I saw Rakim in the flesh last night. The Rakim. On stage at the Roseland Theater. It was not something I ever thought I would get to see in this lifetime. When I saw the ad announcing the show, my first thought was, “Rakim?” my second thought, “OPENING for Ghostface Killah?” I don’t care how much you love the Wu, that is some serious disrespect. The ad said they were being backed by a live band: The Rhythm Roots Allstars. I was not familiar with them, and curious about how well the band would work backing up Rakim. I meant to get tickets the day they went on sale, but forgot to on my way to DJing a wedding in Central Oregon with Anjali, and then didn’t remember again until the day before the show. There were still tickets left the day before the show? For Rakim? Shame on you, Portland. Shame on you, and lucky for me.
Deciding when to arrive at a hip-hop show at the Roseland can be a tricky proposition, fraught with disastrous consequences. I have seen shows advertised as starting at 8pm, and if you arrive at 8:30pm you have missed a half hour of the show. I have also seen shows advertised as starting at 8pm, and by 10:30pm the first act has yet to hit the stage. There is also the issue of security lines. I have seen lines stretch down the street from the venue for two blocks. I have been in those lines for an hour.
I knew that no matter how long I might have to wait for the first artist, I wasn’t going to risk missing Rakim’s set, so I was going to get there early. As it was I didn’t make it to the show until 8:25pm. Serious security, but no wait. I arrived minutes before Brother Ali hit the stage. I have no experience with Brother Ali “the albino Muslim rapper,” and I was curious to see what he would be like. Very, very, good. He absolutely dominated the crowd from the moment his voice first boomed out, even if some people seemed surprised when an albino ran out on stage. He truly demonstrated that he has what it takes to be a real MC. He and the live band were so tight that it seemed like they were his band, stopping on a dime, or turning a corner in a perfectly-choreographed moment. I haven’t heard his recorded stuff, but what he did with the band was very impressive. He seemed to have some fans already in the audience, who responded to his Rhymesayers shout-outs, and joined him in chants of “The truth is here, the truth is here.” I imagined some confusion in the crowd whenever he said “Allah” in a song, but he didn’t give a speech about being a Muslim, or an albino, although the latter subject did come up in his rhymes. He addressed the war, the need to stop it, and the need to get the troops back home safely. The audience was very vocal in their approval of his sentiments. He finished his set with a masterful freestyle with the band backing him, and then another a cappella. So thoroughly did he control the crowd that upon his exit forty-five minutes later, the crowd chanted “Ali, Ali!” long and strong. Starchile and the Mighty Juggernaut were responsible for entertaining the crowd between performances. Juggernaut showed off his early 90’s true-school hip-hop collection, playing a few minutes of each track, and scratching, scratching, scratching over every song.
Ghostface Killah and his crew Theodore Unit came out around 9:45pm. Despite the fact that the ads suggested that Ghostface was headlining, he actually ended up supporting Rakim. I was really happy to see this. I was concerned that there wouldn’t be enough love in the house for Rakim, but his name brought the loudest cheers from the crowd all night. While I have listened to a fair amount of Ghostface and Wu-Tang Clan material, and while I have appreciated some of it (especially the Ghostface material) I am not a besotted fanatic. The crowd, however, was full of them. Very young white boys with their “W’s” in the air. Unfortunately Ghostface hardly registered as a performer, since the members of Theodore Unit were louder and more energetic than him, and they had a lot more time on the mic. It seemed like Ghostface was hardly rapping at all while his crew did all the work. Not only were there many verses that the crew rapped alone, but they also rhymed along with Ghostface on his verses as well. Shawn Wigz, the white member of Theodore Unit, was so loud and commanding that Ghostface kept switching mics with him, thinking that would make him sound louder. No such luck. Shawn was just a lot louder, with much better projection. Ghostface was definitely the weak link of the night from a performance standpoint, but he definitely had a lot of rabid fans in the house. He seemed to know he was outclassed and he kept complimenting Brother Ali, saying that he was “the future.” At one point Ghostface marveled aloud that Brother Ali “does it all by himself.” Yes he does, and far more effectively than Ghostface and his crew put together. Ghostface got a bunch of girls to come up and dance during “Ice Cream” and then had them led backstage so that he could “sign autographs” for them later. Uh-huh. Ghostface and Theodore Unit finally left the stage around 10:30pm.
Juggernaut began DJing again and a large B-boy circle formed that drew occasional massive cheers from the crowd, but I couldn’t see anything. I was pressed up close to the stage, and there was no way I was going to lose my spot for Rakim, no matter how good the B-boys were. Starchile was so impressed he left the stage to go over and watch the breaking. The balcony crowds probably got a good view.
Rakim finally went on around 11pm. He walked out onstage, dressed simply, silent, and totally in command. He had the same authority and presence as he did twenty years ago. He didn’t have to shout his songs, his perfectly measured voice drove every word home. He performed his songs respectfully, in their entirety, and not in little blips like Ghostface Killah. He left many pauses at the end of his lines for the audience to fill in the gaps. Sadly, there were a lot of people (young!) who could not help Rakim finish his classic lines. I helped out the most on “Microphone Fiend,” screaming the words a few feet from the stage. Rakim physically acted out all of his lyrics in very precise ways, miming writing in a pad, for instance, when his rhymes were talking about writing in a pad. I noticed this technique throughout his entire set. Very much a story-telling approach to MCing, incorporating meaningful physical gestures to the rhymes to further cement the message being conveyed into the viewer’s consciousness. It was obviously planned-out and methodical. The band did a really good job of performing Rakim’s songs. They were not exact replications, but really good approximations, with a nice, funky, syncopated feel. He did at least one song off “The 16th Letter,” and a lot of classics from the first two Eric B. and Rakim albums, and “Juice (Know the Ledge).” At one point he referred to his “band” where the original lyric talked about Eric B., but all references to his former DJ were not deleted, as he did say “Eric B.” in another rhyme. There were definitely some older heads in the house there to see the God, and while the younger ones were respectful, many didn’t really didn’t know the Master’s material. The band teased us with the “Follow the Leader” melody, but he never performed the song. Neither did he perform “Lyrics of Fury,” another one I would have loved to have heard. He performed the second verse of “I Know You Got Soul” twice, which I assumed was a mistake: the only hint of human imperfection. Rakim introduced one of the security crew onstage as his son. Wonder what the boy thinks of his old man, and the legions of fans he performs to every night. Rakim only performed for 45 minutes, but with a lot less filler than Ghostface Killah, who did a lot of standing around and wasting time. After Rakim exited people cheered and cheered, and stomped, and clapped, and screamed, and chanted “Rakim” over and over and over, but he never came back out. (A few fools chanted “Ghostface” instead.) The lights went up and people realized that was it. I could’ve done with a longer show, but I have no regrets. I would see him again in a flash. He says he has a new album coming out. Nothing has grabbed me the way his stuff with Eric B. did, but I am still curious to see what he will come with in 2007.
Now if I can ever get a chance to see Paris live, my hip-hop dreams will have all been fulfilled.