As has been stated ad infinitum for decades now, Eric B. & Rakim‘s debut album is one of the most influential and fully-developed debuts in music history. When a pioneering album becomes so highly-regarded, its tempting to reduce its legacy to simply one of historical importance–as opposed to one of enduring musical merit. But as a body of work, Paid In Full stands alongside Are You Experienced?, Appetite For Destruction and Illmatic as an earth-shattering opening salvo and a consistently brilliant listen in terms of sheer song-for-song quality. Its rare that a new act has such a strong command of its voice. Especially a new act comprised of two individuals who barely knew each other before they made a record.
A former DJ for WBLS in New York City, Eric Barrier had been looking for a rapper to partner with when he was introduced to 18-year old Rakim Allah in 1986. Meeting via Queens rap promoter Alvin Toney, the new acquaintances agreed to work together after Rakim played Eric a homemade demo for a song he’d done himself called “My Melody.” The track featured Rakim rapping for more than 30 minutes over a sparse beat, and Eric B. decided to whittle the song down to a more standard length. For help with crafting what would become Eric B. & Rakim’s first record, Eric tapped his roommate at the time: bubbling hip-hop producer Marley Marl. Marley was becoming a name with his fledgling Juice Crew, which included MC Shan, Roxanne Shante, and not-yet-famous names like Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap. Marl would reluctantly engineer the track, but because of the song’s somewhat complex origins, there’s some disagreement over who exactly produced “My Melody.”
“Rakim comes in, rhyming slow, he made ‘My Melody’ first,” Marley Marl recalled in a 2011 interview with Brooklyn Bodega’s Wes Jackson. “So collectively, we both had the ideas for the song but I physically put it together. For ‘Eric B. Is President’ and ‘My Melody.’ We made ‘Make the Music With Your Mouth,’ ‘Eric B Is President,’ ‘The Bridge’… I used to call it ‘the sound of the week,’ so I used to have the kick and snare in the sample. Whatever songs I was making that week had that kick and snare in it.”
That single would be released in late 1986 (backed with “Eric B. Is President”) and it set the stage for the emergence of Eric B. & Rakim as a formidable duo in hip-hop. Def Jam founder Russell Simmons lobbied to get the pair signed to Island Records subsidiary 4th & B’way, and Eric B. & Rakim began recording their debut album at Power Play Studios in Manhattan in early 1987.
Rakim’s rhymes weren’t the sort of straight-ahead declarations that had dominated post-Run-DMC hip-hop. And he wasn’t just concerned with microphone dominance–there was a consciousness to his approach. “I started studying in ’85 and got knowledge of self and started spitting,” Rakim told Halftime Online in 2006. “What was going on was taking the understanding of what I was reading and applying it with my life and applying it with my rhymes. Subconsciously, Islam took over me so it was like eighty or ninety percent of the fabric of the person I was.”
Along with the refurbished, Marley Marl-engineered “My Melody,” Eric B. & Rakim would polish off a startling 10 track album that pointed the direction for hip-hop’s future. Rakim’s flow is ice cold and unflinching on “My Melody,” a trait that led to early dismissals from Marley but would prove influential on the approach “serious” rappers would take soon thereafter.
But the album begins with one of the greatest opening tracks of all time. “I Ain’t No Joke” is an announcement of the boldest kind: “I used to let the mic smoke–now I slam it when I’m done and make sure it’s broke.” Rakim’s flow is purposeful and his rhymes are precise, and from the first 10 seconds of the first song on his first album, it’s obvious that he’s looking to establish his rhyme supremacy. Over the distinctive horns from the J.B.’s “Pass the Peas,” Rakim drops haymaker after haymaker, his nimble rhymes and effortless flow immediately confirming that times were about to change.
The DJ showcases “Eric B. Is On the Cut” and “Chinese Arithmetic” may not quite have the musicality of Jam-Master Jay’s best features or the innovation of soon-to-be-household name DJ Jazzy Jeff, but they reveal a competent and clever turntablist–particularly on the former. “…On the Cut” captures the energy of a live DJ performance in a way that escapes “…Arithmetic” which makes up for it’s lack of energy with some flashier scratching gimmicks.
“I Know You Got Soul” is one of the album’s most infectious tracks–and one of the most significant. It’s arguably the most danceable track the duo ever made, and the deft sample of the James Brown-produced 1971 Bobby Byrd hit of the same name would be another one of the Paid In Full songs to kickstart the flood of James Brown samples that would dominate East Coast hip-hop production for the next five years.
“Move the Crowd” is also built from a Brown-affiliated sample: the J.B.’s “Hot Pants Road” from 1970. The hit single features Rakim’s flow at it’s most methodical and calculated. On the surface, Ra’s rhymes are about keeping the party going, but references to Allah, knowledge of self and doctrine associated with the Five Percent Nation suggest a more spiritual connection to the art of rhyming and how it moves the crowd.
The title cut is one of the greatest hip-hop tracks ever recorded, endlessly quotable and carried by a beat so indelible it’s as close to a standard as any hip-hop song has ever gotten. “Thinking of a master plan,” is one of hip-hop’s most ubiquitous opening lines, as Rakim outlines the frustrations of a street kid who wants to see real money–but who also might have a way that doesn’t involve “all the devious things” he used to do. “I used to roll up/This is a hold up–ain’t nuthin’ funny/Stop smilin/Cuz still don’t nothin’ move but the money.” It’s such a gripping piece of music you have to remind yourself that this was a 19-year old rapping on his first album.
With it’s Barry White-quoting production, “As the Rhyme Goes On” may be a lesser-known cut when set against the uber-classics that make up Paid In Full but it’s remained one of Rakim’s most quoted tracks. In particular, Ra’s declaration that “I’m the R, the A, to the K-I-M. If I wasn’t, then why would I say I am?” has been interpolated and referenced countless times over the past 30 years.
The only opening salvo on the album that rivals “Thinking of a master plan” for sheer omnipresence is the classic “I came in the door, I said it before” that announces “Eric B. Is President.” One of the album’s most indelible songs, Rakim’s tribute to his turntable maestro would be revisited and reinterpreted for countless rappers over the years, but the distinctive groove was born of an idea that Ra himself couldn’t understand initially. It was Eric B. who decided to flip the bassline from Fonda Rae’s obscure disco hit “Over Like A Fat Rat.” And Rakim thought sampling the glossy dancefloor track was a terrible idea.
“I was like ‘There’s no way Fonda Rae is gonna go with James Brown ‘Funky President,'” Rakim recalled in an interview with HipHopDX back in 2016. “And I just laughed at [Eric] for about 30-to-40 minutes. Every time I looked at him I was making fun of the shit, looking at him, just laughing at him and shit. But we got to the studio, we made the beat, and at that time I was so used to sampling, and I just couldn’t see how he was gonna make that happen. But we flipped it up, and we sampled the drum and we just kinda sampled [a piece] of the drum. We played the joint over it instead of using the sampled record, and it worked out kinda crazy, man. I was surprised that it did work out like it did. So big up to E on that one. He got over. Word up.”
Decades later, the production on Paid In Full has been the subject of much debate. As might be expected given the “My Melody” controversy, no one seems to agree on exactly who did what.
“It’s so funny, that I look on the Internet and see Marley Marl [taking credit for producing ‘Eric B. Is President’],” Eric B. would state in a 2016 interview with Combat Jack. “He is totally right that he is the engineer who made the record.”
“I went to Marley’s house, ’cause he was the engineer […] I paid Marley to [engineer] because I didn’t know how to work the equipment, but I had the ideas. I knew exactly what I wanted done. I gave him the [sample] records, I said, ‘This is what I want done,’ and he said, ‘Yo, that’s a great idea.’”
In Brian Coleman’s Check the Technique, Rakim took more credit for the production on the duo’s earliest albums and bemoaned his naïveté in allowing production to be officially credited as by “Eric B. & Rakim.” “If we did ten tracks on the album, I did like seven of the beats myself. A lot of times they were just old park records. I had a record collection, I had turntables, I had all the breakbeats.”
Regardless of the album’s somewhat murky production history, the legacy of Paid In Full is impossible to overstate. In the most direct sense, it would become the prototypical East Coast hip-hop album; its stripped-but-sample-heavy production would inform soon-to-be-superproducers like DJ Premier and Pete Rock, and intricate rhyming would replace the declarative chants that had made Run, KRS-One and L.L. Cool J mid-80s standard bearers. Paid In Full‘s lineage can be traced through essential 90s records like Illmatic and Ready To Die, and the album’s attitude and ethos informs even much glossier 2000s fare like 50 Cent’s Get Rich Or Die Tryin.’
Eric B. & Rakim would expand on their bold debut with 1988s Follow the Leader, and would perfect their staunchly purist formula on 1990s Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em before parting ways following 1992s Don’t Sweat the Technique. Over the course of four albums, Rakim would elevate his art to higher heights (the rapper himself would later complain that he sounded too wooden on Paid In Full because he was literally reading his rhymes as he recorded); becoming more virtuosic (“Lyrics of Fury”), as well as expanding his repertoire as a storyteller (“Casualties of War”), social commentator (“In the Ghetto”) and romantic ladies’ man (“What’s On Your Mind?”).
But even in the context of the duo’s remarkable overall run, Paid In Full looms large. Rakim’s introducing of Five Percenter tenets in his lyrics would foreshadow the rise of more overtly-nationalist acts also informed by the Nation of Gods and Earths–like Brand Nubian and X-Clan in the early 1990s; and the duo’s steely “nobody’s smiling” image would replace the bombastic b-boys of the mid-1980s as mainstream rappers’ most definitive presentation. Virtually every song on the album features lines that have been absorbed into every hip-hop fan’s consciousness–even if they may be unaware of the source material. Everything from Master P’s “Ghetto D” to Eminem’s “The Way I Am” quotes from the album, the iconic cover–which features Eric and Ra clad in Dapper Dan’s distinctive custom Gucci suits–has seen innumerable tributes and parodies. 30 years later, it’s both a document of the times and a clear place marker in music history. Everyone should own this album; not simply because it set the stage for so much, but because you’d be hard-pressed to find an album that better exemplifies hip-hop at it’s most undiluted and unapologetic. This is the purest, most adjective-less hip-hop album ever made. It’s more than a blueprint. It’s a bible.