Well, what the hell. Ed Champion recently wrote up AC/DC's Back In Black, and I feel like writing about a classic CD too. Please allow me to tell you about the greatest hiphop album of all time, Strictly Business by EPMD, released in 1988.
1. STRICTLY BUSINESS
A swirling blast from a wind tunnel breaks into I Shot The Sheriff, and we hear the distinctively unsmooth voice of Erick Sermon -- the E of EPMD -- for the first time. E's thick, flat enunciation is what makes this duo's sound so recognizable (the other rapper is P, or Parrish Smith of E and P Making Dollars, who can rap as well as E, though you don't spot his voice a mile away like you do with E's).
Erick Sermon likes to rhyme. The fact that he doesn't have a great voice isn't going to stop him, and he takes lines like this at double speed:
Yo, yo, you're still pickin' on that four-leaf clover?
Bring in the sandman, sucker, because it's over
My name is Erick Sermon and I'm back again
I see the heads still turnin' of my so-called friends
They smile in my face, behind my back they talk trash,
Mad and stuff because they don't have cash
Like the E-Double or the PMD
He drives a Corvette, I drive a Samurai Suzuki
It's E's erratic rapping that makes this duo work. You can almost hear his tongue tripping over itself, but the sly, dexterous rapper always manages to pull it off, and this stuttering style keeps you wondering what's going to happen on the next rhyme. Or the next track:
"Strictly Business" was good, but the second track is a masterpiece. Parrish Smith kicks off "I'm Housin'" with a tale of a neighborhood battle:
P. Coolin' in the scene like a horse in a stable
Brother got ill and tried to snatch the fat cable
I stepped back like it wasn't no thing
Punched him in the jaw with the fat gold ring
I had an ace in the hole when it came to that
E: Yo, P, you was packing?
P: You know I'm strapped
The story comes off as unintentionally hilarious because you don't really believe for a minute that this happened. As in many hiphop songs, the tension in these lyrics is enhanced by the visible gulf between the rapper and the character the rapper is playing. They play it up all the way here. After P exits the conflagration by spraying gunfire, E seems impressed:
E: What a way to go out
out like a sucker
Of course, anybody can tell that these guys are more interested in sampling vinyl than shooting guns, and I really doubt that Parrish Smith ever killed a bunch of guys, but somehow this doesn't harm the song a bit.
3. LET THE FUNK FLOW
The Beastie Boys "Let It Flow" is chopped up to create the backbeat for this track. "Let the Funk Flow" introduces one of EPMD's singature lines:
Lounge homeboy, you in the danger zone
which will appear twice more on this album.
4. YOU GOTS TO CHILL
Beat: perfect. Bassline: perfect. Lyrics ...
Relax your mind, let your consciousness free
and get down to the sound of EPMD
and you should keep quiet while the MC raps
and if you're tired then go take a nap
Destroy and employ
You're rhymes I avoid
Never sweatin' your girl
E: Why, P?
P: cause she's a skeezoid
This track also brings out the echo machine for the first time, to epic effect.
5. IT'S MY THING
This is the song. If you only listen to one EPMD track in your life, make it this one. We begin with the whirl of a helicopter's propellors, and then the repeating samples fall into place: "It's My Thing" ... "Goddam" ... "Louder!" ...
E: Style of the rap makes your hands clap
Take care of myself because the lines are strapped
They mean business, no time for play
If you bite a line, we'll roll your way
The more you bite, your body gets hot
Don't get too close, because you might get shot
Gnawin at my rhyme like a poisonous rat
Don't play dumb, boy, you're smarter than that
P: The rhythmatic style, keeps the rhyme flowin
Good friends already bitin, without you knowin
Can't understand, why your body's gettin weaker
Then you realize, it's the voice from the speaker
The mind become delirious, situation serious
Don't get ill, go and get curious
E: Nuff about that, let's get on to something better
And if gets warm, take off the hot sweater
And if you want some water, I'll get you a cup
And if you don't want it, then burn the hell up
I'm tellin you now boy, you ain't jack
Talking much junk like Mr. T at your back
but he's not, so don't act cute
Cause if you do you in hot pursuit
Everything works right on this astounding and highly danceable track.
6. YOU A CUSTOMER
How can they follow "It's My Thing"? Well, here comes Erick:
E: Knick knack paddy wack, give the dog a bone
Yo, don't give him nothing but a microphone
Don't stop, I'm not finished yet
You said I'm not the E? You wanna make a bet?
Remember this? "Lounge, you in the danger zone"
I figured you would, now leave me alone
Steve Miller's "Fly Like An Eagle" provides an eerie backing track that works better than it has any right to.
7. THE STEVE MARTIN
This track totally dates the CD, because Parrish spends most of it explaining that he wants to replace the recent "Pee Wee Herman" dance craze (this was the 80's, my friends) with a craze of his own selection, based on Steve Martin in The Jerk. This is probably the worst song on the album, and I bet it's the one both members of the group wish they'd never put on this classic album. But even "The Steve Martin" turns great at the end when Sermon and Parrish start spontaneously yelling into the mic:
E: Awww yeah, Steve Martin in full effect
P: EPMD striking once again, funky fresh in the flesh
E: I think this is the last record on the album! We made it!
P: Yo, yo, what time is it
E: 1988 was so great ...
It's a great fadeout:
E: Cause we in there
and we're outta here
I don't even know what "outta here like gladiators" means, and I don't care. And, of course, despite yelling "I think this is the last record on the album", it's not. Three tracks left to go ...
8. GET OFF THE BANDWAGON
Many EPMD songs express a single theme: "stop biting my rhymes". Apparently, getting your rhymes bitten (stolen by other rappers) was a major hazard back in the 80's, and that's why this song exists. It's not the most inspired cut on the album, and even E seems confused at times:
While my volume was swaying, you were saying
"Who was that brother?" while the record was playing
I felt kinda happy like an ego trip
I had to lounge cause my image is hip
Or maybe he's just trying to come up with rhymes that nobody else can bite.
9. DJ LA BOSS
This is the obligatory "scratch song" that used to appear on all hiphop albums, in which they all tried to prove they could rock a party like Eric B on "Eric B. Is President". DJ La Boss was EPMD's original D.J., and this track is all him. Scratching solos don't always translate well to albums, so it's good that hiphop albums stopped including tracks like this ... hmm, right around the time this album came out.
This is probably the second best track on the album. It opens with a dialogue bit: Erick is refusing to take the album up to their producers, even though the recording is done, because, he says, "I gotta dis this girl". We then hear the long, sad saga of Jane, a fine woman with a haircut "like Anita Baker" who ended a night of wild love with a note telling Erick he had to be "better, bigger, stronger and much faster", to which P replies:
P: And you don't quit,
EPMD rock on with the funky shit!
And that's as far as they go with the sad story, since it's just another excuse to rhyme. In the world of EPMD, the only things that matter are the beats and the rhymes, and the never-ending struggle for respect in the land of the biters. Jane is a great choice for the closer on Strictly Business because it captures the combination of joy and humor and defiance that has made EPMD resonate with listeners like me for two decades.
Strictly Business is EPMD's first and best album. Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith grew up together in Brentwood, Long Island, a fairly run-down suburban neighborhood about three miles from where I grew up (in the neighboring town of Hauppauge). E and P both mention Long Island frequently on this album, and they also name-check institutions like New York Tech, where P went to college. One of the most beloved rap groups of all time, EPMD kept their style fresh by never changing it much, always choosing great funky guitar beats to rhyme over, and avoiding the urge to act overly "hard core" in the gangsta era. The duo has broken up several times, sometimes bitterly, and their solo works include Erick Sermon's excellent Chilltown, which tells us:
I sound like me
You sound like Jay-Z
They also reunite occasionally, and this article was probably prompted by the fact that I am going to see them at B. B. King's on 42nd Street in Manhattan on October 14. I'm definitely psyched, and I'll be sure to file a report.