Besides Shawn Carter, Rakim is probably the most revered rapper alive, and undoubtedly one of the greatest. Yet, he's more approachable than you would expect. Following an explosive concert at Houston's Warehouse Live, Ra relinquished his "cool-off" time and spent a couple of hours autographing posters, hats, t-shirts, 20-dollar bills, cassette tapes, CDs, and listening to white teenagers who thought that The Master--Ra's least successful LP--was the best thing next to electricity. When we finally got a chance to pick his brain, Ra had a lot to say about the benefit of delaying The Seventh Seal, his relationship with Nas, and the dangerous curves hip-hop's drawing-up for the youth.
The crowd was 'live' tonight. Did you anticipate that? What was on your mind coming to Houston?
Rakim:To be truthful, being that the game has changed so much, you come hoping for the best and expecting the worst. To my surprise, there's a lot of love out here for me. It confirms everything that I thought that I started. It makes me feel a little better knowing that I still got an audience to return to, man.
It's been along time since you came to Houston. You really felt at home here.
Rakim: I didn't expect it like that. I thought I'd come through and get a little love, but I didn't expect that. Like I said it's a blessing to be in the game this long and go so far from home and get love like this.
I was talking to a friend of mine awhile ago and I said, "Rakim's about to drop an album." He said, "I hope he's not coming on an independent label, because people are gonna sleep on it." Apparently, we're at that point where people are interested in knowing what label you're on. How do you approach that?
Rakim: Presentation is a big thing now. They want to see you come out big. They want to see neon lights. That's like half of the battle. That's why it's taking me a while to do this deal I'm doing. Not kicking something major, but I didn't want to go that route, you know, and I didn't want to go indie. So, I had to sit down and see how I could come up with a plan where I can do an independent deal and make it major, you know what I mean. You know major distribution is the key and then put some money into the project so we can promote it and make it look major. We were able to set that up and do some things that not a lot of people have done in the game. Hopefully, it'll make some changes and make a blueprint. You just need somebody to back you, like in any situation. But, it's not as hard as we think, man. For a lot of the rappers that are making money, they don't have to go down the road that they're going. Step back, evaluate, ask some questions, get the prices, and if they invest in themselves they'd be surprised what they could make. Majors give us pennies, you know what I mean.
And you're the one creating the art. That's the messed up part about it.
Rakim: Exactly. It's like they're pimping us for our product. It's like a door-to-door salesman and I come up with an item for $10 and I go knock on the door and sell that item and get $10. If I step back and let somebody else sell it, why if he go to the door and my product is $10, then why do I only get $1? And that's what we're going through with the major labels, man. It's not even to the point to where they're saying, "Alright, it's 3 1/2, it's 4 1/2, it's almost half of it." That's the last thing that would come out of their mouths. So, the way I'm trying to do this it's taking me awhile but at the end of the day it's going the way I want it to go.
Now, I get the general idea but what are the specifics? Did you start a label and then get major distribution to go with it?
Rakim: Yeah, basically that's all I did. All you got to do is if you got extra amount of money, then you can do your own thing. Depending on how much money you've got, that determines whether it's going to be major or independent. The average money to put out for an album, a top shelf album, you need a million dollars. So if you can put a million dollars in promotion you've got a major distribution. A million dollars at the most to have your music everywhere: BET, MTV, and the magazines, everything. If you can do that then you'll have major distribution. There's nothing to separate the majors from you. If you have a setup like that...that's what we had to do and that's the key for whoever wants to do it like that. If you have enough money, you can get a major distribution deal.
Speaking of the album, have you picked a single yet?
Rakim: Nah, right now we're just trying to do as many joints as we can. At the same time, we're trying to finish up with the deal and then once we finish up with the deal, we get ready for some big time collabos. We're just trying to load up and be ready for the end of the day when you can just sit down and listen to 20 to 25 records and pick the best 15.
I know you've probably been asked this a couple of times, but who are you working with on this album?