Eric B. & Rakim - Biography
By Eric Brightwell
Listen to most hip-hop from its infancy and the most noticeable thing is how different it sounds from what dominates the radio today. Truly old school hip-hop usually took a simple disco sample and then tossed on some beat-bound, playground-silly rapping about parties – punctuated with liberal scatting that suggested the MC wasn’t particularly bothered with making a statement. Nothing wrong with that, mind you, but hip hop was, with a few notable exceptions, light fare. All that changed with the arrival of a scowling duo that, with their arrival on the scene, triggered a seismic shift that irrevocably changed the game.
Eric B (born Louis Eric Barrier in 1965) was born in Elmhurst, Queens. He began DJing in the early 1980s and was hired by New York radio station WBLS in 1985. From his position there he, launched a search for New York’s best MC. That year, at one of his gigs, he found him. Rakim Allah (born William Michael Griffin Jr.) was a 17-year-old member of the Nation of Gods and Earths (the 5 Percent Nation) and fresh out of high school with plans to go to college. In school, he’d developed his skills as Kid Wizard Rakim in The Love Brothers with DJ Maniac. Eric B was impressed with the Long Islander’s rap skills and the two teamed up as Eric B & Rakim. Eric B was an associate of the Juice Crew and tapped pioneering producer Marley Marl to produce their debut single, “Eric B Is President” which was released by Zakia Records in 1986.
On the track, Eric B & Rakim revealed their blueprint for hip hop’s future. Given first billing to acknowledge the DJ’s importance, Eric B incorporated extensive digital sampling; a then new innovation. The technique allowed him to create a dense collage of samples that expanded on the more straightforward, hardcore hip hop of Schoolly D, LL Cool J, BDP, Public Enemy and Run DMC. In doing so, he raised the bar for DJ artistry. Rakim’s lyrics mostly paid tribute to the duo’s skill, which was nothing revolutionary. However, Rakim’s delivery was revelatory. With a deep, detached calm and a velvet smooth voice; Rakim employed complicated internal rhymes and rhythms to jazzily flow in and out of the beat to an absolutely hypnotic effect.
In early 1987, Def Jam’s Russell Simmons heard the single and signed them to Island, of which Def Jam was part. They recorded their debut, Paid in Full (1987-4th & B’way) at Manhattan’s Power Play Studios in just one week. Its title and the cover image of the duo (clad in custom Gucci and weighed down by gold jewelry against a backdrop of money) make a pretty strong argument that materialism in rap is nothing new, despite what the self-appointed, revisionist, cultural watchdogs/hip hop historians would have us believe. Three of the ten tracks on the album are instrumentals, allowing Eric B. to show off his considerable skill. His DJing was complex, polyrhythmic and dense; with subtle noises buried deep in the mix that only reveal themselves with the aid of repeated listens and an attentive ear.
At least as amazing was Rakim’s assured performance. Supposedly, he took only an hour to compose the entire album’s lyrics which he then read from a sheet of paper in the studio. Whereas Rakim’s predecessors in hardcore hip-hop had stomped and shouted, Rakim navigated through the incredibly complex rapping every with a delivery that suggested that it was as effortless as breathing. Rakim’s arsenal of poetic techniques, including heavy use of internal rhymes, alliteration and assonance, has never been matched in terms of skill.
“I Ain’t No Joke,” with its horn fragments, deep bass and Rakim’s attitude still has the power to give goose bumps. “I Know You Got Soul” sampled Bobby Byrd’s “I Know You Got Soul” as well Funkadelic, the J.B.s, The Jackson 5, Cheryl Lynn, Jackie Robinson, Rufus, the Soul Searchers, Esther Williams and Brentford All-Stars to create something completely new. The title track, “Paid in Full,” proved extremely influential. The beat, taken from The Soul Searchers’ “Ashley’s Roachclip,” has been sampled literally thousands of times since, by everyone from Chapterhouse to P.M. Dawn to Milli Vanilli to Dr. Dre. The song was remixed by the British duo, Coldcut and went on to become one of the most remixed songs in history in addition to forming the core of “Pump up the Volume” by M/A/R/R/S (a one-off collaboration between A.R. Kane and Colourbox).
On the strength of their debut, the duo were signed to MCA in 1988. If Paid in Full re-invented hip-hop and raised the stakes, Follow the Leader (1988-Uni), amazingly, raised them further. Eric B. broadened his scope beyond the hard, spacious beats of their debut and created darker, cinematic environments for Rakim to occupy. Rakim’s imagery, fittingly, grew darker and more aggressive as well – vividly painting a bleak, crepuscular, urban landscape. The title track sounds like the soundtrack to a harrowing chase. In “Microphone Fiend,” Rakim compares his MC-ing to drug addiction. “Lyrics of Fury” is a four-minute head-rush which, as implied by the title, features an amped up delivery at odds with his normal repose. Eric B’s samples once again reveal and encyclopedic knowledge and willingness to experiment. Most are from funk and soul but, on “Musical Massacre,” even sampled themselves. Classic rock was up for grabs too with Eric B sampling Mountain and “Eric B. Never Scared,” The Eagles, using a sped up sample of their “Those Shoes” to create the chipmunk effect that Kanye West would later base his entire career on. “The R,” built on the piercing, sinewy, synth line from The Blackbyrds’ “Rock Creek Park” presaged G-Funk.
By the time of the release of Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em (1990-MCA), Eric B. & Rakim once again pursued a new direction. The results were jazzier – more organic sounding. Already extremely self-referential, with Rakim having frequently rapped about Rakim’s raps, Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em found them growing even more self-reflexive, with Eric B sampling previous Eric B & Rakim songs throughout. Rakim actually began to expand his topics on occasion. “In the Ghetto” finds him getting political and “Mahogany” does two things Rakim rarely does, tell a narrative and rap about women. Some of the tracks were produced by the influential Paul C, who, in 1989, was found, shot to death, at his home in Queens. The case was featured on America’s Most Wanted but remains unsolved, the primary suspects having been released due to lack of evidence. That same year, paired up with Jody Watley for her top-ten hit, “Friends,” one of the first rap-pop collabos, a practice that’s now as common as an old shoe.
Don’t Sweat the Technique (1992-MCA) featured Rakim’s most varied subject matter yet as well as his most unhinged performance. On the other hand, Eric B.’s DJing, for once, seemed content to take a back seat and didn’t really expand as he had in the past. Here there are no instrumentals and the show is clearly dominated by Rakim. The results, if admirably ambitious, are somewhat mixed. “Teach the Children,” features a children’s chorus and a saccharine message in much the same way that Nas’ heavy-handed “I Can” would years later. “Casualties of War” tells a tale of the elder Bush’s adventure in Iraq which finds the R speculating/prophesying about the possibility of suicide-bombers using planes to attack New York City in revenge. Several of the songs incorporate violent war imagery. While Follow the Leader was hardcore and dark, Rakim’s metaphors here would please Clive Barker. “Don’t Sweat the Technique” and “Know the Ledge” (featured in Juice) are highlights, but overall the album lacks the urgency of previous records and there was a sense that Eric B & Rakim’s relationship had run its course.
The album would prove to be their last as a duo. I later surfaced that both members had expressed, during its recording, the desire to do solo projects. Eric B. wouldn’t sign the release, however, afraid that Rakim would move on. The unfortunate court battle that followed effectively stalled the once-mighty artists’ careers. In 1995, Eric B. released Still Paid (95th Street Recordings) which showed his rap skills to be serviceable, in a sort of post-crossover LL Cool J sort of way. He then focused mostly on production. Most recently, he’s adopted a fake southern drawl and made Mannie Fresh-inspired beats in a not entirely bad (if completely inauthentic) effort to assert his continuing relevance in a Dirty South-obsessed hip hop world. In 2003, Eric B. alleged that he and Rakim were never paid in full by their former bosses and filed a lawsuit against Russell Simmons and Island/Def Jam.
Rakim, only 24 when he split with Eric B, has (in addition to his legal struggles with both MCA and Eric B) been sidelined by bad luck and a series of false starts. He first signed with Q=BOB Records which folded shortly thereafter. Finally, in 1997, he released The 18th Letter/The Book of Life (Universal) which found him supported by Eric B-inspired DJS like DJ Premier and Pete Rock. The disappointing The Master (Universal) followed two years later. The British music press – always eager to be down (yet forever ten years behind when it comes to hip hop) – were the only ones to praise it. In 2000 he was signed to Dr. Dre’s Aftermath label and made cameos on the label’s releases including Truth Hurts’ “Addictive” and the 8 Mile soundtrack. Always an unlikely paring, Rakim left in 2003, no doubt frustrated by Dre’s having sat on his next album, tentatively-titled Oh, My God. He next signed with DreamWorks, only to find them closing up shop soon afterward. Oh, My God, now with the working title, The Seventh Seal, has since been slated for release several times but remains unheard.
Meanwhile, even if neither half of Eric B & Rakim ever releases another note of music, they’ve already created the most innovative, influential body of work in hip hop history. Their impact is enormous. Without them, there would’ve been no Native Tongues Posse. Whereas those before had stuck to samples of disco, funk and rock, Eric B. brought in ingredients of Jazz, Soul, R&B, Country-Rock (and whatever else he felt like) to create chopped up hits constructed out of frequently unrecognizable beats and pieces. In doing so, they deserve most of the credit for ushering in what became known as the Golden Age of Hip Hop.