Saturday, May 26, 2012

May 26: EPMD, "Strictly Business"

Artist: EPMD
Album: Strictly Business
Year: 1988
Label: Priority

As is the case with every genre, during the early years of hip-hop, almost every sub-genre was founded in some manner, though some can be found in more subtle places.  Though there is no question where styles like "gangsta" and "jazz fusion" hip-hop came from, there were other artists that were making statements in other directions, and even in its earliest years, one can find an "underground" sound within the hip-hop community.  It was within this sub-culture that some of the finest records of the "Golden Age" of hip-hop emerged, and there were few artists that could hold their own when compared to the duo known as EMPD.  Comprised of emcees Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith, the pair are responsible for some of the most iconic songs in the entire history of the genre, and yet it is also their distinctive rapping style that would influence countless later performers.  Though there was never anything "shocking" about the sounds one could find on EPMD records, it was the way that the songs were constructed, along with the focused, straightforward vocal delivery from the pair that set them far apart from the songs of their peers.  Each of the studio releases from EPMD carries with it a great deal of power and presence, and yet one can easily argue that it was their 1988 debut, Strictly Business, that remains a landmark recording in hip-hop history, as it is filled with some of the most memorable songs and lines ever captured on tape.

Perhaps moreso than any other early hip-hop artist, the musical arrangements over which EPMD performed were some of the most perfectly balanced one can find.  While in many cases they seem to be a bit less aggressive, there is always a strong, driving force within the music, and that which one can experience on Strictly Business is unquestionably one of their finest.  Throughout the album, DJ K La Boss mixed together a number of iconic songs, working with everything from Eric Clapton's cover of "I Shot The Sheriff" to Kool And The Gang's, "Jungle Boogie" to Michael Jackson's "Thirller" to Stve Miller Band's "Take The Money And Run," the album is as unique as one can find anywhere, and the fact that Strictly Business is able to stand as so distinctive, whilst being comprised of such well-known songs is a testament to the talents of the entire musical and production team.  Furthermore, Strictly Business carries with it a far more inviting musical feel than most other hip-hop records at the time, and while this in no way diminishes the power of the album, the tone is clearly different.  The group compensates for this less aggressive approach by securing a firm, bouncing beat, and it was this element that engaged all of the fans of the more mainstream style of hip-hop at the time.  This is yet another balance that is carried out with absolute perfection, pushing Strictly Business to a status far beyond almost any other hip-hop recording in history.

However, there is no question that while the musical arrangements found throughout Strictly Business are now considered "classic," as the overall impact of EPMD lives within the vocal style and lyrical brilliance from Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith.  The instant that the rapping begins, it is clear that these two are taking a completely new approach, as there is a relaxed, almost mellow feel to their voices.  In many ways, this represents the most natural, unforced rhyming ever recorded, and this in itself is proof to the exceptional level of talent within both emcees.  Each line comes off as amazingly organic, and it is this almost "freestyle" sound that would influence the next generation of rappers.  Furthermore, it is the rhyming on the title track of Strictly Business that remains proof that it is unnecessary to get loud or wild to have impact, as the perhaps more thoughtful approach EPMD display throughout the track were able to appeal to a far wider audience.  This greater concentration on the actual lyrics across the album serve as a reminder that one need not use any sort of "abusive" or "foul" language to make a point or a "good" rhyme, and it is this approach that has in many ways become the foundation of the "underground" hip-hop style.  Yet these are not a passive set of lyrics, as the pair do their best to remind all other emcees that not only are they (Sermon and Smith) far superior in rapping skill, but they have all the other elements needed to be the best of the best in life in general.  This at its core is the essence of modern hip-hop, and there have been few other artists to strike this balance as perfectly as one can hear on EPMD's Strictly Business.

Though upon first release, Strictly Business was not widely regarded as anything overly spectacular, as the decades have passed, there are few records that have proven to be as timeless or widely influential.  From the musical arrangements to the rhyming techniques, the entire record shines from end to end, and it is almost impossible to cite all of the performers that have borrowed from this album.  Furthermore, the lyrical content in itself has become iconic, and countless emcees have taken parts of the rhymes for their own, referencing them in part or whole in later songs.  This in itself is the most undeniable testament to the impact that EPMD have had on the entire world of hip-hop music, and yet even more than two decades after its initial release, songs like "Strictly Business" retain their power within the current world of hip-hop.  Truth be told, the completely distinctive way that both Sermon and Smith rap can easily overpower the louder, and less intelligent emcees that currently dominate the hip-hop charts, and this is all the proof one needs that on many levels, content is far more important than volume or attitude.  Yet the smooth, unforced style with which they rhyme can still be heard within a number of today's most famous emcees, and there is no question that EPMD stand as one of the most iconic groups in hip-hop history.  While a number of their singles are deserving of the term "classic," there may be no better representation of everything that makes the music of EMPD so fantastic than what one can experience all across their phenomenal 1988 debut, Strictly Business.

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