Don't Sleep

The Positive Side of Hip Hop

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C. Matthew Hamby

"They think that I'm a new jack, but only if they knew that, they who think wrong are they who can't do that ..."

— Rakim Allah

There are some things worth losing sleep over. Problem is, the older you get, the shorter that list becomes.

For instance, I routinely hear water-cooler chitchat about Flavor Flav and VH1's record-breaking Flavor of Love 2 series.

Certainly not something that would keep me awake at night (although, the very thought might conjure nightmares for some).

Meanwhile, others are trying to determine how the lead single from Jay-Z's forthcoming album Kingdom Come was leaked to the radio despite unprecedented efforts to secure the confidentiality of the material.

Again, mildly intriguing but still not worth missing seven or so hours of rapid eye movement.

Lately I'm finding it increasingly difficult to relate to the endless stream of leaked tracks, failed relationships, rivalries, ring tones, clothing line launches and movie deals.

As much as I hate to admit it, I simply can't keep up and most of it just doesn't matter.

Just as I was about to kill the noise and pull out some of my old Coltrane CDs, some guy named Rakim decided to come to town.

That I would make plans to go to the show was a no-brainer, but the event was scheduled for a Wednesday night. This tells me that either Rakim (and show opener Brother Ali) was not available for a weekend booking or the show was being marketed towards a college-aged crowd who could afford to miss a few classes or blow off the opening shift at Starbucks the following morning.

Either way, I was determined not to miss the legendary Strong Island-bred emcee who was born William Michael Griffin some 38 years ago. Besides, just a few weeks earlier I had gone to see X-Clan open for Jurassic 5 on a Monday night and was home by 11 p.m. Certainly, I could handle a Wednesday night appearance by the emcee universally considered one of the three greatest to ever touch the mic (typically rounding off a list consisting of the Notorious B.I.G and 2Pac).

Though the doors opened at 8 p.m., fans patiently nodded their heads in anticipation through nearly four hours of DJing followed by Brother Ali's intentionally short but inspired set. After my third Heineken, visions of a miserably exhausting Thursday morning began to creep into my consciousness. And as much as I love the art and science of DJing, I wasn't so sure that I could take another half hour of eardrum shattering beat juggling between Brother Ali's set and the entrance of the emcee we had all paid to see.

It was nearly 1 a.m. and things still weren't looking good. I had just about decided to cut my losses and bail out of a side door when renowned DJ/producer Kid Capri (equipped with an elaborate CD turntable/iBook combo) called Ra to the stage. My head — heavy from fatigue and second-hand cigarette smoke — nodded in approval as Rakim effortlessly navigated through a collage of old-school anthems from his classic, late-'80s and early-'90s albums, including Paid in Full, Follow the Leader and Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em.

I'm way too old for this, but I'm glad I stayed.

Later that morning — after three hours of sleep and an equal number of cups of coffee — something occurred to me: I've seen a number of live Rock and Hip Hop performances and cannot recall a single instance where the performer's vocals sounded as precise and exact as Rakim's did during his show that night. Even Brother Ali — whom I suspect has at least a 10-year advantage on Ra — sounded understandably raspy and winded at times during his set.

Suddenly, it began to make sense. Maybe the show truly wasn't intended for people my age. We're among the fortunate ones who were able to witness the genesis of the Hip Hop era. It's like having watched the Great Pyramids of Giza being built. Now, it's our time to allow future generations to sift through the darkness and discover that hidden chamber of Light.

On that night, Rakim held the Light.

Those same college kids that I referred to earlier were granted unfettered access to one of the true legends of Hip Hop culture and the architect of the internal rhyme. Between adlibs and track introductions, Rakim's performance was flawlessly executed, as though he had been at this thing for, well, 20 or so years.

I'd take that over a Dip Set concert any day. Most everyone at the show would probably agree.

So what are a few hours of sleep worth? Listening to Rakim reminded me that witnessing a true master practice his or her craft, whatever that might be, is always worth a little sacrifice. ©

5 On The Ledge
The God Emcee Edition

"Eric B. is President" This ode to Rakim's DJ/partner Eric B. was released nearly 20 years ago and still demonstrates how, even today, Ra's writing was light years ahead of the game. Simply timeless.

"The Punisher" Rakim goes the way of the gun (metaphorically, of course) on this aggressive track from his Don't Sweat the Technique LP.

"Guess Who's Back" Ra drops a few esoteric gems ("born with three 7s in my head") in this aptly-named comeback single from The 18th Letter.

"Follow the Leader" Ra's internal rhyming and his habit of extending couplets from one bar into the next permanently raised the standard for emcees.

"Know the Ledge" An up-tempo, classic cut from the Juice soundtrack (one of the better urbansploitation flicks of the early '90s). Plus, I kind of like the title.

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