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A Leader Worth Following
As the 50th anniversary of the birth of hip-hop approaches, one of its finest works has stood the test of time.
The golden age was when people were starting to understand what hip-hop was and how to use it. I was lucky to come up then. Everybody wanted to be original and have substance; it was somewhat conscious... There was an integrity that people respected.
Author’s note: On August 11, 1973, DJ Kool Herc hosted a house party in the Bronx (where I grew up after arriving in the United States) attended by local graffiti artists, break dancers, and rappers. That legendary event has come to be known as the night hip-hop was born. New York City is celebrating hip-hop’s 50th anniversary all summer, and my son and I are headed there this weekend. To mark the occasion, below is an excerpt from my new book on persuasion about one of the genre's greatest works: Erik B and Rakim’s “Follow the Leader.”
For aficionados of hip-hop, its golden era spans the late 1980s and early 1990s. During this period, the genre changed dramatically and, at its finest form, shifted its focus from music for parties and socializing to a genre willing, and able, to take on issues of race, culture, and even philosophy and theology. For many critics, the duo of DJ Eric B. and rapper Rakim is the apex of this golden era. Indeed, it is generally agreed that the latter is one of the most gifted and influential hip-hop artists in the genre’s half-century of existence.
American rapper Rakim
Rakim’s contributions were multiple, including the use of complex lyrical forms that, as with melodies in jazz, moved expertly in and around the rhythmic structures inherent in the music. This approach was no accident. “I think playing the sax, learning how to read music when I was young, and listening to jazz allowed me to be able to understand the difference between like R&B and what the jazz artists were doing as far as the rhythms and syncopations,” Rakim once noted. “I fell in love with the sax, and I was always a big fan of saxophone players from, of course, Coltrane to Dexter Gordon to Charlie [Parker]. My eyes would just get wide when I heard them.” More importantly, sophisticated and groundbreaking techniques were put to use to deal with issues of culture, identity, history, and race through vibrant imagery, creative metaphors, and revolutionary conceptions of hip-hop’s social purpose.
Perhaps no album captures Rakim’s talent as demonstrably as the duo’s second, 1988’s Follow the Leader. The title track is a tour de force that includes a lovely and poetic passage in which Rakim asks his listener to leave the planet Earth and follow him into the deepest recesses of space. In that emptiness, at first, nothing is visible, but, in time, a light appears and grows in intensity as it draws closer. The light is Rakim bringing with him a new understanding of what hip-hop is supposed to achieve. “Follow the Leader” is a poetic essay in hip-hop form in which Rakim explains to his audience that all they have known about hip-hop ends with his arrival and that, henceforth, their understanding of what purpose it serves has changed forever. In verses 13–17, the twenty-year-old Rakim presents both his mission and why it is sorely needed in the following persuasion formulation:
Verse 13: Cause everytime I stop it seems ya stuck Soon as ya try to step off ya self-destruct I came to overcome before I'm gone By showin and provin and lettin knowledge be born
Verse 14: Then after that I'll live forever - you disagree? You say never? Then follow me From century to century you'll remember me In history - not a mystery or a memory
Verse 15: God by nature, mind raised in Asia Since you was tricked, I have to raise ya From the cradle to the grave But remember - You're not a slave
Verse 16: Cause we was put here to be much more than that But we couldn't see it because our mind was trapped But I'm here to break away the chains, take away the pains Remake the brains, reveal my name
Verse 17: I guess nobody told you a little knowledge is dangerous It can't be mixed, diluted; it can't be changed or switched Here's a lesson if ya guessing and borrowing Hurry hurry, step right up and keep following The leader
Rakim’s opening claim is an observation. From the heavens, he has been watching his people with sadness and dismay as each attempt to improve their lives ends in failure and frustration. They seem doomed to cycles of hope and disappointment, and so he explains the reason he has come to them and the essential nature of his character—he is a teacher, not an entertainer—and presents proofs and arguments that will give birth to a new kind of wisdom.
He presents his first claim—that his wisdom and calling make him eternal and divine—and he acknowledges the listener’s doubt. He redoubles his argument, noting that he will be remembered for his role. He then shifts back to his own nature, noting carefully that his mind and ideas are Asiatic—a term used often by Rakim to signal a fusion of Western and Eastern knowledge. Rakim was an admirer of Thelonious Monk, whose exposure to the Asian musical form altered his conception of jazz in the West. That fusion is what Rakim uses to remake the listener in his image, from cradle to grave.
The listener’s reconstitution in a new, more enlightened form is necessary, says Rakim, because his audience is trapped in a belief that their destiny and essential nature is one of bondage, forever captive to their past and present physical and psychological enslavement. In this stirring, emotional appeal, Rakim makes his audience a promise: Their nature is divine and noble, however distant or impossible these qualities may seem in the moment. As with all liberators, he passionately promises that he has come to break the chains that enslave his people, to ease the sorrow of generations, to refashion thought and consciousness, and, by so doing, to reveal the power and significance of his name.
Rakim was born William Michael Griffin Jr., but his entrance into a religious sect generally known as the Five Percent Nation in the mid-’80s led him to adopt the name “Rakim Allah.”Thus, the name held significant meaning for him as a symbol of his new faith and as an identity that clearly separated him from his predecessors, who usually adopted names commonly thought more suitable for entertainers.
The song’s message was understood and accepted by his audience and by decades of hip-hop artists, an influence that continues to this day. One may say hip-hop can be divided into two eras, before and after Rakim. With studied technique and raw talent, he persuaded audiences and critics that this new art form needed to be taken seriously and, in addition, that it could be used to deal with social and intellectual themes. That hip-hop is now the world’s most commercially important and artistically vibrant musical form is a testament to the persuasive power of Rakim and his peers.
Compare Verse 17, Line 1 with Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism: “A little learning is a dangerous thing; / Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring” (Part II, 215-216).
For more on the influence of the Five Percenters on hip-hop, see: https://rockthebells.com/articles/the-5-percent-nation-impact-on-the-golden-era-of-hip-hop/.
Ra: “sun god”; kim: “the burn-faced people.”