When we are in the midst of genius, it is easy to assume that it will always be. With the benefit of hindsight, we can recognize and appreciate genius more fully. This piece is a small appreciative ode to the transcendental genius of Eric B & Rakim as well as an exercise in considering their four albums as the four quarters of Hip Hop's Golden Era.
Hip Hop music is one component of a larger culture. Contemporary times blurs the lines between rappers and hip hop culture. What present-day society defines as rappers are evolutionary embodiments of the MC. The MC (yes, the longer term - Master of Ceremonies is applicable) is one of the four pillars of Hip Hop culture. The other pillars - the DJ, Graffiti, and B-Boying - are overlooked or forgotten by those who misperceive rappers as the sole manifestation of the culture.
The culture's origins begin to take root in the Bronx during the early 1970s. The culture would become an ever-growing subculture within the larger African American culture. This growing subculture has phases or eras. For the sake of brevity, those early eras can be succinctly viewed as:
The Beginnings (early 70s to late 70s)
The New School (early 80s to mid 80s)
The Golden Age (late 80s to early 90s)
The other eras of Hip Hop are beyond this scope of this blog. It should be noted that each era has its share of preeminent artists from Cold Crush Brothers to Run DMC to Eric B & Rakim. Indeed there are other extraordinary artist in every era and the Golden Age offers a buffet of some of the best to ever do it, but this blog is going to focus on the four Eric B & Rakim albums and how they define the era.
1987 - Paid in Full
There was no announcement that proclaimed that the Golden Era has begun. As a fan, it seemed to sneak-up on me. I had memorized every line of Run DMC's Raising Hell and had begun imitating the bevy of steps and body movements (not sure if it could be called dancing) LL Cool J exhibited in his Bad video. Yet, it was while listening to the radio during the summer of 1987, that my life changed when I heard My Melody.
I didn't have the vocabulary then, but that thunderstruck feeling that overcame me was a paradigm shift in my life as a hip hop fan. The entire song is loaded with quotable lines, but as a twelve year old kid, I was pleasantly flabbergasted when I heard:
I'll take seven MCs and put 'em in a line,
And then add seven more brothers who think they can rhyme,
Well, it'll seven more before I go for mine,
Now that's twenty-one MCs ate up at the same time.
Those were the most phenomenal bars I had ever heard. Prior to that, the last time I was stopped in my tracks over some lines I instantly pictured was when I was five-years-old and Big Bank Hank (courtesy of Grandmaster Caz) said:
I'm Big Bank Hank
I was transfixed. I was thinking this dude can be all over the place at one time, wow!
But when Rakim spit those "seven MCs" lines, I was trying to calculate it for accuracy. So I pictured it:
Seven more dudes (and maybe perhaps some female MCs).
Then seven more dudes.
Then Rakim, the twenty second mc in a long line of rhyme-spitters.
The fans are tired because they would have been listening to rhymes for a long time. Some of their friends may have spit, some MCs may have said something witty. Surely, a handful of those mcs were sub-par to terrible. Then this reserved dude with a mellow voice steps to the mic and annihilates every MC that went before him. Like Chris Tucker and Ice Cube in Friday, all of us were like DDDAAAMMMNNN!
And that was just the first single.
At the time, I didn't know whether this dude would be an anomaly but I do recall the breathless anticipation of wanting to hear My Melody again. In fact, I was much like the introduction to an early Wu-Tang track, I needed to hear that joint "again and again!!"
Shortly after seeing the I Ain't No Joke video for the first time, I headed to record store to purchase the
album. Imagine wine connoisseurs when they behold a precious bottle of aged wine, that was how I beheld the Paid In Full album. Professional's Record Shop was on the corner of Seven Mile and Fielding, a two block walk straight down the street from my childhood home. During the walk home, I couldn't leave the album in the bag, I had to study the picture and read the back cover.
The Dapper Dan Gucci jackets and the backdrop of money, while consuming a large ratio of the cover, didn't command my attention. It was the look in their eyes. These dudes looked to be for real, not some caricatures who riddle; but legitimate if-were-playing-pick-up-rapping-I-would-pick-them-for-my-team-first personas.
Then I listened to the album.
Let me share this, I have a pretty awesome music collection. Yet, Paid In Full is the only recording where I have the record, cassette, cd, and digital download.
As I progressed through adolescence, Big Daddy Kane would be the entertainer-role model I would attempt to emulate the most and KRS-One held tremendous influence in my comprehending the value of teachers; yet, in spite my tremendous love and enthusiasm for Big Daddy and KRS-One as rhymers, Rakim is the greatest MC to ever pic up a mic. As a genuine Hip Hop fan, I do not share that pronouncement as fluff, a throw-in comment, or something borne of hyperbole. Nah, no way. Rakim is indeed THAT DUDE. He is the best rapper of all-time.
Although Jay-Z boosts of being the god-MC (and as a rhymer, Jay is certainly top-shelf), only the ultimate MC could start a rhyme like this (listen & read along):
Knowledge will begin until I finish this song,
'Cus the rhyme gets rougher as the rhyme goes on,
You sweat as you step about to get hype,
Or should you just listen to the man on the mic.
You're physically in this with me but how could you tell,
If it's meant to be hip-hop if you're not mentally as well,
Ready to absorb the rhyme that I just poured,
Into the mic and so unite and this won't be so bored
Consider that those bars are from one of the lesser-known tracks on the album, which implies that the other tracks are absolute fire. Since we're considering this album the first quarter, obviously the Golden Age is off to a magnificent start.
Check back for the second quarter - Follow The Leader.