Throughout 2023, KEXP is celebrating 50 Years of Hip-Hop. Each week we'll celebrate a different year in hip-hop, this week we're focusing on 1987 as Gabriel Teodros reflects on Eric B. & Rakim's 'Paid in Full.' Read and listen to the piece below and subscribe to the 50 Years of Hip-Hop podcast.
In 1987, when Eric B. & Rakim released their debut album Paid In Full, there was no one quite like them. Hip-Hop was still in the era of the DJ being named first in the group, and so much of the music of the time sounded focused on what could keep a party rocking. Groups like Run-DMC and Salt N Pepa made a huge impact in 1986. LL Cool J was Bigger And Deffer and Public Enemy was just starting to Bum Rush The Show. The MCs in all of these groups were loud, and not to take anything away from their brilliance, but the rhyme styles of the time were just kind of simple.
Just last year, Chuck D of Public Enemy took to social media to tell the world about it. He said “Rakim & KRS-One changed the way we all rhymed. They were the first MCs that literally made the beat chase them instead of vice versa. They single-handedly did to rap what Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington did for jazz with phrasing & composition.”
The two MCs he’s referring to both released their debut albums in 1987, the same year as his group Public Enemy: KRS-One with Boogie Down Productions’ Criminal Minded, and 4 months later came Eric B. & Rakim’s Paid In Full.
“It's been a long time, I shouldn't have left you
Without a strong rhyme to step to
Think of how many weak shows you slept through
Time's up, I'm sorry I kept you”
Rakim stood out for so many reasons, one of which being his calm presence on the microphone. He was cool, in a way that was embodied with every bar.
“Even if it's jazz or the quiet storm
I hook a beat up, convert it into hip-hop form
Write a rhyme in graffiti in every show you see me in
Deep concentration 'cause I'm no comedian”
There’s an art to sounding so cool. Rakim took whole sentences and made them rhyme, and he was so good at it from the very beginning, he made it sound effortless.
Like all things in hip-hop, nothing exists in a vacuum, and everything is building on what came from before. As a young person, Rakim was surrounded by jazz records and learned how to play the saxophone. In his 2019 book Sweat the Technique: Revelations on Creativity from the Lyrical Genius, Rakim calls John Coltrane his musical North Star. He says:
“When I started writing rhymes, the closest thing I could identify as being like what I was trying to do was Coltrane. I started incorporating into my delivery how Coltrane played the sax. Like, I tried to rhyme so you couldn’t hear me take a breath. I was implementing different rhythms, syncopated rhythms, and different styles into my delivery. You could say I was feeding my ego and building a style at the same time. As the albums went on, it got more intricate, but it all came from mastering time and space through jazz.”
I don’t remember the first time I heard Paid In Full. At some point I bought the album after I already knew the lyrics by heart. There’s a reason why many of my generation who came up after Rakim was in his prime, still have those lyrics etched in our subconscious. We grew up hearing him in everything that came later. Whether by influence or his actual voice, as Rakim’s verses just from that first album Paid In Full have been sampled no less than 1,000 times, by everyone from Aaliyah to Mos Def.
“I start to think and then I sink
Into the paper like I was ink
When I'm writing, I'm trapped in between the lines
I escape when I finish the rhyme…”
When I learned Rakim made 16 dots down the side of a piece of notebook paper before he penned every verse, I never approached my own writing the same. Rap was a puzzle that he unlocked in a way no one before him really had. Paid In Full was the perfect blend of mathematics, science, spirituality and emotion. Rakim was jazz in hip-hop form, and in 1987 there was no one like him. Paid In Full was a marker in time, nothing was the same in rap after that album dropped. The old styles didn’t matter anymore.
Rakim changed everything.
Through 2023, KEXP is celebrating 50 Years of Hip-Hop. Each week we'll celebrate a different year in hip-hop, this week we're focusing on 2018 and Armand Hammer's "Vindaloo."
Throughout 2023, KEXP is celebrating 50 Years of Hip-Hop. Each week we'll celebrate a different year in hip-hop, this week we're focusing on 1994 with an essay from Larry Mizell Jr. on Organized Konfusion's "Stress."