Artists send Jason Cannon music all the time hoping for airplay. But Cannon, the longtime DJ and artist known as DJ Menace, was especially curious about a record that came through under the name Rakim Al-Jabbaar. The DJ thought of Eric B. & Rakim, the duo responsible for classic hip-hop albums like Paid in Full.
“I always go into things really cynical and expect it to be terrible,” Cannon says. “But I think Rakim is the future, I really do. He’s that person that sticks out among all the clones, like a Biggie or Kendrick.”
Al-Jabbaar’s debut album serves the high claims his name makes for him. The man who gave it, Albert English, was called Big Al, the KNON DJ and member of Dallas’ early hip-hop crew Nemesis. When Cannon saw Al-Jabbaar perform live with Nemesis in place of his father, there was no hype man or vocal track behind him. Al-Jabbaar was spitting complex, no-breath verses. Live or in the studio, everything is in his head or improvised. This is why his first full-length is called No Pen Theory.
In 2001, Big Al died suddenly just two days before Christmas. Rakim was 12. His father always wanted his son to be a rapper. It was one of the last things he told him.
“I didn’t think he was serious at first,” Al-Jabbaar says. “But I started taking it seriously in fifth grade. His death made me dedicate my life to it. It gave me purpose.”
His mother, Patricia Lacy, had other ideas. When Rakim was in middle school she found some of his lyrics and threw them away. He didn’t want to lose them again so he started writing lyrics on his forearm when he left the house. After memorizing the words, he wiped them off before returning home. A couple years later, he stopped writing lyrics altogether just like Jay-Z.
This focus on memory and improvisation has created an organic, unpredictable flow and structure. Al-Jabbaar doesn’t count bars or consider rhyme patterns. He just fills in the space on the beat. The result is as dynamic as jazz.
More than a decade later, Al-Jabbaar contacted Don Brown, another member of Nemesis who once had a radio show with Big Al. Known as DJ Snake, the veteran producer had not seen him since he was a child.
“We had a long talk and I was just staring at him,” Brown says. “He looks just like his dad and has the same mannerisms.”
With no idea he was talking to a rapper, Brown told Al-Jabbaar stories about his father. A week later, he was blown away by what he saw his friend’s son do in the studio. The phrasing and intricately layered lyrics were unlike anything he had heard before.
“He has the same drive and energy as his father,” Brown says. “But he’s ten times better and has his own style.”
DJ Snake spent several months working with Al-Jabbaar. He helped him develop a production style rich enough to match the lyrical content and eventually produced some of the songs on No Pen Theory.
“To me it’s the perfect way for my father’s intentions to come to fruition,” Al-Jabbaar says.
In an era of short attentions spans, No Pen Theory is a cohesive album with enough texture and double meaning to demand repeat listens. “Over Now” is a two-minute track with such a blistering pace that it may not initially register as Al-Jabbaar’s tribute to his father. “Kundalini Genie” is an absolute banger of an intro, “Sunshine” is an effortlessly breezy single, and “Biggie’s Back” somehow lives up to its name.
“Rakim doesn’t have a gimmick,” Cannon says. “He is lyric-based and it takes a certain person to see that in 2017. He has the ability of all the greats, but just needs to be molded into a marketable artist.”
Released this week, DJ Menace’s latest album, Bar-A- Lago (Gold Bars), features Al- Jabbaar on four tracks. Cannon says he also plans to help produce the young rapper’s second album.
Al-Jabbaar and Brown continue to work together. They re-recorded a Nemesis song, “Oak Cliff Ready,” for ESPN’s recent 30 for 30 documentary, What Carter Lost. There is also a new Nemesis album in the works.
“When he’s in the booth I just sit back sometimes and think about all the times me and his father worked on music,” Brown says. “I just can’t believe I’m sitting with his son and he’s spitting bars off the top of his head. His dad would be so proud it would make his head explode.”