Eric B. & Rakim had bum-rushed Hip-Hop in late 1986 with a melody unlike anything heard before and ambitions on the rap game presidency. Their debut album PAID IN FULL immediately announced the DJ/MC pair as the gold standard for all such duos that followed; but fans wondered what they had in store when it was time to follow-up an immaculate first showing.
The success of Paid In Full didn't just confirm Eric B. & Rakim's reputation and critical standing, it set the stage for the duo to make the leap from small 4th & B'way label to MCA and its subsidiary Uni Records. Ra and Eric went into the studio to record their sophomore album at Power Play Records in New York City, and the larger budget and slicker recording digs would pay dividends on their new project. So would the contributions of Rakim's multi-instrumentalist brother, Stevie Griffin, who would contribute throughout what would become Follow The Leader.
The music of John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk were steady inspirations for Rakim's lyricism. And jazz would provide a touchstone for the spirit and approach Eric B. & Rakim took on the album.
"I’m from Queens, so I’m automatically a Louis Armstrong guy," Eric B. would tell Billboard in 2019. "And the way he played and the stuff he did was just groundbreaking. Cab Calloway was big for me, too. Actually, I lived down the block from Louis Armstrong in East Elmhurst, Queens. Our neighborhood was great. It was like watching dinosaurs walk among us. You’ll see Frankie Crocker, you’ll see Willie Mays and Muhammad Ali walking around. Thinking about it now, it’s just amazing to think these were the guys who were just the neighborhood cats. As kids, we’d play touch football with Muhammad Ali. Actually, the house where they firebombed Malcolm X was right by me. And Ali used to be at that house and we’d play over there all the time. That house still stands to this day. Tom Seaver lived near me as well, and he was one of the nicest guys you’d ever wanna meet. I remember his sister lived on Ditmars Blvd. at 94th Street. We used to go to that house every day and ring the doorbell just to see Tom Seaver."
Throughout their second album, Rakim's evolution as an emcee is evident. His Trane-like dexterity makes for expressively nimble rhymes, as he pushes past the measured lyricism of his debut to something more free-flowing and cerebral. And his commitment to his status as a master of his craft was evident, even at this relatively early point in his career. Throughout late 1987 and into 1988, a generation of emcees had emerged alongside Rakim, vying for crown as best in the game. Alongside the already established Bronx firebrand KRS-One, Brooklyn's Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap out of Queens had become breakout stars of Marley Marl's Juice Crew; and Long Island duo EPMD had broken big with early singles and their debut album Strictly Business. Some had commented that their style owed a lot to Rakim, and he was starting to notice his influence—and his competition.
On EPMD's "You're A Customer," Parrish Smith famously rapped "you smack me, and I'll smack you back," which led to widespread speculation amongst their Long Island base that the duo was responding to fellow L.I. product Rakim's famous line "You can get a smack for this," from Eric B. & Rakim's "I Ain't No Joke." Rakim responded with a line in his new song "Follow The Leader."
A brother said, 'Dig him?' I never dug him / He couldn’t follow the leader long enough, so I drug him / It’s a danger zone…"
“Being young and cocky, I used to look at [Erick Sermon] out the side-eye a lil’ bit," Rakim told The Juan Epstein Podcast in 2016. "Recently…a couple years ago, we sat down. I got the utmost respect for him. Just like EPMD; I got the utmost respect for ’em.”
But there were very real tensions in 1988.
“They caught me in [NYC club] The Building by myself, N.O.R.E., on the 40th floor," Erick Sermon would recall to DRINK CHAMPS decades after being confronted by Rakim at the popular nightspot about the alleged diss. "I’m lookin’ for E. I can’t find him nowhere in The Building," Smith added. "So I was like, ‘Yo, let me check in the spot where we never go.' They got all these wings; we don’t go in that wing—we keep it movin’.’ I walk past the door. I come in. And Erick and Rakim are like this: nose-to-nose.”
“Once I seen that scene, I already knew it was a situation,” PMD admitted in the interview.
The bad blood would eventually be squashed, but the album's title track echoes Ra's throwing down of the gauntlet to his contemporaries.
"We had a little problem, you know what I mean?" Ra said in 2013 without naming names. "And I kind of had to address it because my thing was, and still is, I don’t like to address a lot of things on record. I don’t even pay them no mind when I’m doing what I do. I don’t even like giving people the thought of day. But that there, there was a lot brewing and I just had to let them know, you know what I mean? We cool today, we’re really cooler now more than ever, man. I just did a show with them maybe a month ago and we kick it heavy now. That’s just that young testosterone—letting cats know: can’t nobody can see me! That’s how I felt. I felt, This is my style."
And Ra had reason to be cocky about his still-nascent legacy. On Follow The Leader, his lyricism becomes rooted in the famously laid-back baritone and verbal virtuosity on which he'd build his name. "Musical Massacre" and "Lyrics Of Fury" are tour-de-force performances that are both remarkably showy and effortlessly cool; "The R" highlights the musicality of his brother Stevie; with the 45 King riding shotgun on ghostproduction for two of the album's songs, including the classic title cut.
I lived down the block from Louis Armstrong in East Elmhurst, Queens. Our neighborhood was great."
- Eric B. (BILLBOARD, 2019)
"Rakim broke new ground," Eric B. would state in 2019. "But we’d talk about his next moves first and he’d say, ‘Eric, how do you think this sounds?’ And I just pushed him and told him, ‘Man, do what you wanna do.’ His rhyme skills and styles were above the rest of ’em. You gotta remember, everybody else was rhymin’ talking about 'hip to the hop' and all these ABC rhymes. That’s not in any way trying to downplay them, because they showed us the way to make money and be in rap music, all the guys that we followed. But we also set our own footsteps and put our own footprint on the music."
Released in late July 1988, Follow The Leader would hit No. 22 on the Billboard Albums chart, the highest album for Eric B. & Rakim, en route to achieving gold status by September of 1988. The album was hailed by fans and rap critics, even as many mainstream onlookers were focused on comparing to it's predecessor. Rolling Stone gave ...Leader three out of five stars, but acknowledged the artistry and evolution of Rakim, in particular.
"The album supports Rakim’s high view of himself and DJ Eric B. (né Eric Barrier)," Mark Coleman wrote in 1988. "Rakim, an uncommonly subtle rapper, is capable of a relentless barrage of caustic lines ('I sit back and observe the whole scene/Then nonchalantly tell you what it mean to me') and chilling imagery ('The stage is a cage/The mike is a third rail')."
They showed us the way to make money and be in rap music, all the guys that we followed. But we also set our own footsteps and put our own footprint on the music."
- Eric B.
That’s just that young testosterone. Letting cats know: can’t nobody can see me! That’s how I felt. I felt, This is MY style."
- Rakim, (COMPLEX, 2013)
It's no overstatement to say that 1988 is one of the best year's in the history of rap music. There was a plethora of classic albums hitting shelves that year, as Hip-Hop was beginning to explode both commercially and creatively. We know the litany of masterworks and landmarks released that year: The West Coast truly hitting the national stage with Too $hort going major and dropping Born To Mack, and N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton; topical albums like It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back by Public Enemy and B.D.P.'s By All Means Necessary. Big Daddy Kane debuting with Long Live The Kane; Slick Rick's Great Adventures.... Run-D.M.C. dropping the Tougher Than Leather album and movie, MC Lyte arriving with her first album, Lyte As A Rock. DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince's Grammy-winning He's The D.J., I'm The Rapper; and the Ultramags giving a Critical Beatdown, as the Jungle Brothers kickstart the Native Tongues movement with Straight Out the Jungle.
But even as Hip-Hop was morphing into various styles and subgenres, even as newer faces emerged in just the one year since they'd come in the door and said it before, Eric B. & Rakim's greatest strength was in their steadfast commitment to no-frills, no-bullshit Hip-Hop. On their sophomore album, Rakim Allah and Eric Barrier honed and perfected what they'd already seemingly mastered, and made it clear that their run wasn't anywhere stopping or slowing.
"After my first album, Follow the Leader kind of solidified that I was who I said I was, you know what I mean?" Rakim would tell Rob Marriott in 2013. "It was a good thing. I remember performing out at the Apollo before it came out. I’m pretty sure Jesse Jackson was there. It was like a big thing that they had. I just remember performing that—and usually we didn’t perform records that the people didn’t know—but I went on and performed that and I got a good response from it and it kind of let me know as well that I was taking off."
The 45 King produced the hit single "Microphone Fiend," originally intending to give the beat to Yo! MTV Raps host Fab 5 Freddy to use. It instead went to Eric B. & Rakim and became one of the duo's most beloved tracks. Over a sample of Average White Band's "Schoolboy Crush," Rakim cements his legend with a song that would become his unofficial theme song. Like the rest of Follow The Leader, it sounds so effortless, it's easy to overlook how masterful the craft is. But don't miss the genius at work here.
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