Thursday, October 1, 2009

October 1: Eric B. and Rakim, "Paid In Full"

Artist: Eric B. and Rakim
Album: Paid In Full
Year: 1987
Label: 4th & Broadway/Island

Much in the manner that every rock singer needs a guitar player, every emcee needs a DJ. Though in more modern times, there are few emcee/DJ combination of note, during the "golden age" of hip hop music, nearly every emcee was heavily associated with their DJ of choice. Whether it was Public Enemy and Terminator X, KRS-ONE and Scott La Rock, or even DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince, the individuals were nearly inseparable. Yet even above all of these amazing pairings, perhaps the greatest emcee/DJ team was that of New York's own Eric B. and Rakim. Though they did not have as much commercial success as many of their peers, their impact on hip hop as a whole is undeniable, and the power of their recordings radiates to this day. Truly presenting a "no frills" approach, the duo perfectly personifies everything that was great about the "golden age" of hip hop. Combining the unmatched DJ and sampling skills of Eric B. with the hard hitting, almost jazz-like rhymes of Rakim, all four of their studio records are landmarks of hip hop music. Standing in strong contrast to the trend, it is in fact the debut album from Eric B. and Rakim, 1987's Paid In Full that stands as their most brilliant musical effort, and easily one of the most important and influential albums ever recorded.

Strangely enough, Eric B. and Rakim met when, in 1985, Rakim responded to a search by Eric B. for a rapper that could compliment his DJing style and skills. The two immediately hit it off, and two years later, the duo entered Power Play Studios after Russell Simmons heard the single they cut in Marley Maul's home studio. Recorded in just under a week, Paid In Full did not receive much radio airplay, though the album did spawn four singles. The single that got them signed, "Eric B. Is President" stands today as one of the most famous hip hop songs for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the songs' opening lines, "I came in the door, I said it before..." is by far one of the most heavily quoted rhymes of all time. Secondly, the track would begin the debate over sampling rights, as James Brown eventually sued the duo for their use of the song "Funky President" on the song. The song and album are quoted all over hip hop music, perhaps most bluntly on A Tribe Called Quest's "Steve Biko (Stir It Up)" when Phife Dawg rhymes, "...favorite jam back in the day was Eric B. For President..." The albums' second single, "I Ain't No Joke" is equally quotable, and is also one of the most aggressive songs the duo ever recorded. Rakim's vocals and rhymes are absolutely phenomenal, and the song exemplifies his unrivaled writing and rhyming skills.

By far one of the most talented and innovated DJ's in history, Eric B. remains in a class all of his own. Coming out of the early-school of needing to have a far reaching and thorough knowledge of all genres of music, the samples Eric B. spins throughout Paid In Full are truly phenomenal. Mixing in everything from Mountain to Little Richard to more standard funk songs from Funkadelic and The Jackson 5, Eric B. perfectly picks the best of the best for the backing of his songs. Overall presenting a darker, heavier mood than a majority of his peers, the backing music created by Eric B. helps to give the songs a more authentic, grittier, more "street" feel, and they help to perfectly compliment the rhymes of Rakim. Further setting himself apart from his contemporaries, Paid In Full features three instrumental tracks, something that is truly unheard of in modern hip hop. On these tracks, Eric B. is free to showcase his amazing DJing skills, and it is within these tracks that one can clearly hear early signs of his signature production sound that he would hone throughout the 1990's. However, though the instrumentals are extraordinary, Eric B. sounds best when his beats and music have the vocals of Rakim over top.

Rakim is easily one of the most distinctive emcees in hip hop history, and it is not only due to what he is saying, but moreso how he is rhyming. While the popular trend of the time (and it certainly remains to this day) was to deliver with loads of power and attitude, Rakim goes the opposite direction, rapping in a relaxed, clear manner. Rakim also pays little attention to the specific measures in the songs, and his almost free-verse approach to his rhymes gives a likeness to free jazz styles. This may be in some part due to the fact that Rakim did, in fact, play saxophone, and has many times mentioned his love for the sounds of John Coltrane. This relaxed delivery and unorthodox rhythmic sense in no way detracts from the strength of his lyrics. In fact, it is perhaps due to the fact that his vocals are so calm and uniquely delivered that they are even more powerful than those of most of his contemporaries. However, even if this is true, the fact of the matter is, Rakim's lyrics remain among the greatest ever written. The albums' title track is one of the many moments on Paid In Full when Rakim's lyrics truly shine. A quick hitting tale that denounces "street life" in favor of more creative endeavors, the song ranks among the greatest hip hop tracks ever made. Preferring content over volume, Rakim proved that you can yell all you want, but if you've got great things to say, you only need to talk in a normal, clear voice.

In many ways, one can argue that Paid In Full marked the beginning of modern hip hop, as Rakim's unorthodox rhythmic patterns opened the doors for everyone from Bone Thugs N Harmony to Busta Rhymes when it came to "how" one could rap. In fact, many will argue that it was due to the rhymes of Rakim that the East Coast became known as the stronghold for the best hip hop rhyme writers in the country. On the other side, Eric B. remains one of the most innovative DJ's in history, and his techniques have been copied by many of the greatest DJ's and producers of the past two decades. Furthermore, the title track on Paid In Full can be seen as the start of hip-hop's steady trend of lusting after and flaunting of material goods. Case in point, one can draw a clear line from "Paid In Full" to Puff Daddy's "It's All About The Benjamins" to B.G.'s "Bling Bling." Eminem even directly ripped a line from "As The Rhyme Goes On" when he rhymes, "...if I wasn't, then why would I say I am..." on his hit, "The Way I Am." Even with all of this impact, influencing nearly every hip hop performer who came after them, Eric B. and Rakim remained relatively small in the commercial sense. Though they may not have sold tons of records, the truth of the matter is, each of Eric B. and Rakim's four studio albums are nothing short of phenomenal, and it is almost impossible to picture modern hip hop without their presence. Easily their greatest moment, as well as one of the landmark albums in music history, Eric B. and Rakim's 1987 debut, Paid In Full remains relevant, influential, and absolutely phenomenal more than twenty years after its release.

Standout tracks: "I Ain't No Joke," "Paid In Full," and "Eric B. Is President."

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