Sweating The Technique: Lessons from Rakim’s biography

By Daniel Paiz

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Sweat The Technique: Revelations On Creativity From The Lyrical Genius Rakim is one of the best biographies I have ever read and there’s a huge reason for that: the authenticity Rakim writes throughout. While going through his come-up in the 1980s New York City rap scene, his explanations on certain verses interwoven throughout is so accessible.

The reason why I keep bringing this up is due to how impactful the lessons are from one of Rap’s Top Five emcees of all-time. The advice he gives isn’t in particular word choices or album decisions; let’s jump into it further below so I can better explain.

Lessons from Ra

If I broke down every takeaway that Rakim discusses in this biography, it’d basically be a Spark Notes guide to the book. So, I’m going to focus on the biggest lessons I learned: overcoming adversity, detail to craft, and checking in with oneself.

Overcoming Adversity

I’d be alarmed if Rakim had painted a picture of ease without any issues. Thankfully the veteran emcee broke down numerous incidents, the outcomes, and most importantly what was learned from each incident. Two in particular stood out. The first one has to deal with mental barriers to creativity, something Rakim does not want to call writer’s block. When dealing with a disruption to his writing flow, Rakim’s strategy to scratch some marks down is simple yet effective.

“That’s when I tried writing backwards. I wrote the sixteenth bar, which contained the final lines of the verse, and then the fifteenth bar, and so on up to the first bar. Once I knew the destination, it was easier to build the ramp to it.” (Rakim, p.188-189).

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Finding new ways in which to craft a rhyme translates across every line of work imaginable. Obviously I’m not saying we all write rhymes, but tackling a problem from a new perspective can either lead to the solution or at least unveil what’s going wrong. What’s wild to me is that Rakim thought that he was kind of cheating by doing this. It took a famous director to remind him he was just gaming the system:

“…Francis Ford Coppola said if you want to write a good movie, start at the end and work your way up to the beginning. Then I knew I wasn’t cheating. It was just a different way of approaching the page.” (189).

This also provides two valuable insights on Rakim and his process. First, it shows that despite the immeasurable writing talent he has, he’s still insecure and human like the rest of us. Second, it shows that creatives gain perspective and ideas when listening to other creatives outside said respective field. That’s another important reminder to those of us facing writer’s block: look at what others are doing, figure out how they do it, and get back to writing.

Detail to Craft (The Vibe)

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Another important lesson from this book reveals that Rakim and I (and possibly you) are sports nuts. Sports can teach you a lot of intangibles outside of the game. While neither Rakim or I went pro (Rakim played college football, I did not play collegiate basketball…it’s fine), we both use sports as an inspiration to create:

“You alter your approach to achieve this, so your body has to make adjustments, your mind has to make adjustments, everything has to be in tune— your touch on the ball, your radar to the rim, your mathematical calculations. Everything has to be in sync.” (207).

While breaking down how one might get better at basketball, Rakim in this section of the book is talking about obtaining the vibe one is after when it comes to continuously improving one’s skill set. It doesn’t come naturally and it doesn’t maintain itself. Instead, it requires getting your reps in and working towards consistently having said vibe. The more I write the more I appreciate Rakim’s own process and his motivation to improve.

Checking in with yourself

Rakim, like the rest of us, had moments in life where he was simply living and experiencing the world around him. Sometimes it got him in trouble, sometimes it led to heights he never imagined. There are a few particular moments that clearly led him to slow down, however. In his earlier years while in high school, one is striking when it comes to his process and how he challenges himself:

“I saw that being the best meant imagining the impossible and then doing it. I couldn’t do that with a horn, but I could do that with a mic. I started thinking about my flows and asking myself, What would Coltrane do? He became my musical North Star.” (137)

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Rakim’s thirst for knowledge and understanding of how important it is to push forward one’s craft is evident in his study of John Coltrane. When you start to unravel and learn how someone is performing at a high level and how you can transcribe that over into your field, that’s dedication. That’s commitment. That’s realizing what you have and wanting to maximize it.

Taking in where you are when things are good is underrated, because often times self-evaluation tends to happen when things are down. The Strong Island emcee went through that, too:

“For weeks I sat in the crib and played just two things: Miles Davis’s “Bitches Brew”, and Bob James’s “Nautilus.” They were heavy, moody, otherworldly, and the only songs that made sense to me. I played them over and over and just let them take over my mood. It was eating at me that I hadn’t been there for Pops when he was sick because I’d been on tour.” (222)

Everyone deals with death differently, and Ra’s slowed to a crawl of existence with the passing of his father. Not forcing himself to record, or socialize, or push forward with his career was the best thing for him. Not dealing with our emotions is the quickest way to make problems for tomorrow today.

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Final verdict

Hip-Hop is still working on building a library of all of their biggest influences, so a lot of artists are creating their entries on their own. This feels like required reading when it comes to Hip-Hop history, and the ever-expanding field of Hip-Hop studies. In addition to books like “The Rap Anthology”, “Book of Rhymes”, “Jay-Z: Decoded” and countless others, this book is chalk full of knowledge.

Combining your life story with career lessons in a thoughtful and deliberate way is no small feat. Rakim does it effortlessly, meaning like his rhymes he must’ve really dug into writing this. This should be on all music lover’s must-read lists. One last vital piece of advice when it comes to creating:

“… if you can accept the core principle that music is vibration, vibration is energy, and energy evokes response, you can begin to focus your creative process.” (217)

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