“All of us want less thoughts. The calmer the mind, the happier the spirit. So when the mind is settled: bliss. If we have a mind full of fluctuation, then we have a mind full of suffering. When you see people and they’re starting off, there’s so many thoughts in their mind and it causes suffering and sadness. When you see people who are awake and present and clear, then there’s happiness,” is how music mogul and Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons describes meditation. “It’s that simple.”
Rap music has never really paid any mind (no pun intended) to meditation, at least on a mainstream level. The hip-hop lifestyle is built around making money, having fun and the idea of “hustling til you die,” because no one wants to wind up broke and back in the hood. Like Nas said, “sleep is the cousin of death,” so who has time to meditate when there’s money to be made? Even from a fan’s perspective, the best rappers are often those who excite us, not sedate us.
That’s not to say there isn’t a small but strong core of meditators in the rap game. In addition to Russell Simmons, Kendrick Lamar, Mac Miller, Jay Electronica, RZA and Big K.R.I.T. have also spoken about the benefits of being mindful. The simple task of sitting still, closing your eyes and thinking about, well, nothing for 10 minutes each day can have a tremendous impact on your health — from reducing stress to improving creativity and even treating depression. For today’s rappers whose traditional revenue streams are drying up in a climate where demand for new product is forever climbing, meditation can be a powerful tool to navigate the industry, as well as your own mind.
“I have to have at least 30 minutes to myself. If it’s not on the daily, every other day, to just sit back, close my eyes, and absorb what’s going on,” said Kendrick Lamar in a recent interview for GQ Style. “When you in music — and everybody knows this — the years are always cut in half because you always have something to do. We in the studio for four months, that go by. Now you gotta go on the road for five months, that go by. Next thing you know, five years going by and you 29 years old. You know? So I have to find a way to understand the space that I’m in and how I’m feeling at the moment. ’Cause if I don’t, it’s gonna zoom. I know. I feel it.”
Kendrick Lamar was, of course, kicking it with Rick Rubin when he said that. Co-founder of Def Jam Records, GRAMMY-winning producer and a spiritual guide to generations of musicians across the board, Rick Rubin is music’s Phil Jackson. He began meditating at 14 when a doctor prescribed it for his bad neck (“I remember thinking, 'My parents aren’t going to go for this,'” he said) and has remained in Zen mode for much of his adult life. Funny contrast, ain’t it? The same punk rock kid who produced for Beastie Boys and Slayer now lives out a serene, shoe-less existence at a studio named “Shangri-La” in Southern California.
It’s for that reason, though, why Kanye West, Eminem, and James Blake have all reached out to Rick Rubin in recent years to help them refine their albums, stripping the music down to what really matters. It’s also why Mac Miller crashed with Rubin at the height of his drug phase and managed to get sober, thanks, in part, to practicing the technique of Transcendental Meditation® (a more intense form of mantra meditation that’s said to have lucid effects). Album deadlines and health crises aside, though, Rick Rubin is a firm believer that meditation can help musicians do what they do best: make music.
“There’s a great deal of bullshit that people think about when they make music, things that don’t matter,” he toldRolling Stone in a 2014 interview. “Transcendental Meditation kind of wipes that away, and helps you focus on the real job at hand, as opposed to thinking about what the management wants, or what the record company’s saying, or what somebody at a radio station might think.”
In a year in which Drake can dominate and still feel the need to put out more music, while someone like Lil Yachty can go from SoundCloud sensation to starring in a Sprite commercial with LeBron James in less than 12 months, meditation becomes all the more important — for both artists and fans. We may not be able to slow down the world around us, but we don’t always have to keep pace either. Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, and D’Angelo all take their sweet time with their craft, and in turn, we savor it (it helps that it’s really fucking tasty, of course).
With DJ Khaled encouraging us to exercise, Mick Jenkins wanting us to drink more water and Rick Ross promoting the weight loss benefits of pears, hip-hop is becoming a much healthier place these days. Just don’t forget to keep your mind in good shape, too.
By Andy James. You can follow him on Twitter.