"It takes me awhile to write lyrics cause I make sure I do it correctly."
Eric B. & Rakim emerged into Hip-Hop's mid-1980s rise as a uniquely revolutionary force. The duo of Eric Barrier and Rakim Allah (born William Griffin) would famously recalibrate the sound and approach of Hip-Hop with their uber-classic debut Paid In Full. After the album's release in the summer of 1987, Rakim gave an interview with SPIN that was as close as the mysterious new rhymer from Long Island would typically get to in-depth with media; he offered a breakdown of his unique and instantly-groundbreaking approach to the art of rhyme-writing.
"What I do, I like to have the track first, the music," the young rapper continued. "So I come downstairs where my equipment is, I sit down, turn all the lights off, and I get this one spotlight that I put on the paper. So that's where I concentrate. Ain't nothin' else goin' on but the paper. Then I just turn the music on for a while, listen to it, get into it, and that's where I get the style from."
The skilled rapper and his turntablist partner came together, as so many potent combinations do, almost via happenstance. Eric B. was making a name for himself as a radio DJ and making a major name for himself on Long Island. But he wanted to pair up with a charismatic emcee, and it was likely going to be a hungry young rhymer named Freddie Foxxx.
"I started working for WBLS, for the radio station," Eric B. told UNKUT. "I got my first street team and the first mobile DJ to go out and play at different events for the radio station. That’s how I really got started, professionally. I used to do the same thing and be around the way in the parks and they’d let me play music, but when I really took the show on the road was when I worked for the radio station and started playing playing in different cities and different neighborhoods. That’s how I met Rakim – playing in Long Island."
When Foxxx didn't show up for his meeting with Eric B., the DJ was forced to look for an alternative. That's when recommended a young rapper with a distinctly slow flow. Rakim had been into jazz as a youngster, and found himself drawn to Islam as a teen. He soon converted and joined the Nation of Gods and Earths; around the same time, he won a freestyle rap competition at his high school. Soon, his love of jazz musicians like Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon and John Coltrane found its way into his approach to writing rhymes. But rapping was of secondary interest to the teenager from Wyandanch.
Until he met this big guy who was apparently an important DJ.
"This is at the point where I was about to go to college," Rakim recalled to COMPLEX in 2013. "This cat on my football team...brought Eric B. to the crib. They was like, 'Yo, this is Eric B. He's looking for an emcee.' You know, me being an arrogant dude, I'm sitting there looking at Eric B. like, 'Yo Al man, I'm about to go to college and play ball. Why you bringing this dude over? I told you don't be bringing nobody to the crib, man.'"
They was like, 'Yo, this is Eric B. He's looking for an emcee.' You know, me being an arrogant dude, I'm sitting there looking at Eric B. like, 'Yo, I'm about to go to college and play ball. Why you bringing this dude over? I told you don't be bringing nobody to the crib, man...'"
- Rakim recalling his first meeting with Eric B. (COMPLEX, 2013)
Eric B. and Rakim united immediately and set to work on recording a demo with famed producer Marley Marl. As most rappers at the time were known for aggressive, boisterous deliveries, Marley famously hated Rakim's slow-as-molasses flow. After some convincing, Marley and Rakim recorded "My Melody" in Marley's Queensbridge studio in mid-1986. Eric delivered the song "Over Like A Fat Rat" by Fonda Rea, and the song's bassline became the foundation for the second Eric B. & Rakim recording: "Eric B. Is President."
"In the beginning there was no, I guess, expectations," Rakim would share to The Believer. "We didn’t know we was gonna make records. We was optimistic, but nothin’ was on the line. And we developed a cool relationship. I trusted him as far as the business deals went. If he said, “Yo, Ra, we should go with Cara Lewis, or we should go check out so-and-so,” I trusted his word. All I wanted to do was write rhymes. I didn’t care about meetings. I didn’t care about interviews. I just wanted to be in the studio. Eric handled the business. On tour—that’s when you really bond with somebody—it was us against the world. We became family."
The late 1986 release of "My Melody/Eric B. Is President" announced Eric B. & Rakim as a force, and they soon signed with 4th & Broadway and set to work their debut album. Their second single, "I Ain't No Joke," would drop in early 1987, and it served as the first music video from Eric B. & Rakim. The visual is an announcement; as graffiti artwork prominently featured in the clip proudly proclaims the emergence of rap's new wave; positioning Eric B. & Rakim as the leaders of the pack. Despite his group having released their debut just months prior to Paid In Full, the high-profile cameo from Public Enemy's Flavor Flav serves as the legendary hypeman's first-ever appearance in a music video.
I just wanted to be in the studio. Eric handled the business. On tour—that’s when you really bond with somebody—it was us against the world. We became family."
- Rakim (THE BELIEVER interview, 2020)
When Paid In Full was released in 1987, it made Eric B. & Rakim the hottest new stars in rap. Critics and fans were drawn to the hard funk samples and bombastic production, with Rakim's lyricism drawing considerable attention. The emcee was a new, cerebral kind of rhymer; his Five Percent teachings flavoring almost every verse; and his meticulous approach to rhyme writing belying just how much his religious faith was informing his words on the microphone.
"I used to go church and all that shit, man," Ra explained to SPIN in 1987. "I went to this church in Brooklyn. I forget what street it was on. I didn't even know what the fuck I was doing in there. I went to a few churches out here on the island, and you can just sit there, man, and just watch 'em. That shit ain't real, man. It's like, fake, if you ask me. Cause I used to sit there and see pictures of white Jesus, things like that, and I was like this ain't for me. Word up. I'm not prejudiced, but I had to do somethin' for me."
His conversion as a teen happened just before he dropped his first album, and it courses through the spirit of Paid In Full. The album is a benchmark for rap album making; with so many songs that have been burned into the collective consciousness of a culture. "I Know You Got Soul" kickstarted Hip-Hop's soon-to-be obsession with sampling James Brown.
Their infectious sampling and Ra's ice-cold rhymes propelled the duo to international stardom. After Paid In Full was released, the duo set on a promo run in the United Kingdom and across northern Europe.
"We played everything from Wembley to everything else," Eric B. would recall years later. "All the big European shows…we did Top of the Pops and everything. It was pretty funny, we took the concord over, played Top of the Pops and come back out the airport and all these older people – they’re sixty, seventy years old [puts on old lady voice] ‘Hey! I seen you on Top of The Pops last night!’ We’re lookin’ at them like, ‘What? ‘Top of the..?’ We’re from the United States, we’re stupid, we don’t know nothing about Top of the Pops. We figure it’s a regular video show that they put rappers on from all over. We didn’t know it was a real television show that people watch and everybody performs on! It never dawned on us Top of the Pops was a big show."
We played everything from Wembley [Stadium] to everything else. All the big European shows…we did TOP OF THE POPS and everything."
- Eric B. (UNKUT, 2019)
The impact of Rakim is seismic and on the very first album from Eric B. & Rakim makes it clear that nothing would ever be the same, as far as emceeing was concerned. Jimi Hendrix dropped like a musical meteor in 1967, and Rakim's impact is comparable. Jimi pushed the possibilities of rock guitar into another stratosphere, a higher plane; Rakim ignited a shift in rapping that expanded the creative voice of rapper's everywhere. They both represent a line in the sand; there's a clear "before" and "after" in the respective histories of the genres they affected that begins and ends with their innovations.
If Rakim's legacy is akin to Hendrix, it's not hard to fashion Eric B. a sort of underrated element akin to The Experience or Band of Gypsys. Eric B.'s choices in samples like "Over Like A Fat Rat" and "Pass The Peas" almost single-handedly shifted mid-1980s rap production away from the skeletal boom-bap of Raising Hell and Criminal Minded towards the James Brown and hard funk fixation that would become trendy as the decade wound to a close. Eric B.'s shrewd ear and deft scratching are as regularly overshadowed as Mitch Mitchell's frenetic drumming or Billy Cox's soulful groove.
There was a time when Eric B. was ambivalent about his legacy, as it pertained to recognition.
"I didn’t get in this business to get a bunch of accolades; I got into this business to make money and get out of the streets," Eric B. told HipHopDX back in 2010. "It’s a road: either you go left and you hustle and do stick-ups, or you go right and you make music. For me, it was never was about somebody recognizing me and what I’ve done and what I’ve accomplished. It’s great. It’s a great thing, but for me, I can take it or leave it."
Obviously, Paid In Full is only the beginning of the story for Eric B. & Rakim. They would go on to make history as one of the most acclaimed duos in rap; before dissolving acrimoniously in 1992. Since then, there have been solo projects, some reunions and a few resentments, but this explosive first act is always worth celebrating for how much it resonated then and for how much it endures now. It's an album that is beyond classic; a landmark debut in music. And the arrival of Rakim means to emceeing what the emergence of Jimi Hendrix means to rock guitar: here is an artist expanding the vocabulary, scope and creative possibilities of the artform.
Revolutionary. From Day One.