Reaching Out – ‘Microphone Fiend’

My Notes from ‘Reaching Out’ 5 – Darren Chetty

Thought I’d post my notes for the Listen Closely segment on the Reaching Out show I do with UK Hip-Hop legend Ty on Soho Radio.

Click here for a link to the show.


Listen Closely – Microphone Fiend, Eric B and Rakim

I’m going to focus mostly on Rakim.

Context

In 2012, The Source ranked Rakim #1 on their list of the ‘Top 50 Lyricists of All Time

In 1987 Rakim announced himself with Eric B for President. Three things about that record:

  1. Rakim’s flow – “I can swing on anything even the string of a harp”

Jazz – Theolonius Monk

  1. His delivery – Recorded sitting down, Marley Marl & Shan tried to persuade him to put more effort into it. (EPMD accused of biting his style)
  2. The break – Funky President and the start of a period in hip-hop where just about every song was based around a James Brown break. To quote DaddiO from Stetsasonic: “Tell the truth James Brown was old, till Eric & Ra came up with I got Soul”

On that song on the first album, Paid in Full,

The dismount of the first verse is one of the most quotable lyrics in Hip-hop:

I start to think and then I sink into the paper

Like I was ink,

When I’m writing I’m trapped in between the lines

I escape when I finish the rhyme

I got Soul

  • The writing/creative process
  • Contained & liberated by writing – (A theme in Microphone Fiend)
  • Mos Def & Talib Kweli quote this

First Mention of Rakim as a  ‘microphone fiend’ appears on this song:

The dismount of the 2nd verse:

I drip steam

Like a microphone fiend

Eager to MC is my theme

I get hype when I hear a drum roll

Rakim is on the mic

And you know I got soul.

Microphone fiend – My Melody verse 2

So what I’m a microphone fiend, addicted soon as I sing

**

Microphone Fiend – Eric B and Rakim

(Song covered by Rage Against the Machine and Fun Lovin Criminals)

Rappers rapping about drugs is not a particularly rare angle. Ice-T’s I’m Your Pusher, Biggie’s 10 Crack Commandments are just 2 examples. But in both cases the MC is literally or metaphorically the dealer, pushing dope product whilst remaining in control of the situation – “Don’t Get High off Your Own Supply” as Biggie reminds us. Microphone Fiend is something very different – the MC has “gotta habit” and fiends “for a microphone like heroin”.

Musically the song is sparse. As was more common in 1988, the song barely has a hook. It’s made great by the rapping. The break comes from Dundee’s finest funk band, The Average White Band’s School Boy Crush, perhaps explains the opening bars?

“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 puzzle –complicated.”

This combines a few of Rakim’s favourite themes – Firstly, his identity as an MC. We have the idea of being an MC as a calling, a craving, an addiction that has to be fed – and one that starts in childhood. Names for his MC identity include the microphonist, the microphone soloist. In his hand the mic becomes a musical instrument.

The “music orientated” presumably refers to the fact that Rakim came from a musical family, his aunt being singer Ruth Brown.. As he says “It’s inherited, it runs in the family.” So Hip-Hop’s emergence came at a perfect time for him.

But I think thatFitted like Pieces of puzzle, complicated”  might also refer to the writing process. Constructing a verse so all the pieces fit. Rakim is the best rapper rapping about rapping.

*

Even if driven by a craving, the MC is a craftsman, putting pieces together:

“I’m raging, ripping up the stage and

Don’t it sound amazing

Cause every rhyme is made and

Thought of, Cuz it’s sort of an addiction”

Rakim is the best rapper rapping about rapping. He wants to ‘move the crowd’ but he also wants the crowd to appreciate the effort and skill that has gone into the construction of the rhyme.

There’s an intensity to the music, to Rakim’s delivery and within the lyrics. For example, ‘Cool cos I don’t get upset, I kick a hole in the speakers, pull the plug then I jet’. These always struck me as more intense, more unnerving than a lot of rappers shouting about what they do. As Rakim puts it “The thrill of suspense is intense you’re horrified, But this ain’t the cinema or “Tales of the Darkside”. In his stillness, his monotone delivery and his lyrical intensity, Rakim for me was always realer, (and even more threatening) than say NWA.

The sudden explosion from order to chaos – from cool to kicking a hole in the speaker. From chilling to needing to write, to needing to perform. And I’d say this an intensity well illustrated through the metaphor of addiction .

I think he’s names the shift in the status of the MC  (who at this point is still named after the DJ remember) when he says:

“Ladies and gentlemen, you’re about to see

A pastime hobby about to be to

Taken to the maximum…”

Rakim raised expectations of what an MC could do – and as he did so, he pointed out that was doing so.

Eric B and Rakim – Microphone Fiend

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