Best interview I've read in a long, long time.
Rakim and Nas are two of the greatest MCs of all time, not only according to MTV's "MTV's hip-hop brain trust" but also hip-hop fans universally, and with good reason. Each one achieved legendary status with the release of their respective debut LPs.
Rakim came onto the scene in 1987, and his lyrics forever changed the way an MC thought about putting words together, and the ways fans thought about listening to them. In 1994, Nas bowed with Illmatic and has constantly elevated his wordplay through the years by rapping from the perspective of a gun, rapping with deceased legends, rapping about heaven and hell and the concrete in between.
Over the years, both Nas and Rakim have admired each other from afar through the press and in concerts. Last month, for the first time ever, the legends sat down together for an interview to discuss their similarities, their own inspirations and the future of their careers. The love is genuine — and at some points, both MCs actually seem to be a little shy.
MTV: This is really monumental to have both of you guys here at the same time. Nas, do you remember when you first heard Rakim?
Nas: I never heard a flow like his. You had a lot of dudes screaming in the mic [at the time]. So when he came, total opposite of that, it made everybody freeze. The way he flowed, it was like an added instrument inside the music. Then, what he's saying on top of that, it had never been done before ... I wanted to know, when I started [rapping], "What would Rakim think of my joint?"
Rakim: On my way here, I was thinking me and Nas got a lot in common. His pops was a jazz player, my moms was a jazz singer. That jazz influence, coming up, gave us a deeper responsibility or a deeper route that we were trying to take to try to get that poetry across.
MTV: Another parallel is the first albums: Both of your first albums totally changed rap. We did "The Greatest Hip-Hop Albums of All Time" last year and Paid in Full and Illmatic were ranked #1 and #2. Those two albums really changed the game lyrically, musically and spiritually. Rakim, did it feel that way at the time?
Rakim: Nah. Not at all, bruh. The first album that we did, we just wanted to make a good hip-hop album. I never sat down and tried to write a single or reach for anything. At the end of the day, we sat down and picked a single.
MTV: In 1987, when Paid in Full was released, so many other MCs who went on to be legends were just coming out around that time: KRS-One, LL, Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane. What was the competition level like?
Rakim: It was good. Everybody was a little bit more unique. Run-DMC was doing they thing. I was doing my thing. Kool G Rap and Kane doing they thing. You had Fresh Prince coming from Philly doing his thing. It was a little bit more original back then. It was enjoying what you do.
MTV: Nas, as a fan, what was that era like for you?
Nas: That was it — that was the only era. The '90s were great, I'm glad I was a part of them, but we were really emulating [the '80s]. And it was only a few dudes that spoke to us and our generation. You had a lot of dudes that were really the ultra-superstar kind of image. Then you had guys that had that ultra-superstar image but they looked like the brothers on the block — because when we looked at the Rakim album cover, we saw the suicide part [in his hair] and the money in the hand. We never saw it done before like that in hip-hop. He had the Gucci on, that was the essence of New York City that dudes are still doing today. You got chills from this dude. I don't care if you were a little kid — because I was young — or the older gods on the block. You got chills from him. You don't get that from music today — that era right there was the era.
MTV: Nas, I want to pose the question I asked Ra. When Illmatic came out, everyone was talking about it. Tell us about coming out to such anticipation.
Nas: It was cool for me. It was great for me. I was coming from the legacy of Marley Marl, MC Shan, Juice Crew kind of vibe. Knowing these guys out in the neighborhood. At that time, the Queensbridge scene was dead. Dropping that album right there said a lot for me to carry on the legacy of the Queensbridge pioneers. It felt amazing to be accepted by New York City in that way. Like, "I can really take this somewhere, I can really take this to the next level." Again, at the time a lot of West Coast [hip-hop] was selling; East Coast wasn't selling as much, especially for a new artist. So back then you couldn't tell in the sales, but you could tell in the streets.
Rakim: Definitely! I'd met Nas at the Power House Studios [in New York, when Nas was a teenager]. But the first thing I heard [about Nas the MC] was through the buzz on the street. "Yo, Nas is dope. Boom, boom boom! He's wildin'! He's talking about everything!" Then I went out and got [Illmatic]: The first three joints that passed [while I played the album], I was like, "Ahhh." I felt like I wasn't the only one trying to reach for something. He kind of made me feel normal. For somebody to come out and spit fire and people to look at him, it made me feel regular. When Nas came out, he started solidifying it for lyricists. Never mind what [other] people are doing, do you. He did a lot for my career. He may not know that, but he did a lot for my career.
As artists, we look to certain things to put fire in us. Sometimes it might be a drive up the avenue, but we still like to feed off of each other. When Nas goes to the studio and drops a crazy album, I want to go in the studio and drop an album. I look to brothers like this to keep my fire lit. Keep doing your thing, baby.
Nas: The thing that I got [from people in the street] was that I was the second coming of Rakim. That was the greatest comparison that I could ever dream of. You think people are going to just acknowledge you 'cause you're nice, but they was calling me "the young Rakim." So my head got a little big for a minute. You never think you're ever gonna get that kind of love. That's the top of the top. If you're getting that kind of comparison, you got a great future, so that's what they was saying to me when I first came out. I was just flowing with it, taking my time with it.
MTV: Ra, I want to go back to one of the first points Nas made, when he said you weren't rapping like everybody else. The flow was a little slower, a little more conversational. How did that develop?
Rakim: I don't know, I think that goes back to my musical influence: Moms playin' that jazz, pops playing that heavy soul. I don't know, just listening to the lyrics ... You can listen to some old classic music right now and feel the lyrical content and how strong it was back then. On the records back in the day, they said what they had to say, and by the end of the record you understood what it was about. Hearing that, it always made me want to get a point across. Knowledge of self — that was my whole aim.
MTV: Part of being an MC is not just music, it's also the style: the rope chains, the clothes, the four-finger rings, the swagger. Where were you getting your style from early on?
Rakim: A few people played a part in that. I was letting the streets influence me heavy, as far as what I rhymed about, what I wore. I had some real people around me. I used to go to Brooklyn [New York], get the Fila suits, the two-tone [jeans suits] back in the day. "Take me to the diamond district!" Then after that, it was a wrap. I was going back every week: "Let me get one of those, two of those, one of those and one of those."
MTV: Did you have a favorite piece that you rocked, back in the day?
Rakim: Yeah, the Benz piece with the diamonds in it [featured on the Paid in Full album cover]. I actually told my man, "When you make it, make it heavy enough so when I take it off I can beat somebody's brains out." So that was my favorite piece, 'cause you can take it off, bust somebody in the head with it, look at your joint, ain't a diamond missing, put it back on — it's good. I think my man Jacob [the Jeweler] hooked me up on that too.
Nas: That's crazy, Jacob's been around forever.
Rakim: Yeah, that was like '87, man.
MTV: Nas, you used to get your shine on heavy too. The [Queensbridge] piece, that's a legendary thing. Where were you getting your style from?
Nas: The streets again, seeing all the dudes, pioneers in the streets putting it in ... and, of course, Rakim. You see Rakim with the crazy chain, the Benz piece — and you know he had the Benz to go with it! That was just the best thing in the world to see. We all waited to do it — by the time I was able to afford a rope, they was not even "in" no more. Now brothers are able to bring them back. [He holds up the rope chain he's wearing around his neck.] I'm catching up to them a little bit. Slowly but surely, get me a nice piece made. But the jewelry, the bracelets, the watches, the Fila suits — fashion ain't even touching that today.
MTV: Nas, what's your favorite Rakim song?
Nas: I have many favorite Rakim songs. I was just talking to him about "As the Rhyme Goes On." It just stops you and freezes you. There's so many phrases there. Even the one Eminem took, it was one of Eminem's biggest records. Without saying Rakim's name, "I am all that you say I am." It's so many lines in there. The whole Paid in Full album, the whole Follow the Leader album. You can stop right there, then you get to joints like "I Want to Know What's on Your Mind": "I seen her on the subway on my way to Brooklyn/ 'Yo good lookin'/ Is this seat tooken?' " Dude is still Paid in Full, but when he said "I seen her on the subway," that kept it all 'hood — 'cause back in the day, the subway wasn't all the way X'ed out [no longer cool to talk about riding on] yet. The whole story he told was crazy. [He turns toward Rakim.] I think you went real, real crazy on "The Punisher." I think that one right there is out of control. I play that sh-- right now!
Rakim: I used to love those wild tracks. But Nas, watching him come up and do his thing — and those joints he dropped since "Halftime." See, back in the day when joints like that came on the radio, we had noon [hip-hop shows]. Your joints come on from 12 to 1 [o'clock] — it's halftime. Turn it up to 10, let everybody know I'm playing hip-hop. "The World Is Yours" is one of my favorites — it sounds like he made it yesterday. Another one of my favorite joints is "New York State of Mind." Nas always been real conscious of what he says. And you know, that's what his pops put into him. I'm a technical cat when it comes to MCs. A lot of brothers do a lot of witty things, but at the end of the day, you listen to it four times and you're like, "OK ..." With Nas you can play a lot of his joints right now, they're still relevant and still hold weight. Everything holds its relevance. You can tell that — from a true MC, you can tell he took his time to putting it on paper.
MTV: Rakim, Nas paid you the ultimate compliment in 2004 by recording "U.B.R. (Unauthorized Biography of Rakim)" [on Street's Disciple]. What was it like when you heard that song breaking down your whole life?
Rakim: That kind of puts things in perspective. You got this far and somebody that you respect, somebody that's on a high plateau, took time and showed you love. And to hear a lot of it, I was like, "Where did he get that from? How did he know that?" He does put things in perspective, man. He kind of opened my eyes, like, "OK, people's watching. People really know about Rakim." It kind of let me know where I was in the world.
Nas: Thanks, man. I always wanted to know how you felt about that, 'cause if somebody made a song talking about me and stuff like that, I wouldn't know how to react. I just had to make a song about Ra 'cause if we in there making songs in the studio, let's make songs about things that are important. The dude is important right now, so I made a song about how he inspired [people] a great deal. I used to look at Ra like, "This dude's an alien. He's an alien. He's not from here." That's how I feel to this day.
MTV: How much research did you do for that record?
Nas: It took me a day. I went online. I was up on Rakim forever, though — you ain't up on Rakim, then you don't belong in rap. I was always up on Ra and I met him as a kid. I was a young teen getting into the game and I met Ra. He came in the studio by himself, put the [medallion] on the table. With the cables, two beepers — it was crazy. I [hadn't] never seen a cell phone, really. I seen them on the TV, "Magnum P.I." and "Miami Vice." But I never seen the big, crazy joint — the joint you beat somebody over the head with. The dude was cool then, same as he is now. This brother has always been a cool brother.
MTV: Nas, five years ago we were doing an interview, and we were talking about some of the greats: Slick Rick, Rakim, KRS-One. When did you start feeling comfortable being mentioned in the same breath as some of those people you came up watching?
Nas: You know what it's like? You can only fight it for so long. Then, when your influence is so great on so many artists, you gotta accept it. Nah mean? God don't give you a gift. For you, you can't turn your lights down on your shine. You can't dim your lights for nobody. It just took its natural course.
MTV: With the climate of rap changing now, how does that affect you when putting out new material? The focus is not on lyrics, as it was back in the day.
Rakim: I'll answer that right quick, Nas. That's why it's up to brothers like me and him to keep it going. 'Cause if we turn around and fall victim to what's going on, then it's a wrap. Nas is doing an album, I'm doing an album. We can make a big statement right here. When this man drops an album, they already looking for it. Nas — you know he's gonna say something, and the same thing for Rakim. So if we stay focused and do what we do, I think everybody wants that real hip-hop back.