Sunday, November 30, 2008

Adventures In Rap #9: Eric B. & Rakim

Alright, who wants to join me in a game? Here's the game: name your top five favorite Eric B. & Rakim songs. "Eric B. and who" you say? You're not alone. And yet, apparently Eric B. and Rakim's standing in the rap world is high. Just listen to Steve Huey's introduction from the All Music Guide:
During rap's so-called golden age in the late '80s, Eric B. & Rakim were almost universally recognized as the premier DJ/MC team in all of hip-hop...Eric B. was a hugely influential DJ and beatmaker whose taste for hard-hitting James Brown samples touched off a stampede through the Godfather of Soul's back catalog that continues up to the present day. Rakim, meanwhile, still tops fan polls as the greatest MC of all time.
Well, how great could they be if nobody's ever heard of them? The answer: good enough to justify their reputation as hip-hop innovators, but not good enough to actually satisfy a listener in 2008. In other words, I'm glad they played their part, but personally I find Eric B. & Rakim more valuable as history than as music.

But let us give credit where credit is due. Now, if it were 1987 and I had just placed the needle onto the wax of Eric B. & Rakim's debut album Paid In Full, I would have probably said "damn that is good." Eric B. & Rakim's music would have struck me as more mellow and danceable than the dominant Run-D.M.C./LL Cool J rap/rock hybrid sound of the time. But given that it is actually 2008 and not 1987, and I have grown up in the post gansta funk era, I have to say that Paid In Full sounds like a great remix album - except it actually is the album. Hooks? Choruses? You won't find any of them here. Innovation alone does not make an album stand the test of time. There also has to be songcraft.

Take Rakim's much-vaunted rhyming skills, for example. Yes, his rhymes are smoother and more intricate than the rhymes of his predecessors. It's too bad Rakim only tackles one topic: his rhyming skills. A lot of casual observers like to criticize rap by saying that "All (insert random rapper here) ever does is talk about how cool he is." Often this is just an easy way for a lazy listener to disengage with the music. But in the case of Rakim, it is essentially true. Take this rapid-fire verse from 1988's "Follow The Leader" for instance:

A furified freestyle, lyrics of fury
My third eye makes me shine like jewelry
You're just a rent-a-rapper, your rhymes are minute-maid
I'll be here when it fade to watch you flip like a renegade
I can't wait to break and eliminate
On every traitor or snake - so stay awake
And follow and follow, because the tempo's a trail
The stage is a cage, the mic is a third rail
I'm Rakim, the fiend of a microphone
I'm not him, so leave my mic alone
Soon as the beat is felt, I'm ready to go
So fasten your seatbelt, cause I'm about to flow
No need to speed slow down to let the leader lead
Word to daddy, indeed!
The R's a rollin' stone, so I'm rollin'
Directions is told, then the rhymes are stolen
Stop buggin', a brother said, dig em, I never dug 'em
He couldn't follow the leader long enough so I drug 'em
Into danger zone, he should arrange his own
Face it, it's basic, erase it, change ya tone
There's one R in the alphabet
It's a one-letter word and it's about to get
More complex from one rhyme to the next
Eric B be easy on the flex
I've been from state to state, followers tailgate
Keep comin' but you came too late, but I'll wait
So back up, regroup, get a grip, come equipped
You're the next contestant - clap ya hands, you won a trip!
The price is right - don't make a deal too soon
How many notes could you name this tune?
Follow the leader is the title, theme, task
Now ya know, you don't have to ask
Rap is rhythm and poetry, cuts create sound effects
You might catch up if you follow the records E. wrecks
Until then keep eatin' and swallowin'
You better take a deep breath and keep followin'
The leader

This is the kind of verse that would have had aspiring rappers shaking their heads in unison in 1988, confessing to each other, "Now how the hell are we supposed to top that?" And yet...the song is about nothing! Just imagine if Rakim had actually applied his nimble linguistic talent to genuine subject matter. Sure, maybe if I were a DJ or a rapper, Eric. B. and Rakim would be my idols. But seeing as that I am neither of those things, I can't really enjoy Eric B. & Rakim as anything more than a (very impressive) historical curiosity.

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