Happy 30th Anniversary to EPMD’s debut album Strictly Business, originally released June 7, 1988.
EPMD were the best hip-hop duo of all time. They possessed a combination of rhyme skills, chemistry, and thumping beats that made them a two-man juggernaut throughout the late ’80s and early ’90s. Their impact—with respect to how they changed the genre lyrically and musically—shouldn’t be understated. In fact, the only thing that ended up derailing the group were themselves, after an ugly break-up in 1992. But in 1988, they were simply two young men from Brentwood, Long Island, who dropped their first album Strictly Business.
Comprised of Erick “E Double” Sermon and Parrish “PMD” Smith, the duo came together in 1987 while Sermon was still in high school and Smith was a freshman quarterback prospect at Southern Connecticut State University. Smith had some experience in the hip-hop game already, serving as the DJ for his older brother’s group Rock Squad, who released “Facts of Life” in 1985.
According to the book Check the Technique, EPMD recorded Strictly Business in less than a month at Charles Marotta’s studio. The duo released a series of singles that were as dope as anything released in support of the album. And as the title of their album and group moniker (an acronym for “Erick and Parrish Making Dollars”) suggest, they prided themselves on being about their business. Strictly Business famously went Gold just 30 days after its release, a fact that the group was proud to remind you of on their future albums.
Strictly Business is a great album, but upon re-listening to it, it’s apparent that the group was still working to refine their sound. Lyrically, Erick and Parrish were still honing their unique styles; Erick was delivering memorable lines through his thick lisp, and Parrish powered through the tracks with his slow and sinister flow. The highs on the album are as high as anything they ever recorded, but it’s clear they were learning on the job.
There has been a decent amount of contention as to who produced Strictly Business. The album gives production credit to EPMD as a whole, but Parrish contends that he handled the production for the album, as well as many of the duo’s albums. Erick maintains that while he and Parrish found the records they wanted to sample for the record, it was Marotta who handled the production work in the common hip-hop usage of the term, in that he worked the equipment. In other words, according to Erick, the album’s production was a three-way partnership.
The beats incorporated throughout Strictly Business were different than a lot of the East Coast-based production that was being showcased at the time. They were heavy and bassline driven. A few made use of the James Brown records that served as the source material for many of hip-hop’s hits at the time, but others made use of what were not considered “traditional” fare. Often the two rhymed over records by-well known rock artists the other rappers didn’t think about sampling.
For example, the album’s title track and opener features Erick and Parrish flexing over a loop of Eric Clapton’s version of “I Shot the Sheriff.” It was sonically striking at the time to hear the two hunt down phony emcees over a rock cover of a reggae track. While Parrish works in references to Land of the Lost and villainous cartoon dog Muttley, Erick drops lines like, “It don't take time for me to blow your mind / Take a second to wreck it because you’re dumb and blind.”
Inklings of what the duo would become are even more apparent on “It’s My Thing,” the group’s first single, which they first released under the name EPEE MD. It’s a straight-forward track, with Erick and Parrish trading rhymes over the watery bassline and horns from The Whole Darn Family’s “Seven Minutes of Funk.” It’s clear from their earliest track the duo has a unique rhyme presence. They exude an undeniable air of coolness with their delivery, with a palpable edge of ruggedness. PMD is unflappable throughout the song, rapping, “The wack I subtract, the strong I attack / The ones who grab the mic and freeze, I throw it back / I perfect and eject, make MCs sweat / Take ’em off on the mic then I tell ’em step.” It’s no wonder that the pair was compared to follow Long Island legend Rakim Allah with these early releases, because they could flow slow, but also execute with deadly precision.
The single’s B-side, “You’re a Customer,” played more towards the group’s sinister leanings. One of the strongest tracks on the album, it’s anchored by a pulsating, resonant bassline, one of the most recognizable in the history of hip-hop. It originally sampled ZZ Top’s “Cheap Sunglasses” and, according to Parrish, was created when he accidently filtered out the guitars and vocals from the original song, leaving just the bassline and the drums. The addition of Steve Miller’s vocal sample from “Fly Like An Eagle” (“Time keeps on slipping… slipping… slipping”) adds an ethereal quality to the song. Erick and “the emcee cold killer” Parrish deliver four verses of lyrical slaughter, taking sucker emcees to the Danger Zone while rocking the mic like “wild beast savages.”
“You Gots To Chill,” the album’s third single, is the song that shaped the group’s musical future more than any other song on Strictly Business. It’s one of the best songs the group ever recorded and the template for much of their early ’90s work, not to mention Erick Sermon’s entire production style. Built around a thumping sample of Zapp’s “More Bounce to the Ounce” and vocals and horns from Kool & the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie,” the song flows with muddy funk. Erick starts things off with one of the greatest opening lines, advising the listeners to “relax your mind, let your conscience be free and get down to the sounds of EPMD.” Both dedicate the track to spelling out their complete microphone dominance and warning wack emcees not to test them, with PMD explaining that he “did thousands of shows, dissed many faces / And deal with new jacks on a one-to-one basis / But every now and then a sucker emcee gets courageous / And like an epidemic it becomes contagious.”
“I’m Housin,’” the album’s fourth single, features Erick and Parrish holding court in the local club, smacking down sucker emcees when necessary, over a sample of Aretha Franklin’s “Rock Steady.” Even at this early stage of their career, EPMD excelled at dissing unoriginal rappers. On “Let the Funk Flow,” the album’s sleeper track, the duo delivers some of their best battle rhymes on the album over a sample of the JBs’ “It’s the JBs Monorail.” Parrish is presumably the first and only emcee to work in a reference to the Fetch-It Freddie toy in his rhymes. “Get Off the Bandwagon” features Strictly Business at its darkest, with the duo taking biting emcees to school over a plodding, dirge-like synth-track.
Even at just ten songs deep, some of the recordings aren’t essential to the album’s flow. “The Steve Martin” is a goofy song named after the dance that Stezo (a dancer that turned rapper) did in the background of the video of “You Gots To Chill.” The lyrical content is pretty insubstantial, and wastes a dope beat built around a steady bassline and the horns and guitar from Otis Redding’s “Let Me Come On Home.”
Strictly Business ends with “Jane,” the first appearance of the group’s arch-nemesis, the “skeezer” with the “haircut like Anita Baker” who would appear in some form on each of EPMD’s subsequent albums. In this case, Erick and Parrish talk about meeting her for the first time, an encounter that leads to Erick engaging in sexual congress with the woman, which in turn leads to her leaving a note saying he needs to be “better, stronger, and much faster.” At the time, this made her the villain in the story.
While the “narrative” remains pretty thin for a song that’s become one of their lasting legacies, it’s the rhyme technique and the production that have endured. “Jane” was the first song where Erick and Parrish consistently traded rhymes line for line, a technique that they would perfect as their career progressed. The beat itself is one of the best on the album, featuring the distinctive drum intro and piano from Joe Tex’s “Papa Was Too” as well as multiple elements taken from Rick James’ “Mary Jane.”
As good as Strictly Business was, EPMD got even better as they continued to record. Like all great debut albums, it helped preview how the group would operate throughout their career, but it wasn’t their defining artistic statement. EPMD’s music would continue to evolve and excite, but what they created in the next four years was based on the core musical values that they established with this album. The lyrics remained sharp, the styles remained impeccable, and the beats remained funky.