The tangents which keep up balanced
(Or, how knowing the process of constructing a building can give one many understandings of “knowing the ledge”)
In reading this article it does dawn on me that Rakim’s focus throughout the whole album was about the writing process and the inputs and output of the writing process itself. Matter of fact, subtracting the Extended Beat and the atrocious Chinese Arithmetic, it is a treatise on writing.
My response though is about what allowed Rakim’s writing and in turn his vocal inflection to be the standard and the definition in rapping. There’s this notion that writers become stuck or embedded in their own world/mind, but as how the Earth was formed by many outside rocks slam-dancing into each other for epochs, a writer is formed by their outside influences.
At the 0:42 mark he explains how musical his family his, as to who plays which musical instrument in the household. Rakim states that he himself plays the sax and the drums, which helped him with his writs. He doesn’t go further in to how it helps, but I’ll take a guess based on simple observation:
Drums keep the pace and the rhythm in a band, no matter the genre, for it allows the other instruments to flourish. In turn, its sound is grounded, which when applied to how one speaks and one writes, means that it will adhere to a reassurance and familiarity to the ear.
The sax operates similarly; Ra’s father was a jazz musician, where improvisation is the play. With the knowledge of musical notation, scales, and breath control (especially for the saxophone) it would make for someone stoic in nature not have to aim for grand declarations or high-pitched squeals to move their message.
I also remember reading in Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation about how Rakim was the quarterback of his high school team. In this the field and the page are the same. The yards are the lines, the ball is the message, the plays are the structural schemes, the hike to the whistle is the equivalent to the setup and the punchline. In the writing process in the rhymebook it’s more of the realization that anything can happen in this grid as long as the rhythm and the goal are as one.
In conclusion, there’s a lot more to what makes Rakim the writer he is, which in turn contributes to the rapper he is and the strength of his work to this day.