.A Hip-Hop Memoir

In Sweat The Technique, Rakim unpacks his bag of tricks.

The hip-hop of the early to mid-’80s was the era of the shouting MC, with rappers like Run-DMC, LL Cool J, and The Beastie Boys leading the pack. Their rhymes were of the monosyllabic, four-bar, “boom-bap” braggadocio that defined the genre. Rakim Allah did the exact opposite. He introduced a polysyllabic, quiet, and contemplative flow that nonetheless came across just as hard, if not harder, than what had become accepted as the standard.

Listening to Eric B & Rakim back in the day was like hearing a magic trick. There was something about his style and delivery that made the listener feel like he had mastered a style that had yet to be born. After the album Paid In Full came out in 1987, hip-hop lyrics changed forever. Rakim was a wizard with bars, and everyone had to acknowledge it, even if they didn’t quite understand how he did it.

In his new memoir Sweat The Technique, Rakim unpacks his bag of tricks, revealing how his upbringing and experience coalesced into him becoming one of the most respected and revered lyricists in the world of hip-hop. Unlike his Golden Age predecessors Run-DMC, whose lyrics may or may have not been written down, Rakim’s lines were so complex, so nuanced, that one could tell that he’d put pen-to-page. Sweat The Technique tells the story of his evolution from an aspiring quarterback to “The God MC” that he became known as.

The book is an “easy” read, in that the tone remains conversational. As in his songs, the reader feels like they are in a room with him. Early in the book, Rakim explains that his approach to both was an intentional attempt to connect with his listeners/readers in a way that his contemporaries had not. He reveals that he hand-wrote all of his lyrics, and early on, he would read directly from the page when he was recording. Though he says that he would have memorized his lines before recording his earlier works to add more tone and emotion, it was his steady, smooth monotone found in songs like “I Ain’t No Joke” and “Paid in Full” that gave them a distinctive gravitas that didn’t exist in the music before his debut.

Born William Michael Griffith in Wyandanch, New York, he was nick-named “Poppo,” and first discovered hip-hop at the age of six after DJ Kool Herc, the father of the breakbeat, brought his massive, mobile sound system and threw a party in Poppo’s neighborhood. The youngest of five in a musical family, his mother was a trained opera singer, he learned to cut-and-scratch from his older brother and wrote his first lyrics in second grade, “Mickey Mouse built a house/he built it on the border/an earthquake came and rocked his crib/now it’s in the water.”

Taking the name Kid Wizard, the pre-adolescent “Poppo” would go to parks and recreation centers attempting to get on the mic, only to be constantly turned away by the teens and adults running the show. In his early hit “Microphone Fiend,” he wrote, “I was a fiend before I became a teen/I melted microphone instead of cones of ice cream/music-orientated, so when hip-hop was originated/fitted like pieces of puzzles, complicated/’cause I grabbed the mic and try to say ‘Yes y’all’/they tried to take it, and say that I’m too small.” Who could have guessed that those lines were literally true?

Indeed, one of the surprising aspects of Sweat The Technique is how often some of the most perplexing lines from Rakim’s catalog reflect his outlandish early life. For example, on “Paid In Full” he says, “I used to be a stick-up kid/so I think of all the devious things I did/I used to roll-up/this is a hold up/ain’t nothing funny/stop smiling/be still/don’t nothing move but the money.” Why are his victims laughing and smiling at him? Well, at the age of twelve he always packed a loaded Colt .22, even after shooting himself in the thigh and catching a gun charge with an older teen whom he dubbed “I-Ron” for his toughness. “When I got to jail, they refused to believe I was twelve,” he writes. “They just thought that I looked young, called me ‘Babyface Griffin’ and locked me up with the adults.”

It wasn’t until he devoted his time to football and being Kid Wizard that he stopped packing heat. “Years later, when I began to think of the importance of having an alter ego,” he reflects, “it brought to mind that Colt .22: having an alter ego as a rapper is like having a gun on you.”

What Rakim brought to rap was a musicality that was hard to place. There was something about his lyrics that felt more engaged and expansive than anyone else at the time. He never raised his voice. He never took a breath. In fact, he pioneered the rap strategy of “breath control,” meaning that you never hear inhalations or exhalations between bars. But the most magical elements were the bars themselves. What wasn’t known at the time was that the accomplished-beyond-his-years lyricist was also an accomplished saxophonist who competed all over New York State. He approached his lyrics inspired by the jazz giant John Coltrane. “I started thinking about my flows thinking, ‘What would Coltrane’ do?'” he writes. “Coltrane wouldn’t stay within the limitations of four bars. He’d play past the end of a bar, so I tried to write lines that didn’t stop at the end of a bar. … Before me, MCs finished the thought at the end of the line. Coltrane showed me another way.”

Though taken for granted today, spilling out of the four-bar measure was one of Rakim’s quantum leaps forward. Sweat The Technique is full of such “Aha moments,” from discovering that he made most of the music for most of his albums (Eric B provided the scratches), to witnessing how his game-changing approach influenced the music in negative and positive ways. “The members of EPMD grew up about eight miles away from me in the neighboring Brentwood. They combined party style with a smooth, laid-back flow (a smoothness that irked me because it reminded me too much of my own signature style).”

Based on the titular song of Eric B. and Rakim’s 1992 album Don’t Sweat The Technique, the memoir is an invitation to the reader to finally learn how “The God MC” transformed hip-hop as hip-hop transformed him. Sweat the Technique serves as more than just a biography, with Rakim making asides to talk about his craft, which he rightfully considers writing, and considering his purpose as an artist. At times, these come across as eloquent and thoughtful as poems by Walt Whitman. “Once I owned being an artist, I started to focus on ways to become better.” He writes. “After I did that, everything I took for granted started to take a new significance: life, a beautiful day, a day on the water, the view from the top of a building, a kind word from someone … Suddenly a blade of grass growing out of the ground was not so boring.”

Rakim also explores the spirituality that has always been a major part of his music and process. A long-time follower of Clarence 13X and the Black Muslim offshoot the Five Percent Nation, many neophytes’ were introduced through his lyrics to concepts such as “ciphers;” “knowledge born;” and “sun, moon, and stars,” a codified description of the nuclear family. His devotion to these beliefs are often overlooked, so he made it central in his book, as any listener already knows through his coded references and complicated lines.

“I loved making complicated puzzles for people to solve,” he writes. “I liked sending readers to the dictionary. I wanted make people think about the rhymes because if they really think about your work, it’ll stay with them longer. I wanted them to have to rewind my lyrics.”

Reading Sweat The Technique is like listening to a classic Rakim track with the same codification, spirituality, and simple-complexity that will make the reader press rewind and start at page one several times over.

Rakim will sign books at Book Inc, Alameda on Sat. Oct 5 at 3 p.m., and perform at Level 13 Ultra Lounge at 8 p.m. the same day.

D. Scot Miller
Managing Editor of The East Bay Express, Former Associate Editor of Oakland Magazine and Alameda Magazine, Columnist-In-Residence at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)'s Open Space, Advisory Board Member of Nocturnes Journal of Literary Arts, and regular contributor to several newspapers, websites and magazines. Miller is the founder of The Afrosurreal Arts Movement through his publication of The Afrosurreal Manifesto in The San Francisco Bay Guardian, May 20, 2009.
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