Microphone Fiend – Rakim live in Seattle

March 19, 2013 in Music, Reviews by J.A. Banta

rakim color

First, let me preface this article by saying that I am just a dude checking out shows at the behest of my friend Chris (aka Dead C), the “dear leader” of this little bastion of true freedom in the fascist, so-called reality of the internutz, full of cat loving, atheist vs. monotheist bullshit spewing, C.H.U.D. fanatics, who will, no doubt, be troubled by the biased, uninformed opinions that are contained within this diatribe.  But, when the Eternal President requests, nay demands(!), that you see this show and expound on the wisdom held within the verses of ,what is surely, the greatest rapper to ever live, you get off the couch and blaze some joints on the way down to the club.  That way, when you’re done pondering the eternal questions of the ancients, some dope beats drop, your mind clears, and the rhymes transport you back to the place that you were in the very first time that you ever heard them.

For me, that place was Kansas City, MO in the mid to late 90s.  I was just a teen with a skateboard, some headphones and a hard on for the chick down the street.  Life was easy, but it didn’t seem that way.  Hearing the real grit and grime of people who actually did have it hard, coming up in a place so idealized for violence and crime (NYC)–guys like Rakim, Wu-Tang, Gang Starr, among many others–had an indelible effect on me.  They gave a voice to the supposed oppressions that I felt as a mixed race kid in what was still, more or less, an institutionalized, racist social structure of the Midwest.  Where I lived was different from where I had lived; fresh from a single parent, basement-dwelling household on the West Coast, I was swept into the clean cut lawns of the old blood rulers of the status quo.  Those were confusing times for me, as they are for most angst-y teens.  But these rhymes, the beats, and feelings that these men had, gave me power to say, do, and feel as I never had before.  The grit of the big city streets.  The violence of institutionalized financial oppression, seeking out its voice in the gun clap of neighborhood drug dealing and beef.  The sight, sound, and feeling of having that one girl walk down the street who made you feel as though, if you had her on your side, you could literally conquer the world (as long as you weren’t a bitch about it).  These are the things that I remember most about hearing the wisdom wrapped in the swaddling clothes of some the hardest/illest beats, dropped by some errant stork into my lap in the Midwest.  So, I do have a little history on my side.  I’m not fresh out of college, I’m not a rapper trying to make it one day, and I’m not an aspiring DJ and/or producer, just hoping to get my shit into the hands of some A&R guy.  But, I’m also not a guy that was “there when it all started, maaan.”  I’m simply a dude that was transformed by the power of the lyrics that I heard; of the beats that pulsed through my very being; and by the passion, wisdom, skill, and desire of those who would do, for themselves, anything, and everything, to transform their own situations into something better.  With Rakim coming to Seattle, it was an opportunity to witness a major player in that personal transformation in a live setting.

Also, let me say that I’ve been away for the last couple of years and, while all of the local acts/openers were doing shows and making music before I left, in all honesty, I wasn’t listening.  So let’s start fresh and go from there.

rakim mic

Rakim
Grynch
Fearce & Bean One,
hosted by DJ B-Mello
Neumos
Seattle, Wa
2.25.13

This show was highly anticipated by anyone in the Seattle area who knows anything at all, even just a tiny bit, about the origins and evolution of the rap game, and the 4 defining elements of hip hop culture (DJ-ing, Breaking, MC-ing, and Graffiti), established during the late 70s/early 80s in NYC.  That much was evident on a Monday night in February at the iconic Neumos, located in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.  Neumos is an ideal small to mid-sized venue for the single MC, being intimate enough for real personal connection, allowing the artists to interact with the crowd up front, yet big enough to pack plenty in with a capacity of around 650.  The club has plenty of space to be filled, with several bar areas, and a balcony section overlooking the main stage/floor area.

The event was hosted by, local commercial radio DJ/Douche nozzle, DJ B Mello.  I get that this fair city may not have a load of authoritative personalities to host, hype, and introduce legends and locals alike, but guys like him do us, as a representative crowd of Seattle hip hop, a disservice.  Beyond his cheesed-out wigger style and simplistic abilities on the tables, he also possesses what are, frankly, less than adequate hosting skills.  Yes, he’s hardworking (his web page is stocked with information about how to hire him and price quotes  for hosting/DJ-ing public and private functions); probably, at least somewhat, knowledgeable (he put a significant portion of his personal record collection up for sale on Ebay which totaled about 25k records), and well known ( gigs on local major, indie, and satellite radio stations), but the guy has “shit for brains” written all over his face, and a pretty weak “talent” for keeping a crowd entertained.  His intermission/filler spots between acts were consistently the worst part of the show.  Now, I know I’ll probably have the wave of my opinion smashed against the rocky shore of public belief, to the contrary and status quo sustaining peeps claiming that “he’s not that bad,” but honestly, the guy sucks.  He did a few swag throws on behalf of SnapKingz, a local throwback gear/style group, of which he is a partner.  And, speaking of throwback shit, it dawned on me that he spells his name like Mello Yello, the classic glow-in- the-dark soda, which, as I recall, was like the knock off Mountain Dew.  “Knock off,” as in, yes, it’s pretty much the same, but there’s just something that doesn’t fit.  There’s something that just screams, “if I could be Mountain Dew, I would, but I just don’t have the chops to pull it off.”  The swag throws were probably the only time that any person in the crowd even gave a shit about what he was saying, or doing, or trying, or noticed his existence at all, aside from the horrid noises that came out of the hole in his face.  But… enough of that; let’s move on to the real acts of the night…

With the openers, the crowd became increasingly anticipatory of the greatness that would be taking the stage later.  That being said, we were happy to see and support, up-and-coming local rapper, Fearce, who was backed up by DJ/producer, BeanOne–together they form half of the group Dyme Def.   On stage, Fearce proved to be a lively MC trying to motivate the, mostly unmotivated, audience.  The crowd was small but growing, early on.  Milling about with the typical “Seattle chill,” they were nursing their drinks, checking their phones, and hanging in bar areas of the club, while the acts got started.  With songs like “Honor,” “Outlandish,” and the title track from the free, 2012 release, There Goes the Neighborhood, they had the crowd getting into it, if not sheepishly at first.  Near the end of their set, the local rapper broke into a cover of “Follow the Leader,” one of Rakim’s sharpest cuts and the title track from his own 1986 sophomore release with producer, Eric B.  That operated as a signal to the crowd that even the openers were stoked about seeing “The God Emcee.”  That joint was quickly followed by another cover, this time of “Sound of the Police” by K.R.S One –again, one of the most well known, used, and, frankly, prescient tracks of hip hop.  Fearce and BeanOne handled their portion of the show just as they should have; with vigor and desire.  It was a solid performance from the duo; engaging and lively.  They made a good opening act for Grynch, who is one of the leading/better known MCs in the Seattle scene.

Grynch threw it down with the fervor expected from an artist that was opening for someone that they, themselves, have referred to as an influence and icon.  He’s a good MC, without question, and holds the audience’s attention like someone that’s still hungry, which, by all accounts, he is.  And he should be, if a larger audience is what he’s craving.  Grynch is approaching the line to where he should be stepping it up to the next level.  He’s gotten large market exposure through collaborations with the likes of Slug from Atmosphere and fellow Seattle rapper, Sol, among others.  All eyes were on him, engrossed in the music and rhymes that he gave back for the crowd’s fealty.  It was as if he was paying us (the audience) back for the time that we wasted watching that asshat B-Mello, earlier.  His apology to the local crowd came in the form of his performance.  Of course, that may be an outgrowth of the fact that he’s the type of guy that you might run into at the grocery store, or at the bar on a Saturday afternoon.  Or simply because, he lives here, or because he’s just that type of low-key nice guy that we all know from somewhere.  But don’t get me wrong; he’s got the lyrical skills to pay the bills, and a natural stage persona that has been honed on a number of stages across the country.  He’ll remain on the Seattle radar for a good while to come, and I welcome it.

rakim graffiti wall

Rakim has been blazing the mic for over 25 years, ever since the drop of Eric B. & Rakim’s debut single, “Eric B. is President,” back in 1986.  Since that day, he’s been shredding fellow emcees across America and the globe.  In fact, he’s been setting the bar so high for so long, that he’s achieved something that very few else in hip hop have been able to: he’s still alive, still touring, and still killing it on the stage –he’s still the best.  He’s The God MC, everyone else is just in the celestial pantheon of rap.  They are angels trying their best to be in the glow of this man’s glory–the all seeing eye at the top of the pyramid.  Now, I know that sounds like somewhat of an exaggeration, but it really isn’t.  That is the objective truth. I’m, personally, a bigger fan of some of the other rappers out there, but I’m still aware of how high the bar has been set and who placed it there.

The show was awesome, with an emphasis on the “awe,” which I was in.  In awe of the skills, of the stage presence, of the raw lyrical power emanating from a single human being.  He started off by hyping the crowd in a way that only someone who is aware of their own skills and the importance of what that contribution to history means, could.  He gave thanks to all of the artists that went on before him that night, but who have followed him in history.  It’s so easy for people to become wrapped up in their own hype and story, that it was refreshing to witness Rakim‘s humility.  Song after song, he laid out the tracks like “Paid in Full,” “Don’t Sweat the Technique,” and “When I be on the Mic,” which have transformed him into the showstopper that he is today.  The audience was clearly into it, rapping along and willingly engaging in the crowd participation portions of the set.  Personally, I had forgotten a lot of lyrics to these songs and, quite honestly, most songs, in general, for that matter.  This is something that I attribute to the fact that I was higher than a kite for most of the late-nineties, when I was first being introduced to this music.  However, that night, the beats and lyrics came flooding back to me like suppressed memories released in psychoanalysis.  I felt like a kid again, smashing the sidewalks on my skateboard.  I could remember the sunny summer days of the Midwest; blunts and 40s with my buds in the park, listening to someone’s boom box blare out the dulcet tones of saxophones and trumpets laced over electronic beats and vinyl scratched to hell.  It’s the jazzy beats of Eric B and of early hip hop that continue to remind me of those summer days of my youth, even now.  And it was those same jazzy beats that night which were transporting me across space and time to a place of total frivolity and youthful recklessness.  It was awesome.  That was kind of what the entire show was really about, anyway; taking it back to the old school and reminding everyone who Rakim was, is, and always will be.

old school rakim

More specifically, the show was about the 25th anniversary of Eric B and Rakim‘s groundbreaking debut, Paid in Full, which is the record that he really built his name on.  Although, at the time of it’s recording, he was technically going by “Kid Wizard,” it’s not exactly a name that provokes awe in the hearts and minds of listeners, to be completely honest.  It was his introduction to The Nation of Gods and Earths (AKA the 5 Percent Nation or 5 Percenters) that prompted the name change.  It is Rakim’s adherence to the church’s rigid social and educational tenets that enlightened him to the world view that would go on to influence a tremendous amount of people, from rappers, writers, musicians and gangsters alike.  Artists like Wu-Tang Clan, Gang Starr, Digable Planets, Busta Rhymes, Grave Diggaz, Big Daddy Kane, and Public Enemy all incorporate the teachings of The Nation of Gods and Earths in one form or another.  Those 7 artists and groups alone represent some of the greatest music that hip hop has ever created, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg, in terms of influence.  And influence is one of Rakim’s greatest contributions to the game.  He’s influenced lyrical style, cadence, and content, across the board.  He’s influenced generations of rappers to come after him in so many different ways that its hard to even comprehend them all.  Most of all, he touched the water and the ripples that flowed out became the waves of hip hop culture, style, and influence that we see on the world around us today.  It is in these ways that Rakim has achieved his greatness and I will be forever thankful that I was there that Monday night to see the living incarnate of hip hop influence ply his trade across a grateful audience.

Rakim is part of an elite group of artist that will never fall off into oblivion.  Also on that short list is WU-Tang‘s infamous chronic enthusiast and breakout star, Method Man, who I was able to catch at the very same venue on the following night.  The legend of these innovators is such that we shall always commemorate their achievements in sound and culture.  Yes, their albums may be “critically panned” once in a while, but, honestly, fuck those writers.  I know that I’m supposed to be using a critical eye to expose something that others may pass over, or not recognize, but, when it’s all said and done, I’m really just a fan.  Fuck the idea that I (or anyone else for that matter) knows better than the artist as to how one element or another should sound or come across.  If it vibes for you, that’s awesome; if it doesn’t, don’t bother.  I don’t believe that we, as consumers of an artistic experience (the audience), have any say in the origin and creation of what we choose to experience.  Criticism is worthwhile in the honing of skill and expertise, both someone like Rakim or Meth have already greatly surpassed expert level.  In artistic criticism, the only thing that you can really report on is whether or not it speaks to you personally.  A person can endlessly quote and pontificate about one thing or another, but you cannot realistically claim whether or not something is “bad” or “good,” just whether or not you had a good time — often because of your own personal, experiential prejudice.  So, for me both shows were awesome.  The first night was great, because it allowed me and drove me to remember my own history, and to acknowledge the context in which that music played a part in the things that I’ve experienced as a human, due to that influence.  The second night at the Method Man show was awesome, because I love to get fucked up and party with friends.  And frankly, if you can’t do that to ill beats and rhymes, or whatever musical flavor you choose, then we’re all just going through the motions.  Fuck that.