Happy 30th Anniversary to Lakim Shabazz’s debut album Pure Righteousness, originally released June 15, 1988.
Most fans today have no idea who Lakim Shabazz is. He’s an emcee from the late ’80s who never had a catchy hit that would earn him play on the SiriusXM radio hip-hop “oldies” station or a Spotify playlist. However, while he was releasing music, he was considered one of the best on the mic by his East Coast peers: a consummate lyricist and emcee who was equally comfortable dropping knowledge as he was slamming sucker emcees.
These days, Lakim’s first album Pure Righteousness remains a largely unappreciated gem, one that absolutely symbolizes a bygone era. Released 30 years ago, it represents a time when a command of the microphone and a dope beat was enough to earn you respect from your fans and peers.
Lakim Shabazz was a member of the original Flavor Unit, a collective of producers and emcees. Members of the largely New Jersey-based crew included the legendary Mark “The 45 King” (of the Bronx), Apache, Latee, Queen Latifah, Chill Rob G, Lord Alabaski and Double J, among others. Along with their contemporaries the Juice Crew, they were one of the first hip-hop crews around.
Lyrically, Lakim stood amongst titans like KRS-One, Rakim, and LL Cool J. He had a distinctive voice that was sort of reminiscent of Chuck D without the boom, but he had the vocal presence of Big Daddy Kane. He was just as comfortable flowing fast as he was slowing things down to express himself at a deliberate pace. He played around with his delivery, never quite falling off the beat, but hiding it in an unorthodox manner. Also, as a member of the Nation of Gods and Earths (a.k.a. the Five-Percent Nation), he littered his rhymes with references to their teachings and lessons.
The 45 King is integral to the success of Pure Righteousness and an equal partner with Lakim. Lakim met the King through Biz Markie, and they began working together almost immediately. The 45 King produced the entirety of the album, and his name is even on the cover (The 45 King presents: Lakim Shabazz). He gave Lakim his first “break” (pun intended), as the emcee was the first rapper to rhyme over The 45 King’s infamous “900 Number” track (best known as the theme music to the “Ed Lover Dance” on Yo! MTV Raps Today). As his name suggests, the 45 King was known for his obsession with old funk and soul 45 RPMs, practically inventing the dusty fingered beat digging that would dominate hip-hop music.
Aptly enough, the soundscape that the 45 King creates for Lakim on Pure Righteousness is built on these same dusty funk and soul records. His mastery of horns was unparalleled at the time, and was only superseded by Pete Rock. Sometimes he created drum patterns on his own, but mostly he used gritty drum breaks.
What’s also striking is how often Lakim and the 45 King let the music speak for itself. Hip-Hop tracks have been hook-driven for at least 15 to 20 years now. By comparison, the songs on Pure Righteousness are practically minimalist, all missing a traditional recognizable hook. Occasionally Lakim’s DJ, Cee Justice, provides some sparse scratches, but often it’s just the music from the loop serving as the chorus. Clocking in at barely over a half hour, Pure Righteousness moves at a brisk clip. Given the beats and lyrics approach, there’s an economy in the way that Lakim and 45 King operate, with the tracks possessing little to no fat.
The album begins with the title track and first single. The 45 King mixes abstract vocals from The Fatback Band’s “Put Your Love (In My Tender Care)” with the introductory sax from Pleasure’s “Joyous,” Lakim unleashes a “style of a wild, tell a lyrical masterpiece, swift as a summer’s breeze.” Lakim outlines his own upright nature and his strong mental prowess.
Lakim continues on the righteous path with the album’s second single “Black is Back,” his call to action for the Black population of the United States to educate themselves and resist a corrupt power system. The 45 King makes one of the subtlest uses of the “Funky Drummer” break, pairing it with Johnny Pate’s opening theme to Shaft in Africa. Lakim nimbly navigates the busy horn and piano driven track, rapping, “Here to endear, persevere with my skill / I’ll drill with science of self inside your head / And then I’ll build a strong foundation.”
Much of the rest of the album is dedicated to the domination of either Lakim himself, his producer, or his crew. On the rugged “First in Existence” Lakim continues to make use of non-traditional rhyme patterns and flows. He hits the track hard, rapping, “My lyrics are monsters about the size of a mountain / And yours sound like they come from a fountain / Of youth, little phrases are nothing but utter trash / Illiterate garbage is gonna get clobbered and smashed.”
“Sample the Dope Noise” is his ode to his producer the 45 King, as he extols his skills behind the board over a high-powered sample of Dennis Coffey’s theme from Black Belt Jones. Lakim celebrates the Flavor Unit crew on “The Posse Is Large.” Lakim’s statement of “We take rap serious; it’s not a hobby to us” has become a personal motto for how I view my interactions with hip-hop music.
The album ends with a strong combination that shows what Lakim is capable of on two songs that sound completely different. “Don’t Try Us” features Lakim getting confrontational over a booming drum track and creeping guitar, warning all suckers not to get out of line. Meanwhile, despite its title, “Getting Fierce” features the album’s smoothest beat, an expert flip of Maze’s “Before I Let Go.” Lakim sounds as menacing and precise on the mellow bassline, rapping, “Lak Shabazz'll throw a lyrical roundhouse to uplift / The spirits'll hear it ’cause Mark came up with / The slamming sound that is dope and high technical / You say to yourself this is the best that you've ever heard.” It’s heartening to hear Lakim rapping about working to appeal to the “adolescent crowd” through his lyrics rather than his perceived wealth.
The album’s only misstep is “Adding On,” the obligatory and unnecessary hip-house track that plagued every hip-hop album during the late ’80s. It’s not clear whether the fact that it’s an instrumental makes it better or worse. I do know that it has no business being the longest song on the album.
Lakim followed-up Pure Righteousness with The Lost Tribe of Shabazz in 1990. It was more deeply political, but less successful artistically. The 45 King ceded some of the production duties to Lakim and Cee Justice, and things just weren’t quite the same. Lakim hasn’t released an album since, though he had plans for a release back in 2007. While it would be nice to have a larger amount of music from which to appreciate Lakim’s contributions to the artform, sometimes one great album is all we get. And considering how well Pure Righteousness works, one great album may be enough.