rakim.jpgAside from rocking a few shows, paying child support and popping up in a Juelz Santana video, Rakim Allah has kept a low profile in the nearly three years since parting ways with Aftermath/Interscope Records. The split was both disappointing and painfully inevitable. With his elusive Oh My God album shelved and no deal, the great Rakim seemed doomed to the same (royalty) check-to-check existence as 99.9% of rappers who released albums before 1990. But, as it turns out, Ra has been drumming up quite a bidding war for his new label, Ra Records, which will release his seventh album, The Seventh Seal, this summer. While he still seems to have genuine respect for Dr. Dre, Rakim is through compromising, and eager to execute his own vision.

Where you been, Ra? Word is you might have a new label situation.
Yeah, that’s one of the things that’s been keeping me occupied. I’m trying to get my CEO on, trying to set up a label deal where I do my own album on my own label and look for artists. I don’t want to put too much [out there] yet, but I got a nice situation. I did it different than a lot of people in the business do nowadays. I didn’t go to the labels. I went to an investor and got a bag of money.

So even with backing, do you know who will distribute this label?
Well, right now we got maybe four or five [distribution] deals on the table, and we trying to get the best deal. That’s another reason why I don’t wanna speak too much on it yet. Got some nice situations and we just want to make sure we got everything on the table before we go ahead with it.

Do you know what your label will be called?
Right now I’m going with Ra Records, man. Nice and simple.

There was a rumor going around that you were maybe doing some business with Talib Kweli. Is there any truth to that?
Yeah, Kweli’s manager…they had a deal on the table for us as well. After me and Kweli did a song for Marc Ecko’s videogame, his manager was coming across a deal and wanted to sign us to the deal as well.

Is it his label at Warner/Atlantic?
Right, right.

Is that something you’re still considering?
Well, that right there—we don’t close the doors. We got a lot of people just getting at us. We don’t know if we need Warner for the distribution, so we don’t close no doors.

How much of the new album do you have finished?
We got a little more than half, but a lot of things gotta be done, man. I’ma do some more collabos with a couple people that I respect and some people who have been showing me love throughout the years in the industry. I think the world gonna be surprised by the people that I’m doing collabos with, man. The name of the album is The Seventh Seal. We looking to put that out this summer.

What happened to the material that you recorded while you were with Aftermath? Have you been able to keep any of that material?
Yeah, the material that I did out in California, I still have access to if I want to put it on my album. But at this point, it’s kind of dated. I made it two, three years ago. I want to make sure when I drop that everything is brand new, fresh. And, without question, as soon as you hear it, it’s going to be what you expected.

Now that you’re off Aftermath and without a single producer like Dre overseeing your project, is it more challenging to pull the production side of your album together?
When you got one person in the room listening to the tracks, it’s a little easier to pinpoint what you want and where you want to go with it. At the same time, I got a team and we listen to beats. I don’t deal with yes men. If it’s something that I’m feeling and they not, they let me know and vice-versa. It’s a team thing. But at the same time, the team gotta be in tune with what the direction is, what we trying to do here. If you got that in the right place, then everything will go smooth.

How did you end up in Juelz Santana’s "Mic Check" video?
My man Nick Wiz, one of my producers. Juelz called his crib one night. We spoke on the phone and he let me know he wanted to do "Juice" over. I gave him the blessing on that and let him know how much I respected what he doing. A couple of days later he had the video and I surprised him. I just went down there and showed love. It was kinda totally out of the blue.

Are you a Dipset fan?
No doubt. I like the Diplomats’ swagger, man. Juelz, Cam’ron, Jim Jones—they bring a lot of swagger back to the game. New York needs somebody right now to hold New York down.

So when will there be a Rakim/Diplomats collaboration?
Probably soon, man. They one of the cats in the game that I got a lot of respect for, music respect and street respect as well. And when I do do collabos, it’s gotta be respect. I’m not doing it because they sell records or just because they own a certain part of the market. I call ’em "smart collabos" because at the end of the day they makes sense. I don’t want people do be like, Why did Ra do a joint with this dude? I’m just trying to be focused. It’s 2006 and a lot of things have changed. A lot of different producers is bringing different things to the table and it’s that time. I’m solo. Everything should fall into place. I’m not going to spread the album too thin as far as different sounds. You gotta have that chemistry on the record. If I can make a classic album, then I did my job.

Nowadays New York hip-hop has essentially taken a back seat to what’s going on Down South. What do you think the next generation of New York rappers should do to get things back on track?
I think it’s simple, man. If we just do what we do, then everything will be good. That’s what makes the Down South artists successful. That’s what makes the Midwest artists successful. That’s what makes the California artists successful. They do what they do. They bring theyselves to the table. The world is intrigued by seeing what they do down in Texas. The way they dress their cars up, what they drinkin’, the way they dancing. Just like they was intrigued by the movement that we was bringing to the table. But now I think some of the artists figure that we have to kind of change our sound to fit different markets. I think if everybody just stick to they guns, it will be beautiful. Without the market being big and blowing up, it’d still be backyard hip-hop. We gotta take advantage of the marketing being so big, but we have to know how to capitalize off it without giving up too much of the original New York sound. We can touch the Down South market, we can touch the West Coast as long as we make sure we give them something that they can relate to.

Click Here for part II of XXLMAG.COM’s exclusive interview with Rakim, where, for the first time, he reveals the true details behind his split with Dr. Dre.