During what’s often referred to as the “golden age of hip-hop” in the late ’80s, musicians reshaped the genre through boundless innovation and invention. What was seen as fringe at best became a global musical phenomenon, with artists like Ultramagnetic MCs, A Tribe Called Quest and Run-D.M.C. becoming heralds of a new musical frontier. The stories being told were raw and unvarnished, a truth conveyed through street experience and struggle. There was a prominent communal ideology threaded throughout hip-hop, and the last years of the ’80s found it to be especially inclusive. There was an open-endedness to the music that made it thoroughly fascinating and responsive to outside influence and inspiration.
New York was a particular hotbed of hip-hop activity in those years, with bands such as Public Enemy and EPMD finding success alongside a handful of other local outfits. But first among those musicians making a great noise in New York were Eric B. & Rakim, an MC/DJ outfit that is often discussed in terms of their colossal influence. Their work is routinely brought up when the best hip-hop releases are mentioned, and the way they fused sample-based production with deeper pop mechanics led to their music being a blueprint for many of our current rap associations. With Eric B. handling the turntables and Rakim in charge of imaginative rhymes, the duo brought about a revolution within the still-growing hip-hop movement.
Born and raised in the Elmhurst section of Queens, New York, Eric Barrier was instinctively drawn to music throughout his formative years and worked his way through trumpet and drums in high school. He eventually began experimenting with turntables before he graduated. He christened himself “Eric B.” and started work as a disc jockey at WBLS in New York City. Through various events and personal connections, he wound up meeting Queens-based promoter Alvin Toney, who discovered that Barrier was looking for an MC to pair with and suggested that he meet with Freddie Foxxx, a Long Island rapper. But when they went to see him, Foxxx wasn’t home, and Toney gave another name as an alternate: William Griffin.
Griffin began his work as a lyricist in Wyandanch, New York, where he eventually took the name of “Rakim” because of a conversion as a member of the Nation of Gods and Earth, an offshoot group of the Nation of Islam. After they were first introduced, Eric B. borrowed records from Rakim’s brother (who worked at a pressing plant that specialized in bootleg copies) and started to splice them together to make music. After spending some time together, they officially decided to record as a duo and came under the direction of DJ/producer/rapper/label founder Marley Marl.
Their first single, “Eric B. Is President,” was released in 1986. Built around the bass line of Fonda Rae’s “Over Like a Fat Rat,” the song also samples James Brown, The Honey Drippers, Mountain and The Mohawks.
After Def Jam Recordings founder Russell Simmons heard the single, the duo was signed to 4th & B’way (a subsidiary of Island Records) and immediately began to work on their debut record at Manhattan’s Power Play Studios at the beginning of 1987. Eric B. would create the music and then play it for Rakim, who would write the lyrics in about an hour while listening. “Paid in Full” was completed in a single week; they revealed later that they worked in 24-hour shifts and favored single-take recordings so that they could come in under budget.
Released on July 7, 1987, “Paid in Full” was immediately recognized as something different, something almost alien in its construction. The histories of jazz and freeform poetry could be found threading their way through each song, a testament to Eric B. & Rakim’s eclectic influences. The art of turntablism came to fruition here, with Eric B. proving once and for all that the turntable was just as versatile and necessary to the evolution of modern music as the guitar. Samples abounded, and artists such as The Soul Searchers, Barry White, Bobby Byrd and AC/DC were all prime real estate for molding and shaping this particular vein of hip-hop.
Rakim’s delivery is also of note, as it is far more relaxed and stoic than many of his late ’80s rap peers. It allows the listener to focus in on the internal rhyme schemes of each line, an aspect that he derived from the complex movements of jazz. Cheap rhyming and lazy couplets are nowhere in sight as he emphasizes the importance of how to deliver each word just as much as the inherent themes of the lyrics themselves. Bringing all six-plus minutes of “Eric B. Is President” along for the ride, they crafted the album loosely and without permanent foundation (giving it a sound unlike anything of its time)—they would even admit later that they felt they had rushed its release a bit.
Other tracks such as “I Ain’t No Joke” and “I Know You Got Soul” would go on to become hip-hop juggernauts, leading the genre in directions no one could have predicted. Gone were the pages of lyrics, and in their place was an especially verdant musical environment, a place where the experiences of these two men could wind around each other to produce a new and refreshingly unique sound. Hip-hop was growing and still adjusting to its surroundings when “Paid in Full” was released, but it soon gained a clarity of purpose. And Erik B. & Rakim had a large role in that realization. This album wasn’t just prescient; it was downright futurist, exploring the potential of the genre before some even knew what they were doing.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.