Eric B. and Rakim answered the prayers of millions of hip-hop fans last year when they reunited at Harlem’s Apollo Theater to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their debut album Paid in Full and announced they would tour together for the first time since breaking up acrimoniously in 1992. Rakim, who revolutionized rhyming and flow in the late ’80s as Eric B. helped turned beat-making into an art form, spoke with Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen by phone before hitting the road on a journey into sound that includes an April 28 stopover at House of Blues inside Mandalay Bay.
You announced the Technique Tour before the 30th anniversary show at the Apollo, but you and Eric B. first crossed paths again before that in 2010 at the Long Island Music Hall of Fame’s Induction Gala. When was the decision to reunite made?
Actually, I think a little more than a year ago. We started talking and trying to put some things together. It’s been so long since we last spoke before that. There was a lot of other things we had to iron out before we could talk about that. It’s been little more than a year now. My whole thing is I feel the fans that stuck with us and appreciated the work and want to see us back together onstage, you know what I mean? That’s bigger than the problems we had, so we worked it out and decided we need to do this for the fans, word up.
Do the problems seem less significant with the passage of time?
No doubt. You grow. You mature. You live and you learn, man. You get a little wiser and you learn better ways to handle things. You learn to forgive.
What should the fans expect?
Hopefully they should come and have a real good time. Nostalgic, euphoric. I want to try and bring the golden era back, and highlight the music Eric and I did in a real special way. I’m looking forward to it, and I hope the fans enjoy.
Did you feel if you didn’t do this at a time when you’re observing the anniversaries of Paid in Full and (1988 album) Follow the Leader you’d be missing an opportunity to extend your legacy? I tried to imagine the hip-hop community five years from now looking back at this time and wondering what could have been. Do you feel an obligation?
I feel an obligation but not just because it’s the 30th. We had a chance to do the 25th anniversary, but that didn’t present itself in the right way. I think it’s definitely owed to the dedicated fans, and I think it was a timing thing with my growth. I was thinking abut the anniversary, but I was really at a point in my life where I had to let go of some of the things I was holding onto in the past, some of the bitter feelings. We did that. We sat down and talked, and we hashed the past out, man. I think it’s definitely owed to the fans, regardless of whether it’s the 25th, the 30th, the 35th. I think they deserve to see … you know, if I was growing up and I had a favorite group that I grew up on, and they broke up or wasn’t doing shows and finally they got back together, then I would love to see that. So I have to put myself in that situation and understand it’s bigger than me. It’s bigger than Eric. It’s all about the brand and the legacy that we created, that we have to attend to and deliver, you know?
What was going on between (Rakim’s 2009 solo album) Seventh Seal and the 30th anniversary? How were you living day-to-day, and overall?
The past few years, I’m still connected with music. Very much so. I stay on the road. I would like to get in the studio a little more and continue that part of the legacy. It’s just staying relevant, and at the same time enjoying my life. Grandfather now, you know what I mean? I just enjoy what I did to get here, and what’s around me.
I was at the Bunkhouse when you played a show here a year or two ago. It was sold out, so I stayed outside and listened. You passed by about 10 feet away from me on your way in. That was good enough. It was good to know you were active.
Dope. Thank you, bro.
There’s been talk about a new album. How do you feel about that right now?
That’s one of the things I’m focusing on. We’ve been touching around on things already. As soon as this tour is over I’m gonna get in the studio and get some work done. But like I said, especially at this point, I’ve lived through a lot since I last wrote an album. I’ve got a lot to say, and I’m looking forward to sitting down and putting my thoughts on paper, and see what it comes out to be. I’m looking forward to that.
What are you thinking about topically right now? What’s occupying your mind that you think will manifest lyrically?
Just expressing my thoughts, how I feel about hip-hop, how I feel about my career. How I feel about the world. How I feel about life. Being a lot more mature and a lot more wise at this point, and being in the industry for a long time, you get a chance to learn how to do things. From experience to knowledge, you get a chance to fine tune things. I’m at that point where I’m anxious to see where my work is headed knowing what I know, feeling how I feel.
I’ve known a lot of people that, once they got their lives back after shepherding their kids through the most intense phases of parenting, they’re ready to express themselves again. Do you kind of feel you’re in that zone too?
I think so, man. Going through all the things I learned and experiences in life that made me who I am, it makes you a better person. It helps you see things a little more clear. It gives you a better perception in things on how you see life. You learn how to interpret it better, express it better as well, the maturity that comes with being a father, being a husband, being a grandfather, being an uncle, a brother, you know what I mean? And you take it into heart, really. Before being an MC, this is who I am. So I take pride in what I experience, the people that surround me, and I know that makes me what I am.
What about religion? Your relationship to Islam has changed over 30 years, right?
Yeah, it’s deeper. I’m much more wise now, understand things a lot more. I’ve been reading and studying, and just dwelling on culture for the last 30 years, 30-something years, and I had a chance to kind of dwell on what I’ve been learning and what I’ve been seeing. At this point here, I feel that I’m more in tune and in touch with who I am and who we are than ever. At the same time it shapes me into all of those people who I just mentioned before: father, brother, husband, uncle. When you have a good foundation and you believe in something greater than yourself, it keeps you foundated, man. You learn how to experience what you might feel is the righteous way. To this day it continues to shape me, teach me who I am and what therefore is my purpose.
Has your approach to writing changed? It’s been compared to cartography and it’s a fascinating process, but have you evolved that or do you stick to the technique that works for you?
Nah, it’s that and everything I’ve learned in the last 30-something years. I try to stay true to my style, and I understand the foundation of my style and where it came from. That’s always going to be my foundation. I have a musical background that taught me how to make music like that. I’ll never forget that or abandon that, but at the same time you take that experience and write so much, learn different ways to write, different ways to turn on that creative energy. Sometimes I write from the end of the verse to the beginning of the verse. It’s just one of the many things you learn when your writing. It used to bother me when I first started doing it. I don’t believe in writer’s block. I’ll get stuck, but being stuck I’ll still write a verse. If you know where you’re going you can always start from there and work your way back. I learned some tricks. I learned some good writing methods. I think the best part is learning how to try tune into that divine infinite source of knowledge that we all look for when we’re trying to get creative.
I read an interview where you said you had written some stuff and it didn’t get recorded, and rather than pick it up again years later you’re like, “Nah, I gotta move on.” Is that where your heads at right now, like you have to strike while the iron is hot creatively?
I think the statement, “I don’t like to write what’s not heard,” was because it’s hard to find a starting point after that. I write what I live, and the things that I learn and the things that I experience. It’s almost like a book, and when I write new pages that’s not heard, it’s hard for me to check out where I would start next because they didn’t here a part of my life that I feel is important. So what I do is I have to backtrack and take all the … I’ve got two points in my life that I feel completes the journey. It’s real hard for me to start, if I was to do five or six songs and they don’t come out, it’s hard for me to do that seventh song without looking back to see what I was doing and experiencing, because I feel it helps explain who I am. It helps explain my style of writing. It helps explain everything, so I like to make sure I get as much of it as possible all on record.
You go into that in some detail in [director Sacha Jenkins 2018 Showtime documentary] Word Is Bond. You did your first rhyme: “Mickey Mouse he built a house.” How long ago did you participate in that?
(Laughs) Oh, man, that was five years ago? Two years back? I haven’t seen it since I did it, but it documents … at this point it’s important for history to document hip-hop. I also feel it’s important for me, because I don’t explain myself a lot in my records. I’d rather speak about what I feel people is interested in, so when I do documentaries and these interviews I get the chance to explain that.
You didn’t used to like to do interviews. Are you cooler with explaining yourself now, or have you become accustomed to it?
I think in the beginning I used to get misinterpreted a lot. A lot of people didn’t understand the Five Percent Nation of Islam, and would ask me questions and not understand the answer, and misword my answers. It started getting frustrating, so I stopped doing interviews. The media is more in tune with what’s going on now. There’s a lot more rappers. Wu Tang, you know what I mean? It’s a little more common. It’s not as alienating as it was in ’86 when I was trying to explain who I was and what I believed in.
Is there going to be a concert film for the Paid in Full 30th anniversary show? There was some talk of Russell Simmons’ company putting something out.
I think they should. The Apollo is always a showcase for talent, and I think by doing that it’ll help keep that legacy alive and give the younger artists coming up hope. Even surrounding cities, they see the Apollo as a beacon. They put one in their city and kids always have a platform to dream. We need to keep things like that alive, to keep the torch lit. So Russ, man, get that done, bro! I’m there, man. Holler at me, I’m there.
What was it like for you being there? You hadn’t had that much concentration of appreciation in a while. Were you in your body or did you feel like you were one with the proceedings?
You’re right, man. It was definitely humbling. You get onstage and you feel the support from the crowd every night, but to actually thank you for what you’ve done, that’s a little different. Having that perspective makes everything worth it, the nights … the long, long nights and days, just staring at the speaker or staring at the wall, staring at the paper. The sacrificing that you make, the things you go through to try to keep your career going. Sometimes it’s hard to keep your family in orbit and your career at the same time, so you sacrifice a lot of things, go through a lot. Nights like that makes it all worth it.
You like to race when you’re in Vegas. How often do you get to do that?
I like speed, man. I love speed. It’s a funny story. I had this Benz before I had my first kid, and I used to beat the sh*t out of this car. I remember coming back from a Southern State (Parkway, on Long Island) going 140 miles an hour, 150 miles an hour. And it wasn’t just one time, but after I had my son I never did that again. I appreciate that not only that my son calmed me down, but I understood I had people depending on me at that point. So my need-for-speed quest has always been there. You go to California and rent a car, hit the track and have a little fun, man. Feel the g-force and feel your heartbeat, and your eyes get big. I don’t know if I was supposed to be a race driver or I’m just addicted to speed, but I like cars and I like going fast. I don’t like breaking the law, and I don’t like doing stupid sh*t.
So you go to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway here?
No doubt, man. That’s one of my spots.
Would you say it’s one of your main passions apart from music?
Coming up I had mini-bikes. My brother had a mini-bike. I drove dirt and road bikes. I don’t know if it’s sports, or I love cars. It’s not something that I have to do, jump in the car. It’s not like that. It’s just something that I always used to do back in the day, and I love to do it. … There’s a lot of other things I like to do other than speeding in cars. I love to see the world, love being with the family. I just moved to a nice, private area with about 10 acres of land, big pond in the backyard, man. I love standing in the kitchen sometimes just looking out the window, watching the wind hit the water and the sun hit the water.
Is that on Long Island?
Nah, I can’t tell you. I’d have to kill you. … I found a nice place, close enough to New York, but it’s real nice, man.
I understand Vegas feels like home away from home for you.
Yeah, you can stay home away from home, you know what I mean? Everybody’s kind of from out of town. You can kind of fit right in and claim it your own, you know what I mean? And the Luxor hotel with all the Egyptian artifacts and the artwork, I love staying there. I don’t fly so I haven’t been to Egypt, so that’s the closest I’m gonna get.