Big Daddy Kane and Rakim were the alpha and omega of rap’s golden era. Nearly 30 years since their prime, Kane has settled into the nostalgia circuit, while Rakim continues to move in the shadows, plotting a comeback. This is the story of how hip-hop grows old.
It was just after 9:30 p.m., more than 30 minutes past Rakim’s arranged set time, when the staff in the Arie Crown Theater greenroom began to panic.
“When he shows up,” a publicist muttered to a caterer in a Chef Boyardee toque, “don’t talk to him.”
A peek through the curtains revealed that the audience of middle-aged hip-hop fans had thinned since the opening acts of the I Rock the Mic concert. After Crucial Conflict, MC Lyte, Big Daddy Kane, Slick Rick, and Doug E. Fresh dutifully executed their hip-hop oldies sets, the crowd began to grow restless, and it was getting late. Maybe they wouldn’t have minded if it were not a Sunday night in December. Or if it were 1988.
When Rakim finally arrived, nearly 20 minutes later, he entered through a back door and bounded onstage without stopping at his dressing room. For the next 25 minutes he sped through 10 of his best-known songs before quickly signing off: “We’ve encountered so much brutality lately. Think about those who’ve gone back to the essence. Peace and love, Chicago.” More than a few people booed.
Backstage, Rakim was displeased. Wearing a brown cap, matching leather jacket, forest green hoodie, and baggy denim, he squirmed as a swarm of flunkies and amateur photographers formed a perimeter around him. It would be nearly 10 minutes before a security guard untangled the scrum. For a moment, Rakim was trapped. It was a familiar position for the mercurial MC, who has spent decades bearing the burden of a titanic reputation but delivering little real-world impact. On this night, he was one more icon revered by his peers but at war with his past.