Over 750 rap enthusiasts sold out the Amsterdam Bar Hall in St. Paul March 15 to bear witness to one of the greatest lyricists of all time: Rakim.
Rakim Allah was introduced to the world in 1986 with a classic 12-inch record entitled “Eric B. is President.” The rap duo known as Eric B. and Rakim burst on the hip hop scene with a sophisticated, methodical, street style that continues to stand above the thousands of hip hop artists to this day. Eric B., the DJ, provided complex jazz and James Brown-influenced beats, while Rakim created slick, complex and compelling lyrics wrapped in a slow style full of college-level sentence structures. The duo combined to produce the groundbreaking Paid in Full album in 1987.
You could feel the anticipation and electricity in the air the night of the show. The eager audience was mostly male but highly diverse in age and race. The night was set off by DJ Francisco, who kept the crowd reminiscing with a hip hop medley from the late ‘80s and ‘90s, also known as the Golden Age of Hip Hop.
The hosting responsibilities were fulfilled over-zealously by Avant Garde’s Chadwick “Niles” Phillips. Far Well, a North Minneapolis rap artist who was once known as Aztec, provided an energetic and passionate performance to start the show.
Local rap veteran, recording artist, and musician Truth Maze took the tempo up a notch with his full-on stage presentation that included stand-out poet OSP and a trio of backup female singers. He kept the audience hyped with his fashionable outfit and engaging rapport, proving to be a worthy act to perform before the “god M.C.” Rakim graced the stage.
As the crowd thickened and moved closer to the stage, I did not recognize any incidents of violence or aggression. In this day and age of “World Star”-type headlines of rap shows being destroyed by violence, the night’s peace and positivity were common denominators.
I deduce that this particular audience, who paid $25 to see one of the greatest emcees, had no time for foolishness. Everyone appeared to show genuine respect for the culture of hip hop, an art form that originated in the urban ghettos of New York City.
The moment had come for Rakim to perform. Local DJ Big Reese was introduced as the DJ who would be spinning the tracks for the rap legend. After a cheerleader’s introduction from Niles, Rakim entered the stage with a small entourage. He stood and acknowledged the huge reception from the audience, then peered forward and asked if the “Gods and Earths” were present. It was a reference to the men and women of the Five Percent Nation, a religious sect that was created by Clarence X in Harlem, New York in 1964.
Rakim appeared to be in a stupor, almost incoherent, to begin his performance. The audience seemed to collectively hold their breaths in nervous anticipation. Rakim said something about needing a “fix.” The audience immediately went from puzzled to ecstatic when Rakim cleverly took the microphone he had in his hand and stuck it in his arm simulating an injection from a syringe.
As the track from one of his most popular hits “Microphone Fiend” began to blast through the speakers, Rakim rhythmically simulated the satisfaction of a drug addict getting high. The crowd went wild. “Ra- Kim” and “Rakim the god Emcee!” rang out from the audience throughout his one-hour and 15 minute tour de force performance.
Rakim’s vocal delivery was deep, deliberate, stylish and understandable — a huge contrast to the babbling, profanity-filled lyrics of most of today’s rap artists. He gave the audience what they had been longing for, a full display of compelling lyrical athleticism.
Rakim performed all his popular hits and included some of his rare B-side gems like “Mahogany.” Whereas most performers shun camera phones and other recording devices at their concerts, Rakim seemed to embrace it.
One of the evening’s highlights was when he grabbed a fan’s cell phone in the middle of performing “Follow the Leader” and effortlessly began to record himself delivering one of his unforgettable punch lines. He then gave the phone back to the fan in front of the stage, never pausing or missing a beat. Again, the crowd went wild.
Rakim had a great call-and-response relationship with the audience throughout the night. He acknowledged deceased rap legends Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur before performing another hit, “Juice.”
Local old school rapper and Bronx native Bizzar told me he had seen Rakim perform in many venues, including BB King’s in New York, but this “was one of his best performances.”
I remember taking a group of young men to see Rakim at the Mecca Theater in Milwaukee way back at the beginning of his career in 1988. His performance shined brightly then and continues to provide light, just like his namesake Ra, the ancient Egyptian sun god.
Travis Lee is a contributing photographer and writer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.