Rakim performs at 9:30 Club on Dec. 10, 2022. (Photo by Will Colbert)
Sound is energy made by vibrations. If you’re a physicist, you may view this statement as a complex concept wrapped in easy-to-understand packaging. You can say the same about William Michael Griffin Jr.’s music. The masterful rapper, better known as Rakim, has made a career of constructing thought-provoking lyrics that are accessible and connect with listeners. During a recent show at DC’s 9:30 Club, the Long Island poet displayed why he’s still the god MC after over three decades in the game.
Nothing would stand in the way of Rakim’s Dec. 10 performance. Not even a broken toe. “You may see me a little off balance,” said The R. He slowly walked to the stage left speaker and leaned into a “Move the Crowd” verse that took on a double meaning. “Standing by the speakers, suddenly I had this fever….,” rhymed Rakim.
The youngest of five, Rakim grew up in a musical family. His mother and siblings opted for the quiet storm of jazz and R&B. He would fall in love with metaphors, multisyllabic phrases, and the erupting hip-hop culture of the early ‘80s. Going against the grain of the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” party ethos and the high energy of Run DMC, he pioneered a laidback flow that doubled down on lyricism.
“I came through the door, said it before, I never let the mic magnetize me no more,” Rakim rhymed during his performance of “Eric B. Is President.” The classic opening line paved the way for a lineage of cerebral rappers. The Marley Marl produced song was the debut single by the then-duo Eric B. & Rakim. You can only imagine the electric feeling Rakim felt after hearing the song play over radio airwaves in ‘86.
Ra channeled this energy during his performance of “I Know You Got Soul.” Technician the DJ, the man on the ones and twos this night, would pick up on his fellow New Yorker’s frequency to ignite the turntables. The Bronx DJ cut and scratched the record at bewildering speed.
Stream “I Know You Got Soul” by Eric B. and Rakim on YouTube:
Occasionally, Rakim would glare intently through the shadow of the Yankees hat that concealed his eyes. Light would glint off his gold fronts as he rhymed gilded lyrics. Ra was in a New York state of mind. He took the audience to the gritty streets of the city that never sleeps during his performance of “In the Ghetto.”
As a teenager, Rakim aspired to be a professional quarterback. Football was his first love until the addictive properties of hip-hop took over his mind, body, and soul. He turned his back on the gridiron after feeling the craving to move a crowd. During the show, Rakim would take the wireless mic in his right hand across his body and to his left arm. He symbolically injected himself with the rhythm during his performance of “Microphone Fiend.”
In his memoir, “Sweat the Technique: Revelations on Creativity from the Lyrical Genius,” Rakim asserts that when he puts pen to pad, he intends to make people think. “If they think about your work, it’ll stay with them longer,” he writes in the book. His premise has proven true. The god MC closed out the show spitting a capella vocals from the title track of Eric B. & Rakim’s 1988 album, Follow the Leader. Fans rhymed along word-for-word.
Other highlights from the show include performances of:
- “My Melody,” Paid In Full (1987)
- “I Ain’t No Joke,” Paid In Full (1987)
- “Paid in Full,” Paid In Full (1987)
- “Don’t Sweat the Technique,” Don’t Sweat the Technique (1992)
- “Know the Ledge,” Don’t Sweat the Technique (1992)
- “It’s Been a Long Time,” The 18th Letter (1996)
- “Guess Who’s Back,” The 18th Letter (1996)
- “Holy Are You,” The Seventh Seal (2009)
Here are some photos from Rakim’s performance at 9:30 Club on Dec. 10, 2022. All photos are copyright and courtesy of Will Colbert.