It Glitters, It's Gold
A blue moon glimpses out over Camden's fading evening sky: for D'Alma and I are out in North London again. Old men that we now are, we edge towards a couch in a *buzzing* Jazz Cafe and slump gratefully onto it, drinking Red Stripe from plastic cups but fantasising that we're sipping 40s on the kerbside. We hear "Slam", "King Of Rock" and chunks of Gang Starr and Jeru blaring out: old style East Coast is the vibe tonight, and it fits our contented mood like a glove. Then, as we chat, the noise slowly ratchets up, a frisson of excitement begins to subsume the room, and we decide it's time to raise ourselves back to our weary feet and check out what's going down. An unassuming-looking guy in a baseball cap and a Carhartt hoodie strolls down the steps to the stage. No big thing, surely. *But we're all butterflies and goosebumps*. Why ?
Because he's the R, Rakim Allah, the God MC, the greatest rapper of all time. Until this spring, he hadn't played in London for twelve years. We bought tickets to see him in 2008, but then he cancelled and we wondered if we'd missed the chance for good. And now we're twenty feet away from him, in a venue that only holds a few hundred people. Remember, "Paid In Full" (this show is loosely billed as its 25-yr anniversary) sold over a million on its own. So forget the disappointment of the Olympics lottery: we've won just by getting in here tonight.
The stage is bare save for Rakim, his buddy DJ Technician and two turntables: but the R's presence fills the room. He unleashes "My Melody", and the punters go wild. He switches forward a whole quarter-century to the beautiful "Holy Are U", and the place crackles with electricity. Then, we jump back to the late 90s and "The 18th Letter", with stabs at its best tracks, "It's Been A Long Time" and "Guess Who's Back". Another rewind in time takes us to 1986 (of course): we're bathing, *luxuriating* in the warmth of this show.
More singles are deployed. "Move The Crowd" takes an elegant bow, but it's "I Ain't No Joke" which really hits the spot. Then there's an obligatory sequence "for the ladies", which is chivalrous of him. However, unfortunately it features the likes of "Mahogany" and "What's On Your Mind", by some distance Eric B and Rakim's worst ever singles, as well as his verse from Truth Hurts' "Addictive" single (mind you, please note that we love Truth Hurts, and despite occasional rumours to the contrary, we do not have any kind of downer on R&B - yr confusion may spring from our oft-stated view that the only thing worse than a hip-hop record ruined by a stilted R&B hook is an R&B record vandalised by a completely superfluous bolt-on verse from a jobbing rapper. That kind of crossover madness can still go hang, in our book). Anyway, we look on, dutifully, until it's over.
The otherwise-amazing set is punctuated liberally with newer cuts ("How To Emcee" stands up surprisingly well, given the general lack of love for "The Seventh Seal" LP) but it's not long before "The Punisher" delivers an appropriately bruising reminder of how Rakim truly used to *slay* the mic ("kill 'em again", he urges, and heads truly BOUNCE). Rakim and DJ Technician then divide the crowd for some call and response that quickly degenerates into general abuse: we're on Rakim's team, of course, so we easily defeat those "other side" suckers. In a novel variation of "frontman goes rogue" (you know, MES on the keyboards, or that thing Flavor Flav does on the drumkit) Rakim takes to the decks for a couple of minutes of serious scratching: beforehand he's a bit nervous ("if it don't work, don't dare YouTube me") but afterwards, facing renewed acclaim, he's more relaxed. "YouTube that shit".
A guy just up the bar comments that "this must be like going to see the old blues legends". We sort of see what he means, and it's true that most of us here have visibly grown up with Rakim. The bloke just next to us looks like a Chelsea headhunter, but is more than amiable: he tells us that he too was 13 when he first got hit by Rakim's flow. However, there is the obligatory idiot (for your future gig-going reference, this one looks a bit like Richard Jobson during his Armoury Show phase) who tries to start on us, because we're wearing suits. Jobson tries to engage our new friend from the Shed End, but headhunter's on our side: he knows, just like us, that what you're wearing doesn't matter, nor does what you do for a living: we've all got jobs to hold down and family to keep (and are grateful for both), and what matters is that we can still come together to pay tribute to the people who, through their music, have enriched our lives. Rakim is right up there, of course, amongst the other greats we've recently had the privilege of seeing (Cube, Chuck, KRS...)
A fact that the legend on stage proceeds to ram home in a coursing final spell. So as our last drink kicks in, we're pummelled by a sequence that starts with "Don't Sweat The Technique", flowers into old car-stereo staple "Know The Ledge", hits hard with "Paid In Full", replete with the Ofra Haza remix intro, and after increasingly imploring requests, finishes with a breathtaking "Follow The Leader", done a cappella. It can't get much better. We don't feel so weary now, or so old.
I think we've compared Eric B and Rakim to the Smiths before, the phenomenon of four landmark albums and countless classic singles in only a few short years, followed by nothing else: after they went their separate ways, they never reformed, could not tarnish or dilute their legacy. They started young (Rakim was 18 when EB&R broke big and only 24 when they broke up: the same age as Johnny Marr when the Smiths split). And if Chuck D was Strummer, strident, political and defiantly international in outlook; and Ice Cube was Johnny Rotten, the frontman of a punkish vanguard who then matured into a creative artist in his own right; then Rakim is the obvious man to play the Morrissey role, the man who introduced poetry and a whole new lyrical style into hip-hop, whose early peaks have never really been equalled, but whose voice is still as welcome and distinctive as it was when "Eric B For President" first appeared. I think we've also made the point, but shan't tire of it, that the great John Peel introduced us (and thousands of others) to both.
You should always move on, and always love new music, and as you know we do, but there's a reason why the golden era got its name, and flashbacks to it like this are a shot in the arm, a reminder that in a quarter-century from now we could be in another venue, seeing an artist that broke in 2011, perhaps someone we'll discover over the next few weeks or months. That holds out a gorgeous kind of promise, and we just can't wait.