By Harry Williams
Harlem 1986; the summer of crack. I can feel the early morning scorch of the sun as it melts the asphalt. Blue, red, black and green vial caps are strewn all over West 115th street’s concrete carpet. They seem to have magically rained down from the sky the night before. I can still hear the familiar crunch the plastic capsules make under my sneaker soles as I trudge down Frederick Douglas Boulevard.
Everything changed that summer. Senior citizens sitting on tenement stoops used to talk about how heroin had destroyed Harlem’s sweetness in the sixties. Now they really had something to complain about. Crack’s highly addictive qualities turned every day people into devotees on a constant mission to score. The brief euphoria was followed by a thirst for yet another blast. It wasn’t long before Harlem saw teenage profiteers driving around in Mercedes Benz Sedans. Saturday night specials were no longer enough to keep the pirates and jackals at bay. Hustlers needed firepower. 9 millimeter hand guns and AK-47 assault rifles were everywhere. Blood hot ran in the streets.
Hungry children wandered the streets in search of their strung out parents. High school girls, trapped by the lure of the beast found themselves prostituting for tiny white rocks. The papers were full of murders, brazen daytime robberies and muggings. Crack heads in search of that next blast shed all regard for human life. The price of human life plummeted. Oh, and there was one other thing that changed that summer–hip hop.
In the early eighties, rappers were kids who lived in your neighborhood. They had colorful names which they wore stenciled on their sweat shirts. They battled for hard earned reputations and they bragged about material stuff they didn’t have and would never be able to get. Hip hop artists were largely poor kids who lived in the South Bronx, Harlem, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island. It wasn’t unusual to find a kid with a top selling twelve inch single sitting next to you on the subway.
Crack changed the economics of the hip hop game. The new jack hustlers who sipped champagne at hustler’s dens like the Roof Top and at Latin Quarters had plenty of money to spend. They draped thousands of dollars worth of gold jewelry over expensive urban wear. The money was coming in fast and the dealers were more than willing to spend it on entertainment that went with the lifestyle.
There was one song that rang through the bullet scarred streets of Harlem ’86 like choir hymns at the Vatican; “My Melody.” The haunting whistle over the thunderous boom bap drums sounded from every car stereo, ghetto blaster and house speaker in thug’s village. Eric B. and Rakim were the urban samurais of the new apocalypse. Ra was the voice of the era; a “god”– a member of the Nation of the Five Percent. The Nation of Gods and Earths was well known in the New York tri-state area. The young black men who accepted its message, adopted names reflective of the teachings–often names with “God” and “Savior” in them.
You could not go to Barnes and Noble to pick up a copy of their “lessons.” The preachments of the group were propagated hand to hand on Xeroxed pages by the members. Although, the Five Percent was a secret society, snippets and bits of their teachings were shared with the greater world. Rakim Allah was not the first god to drop “science” on a record. However, he became a sort of John the Baptist figure, encrypting his message in music that would begin to break New York City’s defacto daytime radio ban on hip hop.
Eric B. and Rakim possessed swagger before the word had entered the hip hop lexicon. With fur coats and a collection of gold chains that a pharaoh would have envied, the duo dressed and drove like their audience. Rap had come along way since the days of the Sugar Hill Gang.
Within two years of their debut, Eric B. and Rakim would be headlining a hip hop all star concert at the Nassau Coliseum. The arena was packed like an NAACP convention. Rakim called Long Island home. You could feel that cloud of expectation rising as Strong Island’s favorite son’s time drew near. The curtain rose. Eric B. and Rakim strolled out of the base of a gold pyramid with money green laser beams shooting from the top. “I know you got soul…” Rakim drawled. You could feel the rafters shake.
Fast forward. Fall 2009. It is a cool night in San Francisco. The world has changed. Most of the eighties era crack hustlers have gone to prison or the graveyard. America has a black president. Hip hop’s face is still black but it’s body is now a multi-cultural phenomenon.
I have long ago left Harlem. I now life in Oakland. When I found that Rakim was performing at a San Francisco night club called Slim’s, I had to be there. As I walked toward the front door, I remembered seeing hundreds of people standing outside at the promise of a Rakim performance. That was back in the eighties when Rakim was the face and the voice, of young urban America. Slim’s might fit 150 people comfortably. Tonight it is not even half full. There aren’t ten African American fans in the audience. The world changes. The stage is sparse. There is no back drop save for two turntables and a disco mixer. DJ Tech is on point. He urges the crowd to raise the roof with applause. Rakim saunters from the wings with a microphone in his fist.
Rakim was a teenager when I first saw him move the crowd. He was the voice of young urban New York City. Tonight, there is some gray in his goatee. He is in his forties. And yet his ability to flow; to spit uncanny metaphors with the voice of the gritty streets underneath him keeps the crowd screaming. I am thankful that his gifts are appreciated beyond Harlem and long after the close of the frightful crack epidemic of the 1980s.
Rakim’s rhymes are on smooth and on point. For 40 minutes we are treated to a blast from the past. He performs bits from all of his hits, “My Melody”, “Eric B. For President”, “Paid In Full”, and a slew of others. He points the microphone at the crowd and urges us to finish his verses on cue. The set is drawing to a close and yet Rakim does not hit the crowd with my favorite song. “Follow The Leader!” I holler as he saunters off the stage.
A few weeks later, Rakim’s first release in ten years dropped. The Seventh Seal’s
cover displays a black and white photo of Rakim dressed in a prophet’s cloak and hood. He is standing alone in the middle of a desert. Grains of sand flow through his fingertips. The symbolism is unmistakable. The desert is hip hop. Rakim is the last man standing.
(You can reach Harry Williams at email@example.com)
Twenty-four years is an eternity in the world of hip hop. The world that brought him to us has long disappeared into the rear view mirror of history and yet here he is; a refugee from an exploded planet–our son of Krypton. And I’m still bobbing my head his music.