Happy 30th Anniversary to Eric B. & Rakim’s Debut Album Paid in Full, originally released July 7, 1987.
How many albums really alter the course of hip-hop? Maybe you can count them on two hands. But Paid in Full by Eric B. & Rakim is indisputably one of the small handful of albums that changed the path of rap music. Eric “Eric B.” Barrier and William “Rakim” Griffin III may not have set out to change the game when they recorded their debut LP, but after it was released 30 years ago, hip-hop was never the same. It’s not an exaggeration to say it’s among the five greatest hip-hop albums ever recorded, and it’s certainly a reasonable candidate for the greatest ever.
Rakim Allah, known as the revered God of lyricism and considered by many to be the most gifted emcee to ever touch the mic, changed the way emcees rapped with Paid in Full. This was square one in a career that has been defined by lyricism at its very highest level: an exhibition of how to put together words and phrases that hadn’t been heard before.
“The album to me was like experimenting,” Rakim later said in Brian Coleman’s Check the Technique. “We went into the studio, we laid the beat down, I took the notebook and did the rhymes right there….Today I like to perfect and shape it a little more, but back then that rawness was what was good about it.”
Paid in Full is mostly hailed for what Rakim did lyrically, but Eric B. really started the project rolling. He entered their partnership as the moneyman with street cred and a dangerous rep to back it up. It’s an open secret that he ran with some of New York's heaviest of heavies, including Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff and Kelvin Martin a.k.a. the original 50 Cent. The “Paid in Full” posse, as it became known, held court and reportedly reigned terror during hip-hop nights at the Latin Quarter, a mecca for the scene during the 1980s. Eric B. wanted to break into the realm of hip-hop, and was looking for emcees to help him with the task. The legend goes that when Eric B. set up studio time to record the song “Eric B. is President,” Freddie Foxx (a fierce emcee and seasoned hard rock in his own right) was supposed to rap over it. Due to complications, however, Foxx couldn’t make the studio session, so Eric B. offered Rakim the spot.
Months before, the pair had been introduced to each other by fellow Long Island native and future record executive Alvin Toney. Though a more than capable lyricist, at the time Rakim was more interested in playing football than rhyming. Nevertheless, he still agreed to record the track, as well as the B-Side, “My Melody.” The original single, released on Zakia Records, is credited as Eric B. featuring Rakim. The 12” was an instant success, and the group later signed with 4th and Broadway/Island Records after Zakia folded due to financial woes.
Rakim the God MC was forged in the park jams, block parties, school gym shows in Wyandanch, Long Island during the 1980s. He also travelled to Brooklyn and Queens, where he further honed his skills in front of packed and difficult-to-impress crowds, at times sharing the stage with the likes of Biz Markie. By his own account, many of his verses on the album are rhymes that he frequently kicked live on stage to get the crowd hyped. It makes sense that so many of the songs and verses on Paid in Full explore being a master of ceremonies and keeping the crowd moving and eager to listen, because Rakim’s existence as an emcee depended on it during the nascent stages of his career.
Though influenced by emcees like Grandmaster Melle Mel, Grandmaster Caz, and Kool Moe Dee, it’s fair to say with Paid in Full, Rakim brought a lyrical style that had never been heard before. The term “flow,” now standard hip-hop nomenclature, was essentially invented for Rakim’s lyrical style. His lyrics smoothly transitioned from bar to bar, effortless in creating a stream of rhythmic American poetry.
Paid in Full featured the beginning of the “scientifical” rhyme style, and beats driven by James Brown samples that weren’t necessarily targeted towards getting people on the dance floor. This isn’t to say that there weren’t a few solid party jams on the album, but Paid in Full was the first album to unofficially introduce the “head-nod” tracks: the type of song that someone would listen to intently while nodding their head to lyrics and beats. The sheer amount of hip-hop quotables and great lyrical moments on this album is staggering, and almost overwhelming. Even more so when you consider that at 10 tracks deep and 45 minutes in length, the album only features seven tracks with Rakim rapping on them.
There has been some dispute across the past three decades regaring how much Eric B. contributed to the album’s creative musical process. The legendary Marley Marl asserts that he produced both “Eric B. is President” and “My Melody.” Marl has gone so far as to release an 11-minute video showing him recreating how he made the beat for “Eric B. is President.” On the album’s liner notes, all production is credited to both Eric B. & Rakim, with Marl receiving only credit for remixing “My Melody.” For what it’s worth, Rakim has said that Marl’s input made the song what it was. As for the other songs on the album, Eric B. still maintains he deserves production credit. In Check the Technique, Rakim says he produced 70% of the tracks in the studio. But he doesn’t deny Eric B.’s role in helping create the album, occasionally bringing in records to sample and handling the business end of their partnership.
Both songs for the original Eric B. and Rakim single appear on Paid in Full, with “Eric B. for President” being slightly remixed into “Eric B. is President.” The song begins with one of the great opening stanzas in hip-hop history (“I came in the door, I said it before / I never let the mic magnetize me no more”) and then Rakim details how he finds himself overwhelmed by the sheer power of the rhymes inside of him. The three verses do have the feel of being cobbled together from successful routines Rakim used while performing, but each is individually outstanding. The song was a masterful introduction to Rakim’s lyrical style and one that ruled radios, boomboxes and clubs throughout New York City upon its release.
“My Melody” was the more straight-ahead lyrical exhibition of the single, and the song that Rakim himself preferred. Clocking in at nearly seven minutes, the pulsing, slow-rolling track is a five-verse virtuoso performance by Rakim, as he put together numerous rhymes for the routines he used to rule stages throughout Long Island. Some of Rakim’s most iconic rhymes appear on the song, as he proclaims, “If I was water, I’d flow in the Nile” and later promises that his rhymes are “rough enough to break New York from Island.” The song also features the infamous “I take seven emcees, put ’em in a line” rhymes, which have been referenced by many emcees that have followed and listed by everyone from Snoop Dogg to Naughty by Nature's Treach as their favorite lyrics ever.
Paid in Full begins with “I Ain’t No Joke,” the album’s second single and the first song that Rakim wrote after he and Eric B. decided to record an album. It’s the sparsest song on the album, with Rakim delivering three verses over just Eric B.’s scratching of the opening horn riff from the JB’s “Pass the Peas” and a drum track programmed by their engineer Patrick Adams. Though the lyrics are viewed as “battle raps,” they flow and interconnect together to create their own unique narrative: “Write a rhyme in graffiti in every show you see me in / Deep concentration cause I’m no comedian / Jokers are wild if you wanna be tamed / I treat you like a child then you’re gonna be named / Another enemy, not even a friend of me / ‘Cause you’ll get fried in the end when you pretend to be / Competing cause I just put your mind on pause / And I can beat you when you compare my rhyme with yours / I wake you up and as I stare in your face you seem stunned / Remember me, the one you got your idea from?”
“I Know You Got Soul” is one of the best lyrical hip-hop tracks that’s easy to dance to. Rakim conducts a four-verse lyrical clinic on rocking the stage and keeping control of the crowd over one of the first James Brown-affiliated samples, Bobby Byrd’s song of the same name, and the drum break to Funkadelic’s “You’ll Like It Too.” The song contains some of Rakim’s best-known quotables, but the song really shines as he describes his process in getting ready to seize control of the live crowd, allowing the lesser-skilled to make their moves before he pounces into attack mode: “Picture a mic; the stage is empty / A beat like this might tempt me / To pose, show my rings and my fat gold chain / Grab the mic like I’m on Soul Train / But I wait cause I mastered this / Let the others go first so the brothers don't miss.”
“Move the Crowd,” the album’s fourth single, is a two-verse dissertation about the importance of connecting with the audience and honing your lyrical craft. The beat was created by Rakim’s brother Ronnie and Steve, with the two replaying the piano from Return to Forever’s “Flight of the Newborn” and the JB’s “Hot Pants Road.” During his first verse, Rakim details his own thought process in putting raps together, before conveying his disgust towards other MCs lackluster rhyme-writing abilities: “Some of you been trying to write rhymes for years/ But weak ideas irritate my ears/ Is this the best that you can make? / ’Cause if not and you got more, I’ll wait.” With his second verse, he marvels at the power of his lyrics and their ability to completely capture the imagination of the audience: “I'm the intelligent wise on the mic I will rise/ Right in front of your eyes cause I am a surprise.”
“As the Rhyme Goes On” is probably the least acknowledged track on Paid in Full, which is a shame, because it features one of Rakim’s best lyrical performances. He delivers one lengthy verse, maintaining a smooth flow while still delivering rhymes at high speed over a replaying of Barry White’s “I’m Going to Love You Just a Little More Baby.” Rakim was also one of the first emcees to really play with the tempo of his lyrics, rapping faster over slower tracks, packing in as many words and syllables into each measure as possible. Here, again, each bar interlocks with the one that preceded it, creating an intricate web of lyrics: “If you just keep kicking, listen to the mix and / Think you’ll sink into the rhyme like quicksand / Holds and controls you ’til I leave / You fall deeper in the style; it’s hard to breathe / The only time I stop is when somebody drop and then / Bring ’em to the front ‘cause my rhymes the oxygen / Then wave your hands, when you’re ready I’ll send you / Into your favorite dance so let the rhyme continue.”
The album’s weakest moments are the instrumental cuts. The album features two different DJ tracks, “Eric B. is on the Cut” and “Chinese Arithmetic.” Neither arrangement is particularly interesting, because, to put it bluntly, Eric B.’s scratches are not particularly that good. But these are just minor speed bumps on an album with seven flawless songs.
The album’s title track is another great achievement in hip-hop history. Over the bassline from Dennis Edwards’ “Don’t Look Any Further” and the drum break from The Soul Searchers’ “Ashley’s Roachclip,” Rakim delivers an absolutely perfect verse; arguably the best verse ever recorded in hip-hop history. In 24 bars, Rakim flawlessly describes his inner turmoil as he thinks of a master plan, trying to formulate the correct way to put money in his lint-filled pockets, knowing how easy it would be to go the illegal route: “I need money, I used to be a stick-up kid / So I think of all the devious things I did / I used to roll up, this is a hold-up / Ain’t nothing funny /Stop smiling, be still, don’t nothing move but the money / But now I learned to earn cause I’m righteous / I feel great so maybe I might just / Search for a 9 to 5 / If I strive, then maybe I’ll stay alive.” But in the end, he opts for the studio rather than the street corner, focusing his mind toward getting paid through music.
Rakim has said that he originally wanted to write a second verse for the song, but Eric B. dissuaded him, telling him, “You said it all right there.” And Eric B. was right: the one verse captured everything that needed to be said. Shortly after the album’s release, the song was remixed by British electronic duo Coldcut. The “7 Minutes of Madness” mix was released and became a sizable dancefloor hit in the U.S. and especially in Europe.
Albums like Paid in Full helped give birth to modern hip-hop lyricism. Even with all the rhymes Rakim devoted to moving crowds and keeping the dancefloor packed, Paid in Full helped create the “beats and lyrics” approach to hip-hop music. Rakim was one of the first hip-hop artists whose creations were not designed as singles or club hits, as his lyricism existed for its own sake.
In the 30 years since the release of Paid in Full, Rakim has become a hip-hop immortal. This album was the beginning of a legendary four-album run that saw him and Eric B. craft some of the strongest albums of all time, while solidifying a legacy carved in stone. The styles that Rakim exhibited on Paid in Full have been mimicked countless times and continue to influence emcees three decades later, with the songs continuing to serve as a reference point for every artist that creates hip-hop music. That’s a great legacy to own.