Thursday, September 26, 2019

Rakim’s Sweat the Technique | Book Review

“How do I get someone to stop a record, rewind, replay, and rethink everything they thought they heard the first time?” Rakim fans reading this question posed early on in Sweat the Technique: Revelations on Creativity from the Lyrical Genius (HarperCollins) will recognize this experience well. Throughout his catalog, at any moment, on any track, on any bar on any verse, Rakim is known to drop a confidently-delivered lyrical gem – something deep, maybe abstract, yet also subtle, and its meaning or lesson might end up hitting you a bar or two (or three) later. “I wanted to make people think about the rhymes,” he writes, “I wanted them to have to rewind my lyrics.” Sweat the Technique is a look inside the mind of a true lyrical genius of rap. Rakim presses rewind on his life, the lyrics, the experiences that shaped and helped to create them, and much more.

Rakim came from a musical family. Everybody in the Griffin household was musically-inclined. (Rakim himself grew up playing the sax and drums.) Recounting on his upbringing, Rakim reveals memories of his amazing parents (“Mom and Pop didn’t raise no fool”) as well as the bonds shared with his siblings. He goes in-depth on his childhood (Wyandanch), his choices (football or hip-hop?), his passion (hip-hop!). There are tales about interactions with other figures in hip hop, like discussing a line aimed at a fellow rapper, challenges while producing with Marley Marl, or just about hanging out, like with the late Jam Master Jay, talking about “rap-star big-head syndrome” and more. He writes about how the recording of “Follow the Leader” – a personal favorite – actually shut down the entire studio. “We blew a circuit. Too much power.” More than just a biography, though, Sweat the Technique is something of a guide. The book is separated into five sections, which Rakim refers to as his five pillars of creativity: “Purpose, inspiration, spirituality, consciousness, and energy.” He adds, “this is how I do it.”

Revealing a diversity of artistic influences, Rakim name-drops the likes of luminaries such as Dr. King, James Brown, Muhammad Ali, Moses, Jean-Paul Sartre, Stephen Spielberg, Mozart, Francis Ford Coppola, Shakespeare, and more. Can’t forget jazz, though! Jazz plays an integral role in not just the God MC’s music, but his overall identity. As a lover of jazz music, I enjoyed reading Rakim’s thoughts on artists like Dizzy Gillespie (“he’s who I’d like to be if I was in the jazz world”), Thelonious Monk (“I… started to re-create his sounds and rhythms with my rhymes and flows”), Miles Davis (“he was saying ‘kiss my ass!’ I wanted to be like that”), and of course John Coltrane. On Trane, Rakim shares: “I started thinking about my flows and asking myself, ‘what would Coltrane do?’” He acclaims Coltrane, referring to him as his “musical North Star.” (Sweat the Technique’s jacket even features a blurb from Cornel West, dubbing Rakim the “Colrane of hip-hop.”) There’s plenty of “genius” to unpack here.

There are sections throughout Sweat the Technique which feature full song lyrics, followed by Rakim’s notes on the writing and recording process. There are poignant moments, like his notes on “In the Ghetto,” and how the creation of that song helped him to grieve over his father. “That record released a lot of my pain,” he shares. His dissection of “Musical Massacre,” another example, reveals how truly incredible that record is. (But I won’t spoil it for you.) Rakim’s lyrical breakdowns and analysis give the reader/listener reasons to marvel over his technical skills“It’s all wordplay to me,” he writes. “I always try to have fun with it.” Jewels.

Rakim also touches on religious themes, detailing, for instance, the impact the Five Percent Nation had on his life, his views, his lyrics, and how he inserted those teachings into his music, subtly or otherwise. He offers direct advice and strategies in approaching challenges, whether they be out in the world or on a blank piece of paper. Viewing himself as an “observer,” Rakim discusses the importance of not limiting your studies to only your own discipline, but branching out in order to grow. He describes finding purpose as a “soul-searching journey,” adding, “it grew out of my identity.” He goes on to elaborate on the “divine universal consciousness,” as he refers to it, an essential source of creativity one can be trained to “tap into.” A belief in something greater, he theorizes, is a source of creativity. At the core of Rakim’s meditative, solitary approach is where he is assured that “the spark I need is always smoldering inside and I can build the fire all by myself.”

You don’t need me to remind you that Rakim’s place at the top, in "G.O.A.T."/"Top 5 (D.O.A.)" debates, has long since been documented. Among the brilliant minds that have emerged out of hip-hop, Rakim is unique. Monumental. Adding to this legacy, Sweat the Technique provides the reader a wealth of appreciation for Rakim’s music and, more generally, his artistry; his dedication and love for the craft is powerful and pure. Sweat the Technique also serves to inspire and uplift. “I haven’t saved the world,” he writes, “but I have taught, through my rhymes, ways for people to save themselves.”