How Rakim found his unique and laidback lyrical sound
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How Rakim found his unique and laidback lyrical sound

New York lyricist Rakim (real name William Griffin) profoundly impacted hip-hop. That said, although he was only active for a brief amount of time, he changed the genre during his tenure concerning lyricism.

Griffin brought complex rhymes and had an undeniable presence when he touched the microphone. During the 1980s, the New York hip-hop landscape included the likes of Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane, KRS-One and Chuck D. However, Rakim stood out as a star.

Alongside his partner-in-crime, Eric B, Griffin, with one album, transformed rap music completely and forced his peers to rewrite and modify their lyrics. Griffin’s early hits still get played in clubs, and his rhymes continue to be recited by true hip-hop fans.

Griffin was laidback, relaxed and utterly nonchalant in his delivery, yet somehow, he was leagues ahead of his competition lyrically. With complicated rhyme schemes and intricate wordplay, Rakim revived a stagnant culture.

As revealed in several interviews, before he was on the hip-hop charts, Griffin studied jazz musicians like John Coltrane and Miles Davis as passionate saxophonists. Griffin was a lover of jazz. However, he quickly perfected his craft and honed his skills upon finding rap music.

In 2019, Griffin sat down for an in-depth interview with Salon Talks magazine to look back on his career as a musician and spoke about how he became such a potent lyricist and his evolution as a writer over time. 

Griffin explained to the journalist that he had to fight to earn his spot and prove himself to be an emcee locally first. Explaining this, he revealed he was initially rejected, disclosing, “I got turned down plenty of times, but I think mom and pop, they taught me well and taught me values.” He continued to explain how resilience was instilled in him from a young age, recalling, “Just trying to be a part, trying to keep up with everything. That was going on at a young age.”

Reflecting on the dog-eat-dog nature of the park cyphers in his hometown of Wyandanch, Long Island, Griffin explained, “You had to go to the source, the party, you know what I mean? If it was in the park, if it was in somebody’s backyard or at the school, wherever it was, you had to go there and ask and beg, and you’d say to somebody, ‘Tell the DJ I’m pretty good.’ Whatever you could do to get on the mic was, by all means.”

The Paid In Full creator explained this is why he developed such a distinct style, as he had to bring something unique to the cypher in order to stand out. During his conversation with Salon Talks, Griffin revealed that after hearing angry, brash MCs at the park cyphers, he came to the realisation that a calmer approach with more attitude would set him apart, unveiling, “I started writing with that in mind.” He added, “I just wanted to be myself as much as possible and create my own style, knowing that I was already a little different. I was always, a little laid back, not so much quiet, but I wasn’t a big mouth neither. So just realizing you stand a little more natural when you kick it like this.”

The Long Island emcee admitted that the lyrical style he ended up developing was more reflective of who he was as a person, continuing, “It was more natural to me, and it fitted my personality. And I think that was the main thing.”

The local park cyphers and his competitive nature drove Griffin to not just be the best but to show that the raucous, overly aggressive delivery style wasn’t original, new and, most importantly, didn’t effectively communicate anything of substance.

You can listen to the track that encapsulates Griffin’s style perfectly by listening to his breakout hit ‘Paid In Full’ in the video below.