Happy 25th Anniversary to Eric B. & Rakim’s Don’t Sweat the Technique, originally released June 23, 1992.
When it comes to great album runs in hip-hop, Eric B. & Rakim rank up there with the best of them. Hell, you could argue that they are the best of them. Starting in 1987 with Paid in Full and ending in 1992 with Don’t Sweat the Technique, Eric “Eric B.” Barrier and William “Rakim” Griffin III released a string of four albums of sheer lyrical and musical brilliance. During that five-year period, Rakim established himself as one of, if not the best emcee in hip-hop. His lyrical dominance during this run became the gold standard that many emcees are still held to today and directly influenced super emcees like Nas, Prodigy, Jay-Z, and many others.
For much of his career, Rakim’s existence has been somewhat shrouded in mystery. Throughout the heyday of his career, he never seemed to do many interviews. He rarely made guest appearances on other rappers’ tracks. He projected the aura of the God MC, above the petty concerns and beefs of the world of hip-hop. Eric B., ostensibly the DJ and producer, also remained a mysterious character. Known for his connections to some of the more unsavory characters of the NYC scene, he played the background, rarely speaking on record or in public.
With Don’t Sweat the Technique, released 25 years ago this week, the duo—and particularly Rakim—went beyond their stone-faced facade. While much of his performances on the group’s first three albums concerned his own lyrical dominance, here he switches things up a bit. He tells a few stories. He delves into some political commentary. He shows his “human” side. Don’t Sweat the Technique is a strong entry into the pair’s discography and one of the better albums of 1992. And, as it turned out, it was a solid way to end their musical partnership.
Interpreting production credits for Eric B. & Rakim albums has always been, well, tricky. Eric B. & Rakim are listed as the producers for the entire album, as they were for just about all of their LPs. However, the album’s liner notes also list three “Production Coordinators,” including the legendary Paul “Large Professor” Mitchell, “Chams” Kerwin Young (a Public Enemy affiliate and frequent Bomb Squad collaborator), and Richard “Lord of the Board” Simmons (who did production work for obscure artists like Cooley Live and Me Phi Me). Given Eric B.’s history of, shall we say, blurring the lines of who produced what, it wouldn’t be surprising if the three production coordinators were the people responsible for creating the album’s beats.
Regardless of who officially produced what, Don’t Sweat the Technique still has a largely unified “feel” in production. Like previous Eric B. & Rakim albums, it often relies heavily on tracks found on Ultimate Beats & Breaks albums, featuring hard-edged drums alongside deep and resonant basslines. But the production is often starker and faster paced this time around, and a good two-thirds of the tracks on the album operate at over 105 BPMs, some clocking in at as high as 126, unheard of in this day and age. However, the remaining third of the album has a smoother, sometimes jazzier feel.
Tracks like “Pass the Hand Grenade” and “Kick Along” fall into the former category: lightning-paced tracks held together by neck-snapping drums, ideal for showcasing Rakim’s ample ability to string together lyrical bombs and lava-like flows. “The Punisher” also falls into this category. The oft-forgotten track features Rakim demonstrating why most consider him a lyrical God, adopting the role of a merciless lyrical murderer over the The Chicago Gangster’s “Gangster Boogie” break and the bells from Bob James’ “Take Me to the Mardi Gras.” Rakim often lists the song as one of his favorites that he’s ever recorded, and it’s certainly one of his most underrated lyrical performances, as he raps, “I hold the mic as hostage, MCs as ransom / Rhymes’ll punish ’em ’cause they don’t understand ’em / I heat up his brain, then explain then I hand him / A red-hot microphone…that’s how I brand ’em / Rhymes fall in formation, unite and ignite / Like a platoon putting bullet wounds in the mic / If you curse me, it ain’t no mercy / Give him an autopsy, killed by a verse of me.”
Don’t Sweat the Technique also excels when it showcases Rakim’s slower rhyme style. On “Relax With Pep,” Rakim creeps over the meandering bassline, punctuated by organ and horn stabs, laying on his smooth rhyme flow like thick syrup, rapping, “New ways for better displays for better days / No more crimes, I got rhymes and it pays / I'm prepared to take mine and get mine / And I can protect mine either with a rhyme or a 9mm.”
The album’s title track and first single effectively melds the rapid pace and its jazzier sensibilities. The song has one of the better beats on the album, as it features an expert flip of the bassline sample from Young-Holt Unlimited’s “Queen of the Nile,” spliced with horn samples and drums from Kool & the Gang’s “Give It Up.” Rakim executes his smooth yet sharp flow, excoriating all those who attempt to imitate his style: “They wanna know how many rhymes have I ripped and wrecked / But researchers never found all the pieces yet / Scientists try to solve the context / Philosophers are wondering what's next / Pieces are took to labs to observe them / They couldn't absorb them, they didn't deserve them / My ideas are only for the audience's ears / For my opponents, it might take years.” The result is one of the better lyrical demonstrations of pure skill of the ’90s.
For all the respect that Rakim has earned during his career, he’s rarely recognized for his storytelling ability. If anything, his era of dominance is celebrated for being the near-peak of braggadocio hip-hop. However, on Don’t Sweat the Technique, he flexes his narrative skills quite often. Sometimes, like with “Rest Assured,” he uses his ability to tell a tale to celebrate his own dominance. Here he likens being an emcee to serving a secret agent, describing the lavish lifestyle that he lives not while on stage or in the studio, but rather while lounging in his tropical hideout, surrounded by beautiful women. When he later steps on stage, he’s all business, exerting total control over the crowd and his environment.
Occasionally Rakim steps outside of his “God” persona and the results are excellent as well. On the album’s second single, “Casualties of War,” Rakim assumes the role of a disillusioned Muslim soldier serving in the U.S. Army during the first Gulf War, surrounded by death. Over a pulsing and frenzied track, he first describes the psychological impact of fighting in the field, rapping, “Basic training, trained for torture / Take no prisoners, and I just caught ya / Addicted to murder, send more body bags / They can’t identify ’em, leave the name tags” and later “But I hear warfare scream through the air / Back to the battlegrounds, it’s war they declare / A Desert Storm: let's see who reigns supreme / Something like Monopoly, a government scheme.” He then describes returning back home traumatized, experiencing blackouts and violent episodes due to his time on the battlefield. It’s as haunting of a description of PTSD as there has ever been on a hip-hop record.
Other tracks on Don’t Sweat the Technique deal with the palpable desperation that life inflicts on people. On “Teach the Children,” Rakim raps from the perspective of a man at the end of his rope, chewed up and spit out by a crooked system that doesn’t care about his existence. Surrounded by poverty and pain, laid off at his job, with little recourse left, he robs and murders a drug dealer prospering from pain and death in his community. With the second verse, he implores the United States government to start funding education to help save the younger generation living in economically challenged communities, but becoming resigned to knowing that “they import more keys from across seas / A drug disease hits the streets with ease.”
While “Teach the Children” is frenetic in its pace, “What’s Going On” takes a more subdued yet poignant look at the crime-riddled streets of New York City. Rakim vividly describes the urban decay, describing how young people are born and raised into a life of crime in an area where violent death seems inevitable. The production on the track is also outstanding, as the drum patterns and drum tracks frequently shift underneath the soulful bassline and trumpet samples. It’s another overlooked gem on the album and across Eric B. & Rakim’s broader discography.
Don’t Sweat the Technique also includes a pair of tracks released long before the album dropped: “What’s on Your Mind,” first released on the 1991 House Party 2 soundtrack, and “Know the Ledge,” best known for its appearance on the Juice soundtrack released at the end of the same year. Both are excellent songs and further evidence of Rakim’s storytelling prowess, but “Know The Ledge” fits in better with the flow and feel of the album. The beat for “What’s On Your Mind,” built around a sample of Midnight Star’s “Curious,” is more “quiet storm” than the overall rough-and-rugged tone of most of the album. However, having it as the album’s lead-off track ensures that it doesn’t clash with the rest of the subsequent song suite.
Don’t Sweat the Technique would be one of Eric B. & Rakim’s last appearances as a duo and the time Rakim would be heard on record for about five years. Label issues, court battles, and other various issues caused Rakim to record only sparingly throughout the mid ’90s. His song credits included “Heat It Up” on the largely forgotten 1993 Gunmen soundtrack and “Shades of Black” from the obscure Pump Ya Fist: Hip-Hop Inspired by the Black Panthers compilation released in 1995. It’s comically strange that there was an Eric B. solo album before another Rakim album; the comically bad eponymous album dropped in 1995 and has been all but completely forgotten.
Rakim made his grand re-entrance in 1997 with a guest verse on Mobb Deep’s “Hoodlum,” from the soundtrack of the film of the same name. He finally dropped the much-hyped solo album 18th Letter later that year. The album was a reasonable success, selling enough units to be certified Gold, and the album itself was solid, at times proving that Rakim hadn’t lost a step, at times hampered by poor production choices. 18th Letter was followed by a pair of much less successful solo albums, with a fruitless deal with Dr. Dre’s Aftermath records sprinkled in between.
On the other hand, Eric B. has played the background following his solo album debacle. He may have proven to be an embarrassingly bad rapper, but he is by all accounts a legit gangster, so moving in silence has served him well. At various times he’s been associated behind the scenes with the likes of Suge Knight, Mike Tyson, and even Craig Mack. In late 2016, there were announcements that the duo had reunited for touring purposes, which were then debunked by Rakim’s management team. Eric B.’s crew then attempted to debunk the debunking. As of now, there still hasn’t been a new Eric B. & Rakim tour, though Rakim himself appears to be currently on tour.
All runs end. And although this particular run ended unexpectedly, it went out on a high note. Rakim showed that he was still an emcee’s emcee, while the duo reinforced that they could make beats that fit the lyrical stylings. Who knows what heights they could have reached if they had kept making music? But even with questions of what could have been, Eric B. & Rakim more than earned their place in the pantheon.