“DIGGIN’ IN THE FILES: ERIC B & RAKIM” – BY BILL ADLER
This summer it will be 28 years since the release of Eric B & Rakim’s debut record, “Eric B. is President/ My Melody.” Cut for the Zakia label out of Harlem and quickly licensed and reissued by 4th & Broadway, it was, in Nelson George’s opinion, “as stunning a first statement as Run-DMC’s ‘It’s Like That/Sucker M.C.’s.’” The A-side’s sampling of James Brown’s “Funky President” (likely the first rap record of dozens and dozens to do so), combined with the mesmerizing lyrics and rapping of Rakim, constituted a one-two punch that knocked out all comers — including any number of music journalists, here and abroad. A year later, the duo released Paid In Full and their immortality was assured.
Somehow my files contain only one review of that first single. It must have generated a bunch of them – it peaked at number 48 on Billboard’s R&B charts in October of 1986 – but the only one that comes to hand was written by John Leland for the October 1986 issue of Spin.
Leland, a dear friend of yours truly and a staff writer at the New York Times since 2000, has gone on to enjoy a stellar career, although this is not an especially stellar effort. Apparently, he believed that Eric was both the deejay and the rapper; he did not mention Rakim.
It’s worth noting that John was much more on point just a half-a-year later, when his review of Public Enemy’s Yo! Bum Rush the Show – written for the Village Voice and bearing the headline, “Noise Annoys” – so pissed off Chuck D. that Public Enemy Number One wrote and recorded “Bring the Noise” in reply.
To be fair, I’m pretty sure that the headline might’ve been all that Chuck read of John’s review. A lover of punk rock as well as rap, John was applauding, not dissing, the annoying tone that opens “You’re Gonna Get Yours” — which PE meant to be annoying in the first place.
Like John Leland, Malu Halasa, an American based in London, wrote about music at the start of her career and has since moved on to other subjects, notably the culture, fashion, and politics of the Middle East. Writing here for England’s Record Mirror, she reviews Paid in Full just a month after its release, and quickly zeroes in on The R’s unique appeal: “Rakim, 18, is an honor student, clean, gifted and black, and he has an ill way, not with the ladies, but with the words.” In short, she dug what Ra valued most in himself — his righteousness.
The prolific and influential Mr. Nelson George was simultaneously working as the Black Music Editor for Billboard and as a columnist for the Village Voice when he wrote the review above. (This was all well before he wrote the script for “CB4,” co-wrote Russell Simmons’s “Life and Def,” co-produced VH1’s annual “Hip Hop Honors” show, and executive produced HBO’s “American Gangster” series.) Here he focuses on the deadpan dopeness of Rakim’s voice, asserting that it qualified the rapper “to narrate the cassette versions” of seminal titles by ghetto novelists Donald Goines, Chester Himes, and Iceberg Slim.
The clipping above and the one following are both products of England’s frenetic music press. Although the English covered rap in detail from the very beginning, their passion jumped up a notch with the coming of Public Enemy and Eric B & Rakim, who share the cover of New Musical Express. The two acts were then performing throughout England and mainland Europe with LL Cool J on the “Def Jam ’87” tour. Reviewing Paid in Full in passing on his way to an interview with Eric B., writer Sean O’Hagan sees the album as a real breakthrough: “It pushes rap language into the realm of the relentless….the most experimental, subtle and sublime rap yet committed to vinyl.”
These days O’Hagan is a feature writer for the London Guardian who specializes in photography. Back then, he visited the Rush Artist Management offices in New York to talk to Eric. Afterwards, he took a gratuitous swipe at Eric’s publicist — yours truly — who he accuses of “interjecting when things tend towards the interesting.” You’ll pardon my defensiveness, but I must say that that doesn’t sound a bit like me. If anything, I tended to interject when things weren’t interesting enough.
As it happened, the interview was plenty interesting. Among the gems, Eric revealed that the inspiration for “Eric B. is President” was Janet Jackson’s “What Have You Done for Me Lately.”
“She was comin’ on like she’s a goddess from above,” Eric said. “Every time I heard it, I’d get real mad. ‘You thought I was a doughnut, you tried to glaze me’ kinda sums up that girl’s bad attitude.”
Eric also made a point he’s gone on to make repeatedly over the years; he – and not Marley Marl — was the producer of Eric and Ra’s music: “I did the music, all of it, and Rakim did the lyrics. Period.” The bluntness of this assertion inspired a nickel’s worth of psychoanalysis from Mr. O’Hagan – Eric’s desire to set the record straight was simply a mask for his insecurities. Uh, sure….
London’s Echoes also made cover boys of Eric & Ra. The amusing lead described the effect of Eric’s powerful handshake, which writer Nick Smash claimed left him “screaming in pain on the floor.”
Nick believed that “rap comes over best on tv,” citing in particular Eric & Ra’s recent appearance on “Top of the Pops,” the English version of “American Bandstand.” There was Rakim “just wandering onstage, throwing down the rhymes, and wandering off again, no bullshit, no stupid dance routines.”
In Nick’s interview with Rakim, the rapper boiled down his message to a single word: peace. “It’s like a state that you’re in — you’re dealing with heaven while you’re walking through hell,” he said. “It’s up to you to keep your head up.”
As for Mr. Smash, he ended up writing a very early book about rap, “Hip-Hop ’86-89,” which was published in England in 1990.
By the way, Eric & Ra’s English success was amplified at the time by the success of a remix of “Paid in Full” entitled “Seven Minutes of Madness,” which was produced by a pair of English producers named the Coldcut Crew. On a par with the ground-breaking and super-funky audio collages issued a couple of years earlier by Double D & Steinski, this remix sampled flavorful tidbits from the likes of Israel’s Ofra Haza and Humphrey Bogart. It was a Top 15 hit in England, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Australia, and Japan.
Editor’s Note: This is the seventh in a series of Bill’s “Diggin’ In The Files” posts on CrazyHood.com. For the uninformed, “Ill Badler” is the former director of publicity for Def Jam Recordings and Rush Artist Management, where he promoted the careers of hip-hop legends Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, LL Cool J, 3rd Bass, Slick Rick, and many others.
All images courtesy of Adler Hip-Hop Archive, with the exception of the photo at the top of the post, which is the cover of Paid In Full by Eric B & Rakim. Thanks for research assistance to Ben Ortiz of Cornell University’s Hip-Hop Collection.