I knew I'd name the title of my book Stare in the Darkness as soon as I knew my book would be about rap, hip-hop, and black politics. Thought it was a dope title. But I wanted to pay homage to Rakim. Even though he wasn't as prolific as Run DMC, as the Beastie Boys (RIP MCA), LL Cool J, or Public Enemy, I thought his artistic reach was as strong. The imagery he embedded in the music, his novel delivery (before Rakim it was difficult to imagine someone rapping in his "talking" voice if you know what I mean), and his use of literary techniques (alliteration is the example I always use–Music Makes Mellow Maintains to Make).
They don't call him The God for nothing.
Anyway I just came across an interview with Rakim in the pages of The Atlantic. He doesn't talk about Follow The Leader–for reasons I can't understand, the interviewer doesn't ask him about it. But he does talk a bit about the contemporary cultural politics of hip-hop.
On Paid in Full:
I guess to put the whole song in a nutshell, you know, every good plan starts at nothing. You know what I mean? We're all in the same predicament, man. So I just start "Thinking of a master plan / Ain't nothing but sweat inside my hand." I figure that a lot of people can relate with that, for the crowd that I was reaching for, for the people that felt they wanted to do better.
This passage struck me for two reasons.
The first is that as I get more and more into the art and the craft of writing, I've become more and more interested in the creative process. In the act of literally having nothing but sweat and a decent idea, and then taking that idea and making it into something. In talking about Manning Marable's book on Malcolm X I called this process the black box of cultural production that no one really wants to talk about, perhaps because we don't know how the process works ourselves, perhaps because we don't want people to know all the stuff that goes on behind the curtain.
The second is that Rakim was writing and performing at a period right before hip-hop really blew up. It didn't take him a great deal to connect with his listeners creatively because he was there with them. Hip-hop really isn't there anymore. This isn't the fault of conspiracists–a few of my boys sent me a link on fb suggesting that the rise of prison-oriented rap came because of a Steve Cokely style conspiracy involving music execs a dark room and a desire to control black music preferences–but rather the "fault" of it's rise. It's very hard to write music that comes from the same place as the people you seek to reach when you make more money in a day (or WANT to) than most of us make in a year.
The full interview, which is worth reading and sharing, can be found here.