To tell you the truth James Brown was old
'Til Eric and Rakim came out with 'I Know You Got Soul'
– Stetsasonic, "Talkin' All That Jazz".
By the early 1980s it seemed as if rap music had run its course. Many pundits had dismissed hip hop as a passing fad as b-boy crossover hits like Run DMC, Blondie's "Rapture" or The Clash's "Magnificent Seven" seemed to take more from hip hop than they put back in. Enter Eric B and Rakim.
A gifted trumpeter and guitarist, Eric Barrier began DJing in the early 80s, and by 1985 had garnered enough skillz to land a spot in the coveted WBLS-FM roadshow. After a few months of airplay, Eric B was introduced to up and coming MC Rakim (nee William Griffin, Jr.). Both had similar backgrounds - they had spent their formative years around Manhattan (Elmhurst, Queens and Wyandanch, Long Island respectively).
Rakim had grown up surrounded by musicians; his aunt was R&B
luminary Ruth Brown. Inspired more by the flow of lyrics and vocal phrasing than the street, Rakim carefully crafted his rhymes. Rakim never battled nor was much of a freestyler. Instead, he rocked the crowd on the strength of his lyrical acuity. Rakim set the precedent; where previously rap was dominated by the DJ, the MC now stepped forward. Rakim often managed to avoid hip hop's gangsta lean through parodic excess, employing the rap rhetoric as metaphor. Thus, the microphone becomes "a magnum murdering MCs", lyrics are "ammo", the tongue is "a trigger", and the music is the narcotic: "If ya need another hit from the freestyle fanatic/Attention: follow directions real close/Keep out of reach of children/Beware of overdose"
In 1986, against the backdrop of year 6 of Reaganomics, Eric B and Rakim cut their first track "Eric B is President". Although not a massive pop success, it established the duo's credibility for their forthcoming albums Paid in Full (1987) and Follow the Leader (1988). These two albums set the standard for future hip hop releases - from Eric B's prolific and inventive use of James Brown to Rakim's ubiquitously sampled phrase "pump up the volume". The rare funk samples and jazz textures of single "I Know You Got Soul"(1987) sent the next generation of hip hop producers digging the crates for the perfect beat. Indeed, little known English duo Coldcut changed the nature of remixing with their cut of title track Paid in Full, and in the process made a name for themselves as hip hop producers.
Eric B and Rakim released two more albums in the early 1990s, Let The Rhythm Hit 'Em (1990) and Don't Sweat the Technique (1992) but failed to live up to their previous standards. In 1992, after an ignominous contract dispute, it all fell apart. Eric B and Rakim have never recorded together since, and are pursuing solo careers.