can’t explain. It’s like the ultimate high, man. Not only the listeners love it, but this cat here, I like his shit too. This kid here, he’s a hell of a artist and he likes it and this cat here, he’s one of the best cats. It just puts that much more love on the situation for me.
With The Seventh Seal dropping and what it symbolizes, does this mean you’ll be a much more present figure in hip-hop and dropping music on a more consistent basis?
On this one, I want to keep working. Usually I would stop, go on tour and it would be another couple of years before I even go back in the studio. What I want to do now is just keep writing, man, and hopefully next summer or towards the end of next summer I’ll have an album all ready to go without having to rush through too much hecticness, man. Hopefully I’ll have it ready.
So many rappers, especially ones that came of age during Jay-Z’s prime, not only talk about not writing rhymes but almost brag about it. What do you think of that?
I think that’s…Jay, you know, started it and I guess everybody else…The thing is, some people don’t write. I know a few people that say they can rhyme but they can’t write rhymes. Then you got some people that write them in they head. It’s the same thing, it’s just some people write them on paper and some people got a hell of a memory. Me, I wouldn’t even try to remember some of the things that I’m writing. As I’m writing, I lose myself and I lose the idea that I had. But you got some people that can do that. They can sit there. Basically what you do is you listen to the beat and you start coming up with the words and the rhyme and then from there, some of us write it down and some of us keep going and memorize what they just said and keep it going.
To me, it never really made a difference to me, you know, if they wrote it or they just wrote it in they head. To me, you’re still writing.
Where do you do your best writing?
I think when I’m at the crib at nighttime, man, when it’s quiet and this side of the world, most of the people are sleeping. For some reason, I used to think late at night when I was up writing that there wasn’t too much activity going on in New York and I was absorbing it all. (laughs) I like writing at night. There ain’t too much going on.
Do you revise a lot of your rhymes or do you generally keep them as they first come out?
It depends on what it is. Sometimes I’ll revise it, like if I come up with something and as I’m reading it over, sometimes it will present itself where I can get a little more in-depth with it. But most of the time, man, it’s from that first thought.
How important is for you to still incorporate spirituality into your rhymes today?
That’s kind of like my foundation, man. That’s what makes me me. That’s what gives me my understanding and with that, I’m able to incorporate some of the things that I’ve learned through the years in my rhymes. That’s always been the backbone of Rakim, like, what I’ve learned in life and what I see in life and how I feel about things is what I write. That’s always been a big part.
How do you feel when younger rappers say it’s their turn now and that the older MCs should stop? Does that bother you?
Well, you know, it’s from both sides because you do have the rappers from back in the day or from years ago that’s critiquing the younger rappers. It’s like a rapper can say that they ain’t gonna like it or the new rapper can say that it’s time for us to do this and the hell what y’all think. It’s a double standard on that. Me, I don’t get caught up in it. I just stick to my guns. I like doing what I do and I feel if I stay true to the people that can’t nobody dictate what I do. If the people accept the album from Rakim, then that’s what I’ll do. I just try to stay away from the talking and the testosterone shit. I just try to do me, man, and not get caught up in the rap war.
Should the real legends of the game still be able to put out albums and have it be respected or is the emphasis on youth and hip-hop good for the music?
Nah. I think that hip-hop should understand the genre is not just for kids. You got some of the firstborns and some of the older heads in hip-hop right now and we still love hip-hop. It’s not like we can just put it down but the thing is, a lot of it is immature to a 40 year-old hip-hop head or a 45 or 50 year-old hip-hop head. A lot of the music is immature. I think that we should understand that and understand that this is a beautiful genre that we have and it’s a part of our life now so we gotta expand it and we gotta understand that everybody listening to rap ain’t 18 and once we come to grasp with that concept then I think people will be more open to hearing more mature rap and things of that nature.
Do you think people like you, Chuck D and Big Daddy Kane can get love on major worldwide tours in the future in the same vein as the Rolling Stones and U2?
Well, I hope so, man. I hope that we stop selling ourselves short and thinking that rap is only for teenagers and once you hit a certain age you gotta stop rapping or stop listening, man. This rap thing becomes a part of our life, man. You know, you look at the other genres, man, and the award show a few months when Al Green came out and tore the shit down! The R&B world got respect for their pioneers and things of that nature and there is no age on R&B. Rap’s a little different but we should definitely expand our age as far as for when a rapper should stop.
I feel if you got brothers from the old school era that still listen to rap, 40, 50, it should be music for them and if it’s grown and sexy, whatever they want to call it, man. But you got listeners that was around from the beginning that still like rap but can’t listen to it unless they’re listening to old school rap. Let’s step it up and take advantage of our genre and not let nobody dictate it and it shouldn’t be no problem with somebody like myself or anybody that’s been around for awhile to be able to go up in a place and get massive love just like some of the R&B and some of the rock and roll artists.
Definitely. What kind of an impact can The Seventh Seal have when it drops?
I think the main thing, I want to bring awareness about The Seventh Seal itself and I think if I can do that, then that’s all I want. The music on there, it’s for the youth and for the brothers that might be at that fork in the road. That’s self-explanatory. By naming it The Seventh Seal, I’m just hoping it brings awareness to what’s going on in the world.
Commercial radio has always had its problems, but do you feel that hip-hop today is getting softer than it was, with the exception of artists like D-Block?
Yeah, definitely. I think so, man, ‘cause everybody’s trying to make radio records and radio-friendly and things of that nature and what it’s doing is it’s taking away from the rawness and the essence of it, man. The substance of it is what made it what it is and they’re taking a lot of it away and replacing it with the party rap, with the glamour rap and all of that. Yeah, I think it is getting a lot softer. They’re making it for radio now.