I was a fiend, before I became a teen /
I melted microphones instead of cones of ice cream /
Music orientated, so when Hip-Hop was originated /
Fitted like pieces of puzzles…complicated /
‘Cause I grabbed the mic and try to say “Yes, y’all!” /
They tried to take it, and say that I’m too small /
Cool ’cause I don’t get upset /
I kick a hole in the speaker, pull the plug, then I jet
Microphone Fiend – Eric B and Rakim
Your favorite rapper’s rapper, always in the conversation of the best to ever do it, Rakim Allah, The ‘R’, a.k.a. The Microphone Fiend, recently came through DC, via the Howard Theatre. Although I’ve painted and drawn Rakim’s portrait many times over the past few years, I was compelled to craft a new piece, employing a manipulated cardboard technique.
The original show was scheduled for December 29th, and it was highly anticipated. There were two opening acts, Tray ‘Poot’ Chaney, and Intelligenz. Each of these talented artists took turns exciting the swelling crowd with their unique brand of poetry. It has been inspiring to watch them hone their craft.
Right around the time that Tray took the stage, word spread that Rakim wasn’t going to make it to the show. He had been in a minor car accident, and would be unable to perform. DJ Technician, Rakim’s right-hand-man, made a valiant attempt to keep the party going. Unfortunately, it was clear that the night was over for us. We headed back to our cars, making plans to meet up again for the postponed show.
True to their word, The Howard and Rakim announced a make up date. The show would take place on January 6th, the following Saturday night.
I was looking forward to having some time in DC, well before the show. I like to walk around the U Street corridor, and usually swing by the Robeson mural. That day, however, the temperature was in the single digits, and it was truly uncomfortable to be outside. I went station to station, stopping here and there in order to get warm.
I landed at Ben’s Chili Bowl for a few minutes. Here, I grabbed a small bowl of chili, and snapped a few pictures that matched up with scenes from the movies State of Play, and The Pelican Brief.
This approach to exploring our surroundings has been cultivated by the Delta Bravo Urban Exploration Team. It’s a natural fit for anyone who enjoys connecting our visual world with the songs, movies, and music of the past. Danny O’Connor, of House of Pain fame, has encouraged us to go out and explore. This group of ‘nomads’ accepts the challenge, and continues to enthusiastically submit visual evidence of our travels. It’s been gratifying to re-examine our nation’s capital through this lens.
“We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.” – Anonymous
Once I got the feeling back in my hands, I was back on the street. My buddy Malcolm was going to see Chris Rock at D.A.R Constitution Hall, but was going to meet up with me first. I could tell he was going to try to get to both shows. I found street parking at Howard University, and settled in at another restaurant to wait for Malcolm. He came through for a few minutes, and took an Uber car downtown. I headed to the theater to see how things were shaping up.
Although I’ve met Rakim a few times before, I get quite anxious that I might cross paths with a living legend. After hanging around the main floor of the theatre, I decided to try my luck back stage. I was pretty sure he wasn’t there yet, but I thought it might be important to get a good spot near the stage door. I began to see some familiar faces – Saleem, Scroger, Intelligenz, G$, Nick, and ‘Swole’ the security guard. Being among these new friends, I attempted to relax. The side door opened, and a small group of people entered the landing of the stairwell. Each new person offered handshakes and hugs of familiarity. I was pleasantly surprised when I was included in this exchange. I spotted Rakim’s brother, who I had met before, and quickly showed him the drawing. As a result, he invited me downstairs to the dressing rooms, and cleared my path to wait for The God MC.
Once downstairs, I timidly pushed open the dressing room door. Here, I had met Big Daddy Kane, EPMD, Naughty By Nature, Speech from Arrested Development, and Rakim, himself, on several other occasions. I knew I was in the right place. Surprisingly, there was only one other person in the room. I quickly surmised that it was DJ Technician (Tech), as he was head-phoned and focused on his laptop set list. I said, ‘Hello’, and he acknowledged me with a polite nod. I stood there for a few minutes, taking in the awkwardness of the scene, when Rakim’s manager, Matt, walked in the small room. We shook hands, and I showed him the Glen E. Friedman My Rules coffee table book and Chuck D’s This Day in Rap and Hip-Hop History book. I had brought each along in the hopes of Rakim tagging his pictures. He reminded me that Rakim had written a piece that appeared in the Friedman opus.
A minute later, Matt wandered out of the room, accompanied by a cacophony in the hallway. I glanced up to see Rakim glide into the space. He looked at me with slight recognition, and shook my hand. He shut the door behind him, and I quickly realized that I was one of three people in the room – Tech, Rakim, and Andy Katz. Was this right? Was I supposed to be here? I stood there, awkwardly, trying to think of something to say. I felt decidedly uncool, and I contemplated walking out. Instead, I struck up a conversation. I reminded him that I’ve brought him art before, and that he’s has always been great about writing lyrics on each of my pieces. I handed him the Chuck D book, and found the page adorned with his image. It’s a digital painting by the UK artist, Askem. He signed the book, and when he handed it back to me, a whole stack of my stickers fell out from the front page. I forgot they where in there. Ra looked at me, and said, “Look man, you just dropped all your shit. Give me a minute to get settled.” I stooped to pick up my stuff, and started laughing at the situation and how he had handled it. When I stood back up, my plan was to leave him alone, and politely exit. By the time I got my bearings, I realized that he was at the mirror, shaving. I said, “Ok, Ra, I’ll get out of your way, now. Thanks!”. He replied, “Naw, man, you’re alright. You don’t have to go.” With that, he turned around, and checked out my other book, and the new portrait. He tagged the pages of My Rules, and I handed him the new drawing. As I passed it off to him, I mentioned that I was trying some new techniques with the cut cardboard. I pulled out my prepared lyrics sheet, and asked if he would pen one of the two options. Instead, he walked over to the counter top, and gently laid the drawing down. He said, “Naw. How ’bout 7 Emcees?”, and he began to write…
I was practicing nonchalance, when I thanked him for recording a shout-out for MCA Day. I informed him that it meant a lot to the attendees that he would take time out to say a few words about Adam Yauch. It had been a few years, and he was among the first to put his thoughts into video form. I was glad I was able to thank him for that. He said, “No problem, man. You know – That’s Hip-Hop. That’s what it’s about.” I thought to myself – ‘Yeah, I’m getting that feeling’.
At this point, it became a good time to leave him. I wanted to remain polite, and give him the space he needed to get set for the show. I walked into the hallway, and realized that a small crowd had gathered. They looked at me with disappointment, as they realized that I was not with Rakim. I blended into the group, excited to share my story. I eavesdropped on a few conversations about top five emcees, Hip-Hop history, and listened to the praise of Rakim, as everyone was getting amped to see the show. As I was gearing up to share my opinions, I looked up to find that Rakim was standing next to me. He said, to no one in particular, “Y’all ready to do this?” With that invitation, we moved en masse up the narrow stairway. We were headed for the stage door, when Rakim ducked into the small dressing room next to the stage. The rest of us proceeded through the door to the main stage and lined the perimeter. The curtain was down, and we could hear the audience on the other side, waiting impatiently. It was a surreal moment.
DJ Tech, at his perch behind the turntables, was already speaking into the mic, when the curtain rose. He was energetically rattling off superlatives that prepared the crowd. Rakim’s son, Tahmell was introduced to the expectant throng, and he capably made his mark with a style and approach all his own. This only fueled the fervor, and when he was done, it was time for the Microphone Fiend to join us on stage. Tech’s accolades rose to a crescendo of indecipherable hype, when Rakim slowly strutted out to center stage. He was there.
I stood back, making every attempt to enjoy my exciting vantage point, in disbelief that I wasn’t being asked to leave. About two songs in, Malcolm, fresh from the Chris Rock show, appeared next to me. We shook hands, glanced at each other, and burst out laughing. Wordlessly, we stood in awe of our situation, absorbing and appreciating every moment.
After the show, while still on the stage, Macolm was able to obtain Rakim’s signature on his The Autobiography of Malcolm X book. This new tradition has resulted in a treasured and ever-evolving, historic collection of notable figures, paying tribute to Malcolm’s namesake. All this, as a gift to his son.
Late that night, or early the next morning, depending on the way you look at it, we braved the frigid air, and walked back to our cars. This time around, we were happily recounting the evening, and making plans to archive our stories. This was another incredible experience, and I’m already looking forward to the next adventure. Thanks, Ra! It was worth the wait. – AK
* Special thanks to Saleem, Nick, and Swole. Their support and continued hospitality, certainly make these ‘missions’ a possibility. Without their help, I wouldn’t have the nerve to seek out these opportunities. Thanks fellas!