NEW YORK — The trailer that doubled as Rakim’s dressing room Thursday night resembled a dressing room at an arena like Madison Square Garden or Nassau Coliseum, where he used to rock 20 years ago.
There was champagne flowing, accolades, handshakes and hugs from several of his friends and about a dozen photographers trying to capture images of Ra after he triumphantly laced his following with classic lyrics and galvanizing beats.
But this wasn’t the Garden or the Coliseum: it was Central Park, where Ra, Common, Lupe Fiasco and Rhymefest performed as part of designer Marc Ecko’s second annual Save the Rhinos benefit concert.
“I’m in the Garden of Eden right now, Central Park,” Rakim said shortly after leaving the stage. “I just got the stamp of approval from Central Park. I got my man Bill Blass, I got Brooklyn with me, my L.I. people, my Bronx people. Detroit is in the house!”
Ra, whose New York concerts have been rare the past several years, started and ended his set the same way — with timeless records.
“Turn up the bass, check out my melody, hand out a cigar,” he began rapping, stepping onstage wearing shorts, a green jacket and towel on his head, covered by a matching green fitted cap.
“I’m lettin’ knowledge be born,” he continued, performing “My Melody,” “And my name’s the R-A-K-I-M/ Not like the rest of them, I’m not on a list/ That’s what I’m sayin’, I drop science like a scientist.”
With Kid Capri taking the place of Eric B., who spun records for Rakim for years, Ra segued into “Don’t Sweat the Technique” and “Follow the Leader,” where he hit the crowd with his slow flow while seated in a chair.
Later, Rakim brought out special guest Styles P. of the LOX, who said he was like a kid in a candy store. Styles also said that all the fans who didn’t know Rakim’s music should go and buy all of his albums, especially if they are rappers. Rakim ended his set with fury, closing out with records like “Microphone Fiend,” “I Ain’t No Joke” and the finale, “Eric B. Is President.”
“Tonight, I think it was ‘Microphone Fiend’ and ‘Juice [Know the Ledge],’ ” Rakim said backstage of his set’s highlights. “I was really feeling it from the crowd. This is big.
“It’s like, sometimes I can’t explain the way it feels to be around the game this long and for them to embrace me the way they do,” he added. “I definitely appreciate it, word up. I’mma try to store the moment forever. It’s just a beautiful thing. Thanks to the world for supporting all this time.”
“When I seen Rakim, I stopped. He was 20 feet away, I couldn’t approach him,” admitted Lupe Fiasco, who opened the show, as did fellow Chicago MC Rhymefest. “I was like, ‘Yo that’s Rakim!’ I couldn’t say nothing. Then he came at me like, ‘You gotta do it for hip-hop.’ I was like, too much, too much! Rakim? Crazy.”
Common was equally giddy to encounter the rap god. Before he went onstage for his set, Common came into Rakim’s dressing room and the pair hugged, gave each other props on their music and started talking about possible future collaborations. Then, lo and behold, hip-hop pioneer DJ Kool Herc arrived and everyone took more flicks.
“That threw me off when [Rakim] said we needed that album, Be,” Common said. “It was one of the most incredible albums to him. I was like, ‘Damn, that’s Rakim — he’s listening to my stuff.’ It’s something when the people you grew up listening to are listening to you. I said we need him. I wanna hear some Rakim music. Hopefully we can do something together. We can light it up.”
Common was commanding during his set. He had most of the crowd rapping along with every word on records like “Go!,” “Be” and “The Light.” But there was no mistaking Common’s personal highlight: He brought Rakim onstage and the two freestyled off the top of the dome over Busta Rhymes’ “New York Sh–” instrumental.
“I’m already excited to talk about that,” Common said after the show. “I didn’t know Rakim was gonna come up. I got charged and we put on that ‘New York’ beat. I already planned to rock to that freestyle. And for him to come up, and he started freestyling off the top of the dome. I didn’t know he could come like that.
“I knew he was the best on the written side, but he was ripping it on the freestyle. I was like, ‘Man, this is the reason I’m rapping.’ For real. Rakim, when he made Paid in Full, it was something about his demeanor and the way he carried hip-hop. I was like, ‘I wanna be that.’ Rakim is usually the unseen MC. For him to be there and open, that was one of my great moments.”
Besides celebrating hip-hop, the show was also meant to raise awareness and money for the preservation of rhinoceroses around the world. Designer Marc Ecko, who chose a rhino for his clothing company’s logo, started working with the International Rhino Federation about seven years ago to help save the endangered animals. Last year he held a similar benefit concert in Central Park, which featured the Roots and De La Soul.
“These events raise, like, $150,000,” Ecko said, “In addition to another couple of hundred thousand we raise during other events in the year.”
For more sights and stories from concerts around the country, check out MTV News Tour Reports .
For even more on Rakim, check out “The Greatest MCs of All Time.”