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Follow the Leaders

Big Daddy Kane and Rakim were the alpha and omega of rap’s golden era. Nearly 30 years since their prime, Kane has settled into the nostalgia circuit, while Rakim continues to move in the shadows, plotting a comeback. This is the story of how hip-hop grows old.

It was just after 9:30 p.m., more than 30 minutes past Rakim’s arranged set time, when the staff in the Arie Crown Theater greenroom began to panic.

“When he shows up,” a publicist muttered to a caterer in a Chef Boyardee toque, “don’t talk to him.”

A peek through the curtains revealed that the audience of middle-aged hip-hop fans had thinned since the opening acts of the I Rock the Mic concert. After Crucial Conflict, MC Lyte, Big Daddy Kane, Slick Rick, and Doug E. Fresh dutifully executed their hip-hop oldies sets, the crowd began to grow restless, and it was getting late. Maybe they wouldn’t have minded if it were not a Sunday night in December. Or if it were 1988.

When Rakim finally arrived, nearly 20 minutes later, he entered through a back door and bounded onstage without stopping at his dressing room. For the next 25 minutes he sped through 10 of his best-known songs before quickly signing off: “We’ve encountered so much brutality lately. Think about those who’ve gone back to the essence. Peace and love, Chicago.” More than a few people booed.

Backstage, Rakim was displeased. Wearing a brown cap, matching leather jacket, forest green hoodie, and baggy denim, he squirmed as a swarm of flunkies and amateur photographers formed a perimeter around him. It would be nearly 10 minutes before a security guard untangled the scrum. For a moment, Rakim was trapped. It was a familiar position for the mercurial MC, who has spent decades bearing the burden of a titanic reputation but delivering little real-world impact. On this night, he was one more icon revered by his peers but at war with his past.

Like so many genres, hip-hop has been hostile to its veterans. Since its inception, the career arc of a rapper — not only the one-hit wonders, but also many top stars — has often been brief and tumultuous. Sounds and trends change fast. A new style is always making someone or something outdated. Artists have rarely been permitted to age gracefully in the game. But unlike rock and roll, where enshrinement can happen in Cleveland, and the nostalgia circuit can be highly lucrative, hip-hop’s briefer shelf lives and shifting infrastructure can mean more cultural erosion, and at a faster rate.

However, there is a market forming around rap nostalgia. The recent film Dope projects the sound and style of the golden era onto its youthful protagonists. The new documentary Fresh Dressed examines the social implications of the genre’s pioneering fashion. Radio stations are adopting formats that speak to audiences yearning for their own brand of “classic.” Some artists are even pilfering1 the hits of yore. For artists like Rakim, upon which these cottage industries are built, there is celebration on a smaller scale. They’re lionized, but less visible than ever.


Or paying homage to, depending on your perspective.

“I always say a rapper is like a halfback in the NFL,” Rakim2 told The Source in 2002. “You got about seven years, then it’s a wrap.”

Rakim and Eric B. in 1987.

Getty Images Rakim and Eric B. in 1987.


After several requests, Rakim’s manager declined to make him available for an interview.

He was speaking from experience. In 1986, the rapper and his DJ, Eric B., released “Eric B. Is President,” with the B side “My Melody.” The record kick-started a seven-year run during which Rakim changed the sound, shape, and weight of hip-hop. After the duo’s 1987 debut album, Paid in Full, MCs began to toss their simplistic rhyme patterns, embracing Rakim’s complex schemes. The genre had been reborn with Rakim — everyone else had to adapt.

“Public Enemy had already cut their first album when they heard ‘Eric B. Is President,’” says former Rush Artist Management publicist Bill Adler. “Chuck [D] and [Bomb Squad producer] Hank Shocklee were ready to put a bullet in their head, because they understood that that record was a game-changer, and that the record [Public Enemy] were putting out six months later [Yo! Bum Rush the Show] was outmoded before it even came out.”

Big Daddy Kane was Rakim’s chief competitor for rap supremacy in the late 1980s. At the time, rap fans believed that the two were engaging in a subliminal war of words, but both artists have since stated that the perceived jabs3 were unintended, delivered with no target in mind. A phone call cleared the air before a proper showdown could occur. That Kane, the upstart at the time, was deemed a worthy challenger to Rakim said enough. But by the early ’90s, Kane and Rakim’s reign was over. The end arrived in swift and brutal fashion.


Big Daddy Kane rapped “The rap soloist, you don’t want none of this,” on 1988’s “Set It Off.” Rakim had referred to himself as “the soloist” on “Eric B. Is President.” Months later, Rakim seethed “No need to speed, slow down and let the leader lead / Word to daddy … indeed” on “Follow the Leader.”

These days, the two most thrilling and important MCs4 of hip-hop’s golden age live in public, mostly uncelebrated. They earn a living performing on tours or package shows, like the I Rock the Mic concert in Chicago. They’ve salvaged their careers as nostalgia acts — performing for aging crowds — and made themselves visible representatives of a generation of artists that has been pushed aside and recategorized. Nearly 30 years later, Rakim and Big Daddy Kane live within and without their legendary status.


With all due respect to Chuck D, Kool G Rap, KRS-One, and Slick Rick.

Backstage at the Arie Crown Theater, Big Daddy Kane stands outside his dressing room greeting visitors. He humors a fan reminiscing about a wild night in the city during the early ’90s that may or may not have happened. A little more time is spent huddled with a sexagenarian in a cream suit with wide-notch lapels and a matching fedora and handkerchief, not unlike something Nicky Barnes might have worn.

When Kane hits the stage, wearing a pink tuxedo shirt, bow tie, tuxedo jacket, and dark denim, the 46-year-old rapper is all business. “Let’s not waste no time, y’all, let’s get straight to the point,” Kane says before launching into his 1988 single “Set It Off.” He begins a cappella, and once the beat drops, he’s pogoing up and down like a teenager at a punk show. Later, his backup dancers Scoob and Shawn5 join him to perform “Warm It Up, Kane” over the sound of women screaming from the audience. At the end of the first verse of the song, Kane has slightly altered the lyrics to the past tense: “Whose flattop ruled in ’89?”


It was Scoob and Scrap back in the day.

Big Daddy Kane isn’t interested in looking back. “He’s not a big talker,” his manager warns me about our upcoming interview. He says Kane will never release another solo album. It’s my first inquiry when Kane calls me in April.

“I just think that music has changed so much,” he says. “I’m also at a point in my life where financially I make more money with the old material, just going on the road performing those songs.”

He still writes “once in a blue moon” or when something inspires him — “like a new Joell Ortiz or Logic record.” He’s more interested in reigniting his acting career.6 Now married with a young son, and living in the Raleigh-Durham area since 2000, Kane has moved on from his past, while performing from it every week.


Said Hollywood bid stalled following turns in 1993’s Posse and The Meteor Man. He made mistakes afterward, like turning down a role opposite Nicolas Cage in It Could Happen to You; The Wire’s Wendell Pierce got the part. Kane has a supporting role in the new Keanu Reeves film Daughter of God.

Born Antonio Hardy, he spent his formative years in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, during one of the city’s most violent eras. “But I was raised in a family household with mom and pops together,” Kane says. “There was love. There was a lot of love there.” He graduated from cafeteria cyphers at Sarah J. Hale High School to battling MCs around New York. An encounter with Biz Markie at the Albee Square Mall led to Kane writing for Biz and Roxanne Shanté, and eventually to landing a spot in Marley Marl’s Juice Crew. Soon Kane was recording his debut album, Long Live the Kane, with Marley, hip-hop’s first super-producer.

“Kane is what I’d call an old soul. He was like an adult from the 1970s who got zapped into the 1980s. He was just a cool, smooth motherfucker,” says fellow Juice Crew member Kool G Rap. “Kane didn’t watch a whole lot of movies of the time. He was still watching Shaft, Super Fly, and Dolemite. His mannerisms seemed to be like one of the ill cats of the past.”

It isn’t easy talking to Kane about his past: Questions about Rakim7 irritate him, but he lets out a deep, hearty laugh upon learning that his 1989 appearance on Live With Regis and Kathie Lee is on YouTube. He’s passionate about the historical documentation of hip-hop, yet apathetic about the media’s attempt to contextualize it. “When people in the street say, ‘You’re in my top five,’ that means the world to me,” he says. “When VH1, MTV, or The Source magazine gives me a ranking, that don’t mean shit to me.”


The one Rakim question: Did Kane consider Rakim his main competition back then? “I looked at him, Kool G Rap, and KRS-One as the three that I needed to surpass. Not just Rakim, all three of them.” It was apparent that he did not wish to elaborate, and that he would not welcome a follow-up question.

His closest collaboration in recent years has been with the hip-hop band Lifted Crew. After their first show together in September 2011, Kane told drummer Joe Lambert it was the best band he’d played with. A year later, Kane approached the group about recording a hip-hop–soul fusion album under the group name Las Supper.

When the band arrived at the studio, Kane had already written the music. He had also done his homework, bringing the same microphones, amps, and snare drums used in old Motown sessions. Released in March 2013, the album, Back to the Future, garnered positive reviews — the New York Times wrote that Kane sounded “energized and nimble.”

Lambert describes Kane as stoic and thoughtful, someone not bothered in rhetoric or prone to chitchat. On the road, he says, Kane was a taskmaster demanding excellence. He asked the band not to drink before shows, not even a beer, and issued pep talks sprinkled with Zen koans. “You want to be a focused beam of light,” he told the band. “You want to hit your audience. You don’t want to be scattered energy.”

In return, the band nicknamed him James Brown, after the infamously strict Godfather of Soul. “We referred to him as that quite often, and fondly,” Lambert says. “He is just a consummate professional. As far as working with famous people, he is by far the most down-to-earth, realistic, straightforward, generous, and friendly person I have ever worked with.”

Big Daddy Kane in 1988.

Catherine McGann/Getty Images Big Daddy Kane in 1988.

On Father’s Day, Kane posted a photo to Instagram of himself with his young son Tasheem. “My son’s Father’s Day gift to me. I LOVE IT!!!” read the caption. Kane is active on Twitter, revealing glimpses of life on the road and pontificating about everything from boxing to ’70s soul music. His old counterpart Rakim, on the other hand, has tweeted just 54 times, and not once since March 2010. Rakim’s Facebook page functions as a de facto tour schedule. According to his manager, Matthew Kemp, this is the totality of their social media strategy.

“I call him the ‘Howard Hughes of hip-hop,’” Kemp told journalist Heather Blanchard in 2009. “When you meet him he is one of the most engaging people in the world. … But there is still a little bit of a distance, he’s still a private guy. And so you know, twittering about that he ate oatmeal for breakfast this morning and things like that wasn’t really the route we wanted to go. Keep a little bit of the — I don’t want to call it ‘the mystery’ — but keep a little of his personal life out of the public eye and make sure that people know him for his music primarily.”

Aura and mystique have always been major components of Rakim’s identity. When Nas released the song “U.B.R. (Unauthorized Biography of Rakim)” in 2004 — essentially a tribute to his idol — Rakim was upset, despite the fact that everything Nas revealed was just a Google search away.

William Griffin Jr. grew up in Wyandanch, Long Island, in a home filled with talented musicians. His mother sang gospel. His brothers were multi-instrumentalists. R&B legend Ruth Brown was his aunt. And because of who he was, and where he came from, once Rakim fell in love with hip-hop, he could not be just a casual observer. DJ Clark Kent, who later produced hit records for Rakim, the Notorious B.I.G., and Jay Z, remembers seeing a 12-year-old Rakim rhyming on a crate at a park jam.

Known as Kid Wizard at the time, he was a rap prodigy. It’s almost comical that Rakim first delivered his “seven MC theory” — one of hip-hop’s most iconic rhymes8 — at a lunchroom table in the Wyandanch Memorial High School cafeteria. About this time he became a member of the Nation of Gods and Earths, an offshoot of the Nation of Islam founded in 1964 by a former student of Malcolm X named Clarence 13X.9


“I take seven MCs put ’em in a line / And add seven more brothers who think they can rhyme / Well, it’ll take seven more before I go for mine / Now that’s 21 MCs ate up at the same time.”


It’s also called the Five-Percent Nation; one of the organization’s tenets is that the black man is God personified. The name stems from the belief that the elite 10 percent are trying to control the ignorant 85 percent of the world, while the righteous 5 percent attempt to enlighten the 85 percent. Big Daddy Kane is also a member.

“I needed guidance,” Rakim told Vibe in 1997. “This was a time in my life when I was getting arrested, getting caught with guns. I got tired of hurting my moms.” Then, in 1986, Rakim — derived from the Arabic word meaning “the merciful one” — became an immediate sensation with the release of “Eric B. Is President.”

Tahmell Griffin, Rakim’s oldest child, was born July 9, 1988, less than a month before the release of his dad’s landmark sophomore album, Follow the Leader. In middle school, Tahmell realized that his father was famous. Classmates would say their parents knew his dad. When he grew older, the comments became less vague. Your pops is a legend, they would tell him.

Tahmell says Rakim was a normal dad — always worried about his kids’ grades and committed to his family. But, true to his brand, Rakim could be guarded, even at home.

“To be honest, I can’t read him either,” Tahmell says. “Sometimes, I’m like, Damn, I know you got other worries on your mind, like, ‘What’s the next move? What’s the next deal?’ I still really can’t read him. But that’s dad — always been.”

“Everyone always asks me what it’s like to be Rakim’s son,” he says. “I ask, ‘What’s it like to be your dad’s son? It’s the same thing.’”

Eventually he offers a few insights into what his father, Rakim Allah, the God MC, is like at 47. “My dad’s thing is really video games,” Tahmell says. “We play video games all day.” Rakim loves NBA2K and Madden. He still types with two fingers, which partly explains his aversion to social media. He also developed a fear of flying after a severe bout of turbulence years ago. He traveled to a 2011 European tour by boat, Tahmell says. Most of his nights are spent in the studio he built in the family’s Stamford, Connecticut, home.

“He chills around the house,” Tahmell says. “Then at night when everyone goes to sleep, he’s in there working.” Rakim still keeps artist’s hours, writing and making beats from midnight to dawn.


Tahmell has a lot of memories of his father from the ’90s. “Oh yeah, that’s when he was around the most,” Tahmell says. “He took a five-year break because he knew he could, and he wanted to spend more time with his family.” Eric B. and Rakim broke up following the June 1992 release of their fourth and least successful album, Don’t Sweat the Technique. The split was acrimonious. Following the dissolution of their partnership, both parties had to sign release forms before continuing with solo albums. Eric B., who released a self-titled solo album in 1995, reportedly stalled signing Rakim’s papers.

Released on November 4, 1997, Rakim’s comeback album, The 18th Letter, sold 136,000 copies its first week, charting at no. 4 on the Billboard 200, one slot below Jay Z’s In My Lifetime, Vol. 1. It was a strong, at times gripping album, thwarted by a misguided marketing campaign centered on Rakim’s past glories; the comeback angle rarely plays well in hip-hop. A greatest-hits CD, The Book of Life, was simultaneously released. The single was titled “Guess Who’s Back.” Other records on the album include “It’s Been a Long Time” and “Remember That.” All of that nostalgia from a rapper fresh off a five-year hiatus made Rakim seem old, an artist out of fashion seeking to reclaim what was once his, but the then-29-year-old Rakim was just a year older than the rising Jay Z.

“I thought ‘It’s Been a Long Time’ and ‘Guess Who’s Back’ were real dope. Maybe they both had the wrong title. It’s not about guess who’s back — he’s Rakim. It doesn’t matter that it’s been a long time — it’s Rakim,” says Clark Kent, who produced three songs on The 18th Letter, including “Guess Who’s Back.” “All of the extra hype that [the label] thought needed to happen, like, ‘We have to create a hype machine. We have to create a great story.’ No, you just have to put out a great Rakim record. There was no ‘creating hype’ around a Rakim record back in the days.”

Following the commercial and creative failure of a second solo album, 1999’s The Master, Rakim was granted a release from Universal Records. In October 2000 he opted for Aftermath, the record label founded by Dr. Dre. Expectations were high for the collaboration between one of the greatest rappers of all time and one of the greatest rap producers of all time; Rakim’s Aftermath debut was presumptuously titled Oh My God. In an interview with MTV News, Dre compared the signing to “Quentin Tarantino bringing back John Travolta” with Pulp Fiction. There was one small problem: Rakim could not finish any songs.

Rakim in 2012.

Bennett Raglin/WireImage Rakim in 2012.

Recording for Oh My God took place at Larrabee Studios in North Hollywood; Encore in Burbank; Can-Am in Tarzana, home of the fabled Tupac–Death Row sessions; and Record One in Sherman Oaks. Aftermath in-house producers handled much of the grunt work.

Aftermath operated like a machine. Dre parachuted into sessions, listened to instrumentals from each producer, then proclaimed which rapper on the label he envisioned over the beat. But the work was mostly left to his lieutenants.

One night in August 2001, Aftermath in-house producer Denaun Porter (also a member of Eminem’s Detroit collective D12) and his songwriting partner, Vito King, arrived at Larrabee ready to work with Rakim. Porter knew this wouldn’t be a prolific studio session — Rakim wasn’t cutting any vocals that evening. It was more like a meet-and-greet wherein the producer and rapper feel each other out — a playdate among creatives that would likely conclude with Rakim listening to Porter’s beat CD.

Porter, however, wanted to create a new composition. He envisioned production that signaled a rebirth. He dabbled with his keyboards, added percussion that pounded like a battalion on the march, and harmonized vocals that synced with the beat about midway through each verse, creating another layer to the track. When it came time for King to tackle the hook, the lifelong Rakim fanatic had an idea of what he might gravitate toward. Then it hit him: Let’s spell out his name in the chorus.

R: Rugged and rough that’s how I do it
A: Allah who I praise to the fullest
K: Keep it moving
I: Stand alone
M: It’s my crown, my world, my throne

King then laid down a reference track, mimicking Rakim’s deep baritone. It took less than two hours to construct the record.

Rakim arrived with a small entourage at about 11 p.m. He didn’t introduce himself. He didn’t have to. And at first he was quiet. When he finally spoke, he asked, “Do you have something for me?” Porter played his most recent creation. Rakim loved it. Instantly, he wanted to write to it.

“You make me want to rap,” Rakim told Porter. “Whenever you have a beat, send it to me, because I’d love to rap over your shit.” Still a bit shaken from meeting one of his idols, Porter left Rakim alone to write.

“This was the first song people would hear from the connection with him and Dre,” Porter told me. “I didn’t know it would be the only song that came out of the situation.”

Released in November 2002, “R.A.K.I.M.” — from the 8 Mile soundtrack — was the only solo Rakim track released during the rapper’s nearly three-year stint on Aftermath. He reportedly completed 16. Guest verses on Truth Hurts’s “Addictive” and Jay Z’s “The Watcher 2” proved he still had presence and punch, but there were rumors of creative differences — that Dre pushed Rakim to make gangster rap, and that Rakim worked too slowly. A planned cameo on Eminem’s “Till I Collapse” from The Eminem Show was scrapped, allegedly because Rakim missed the deadline.

An October 2002 article in The Source revealed more problems:10 A manager and publicist interrupted Rakim before he could answer certain questions (the writer, Miles Marshall Lewis, eventually kicked them out of the room); Dre had rejected all four tracks that DJ Premier, Rakim’s trusted collaborator, had submitted for Oh My God; there was only one song, “Afterlife,” in “adequate preview form.”


Full disclosure: I was a Source intern at the time.

Further complicating matters, Shady Records, a subsidiary of Aftermath, signed 50 Cent in June 2002. And 50, who at the time was the hottest figure in hip-hop, became the top priority at the label. “I think [50] affected every artist signed to Aftermath,” says in-house producer DJ Hi-Tek. “When 50 came in, he took a few tracks that cats like Rakim had already did songs to. D12 had already done a song to the ‘In da Club’ beat. 50 took that. I did a track with Joe Beast that ended up on the G-Unit album.”

The song seized from Rakim eventually became “Heat,” one of the standouts on 50’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’. “Rakim murdered the song,” Porter says. “It was a different perspective from 50. It was still a street perspective, but imagine somebody teaching and preaching over that beat. It was incredible.”

In June 2003, on the BET Awards red carpet, Rakim told reporters to expect a single at the end of the summer, with Oh My God shortly thereafter. Less than a month later, Rakim and Aftermath mutually parted ways.

Big Daddy Kane in 2011.

Johnny Nunez/WireImage Big Daddy Kane in 2011.

Big Daddy Kane was also courted by one of hip-hop’s hottest labels of the 1990s: In 1996, Suge Knight tried to sign Kane to Death Row Records. “Suge flew me out. Me, him, and Tupac went to Vegas and we hung out. He even offered me more money than I asked for,” Kane remembers. “It just didn’t seem right. It was like a situation where I asked for $500,000 and Suge said, ‘I can’t give you less than a million. I don’t know how you’re doing right now, I don’t want to get in your personal business, but if you need something I can have my accountant cut you a check for $100,000 in the morning so you can have something in your pocket.’ That just didn’t sound right to me. I had heard these rumors about this and that. That type of offer just made me feel like, OK, these rumors must be true, I ain’t getting caught up in the bullshit. Nah, I’m good.”

Rumors surfaced a few years later that Kane was signing to Roc-A-Fella Records after Jay Z, who toured with Kane in the early 1990s, brought him onstage at Hot 97’s Summer Jam. Hot 97’s Angie Martinez even announced on the air that it was a done deal. It was a great story: Brooklyn’s reigning king backing the legend who gave him his big break. But it wasn’t true. “I was going to correct [the rumor], but then I noticed that everyone was calling me, like, ‘Yo, we want you to do a feature,’” Kane says. “I just ran with it to get that bread.”

Why Big Daddy Kane needed a comeback in the first place is an established part of hip-hop folklore: The Casanova guise engulfed him following his beloved sophomore album, 1989’s It’s a Big Daddy Thing. Afterward he made spoken-word love jams with Barry White. He emerged shirtless — bedroom eyes, knowing wink — on the cover of his next album, Taste of Chocolate. He appeared with Madonna in her infamous Sex book and posed for the June 1991 issue of Playgirl.

“Nobody raised that question to me: ‘Do you think there is going to be a backlash?’ It wasn’t until it happened,” says Eugene Shelton, Kane’s publicist at the time of the Playgirl shoot. “But there was some backlash to it. Burt Reynolds and other celebrities had posed nude in women’s magazines, but many people looked at Playgirl as a magazine targeted to gay men.”

More issues factored into Kane’s descent. He rushed his next two albums to fulfill his five-album contract. “I just wanted to get the hell off this label, so I made songs with people I liked,” he says of Taste of Chocolate. “I was a Barry White fan. I was a Dolemite fan. I thought Barbara Weathers was fine.”

And 1991’s Prince of Darkness?

Prince of Darkness? I don’t know what the hell I was doing.”

Kane noticed concert bookings were down. He also heard the whispers that he’d fallen off. So he pledged a return to his roots on his next album, hooking up with emerging producers such as Easy Mo Bee, Large Professor, and the Trackmasters for 1993’s Looks Like a Job For…. But it was too late. Fans had moved on, and the music had passed him by.

“Production-wise, Looks Like a Job For… is an incredible album. I think that the weak point of the album was really me,” Kane says. “Had I listened to the radio and saw how much the game had changed, I would have noticed that people weren’t rhyming ahead of the beats anymore. Everybody was rhyming so much slower and falling behind the beat. My style really sounded aged. It sounded old.”

He was comfortable with his place in history, and so around the turn of the century, he retreated from New York, settling in North Carolina. To learn more about Kane’s life in the Tar Heel State, I called the rapper Phonte, formerly of the North Carolina group Little Brother. He remembers seeing Kane in Durham, sometimes CD shopping at the now-shuttered record store Millennium Music or performing at small clubs. One night during a set at Cat’s Cradle, Kane spotted Phonte in the crowd. In between songs Kane announced, “Everybody in here, y’all make some noise for Little Brother.” The group later collaborated with Kane on “Welcome to Durham.”

“He was my biggest singular influence. I told him, ‘You are the reason I rap,’” Phonte says.

How did Kane react?

“He was Kane,” Phonte recalls. “He was cool, like, ‘Thank you, brother.’”

“A buddy of mine named Josh hung with Kane a lot,” Phonte says. “He had a conversation with Kane once where he was like, ‘Yo, Kane, you still got it. Why don’t you come [back] out? Dude, you can be Jay Z.’ He says that Kane looked at him and told him, ‘Man, I already been Jay Z.’ That was a real sobering moment for me. From my estimation, he’s a guy who has found his peace.”

Big Daddy Kane and Rakim perform at the '40th Anniversary of Hip-Hop Culture' concert in 2013.

Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images Big Daddy Kane and Rakim perform at the ’40th Anniversary of Hip-Hop Culture’ concert in 2013.

Rakim is not going as quietly. He still burns with a desire to regain his throne. At a Red Bull Music Academy lecture in July 2013, he said he wanted to prove “that I’m still a beast. People think the older you get, the wacker you get. I think the older I get, the better I get.” It’s a variation on one of his mottos: “Age don’t count in the booth.”

Rakim’s latest effort, 2009’s The Seventh Seal, was released in a partnership between SMC Recordings, TVM, and his own label, Ra Records — it sold just 12,000 copies in its first week. Today, he’s reportedly planning another album. Clark Kent says he has “a hundred ideas” for it. Large Professor tells me he’d like to hear Rakim over up-tempo, eventful tracks like “Don’t Sweat the Technique” and “Juice (Know the Ledge).” Producer Nick Wiz doesn’t expect Rakim to chase trends. “I doubt he would even jump on a trap track.”

In late May, Rakim performed at SOB’s in downtown New York. He was a different performer than the man I saw in Chicago. He took his time between songs. He interacted with the audience. Perhaps it was because his daughter Destiny accompanied him to the stage. For most of the night, she was perched near the speakers rapping along to the lyrics, occasionally snapping photos with her phone. Rakim even posed a few times. Toward the end of the show, she told him that her battery was drained. “Awww,” Rakim howled, right arm gripping the mic, left arm extended in faux-outrage. “How you gonna leave the house without charging your phone?” The God smiled.

“I just think he’s having more fun now,” Clark Kent says. “I think it finally sunk in, like, ‘Wait a minute. I really made those records, and I really did change rap. People really do look at me like a legend.’”

As usual, Rakim closed with “Paid in Full,” but he was joined by Busta Rhymes, who later said he ditched a studio session when he learned Rakim was performing. Rakim bear-hugged him, then handed the microphone over with the implication to finish rapping the song. “This is some dream-come-true shit for me,” Busta said from the stage, cheesing like an awestruck fan. From there he launched into a seven-minute speech during which he told a story about when, as a student at Uniondale High School on Long Island, he met Rakim. “I held on to that moment for about 27, 30 years,” Busta said. Rakim, looking embarrassed, waved a towel at Busta. Once Busta relinquished the mic, Rakim addressed the crowd.

“I want to thank you personally for all the love y’all gave me throughout the years,” Rakim gushed. “I’ve been around for a long fucking time, but it just feel good to come up in the spot in New York and get love like this right here. I count my blessings every time I go home, man.”

When he walked offstage, he looked like he could go on for at least another 20 minutes. He looked like he could do this — be Rakim — for at least another 20 years.

“I ask him all the time. ‘Dad, [when] are you going to stop?’” Tahmell says. “He’s like, ‘When I don’t love it no more, then I’ll stop. I still love it.’” 

Thomas Golianopoulos (@Golianopoulos) is a writer living in New York City. He has contributed to the New York Times, BuzzFeed, Vibe, and Complex.