Microphone Fiend

Within the realm of hip-hop, few artists ever garner the level of coast-to-coast respect that Rakim had in the 1980s. When he and his former partner, Eric B, dropped their classic debut album, Paid in Full, hip-hop as a genre seemed to shift — as if the old guard was now forced to make way for the new guard to reign supreme. It was arguably as colossal a debut as any hip-hop disc has ever had. But when you talk to Rakim now, it's clear that he's moved way beyond that part of his life.

He is, however, still trying to get paid in full, and it's a big part of his growth from a street poet to a hip-hop businessman. He'll have his own brand of Martell cognac on shelves within a month. He's finally starting his own indie label, Rah Records, which launches this summer. And at age 40, he seems poised to commandeer his own path through hip-hop without relying exclusively on others.

"At this point in my career, I want full control of my music and my words," Rakim says via phone from his home in Connecticut. "I've been through a lot over the years, and for me, this is the only way it's gonna be."

He's got ample reason to feel that way. Less than a decade ago, the rap world was enamored of the news of Rakim joining Dr. Dre's Aftermath Records as a solo artist. What type of jaw-breaking lyrics and spine-bending beats would they come up with? the world pondered. But we were all forced to wait and wait and wait. After two years, the album everyone was longing for never materialized, due to creative differences. When asked about how the duo got sideways, Rakim gives his honest opinion without dishing a word of dirt.

"Dre has a recipe that works, and I got a recipe that works," he says. "And we didn't realize how different they were till we tried to get our kitchen together. For us to try to meet in the middle was a conflict of our musical integrity. He stands for what he stands for, as do I... and the two are like night and day."

Without getting too far into it, Rakim seemed unwilling to make his lyrics gangster enough for Dre's liking, and that's a good thing. The album they started to create, The Seventh Seal, still exists, and according to Ra, he's releasing it himself this year. When he gets to town with his DJ, for the Paid Dues Tour, he promises to unveil one or two new tracks, but for the most part, "it's gonna be the classic joints that people love to hear, with the perfect Kid Capri touch. It's definitely something that real hip-hop fans don't want to miss."

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Jonathan Cunningham