Eric B. and Rakim
Eric B. and Rakim
With their debut single “Eric B. Is President”“/“My Melody,” Eric B. and Rakim introduced themselves as a tough, frosty rap act devoid of gimmickry and hype. DJ Eric Barrier laid down funky, soulful, and occasionally spacey sounds to support the supple, powerful rhymes of rapper Rakim. Nelson George of the Village Voice declared Rakim the “master rapper of 1987 (damn near ’86).” The duo followed these auspicious beginnings with a series of straightforward albums that largely ignored fashionable musical and cultural trends. Reflex magazine noted that such consistency “would translate into stylistic stagnation for anyone else. But hip-hop’s supreme poet was always years ahead of his time.” As Rakim himself told Rolling Stone, “We don’t change. We make changes.”
As the 1980s drew to a close and the 1990s brought an ever-widening mainstream audience to hip-hop music, rap began to separate into “schools”: the “gangsta” sound of N.W.A., Ice-T and the Geto Boys; the “Native Tongues” psychedelic funk-rap of De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest; the consciousness-raising of Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions; and, of course, the highly staged pop rap of Hammer and Kriss Kross. Eric B. and Rakim, however, remained true to their own unique sound, described by Rolling Stone’s Alan Light as “Rakim’s cool, menacing delivery of intricate rhymes over Eric’s subtly shifting beats.” The Voice’s George elaborated, revealing, “Rakim’s intonation itself conjures wintry images of cold-blooded killers, chilly ghetto streets and steely-eyed hustlers. There’s a knowing restraint in his voice that injects danger into even harmless phrases.” A series of successful albums solidified Eric B. and Rakim’s place at the top of their medium, despite a two-year hiatus between 1988 and 1990. With 1992’s Don’t Sweat the Technique, the pair showed no sign of slowing down. “The music Eric B. and Rakim make kicks because it sneaks into the ear like careless whispers before exploding on the brain like dynamite,” wrote Havelock Nelson in his Rolling Stone review of Sweat. “Eric B.’s tracks are mellow and mean, while Rakim’s lyrics are at once eloquent and threatening.”
Eric Barrier grew up in Queens, New York, while William Griffin, alter ego of Rakim, was raised in Wyandach, Long Island, New York. Eric told Melody Maker that he grew up loving the music of versatile composer Quincy Jones and the Beatles. “I always wanted to play music and be up on the stage,” he confessed. “I guess that’s every little kid’s fantasy, to be up on the stage with 20,000 people screaming. You see rock stars on television,
For the Record…
Members include Eric B . (born Eric Barrier in New York City, c. 1965), DJ; and Rakim (born William Griffin in New York City, c. 1968), rapper.
Recording and performing duo, 1986—. Released debut single “Eric B. Is President’’ “I My Melody,” 4th & B’Way Records, 1986; released album Paid in Full, 1987; signed with MCA Records, 1987, and released MCA debut Follow the Leader, 1988. Contributed to soundtracks of films House Party II and Juice. Eric B. founded Lynn Star-Productions and Mega Starr Management companies, 1990.
Awards: Gold records for Paid in Full and Follow the Leader.
Addresses: Record company— MCA Records, 70 Universal Plaza, Universal City, CA 91608; 1755 Broadway, 8th Floor, New York, NY 10019.
like in the Beatles movies, and people screaming and ripping their clothes off and going crazy. That’s always your dream. That person onstage, you always see it as being you.” Griffin—who took the name Rakim when he became a Muslim—was only 18 when the duo hit the rap scene with “Eric B. Is President’“/”My Melody.” In 1987 the duo released their debut record, Paid in Full, on 4th & B’Way Records. Melody Maker’s David Stubbs called it “an alienating, enticing album, a reminder of the endless possible permutations for hip hop.” Village Voice contributor George reported, “Throughout Paid in Full there are moments when Rakim’s voice and words, complemented by Eric B.’s dictionary of James Brown beats, make mesmerizing hip hop.”
Indeed, Eric’s “sampling” of Brown, the undisputed “King of Soul,” helped begin one of rap’s sturdiest trends. The single “I Know You Got Soul” was a case in point and one of the reasons the album went gold. In 1992 Rolling Stone’s Nelson asserted that Rakim’s claims in the song “defined the essence of great hip-hop.” Fellow rappers Stetsasonic immortalized the duo and their contribution to the art form when they rhymed: “James Brown was old/Till Eric and Rak came out with ’I Got Soul.’” As Rakim insisted in a Rolling Stone interview, “I don’t think we were the first ones to use James Brown, but we were the first to use it right.” Eric pointed out to Melody Maker that unlike other rap acts, “people see our group as a unity. I’m more than just a DJ, just somebody putting on records. Maybe in other groups people don’t see the DJ as having any significance at all but, in our group, I’m more of a figure.” By way of illustration, he also revealed, “I always said to Rakim, the money should always be split 50-50. If we’re partners we’re partners and friends all the way through.”
Eric B. and Rakim scored again with their sophomore effort, Follow the Leader. Released in 1988 on MCA Records, this album went gold as well. Melody Maker dubbed it “seminal” and “superb.” Vince Aletti of the Village Voice observed, “Follow the Leader is powerful not just because Rakim’s boasting rocks so hard but because it’s so convincing. Fueled by a mixture of arrogance, anger, wit, and brilliance, he raps like a man on fire.” Aletti further noted that Eric provided “a sound that leads rap back into left field rather than further into the pop mainstream,” capturing “hiphop’s mood of apprehensive exhilaration, the excitement of peering over the edge of oblivion, the delusion of being totally in control.” Earlier in the year, however, control of Eric B. and Rakim as an act was disputed in court. According to Variety, Zakia Records and Profile Records both sued MCA, claiming to have signed prior agreements with the act. Zakia and Profile alleged that MCA had urged Eric B. and Rakim to breach their previous agreements. Nonetheless, the duo remained with MCA, leaving the battle to the label’s legal department.
The two years that elapsed before the release of their next album led many to believe that Eric B. and Rakim were history. Despite the recording lapse, the two were indeed busy; in 1989 they appeared on Jody Watley’s Top Ten single “Friends,” and January of 1990 saw Eric founding two companies dedicated to new talent, Lynn Starr Productions and Mega Starr Management. Still, the demand for innovation and constant need for visibility is particularly steep in hip hop, and many worried that the duo wouldn’t recover from such a long hiatus. It was even rumored that Rakim was in prison for selling cocaine. “There were a lot of setbacks,” the rapper told Rolling Stone’s Light. “My father passed, one of the kids who was helping us make the music passed, then there were a lot of problems at the studio.”
Finally, in 1990, Let the Rhythm Hit ’Em hit the stores. James Bernard of the Village Voice noted that the pair’s “vocal and instrumental nuances threaten to whiz past you, unless you drop everything to listen hard. Like [metal hitmakers] Metallica, the focus and fun are in the technical proficiency.” Mark Coleman’s Rolling Stone review insisted that the duo’s traditional approach was no “gold-chain throwback” but a way of “upholding the Seventies funk canon and advancing rap’s original verbal mandate.” Even so, Coleman admired the group’s versatility: “Masters of their appointed tasks, Rakim and DJ Eric B. are also formal innovators. They both can riff and improvise like jazzmen, spinning endless variations on basic themes and playing off each other’s moves with chilly intuition. The resulting music is as stark, complex and edgy as Rakim’s stone-cold stare on the album cover.” Let the Rhythm Hit ’Em concluded with the track “Set ’Em Straight,” on which Rakim explained that he was never imprisoned—but stated, “If I go to jail it won’t be for selling keys I It’ll be for murdering MC’s.” Rakim told Reflex that Rhythm “was too motherf—ing hard” for radio stations, and that the record label “was like, ‘Yo, your shit is slamming, but you don’t get radio.’” The rapper admitted that he toned down his material somewhat on the pair’s next album, though one listen put to rest any worry that he had streamlined his concerns.
When Rolling Stone contributor Nelson once called the group’s sound “cinematic,” he wasn’t kidding. Eric B. and Rakim sent MCA a seven-song tape while working on their next album, and the label selected “What’s On Your Mind” for the soundtrack of the film House Party II. Rakim was also approached by noted hip-hop producer Hank Shocklee and asked to contribute a song to the soundtrack of the film Juice. Shocklee told Pulse! he thought of Rakim as “one of those people who doesn’t like anything,” but in this instance the producer was pleasantly surprised. After viewing the film, Rakim wrote “Know the Ledge,” a tense, jazzy song about the perils of gang warfare. The tune became the Juice theme, and a video of Rakim and Eric performing it was interspersed with clips from the movie.
“Know the Ledge” also appeared on Eric B. and Rakim’s 1992 album Don’t Sweat the Technique. “The title track, like almost all of the other cuts on the album,” wrote Dimitri Ehrlich in Pulse!, “is steady, mid-tempo and extremely tasteful.” The record included the relentless boasting of “The Punisher” and an unorthodox take on U.S. military involvement in the Persian Gulf called “Casualties of War.” Sweat “activates the mind,” Nelson proclaimed, calling it “erotic, playful, violent, dramatic, funky, jazzy and definitely dope.”
Hip-hop may have changed since Eric B. and Rakim emerged in 1986, but the duo have stuck with their original vision. Even so, Eric’s inventive repertoire of sounds and Rakim’s thoughtful, ferociously versatile rhyming remain the standard against which most rap is measured. “We try to give people more than just rhymes, something they can take home and use for themselves in everyday life,” Rakim told Rolling Stone. For his part, Eric—normally the silent one—couldn’t help trumpeting the pair’s achievements in a Melody Maker interview: “People say we got a strong style, strong bass, strong vocal, strong feeling. Nobody can do what we do best, nobody can take our place. People already say our albums are legendary, they say our albums are like rap archives.”
“Eric. B. Is President”/“My Melody” (single), 4th & B’Way, 1986.
Paid in Full (includes “I Know You Got Soul”), 4th & B’Way, 1987.
Follow the Leader, MCA, 1988.
(Contributors) Jody Watley, “Friends,”Larger Than Life, MCA, 1989.
Let the Rhythm Hit’Em (includes “Set ’Em Straight”), MCA, 1990.
(Contributors) House Party II (soundtrack; “What’s on Your Mind”), MCA, 1992.
(Contributors) Juice (soundtrack; “Know the Ledge”), MCA, 1992.
Don’t Sweat the Technique (includes “What’s On Your Mind,” “Know the Ledge,” “The Punisher” and “Casualties of War”), MCA, 1992.
Melody Maker, September 12, 1987; June 25, 1988; July 30, 1988; August 6, 1988; August 11, 1990.
Pulse!, July 1992.
Reflex, October 1992.
Rolling Stone, August 23, 1990; October 18, 1990; July 9, 1992.
Variety, February 17, 1988.
Village Voice, August 25, 1987; July 26, 1988; October 16, 1990.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from MCA Records publicity material, 1992.
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