Eric B. & Rakim circa 1990 Photo by Waring Abbott/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Hip Hop fans young and old undoubtedly (or should have) rejoiced over the news that Eric B. and Rakim have patched up their differences ahead of a 2017 tour. The celebrated 1980s duo ushered in a new sound that cemented them in the annals of history long ago and much of their music still retains its timeless mystique.
No other rapper has had the impact on Hip Hop lyricism to the level of Rakim Allah, although some could argue that KRS-One and even Kool Keith are equal vanguards of modern rhyming. For every MC that’s considered great at their craft, Rakim is owed a great debt despite one’s personal preference. Approaching the 30th year of their 1987 debut album, Paid in Full, Eric B. and Rakim’s reemergence does ring of an easy cash-in for nostalgia’s sake but also feels like a genuine attempt to bring to the masses a style that has slowly become forgotten.
Pick A Can, Man!: Rakim’s bars are even being immortalized on the commercial front. Just ask Sprite.
The MC/DJ concept worked tremendously for acts like Will Smith, the former Fresh Prince, and DJ Jazzy Jeff, and most especially in the case of Gang Starr featuring the late Guru and DJ Premier backing him. However, most would point to Eric B. and Rakim’s union as Hip Hop’s most influential in that regard.
In 1986, a young and hungry KRS was engaged in a rhyme war with Queens veteran MC Shan (and still is). His hard-hitting diss track “The Bridge Is Over,” which was a sharp contrast to the smoother and less-direct debut single from Eric B. and Rakim, “Eric B. Is President.” Rakim’s monotone delivery and on-time flow turned heads immediately, naturally pitting him against other top rhymers of the day like Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap, LL Cool J and countless others.
Paid in Full was a revelation for listeners. From the horn-laced single “I Ain’t No Joke” to the James Brown-sampling “I Know You Got Soul,” Rakim established himself as a rapper to respect and revere. Yet it was the esoteric title track of their debut that became the duo’s most recognized hit and spawned a series of remixes that still get spins today.
1988 proved to be when Rakim decided he no longer wanted cult star status and instead dug deep into his rhyme book with the sophomore Follow the Leader album. It was a lyrical clinic, with each song seemingly eclipsing the other as the record went on. The big single from the album, “Microphone Fiend,” has been sampled and emulated even recently with the powerhouse rap quarter Slaughterhouse rhyming over DJ Premier’s “Microphone Preem” which appeared on Royce Da 5’9’s collaborative project with the producer.
NEW YORCK 1987: Eric B. & Rakim pose for a portrait session in 1987 in NY. Photo by Waring Abbott/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Rakim’s star grew somewhat in 1990 with the duo’s third LP, Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em, but on a slightly smaller degree. By then, Hip-Hop had begun to shift to Afrocentric vibes and advanced production techniques began to emerge. Rakim was still firmly in that mix, and his straightforward verses remained focused as ever.
In 1992, the duo released their final album, Don’t Sweat the Technique, but by then Rakim’s luster began to fade with corny attempts at radio play with the “What’s on Your Mind” single and a shifting marketplace. Their last true gasp, “Know the Ledge” from the Juice film soundtrack, signaled the end. The group would part ways and Rakim became a living relic of times past.
Rakim’s return to music in 1997 with The 18th Letter was a solid if uneven effort from the God MC. Gone was the effortless flow but the potency of bars and the distinctive voice remained intact. But it was a reminder that a glossier product was expected in the late 1990s and Rakim wasn’t cut from that cloth. Still, his influence was dominant as ever and he continued to release music even as fans largely ignored one of Hip Hop’s top influences.
Today, rappers like Joey BadA$$ and others who have mostly embraced boom-bap Hip Hop are the spawns of Rakim’s focus on lyrics. And again, much of Rakim’s relevance exists among much older and far more patient listeners who can appreciate a writer’s pen versus a trap beat du jour and catchy hook extravaganza. It is true that trap dominates much of today’s scene and the notables are gone and forgotten within a span of months. The grizzled veteran has also served as an inspiration to formidable acts like DMX, Snoop Dogg, Nas, Scarface, Game and A$AP Rocky, a cultural beacon in his own right, is actually named after the MC.
Old School Respect: Artists like Snoop Dogg have given their younger audiences doses of Eric B. & Rakim’s greatness over the years.
But without Rakim, the industry today would not have had the blueprint for grooming the modern rap superstar.
Rakim is a long way from his days in Wyandanch, Long Island. While it remains to be seen if he and his Queens cohort Eric B. will be able to recreate the magic of their past, the impact they’ve had on Hip Hop grants them a lifetime pass to take us in any direction those leaders would demand us to follow.