He was a teenager when he started working with DJ Eric B in the 1980s. As Eric B & Rakim, he was a part of arguably the most influential rap duo in history, with Eric B sampling and mixing, Rakim as the MC.
"I think what I was trying to do was incorporate my musical influence," Rakim tells host Guy Raz. "I came up in a household [with] a lot of different music: my mom playing jazz to R&B, soul; my brothers and sisters with the Earth, Wind & Fire to Michael Jackson. So I was trying to incorporate different rhythms in my rhymes. And it kind of worked out good, you know?"
Many say Rakim is the greatest rapper of all time. He is credited with pioneering the technique of internal rhyming in rap music — which he started as a teen.
"At the time, I didn't know it was going to be this different," he says. "You know what I mean? But I was shooting for something different. Like, some of my influence was John Coltrane — I played the sax, as well. So listening to him play and the different rhythms that he had: I was trying to write my rhymes as if I was a saxophone player."
But for a rapper so often cited by the biggest names in hip-hop today — Jay-Z, Nas, Eminem, 50 Cent — Rakim is comparatively obscure, a quiet purist. Now, for the first time in nearly a decade, he has released a solo album, called The Seventh Seal.
'The God MC'
Rakim says the title is a biblical reference. He says he's been reading the Book of Revelations for two decades, and he points out the comparison to the wars and natural disasters of today. But he also uses it as a lyrical metaphor.
"Metaphorically, I wanted to use it in hip-hop as far as, that's what I want to do with hip-hop," Rakim says. "Tsunami it out, hurricane, earthquake and get rid of everything that's bad. And hopefully, start the new with everything that's good."
The lead single off The Seventh Seal is called "Holy Are You." It's a showcase for Rakim's lyrical ability, and it throws in several religious references.
"You know, I don't want to throw religion on nobody — but just take theyself a little more serious," he says. "And this is my view of what the creator wanted us to see, and wanted us to be, you know what I mean? It's definitely a deep statement."
Many of today's younger or more popular rappers, including Jay-Z on his newest album, look up to Rakim as the "God MC" — a title he embraces himself.
"It's a blessing," Rakim says. "It's a blessing, man, 'cause rap is one of the most cockiest genres of music out there, you know what I mean? So to get love from my fellow artists, man, it's a blessing."
As a high-school student on Long Island, Rakim pursued rap as a hobby and planned to attend college. And then he played a demo tape for Eric B.
"At the time, I was trying to go to Stony Brook [University] and play quarterback," Rakim says. "I love football. ... I had a little tape that I had, ready to go to college with me; just in case there was any rappers up there, I can just put my tape in, you know?
"But I played that for Eric B, and he was interested, told me, 'We can make a record.' And things turned out where I couldn't go to college. I had to focus on my rap career; things kind of took off fast. Man, I had no idea it was going to be that big. And I stopped growing — I'm only about 5'9" — so that's another reason why maybe football wouldn't have been a good thing, you know what I mean? It's a good thing, and I appreciate everything that came from it.
More recently, Rakim has gone on record saying that some contemporary hip-hop is shallow. He says many rappers these days are "compromising."
"Some rappers that may have been a little more conscious when they came out — they're a little more party-rap right now," he says. "We gotta let hip-hop grow. We gotta let it go through its different phases throughout the different places that's accepting it. But I feel: Certain places, like New York, we need to keep our integrity and make sure that it's doing that thing that caught the world's ear in the beginning."
Part of that, he says, is a lack of emphasis on language and poetry.
"Lyrical content is getting a lot of slack right now, and it's making hip-hop look less of what it is," Rakim says. "If we can get back to the essence of it — I'm trying to make it a little more melodic, where people are respecting it more as a genre."
A Legend At 41
As for his own music, Rakim paints a mixed picture on The Seventh Seal: optimism about President Obama's election, mixed with the struggles of people losing jobs and homes.
"It's hard to have fun, and make a fun album, when you know that it's something that you need to say," he says. "I'm definitely one of them artists that loves putting the track on and having fun with it, but in my own way. I'm more of a wordsmith, so I like taking different words and trying to see what I can do with them — as many things as possible. But on this album here, I definitely wanted to get a message out: more 'conscious,' and let people know that I'm aware of what's going on and what they're going through."
As musical legends go, Rakim, 41, is still relatively young — "I try to feel like that, man. My kids, they tease me, but they keep me young," he says.
It doesn't prevent people from considering him a hip-hop pioneer.
"It's one of them things where you try not to let it get to you," Rakim says. "It's definitely a lot of weight, but it's a title that I love to have."