“My favorite jam, back in the day, was Eric B. for President,” proclaimed Phife on A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders. Assuming that Phife wasn’t alone in that opinion would not be a stretch.
It also would not be a stretch to label Paid in Full one of, if not the, most influential hip-hop albums of all time. In 1987, Eric Barrier and William Griffin, known to most as Eric B. and Rakim, dropped the hip-hop classic and revolutionized rap music. Most notable for its liberal use of samples and Rakim’s unforgettable rhyming style, Paid in Full has probably been in every prominent emcee and producers’ tape decks at some point. But to truly understand why Paid in Full has made such an impact, one must first recognize the album’s quality in and of itself.
To call James Brown the “Godfather of Rap” might not be a misnomer, even if it does not sound as familiar as one of his other better-known monikers. Sampling Brown records has become a common practice in rap music, and there are literally thousands of songs that have done so. However, Eric B. popularized the convention on Paid in Full, displaying a talent for sampling and setting a precedent for one of hip-hop’s distinguishing characteristics. Drawing from Brown classics like “Say it Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud),” “Hot Pants,” “Funky President” and “I Know You Got Soul,” Eric B. created “Move the Crowd,” “Paid in Full,” “Eric B. Is President,” and “I Know You Got Soul.”
What made Eric B.’s use of the tracks so impressive was that he found ways to pare down the beats to accentuate Rakim’s rapping while still splicing in enough instrument riffs, Brown exclamations and synthesized noises to keep the tracks interesting. Barrier used the same techniques to incorporate now-distinguished hip-hop sounds like the bass line from Dennis Edwards’ “Don’t Look Any Further,” familiar to most as the bass line from 2Pac’s “Hit ‘Em Up.”
Additional proof of Eric B.’s production prowess could be found in the tone of the album and its effect on listeners. Paid in Full was not the sort of album which one casually put on in the background while attempting to seriously concentrate on something else. Certainly one could have listened while driving or hanging out with friends, but its engaging and often mesmerizing sound made the record too difficult to completely disregard. This owed to the album’s tempo and nature. The former was never too fast, but never too slow and produced a perfect rhythm to which listeners could shake their heads and gradually become entranced. In latter-day music, a similar effect has been created by trip-hop, yet Paid in Full was sonically simpler than its musical progeny.
The latter, the nature of the sound, was so enrapturing because it never overwhelmed audiences but still did not sound monotonous. A modern-day analog might be the music made by Wu-Tang Clan’s Rza, who, when at his best, provides artists and listeners with beats that never overwhelm, never sound bland, and never fail to capture ears.
To continue without cataloguing just how many artists have used Paid In Full’s beats or samples first found by Eric B. would be a mistake. The short list includes 2Pac, Biggie, Dr. Dre, EPMD, The Fugees, Ice Cube, LL Cool J, Nas, NWA, A Tribe Called Quest and mostly every other hip-hop act worth hearing.
Having raised sampling to an art form is not all for which Paid in Full should be remembered, though it certainly would be enough. (“Ain’t no Puffy, now just Diddy,” Sean? It’s more like “Ain’t no sampling, ain’t no Diddy.”) Maybe even more influential than its beats were the album’s lyrics, provided by Rakim. To bet that no rapper in the past 15 years has avoided using a Rakim-inspired bar or two would most likely win a gambler plenty of money. There is no way to overstate how pervasive Rakim’s rhymes have become. Music fans need merely play their favorite rap album to hear some interpolation of Griffin’s words. Those keen enough to have noticed Jay-Z’s fondness for using lyrics first spit by B.I.G. will surely find that those larcenies pale in comparison to how many emcees have been influenced – honestly or otherwise – by Rakim.
Ahead of his time is probably the best way to describe Rakim. Still in its relatively nascent stages, hip-hop had never before seen rhymes dropped with such vivid imagery or sophisticated rhyme schemes. In comparison to the street-freestyling styles of other pioneering rappers like Marley Marl, Doug E. Fresh, and Slick Rick, Rakim’s lyrics were a treatise to their book reports. Equally impressive was that Rakim often made it difficult to pick out the complex lyrics since his delivery style was conversational, lulling listeners with his consistent, confident, and measured delivery. He clearly separated himself from his contemporaries.
This microphone persona which Rakim cultivated also served him as a braggart. Unlike many other aspects of hip-hop, Paid in Full did not introduce the braggadocio present in most rap music. However, Rakim’s coolly stated assertions and claims seemed more convincing than most given his assured style and talent. The narratives, similes and metaphors that Rakim employed have now become a general rhyme schematic. Fledgling emcees, those without enough to say and less-than-talented rappers need merely lay down a few of Rakim’s bars when they run out of ideas or need some help getting their own verses started. 2002’s summer street anthem, The Clipse’s “Grindin'” is proof of this trend, with Pusha T’s opening – “From ghetto to ghetto, to back yard to yard” – obviously reminiscent of the ending to “My Melody’s” second verse, “From party to party, backyard to yard.”
However, even hip-hop’s elite have sampled Rakim’s voice, altered his rhymes or patently stolen his lyrics. Having done so does not wholly diminish these other rappers, but instead is the ultimate proof of Rakim and Paid in Full’s tremendous influence, as even the most talented emcees have not been able to avoid Griffin’s lyrical mastery.
People who have never heard Paid in Full should do themselves a favor and listen to it. Those familiar with hip-hop will be delighted by the album and equally entertained trying to pick out which beats and rhymes have since been heard elsewhere. And for those already familiar with the 1987 classic, popping it in their CD players sometime soon will be a nice diversion from the Nelly shit-hop which insults Paid in Full’s legacy.