Happy 20th Anniversary to EPMD’s fifth studio album Back in Business, originally released September 23, 1997.
[The following tribute originally appeared as part of Jesse Ducker's 25th anniversary to EPMD's 1992 album Business Never Personal. Read the full tribute here.]
EPMD folded only months after their fourth studio album Business Never Personal was released in late July of 1992, leaving a gaping hole in hip-hop’s soul. Soon, Erick Sermon and PMD began to pursue their solo careers. The Hit Squad itself also broke up, with Redman rolling with Sermon and Das EFX & DJ Scratch sticking with Smith. Erick and Redman soon enlisted Long Island hard-rock/skilled emcee Keith Murray to form the Def Squad, while PMD kept the Hit Squad name, adding White Plains rapper Top Quality to the camp.
Erick Sermon was the more successful of the two with respect to their solo careers, releasing his debut LP No Pressure in the fall of 1993 and following it up with Double or Nothing and the Insomnia compilation in 1995. All three albums were fairly dope and showcase Sermon’s increasingly sharp production skills, which sounded like a continuation of EPMD’s production style. Meanwhile, PMD released his inaugural solo album Shadé Business in 1994 and Business is Business in 1996, to much less critical and commercial acclaim, but some creative success. The crews also traded subtle and not-so-subtle barbs at each other on record, mostly keeping their disses subliminal.
But by 1997, Erick and Parrish decided to put aside whatever differences they had, and reunited to record another album. During the intervening five years, hip-hop music had become the commercial darling of the record industry, radio, and MTV, and there was a lot of money to be made. There’s speculation that Def Jam’s Russell Simmons figured there was a lot of money left on the table, and convinced Sermon and Smith to head back into the studio. The group returned to Def Jam Records to record and release their fifth album, Back in Business.
Whether the album was a genuine effort by Sermon and PMD to move on from their past issues, or an attempt at a cash grab has never been clear, but the partnership resulted in another solid effort. Truth be told, it was the type of album that one could have seen the group making in 1997 even if they had never broken up. Yes, the pair had lost a step or two on the mic, as the flows weren’t quite as sharp and the individual wordplay was a bit labored. However, the duo maintained their chemistry, and their interplay remained on point.
The production side of the equation remained especially strong, as most of the beats were handled by Sermon, who was in the midst of his own mid-1990s renaissance. PMD also contributed a number of tracks, as he had gained more production experience orchestrating his own solo material. The album featured solid musical contributions from DJ Scratch and 8-Off Agallah, who had begun working with Parrish on Business Is Business. Commercially, Back in Business was a success, as the album was soon certified Gold.
EPMD’s “comeback” single was “Never Seen Before,” which first appeared on the How to Be a Player soundtrack before gracing Back in Business. Erick and Parrish reintroduced themselves over the guitar-intro to The Meters’ “Just Kissed My Baby,” which had originally been used in 1987 by Public Enemy on “Timebomb.” “Never Seen Before” pays homage to the Public Enemy track, as Erick and Parrish frequently reference lines from “Timebomb,” but the duo also work hard to give the track its own life.
Back in Business itself starts off strong with “Richter Scale.” It’s not quite the high energy opener of “Boon Dox,” but the song, which served as the album’s third single, makes good use of a loop of Average White Band’s “Person to Person,” but it sounds like vintage EPMD-styled funk. The uptempo “Do It Again” and the rough yet melodic “Last Man Standing” are songs in a similar vein, as they capture the signature energy and feel of tracks on previous EPMD albums. Sermon switches things up a bit production-wise on “Da Joint” (the album’s second single) and “Get Wit This,” demonstrating his ability to create jazzier tracks. Lyrically, the duo mostly stick to battle rhymes on Back in Business, with the aim of flexing their skills and re-establishing their presence to a new audience.
EPMD also use Back in Business to allow their current crew members to get busy, merging PMD’s Hit Squad and Sermon’s Def Squad under the banner of The Squadron. “Intrigued,” featuring a reinvigorated Das EFX, is a highlight of the album, with each of the four emcees kicking three separate four-bar verses, each time passing the mic to the next emcee in waiting. Here Sermon samples Gloria Gaynor’s version of “Walk On By,” which Das EFX had rapped over on their second album, 1993’s Straight Up Sewaside. This time, Sermon gives the sample a much rawer feel.
“K.I.M.” functions as the sequel to “Head Banger,” with Redman and Keith Murray joining Erick and Parrish to rhyme over a blistering, classical music sampling track. This time around, Redman leads off the track, contributing another wild verse, rapping, “The authentic craft will split you in half / I’m a Hurricane you a Miller Genuine Draft / While you push a S-Class, I’m riding on a giraffe / Uptown, naked, smoking a bag with hash.” Keith Murray wraps up the song with his trademark energy, proclaiming, “I goes off to the beat, on the edge of reality / And kick rhymes in my sleep and battle mortality / Finally, every dimension know Keith / Y’all egotistical simple-minded n%#&as is pitiful and weak.”
Back in Business does have a few stumbles. Most notably “You Gots to Chill ’97,” a remake of sorts of the track that helped make them famous nearly a decade before. The group may have been good at adding their own identity to well-used hip-hop loops, but they falter when trying to repurpose their own material. Here Erick and Parrish re-recorded and updated their lyrics, but the song is redundant and unnecessary. Another misstep is “Put On,” as the duo unsuccessfully tries their hand at creating a Mafioso-themed street story and wastes a dope DJ Scratch beat in the process.
The infamous Jane is resurrected for “Jane 5,” a solo track by PMD that he also produces. Here Smith successfully reinterprets the group’s past work, incorporating the original elements from the song (Joe Tex’s “Papa Was Too” drums and piano, and Rick James’ “Mary Jane” keys) and adds vocals from New Birth’s “You Are What I Am About” (most famously used on Junior M.A.F.I.A.’s “Player’s Anthem”). Parrish spins a tale of being set free for Jane’s murder on a technicality, only to discover the woman is possibly alive and well and hijacking the Greyhound bus that he rides home on. It isn’t the best installment of the saga, but it’s an improvement over “Who Killed Jane?” Back in Business closes with a remix of “Never Seen Before,” with Sermon giving the once hype track a smoother, quiet storm feel by using elements from Slave’s “Watching You.”
EPMD’s comeback was short-lived, as the group disbanded again after 1999’s Out of Business. Afterwards, Parrish began to fade into the background, while Erick continued to rhyme and release solo albums and compilations. The Def Squad album El Niño had already dropped in 1998, and Sermon enjoyed some of his greatest solo success in the early 2000s. He released his fourth and fifth solo albums, Music (2001) and React (2002), each with hit singles of the same name.
In 2008, EPMD reunited a second time and released their seventh album, We Mean Business, but by then the magic was largely gone. Both were shadows of their former selves on the mic, and were being upstaged by their guests at nearly every turn. The beats were unremarkable as well, as it seemed like all parties involved were just going through the motions. DJ Scratch’s absence was also glaring. Shortly before the album was released, Scratch announced he had zero involvement in We Mean Business, citing a beef with Sermon over how the money was split. He also asserted that Erick and Parrish still didn’t like each other, and that EPMD remained a marriage of convenience.
We Mean Business was their last album in nearly a decade. Over the ensuing nine years, the group has reunited numerous times, usually for touring and performing purposes. They linked up with the Rock the Bells tour a couple of times, and have done numerous Hit Squad reunion shows. They have also fallen out and broken up more times than I can count, over reasons that usually involve money. These days, EPMD still tour and perform, but it’s mostly just Erick and Parrish performing their greatest hits. Though DJ Scratch eventually returned to the fold, he left the group again in early 2017. His final parting shot was a messy Instagram post regarding how much he was being paid to DJ for EPMD as opposed to how much he was paid to DJ for A Tribe Called Quest.
It seems feasible that EPMD could have flourished in the mid-1990s as a group, while many of their late 1980s peers began to stumble. Their sound certainly had a timeless quality about it, as evidenced by, if nothing else, Erick Sermon’s fairly successful solo career after each of their breakups. I believe that if the two emcees had continued to work together, they could have staved off lyrical atrophy. No matter how things developed in the five years in between, Business Never Personal was a helluva swan song, and Back in Business was as sturdy of a comeback album as anyone could have expected.