Hard to credit now, but in 1986 hip hop was still widely regarded as something that we would soon grow out of. Run-DMC had recently crossed over to the mainstream and the Beastie Boys were making their own peculiar impact, but both these acts used gimmickry as leverage to pull in an audience beyond hip hop heads. The genre had failed to evolve artistically in the six years since its inception, even if commercially it was healthy. What was needed was an artist that could steer the ship towards deeper waters…
Enter two young New Yorkers called Eric B and Rakim with their first single, “Eric B Is President”. It was some introduction. Eric B was a DJ who approached his turntable with the curiosity of a jazz musician and who manipulated an other-worldly dub hop from it. But even more mind-boggling was the vocal style of his partner Rakim. “I never let the mic magnetise me no more,” was the second line he uttered, and his style was indeed masterful for an 18-year-old. His delivery was calm, his wordplay intricate, his air somewhat mystical. By the time their even more sparse second single, “My Melody”, was out, he was being dubbed God MC.
Their debut album Paid In Full followed in ’87, and it included these landmark singles, a radical rap reworking of Bobby Byrd and James Brown’s “I Know You Got Soul”, as well as one of rap’s most definitive statements in the glorious Eastern-tinged mystery of the title track. This remastered version of the album vividly recalls how confident and brave an artistic adventure this debut was.
The music Eric created was austere even by hip hop standards, with often only the barest percussion and a bass line providing colour, but it was fashioned simply as a monumental platform for Rakim’s awesome voice. It isn’t really what he raps about?largely his own bionic skills and Islam?that still hypnotises but the way that he does it. His tone was velvet and controlled, but it masked a rhythmic dexterity for language beyond anyone else in his field. He crafted a style that had its own internal rhymes (ie, rhymes in the middle of lines, not at the end) and an armoury of incisive metaphors the like of which still have not been bettered. Here, at last, was an MC not caught up in competition with others, but with himself.
Paid In Full inspired more than one generation to become rappers, and everyone from Eminem to Ice Cube acknowledge the impact Rakim made with this release. Though some of the beats are a little ripe 16 years down the line, the bold minimalism of Eric B’s work and Rakim’s mic control seems little less than biblical. Hip hop’s future has never been truly in doubt since.
Two years after Paid In Full, Stetsasonic memorably rapped on their “All That Jazz” single: “Face it, James Brown was old/’til Eric and Ra did ‘I Know You Got Soul'”. But Paid In Full was responsible for more than just reinvigorating the Godfather’s career (though it did that, too). It proved that the abstract and contemplative had its place in rap, too, and this notion helped usher rap towards a new age. Also included here is a disc of remixes, including Coldcut’s quite brilliant “Seven Minutes Of Madness” excursion on Paid In Full. Strangely, Rakim hated this tribute, preferring Derek B’s?ahem?”Urban Respray”. For once, he was wrong.