Saturday, September 19, 2009

King Of New York



So. Favourite 12"s that we own. (There's a phrase that would have landed us in trouble once). A toughie, but digging in the crates: "Going To Heaven To See If It Rains", "Hold No Hostage", "Police Officer", "Sympathy For The Rosehips", "Urban Hell", "My Favourite Dress", "Ceremony", "Cruelty", "Night Of The Living Baseheads", "Shimmer", "Sorry To Embarrass You", "Just To Get A Rep", "Once A Prefect", "Serve Tea, Then Murder", "Crystal Crescent", "I Don't Wanna Be Friends With You", "The Underneath". And, of course, a good dozen or so by Eric B and Rakim.

* * * * *

"the only LIFE on Radio 1 is the 10% HARD hip-hop that gets through with the dross..." - Are You Scared To Get Happy? #6, 1987

"they raped our whole culture / now it's payback / their great-grandchildren be our number one fans / how's that for karma ?" - Mobb Deep, "That Crack"

* * * * *

EB&R were only in meaningful action from '86 to '92. In that time, they notched up four albums, and changed the face. It started with "Eric B. For President", one of at least four tracks they did whose title would be graced with Mr Barrier's name (good to see that old Bo Diddley tradition stand strong). This single introduced us to the swoonsome twosome: Eric B, invariably weighed down by bling (remember KRS-1 telling us, on "Outta Here", how he used to buy gold with Eric), plundering soul samples and, by some beautiful alchemy, mixing them with cuts and scratches to make something even better, with plenty of rhythms as iconic and addictive as the one which made "President" make everyone jump up and pay attention. And Rakim, the silver-tongued, thoughtful MC who made slow and deliberate with his diction, who famously pioneered the internal rhyme, whose silky similes seemed just to glide over even E's more combative backing tracks. (And here's something: certainly on our copy of the 12" - the Cooltempo release, and presumably the same applies to the original Zakia one - the cover credits only "Eric B": Rakim just gets a mention as "featuring", on the label of the record itself. Funny now that if anything it's Eric who history tends to regard as the lesser partner. *And* while we're in Anorak Corner, the original 12" was called "Eric B. For President" - it was only later that he was seemingly promoted and the track is now known to all and sundry as "Eric B. Is President").

Anyway, this tremendous formula largely persisted while the two stayed together. In particular, a few things strike on re-listening to our musty old EB&R records now:

(1) How much we miss albums with 10 or 12 tracks. Nowadays you'd be expected to do 18-20, with the corresponding drop in quality.

(2) How there are no guest MCs. And there's not a song of theirs that would have been improved by them.

(3) A mark of the golden era, we know, but no lengthy sampled hooks, no choruses or chorus steals. Partly possible, admittedly, because in the free-for-all before James Brown and co sued them to bits, you could just concentrate on putting the best ingredients together, rather than worrying about only being able to afford to clear one (wack) sample and then use it for the whole damn song. But also possible because when the DJ and the MC are both at the very top of the pyramid, you don't want anything to detract.

(4) No cussing - Rakim is clean, at peace, in control.

(5) Most important. How completely sublime so many of these tracks still are.

"Paid In Full" is an album that seems like a collection of singles, probably because half of its ten tracks were, meaning that only two of the vocal album cuts (the remaining three were Eric instrumentals, another trend that seems to have sadly passed away from mainstream hip-hop) didn't actually get a single release. As well as "I Know You Got Soul" (their other entry in Peel's 1987 Festive 50, and their other UK top 20 hit) and "President", it was the title track that you're most likely to remember: it was the last single off the LP to get a release, I think following Coldcut's Seven Minutes of Madness 12" that popularised them in Europe. Reputedly, Eric and Ra hated the remix, and while I bopped along to it happily enough at the time, they were right. Criminal for it to be regarded as up with the stuff they did themselves and meant.

The second album, "Follow The Leader", is another that makes us smile all over, and was a surefire hit from the moment its title track rattled into play with super-low bass: the throb of live, rather than electronic or sampled bass was something of a feature of this LP, rooting it completely. By the time third LP "Let The Rhythm Hit 'Em" came on, hip-hop had moved on so much that it probably didn't really get the critical airing it should have had, but with the exception of the *AWFUL* single "Mahogany" (you know the score, record exec finds worst song on album, insists on releasing it), it's great: both Eric and Ra are getting more urban, more brutal, more gritty, but as the wonderful single "In The Ghetto" shows, their social commentary was still restrained and poetic rather than the dumbed-down gangsta that was by now getting a foothold elsewhere.

The last long-player, "Don't Sweat The Technique", is again really under-rated. Yes, it starts with the relative whimper of the feeble "What's On Your Mind" (the 12" sleeve betrays its true nature, taken from the soundtrack to one of Kid n' Play's less-than-exhilarating movies) but after that it takes off completely, and "What's Going On", "The Punisher", "Teach The Children" and "Know The Ledge" all mix that increasing anger and menace with killer dancefloor beats. And by now there were no solo Eric tunes at all. The duo were still nowhere near thuglife - but they had developed a $trife-concious, grimy self-propulsion.

It's for all these reasons that we're really glad that the two of them split, split relatively early and didn't reform. Like the Smiths, it means that they never really got the chance to sully the reputation these records rightly built them. It's only a tragedy that when we grabbed tickets to see Rakim in London a year or two back, he never made it onto that plane (child support issues, apparently, though the more seasoned of you may well recollect that Eric and Rakim sloped off from their '87 European tour supporting LL Cool J, citing our miserable weather, food and women, so it could have been any of those...)

So what's any of that got to do with now ? Well, Rakim is back (BACK!) with a new single, "Holy Are You". (It's his second comeback, really: the first was in the late 1990s when he dropped the solo LP "The 18th Letter", unwisely issued as a 2CD greatest hits package that meant you were being asked to compare his new works with the very best of Eric B & Rakim. There were a couple of ok tracks: "Guess Who's Back", which scraped the top 40 here, and the "I Know You Got Soul"-referencing "It's Been A Long Time", but you could see why it petered out). This time round, given the wonderful 12"s that Rakim was involved in twenty years ago, it's a bitter blow that as far as we can tell, the new single is download-only (although it will appear on the "Seventh Seal" CD if that, itself, ever appears). Still, we must reluctantly move with the times.

On that first comeback, Rakim had rapped, "I came back to bless the mic". Not to *wreck* the mic, as his blaze-happy New York contemporaries might have had it (Onyx and co were still toting the throw-ya-gunz stuff back then, while Mobb Deep were dropping the most earthbound of street caper gems). But to bless the mic. And on "Holy Are You", the R manages to anoint himself a wonder of the world and the Alpha and Omega, aswell as comparing himself with Moses, Mohammed (peace be upon him), Michelangelo, the Holy Grail and, just to cover all the bases, the Big Bang. But he never lacked confidence, and at least with this second comeback, he can feel more assured than he might have felt in the turbulent post-Pac / Biggie throwdown that he is the rappers' rapper, regarded, no doubt, as the G.O.A.T.

And "Holy Are You" is *gorgeous*, honestly. We wait a full 45 seconds of looped sample scene-setting before Rakim starts to flow, but when we do it's as mellifluous, as *captivating* as ever. And although the beats nod slightly, unavoidably, towards hip-hop's 21st century, there's no Autotune, no Akon chipmunking, no godforsaken backing wail, no bolt-on chorus to screw up the serenity of his thoughts: only brief, crackling sampled piano and the sung words (yep, sampled from the Electric Prunes) of the record's title. Indeed, the track is sufficiently, satisfyingly old-school that even Mr Farrakhan gets a mention. But the key, as ever, is the flow, some of which made us double-take: "Walk on water ? / No, neither did Jesus / It's a parable to make followers and readers believers". Or this: "we were children of the most high, so we fell / from paradise to holy hell / probably descendants of the Holy Grail / another part of history they won't reveal..." before it ends, with the inevitable sign-off: "Rakim Allah. Peace". And it's hard not to feel, every time you listen to the R, that you haven't, in some small way, been blessed.

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