Happy 25th Anniversary to EPMD’s fourth studio album Business Never Personal, originally released July 28, 1992.
In early 1993, during my senior year of high school, a friend of mine told me about an argument she had with her long distance boyfriend. She said she had poured her heart out to him over the phone about the various things that 17-year-old girls went through at the time, and was angry because it didn’t seem like he was paying attention. When she told him so, he responded with something to the effect of, “EPMD just broke up and I’m really upset.” Now, because I was her friend, I said something like, “Wow, I’m sorry.” But truth be told, I absolutely understood that guy’s pain.
Hip-Hop music died for the first time when EPMD broke up. If I’m being honest with myself, it hasn’t been nearly as fun since. Hip-Hop was rarely better than when Erick “E Double” Sermon and Parrish “PMD” Smith were together on a track, passing the mic back and forth with effortless dexterity, ripping a hardcore funk track. Hearing their DJ, George “DJ Scratch” Spivey, cut it up on the wheels of steel was pure hip-hop nirvana.
I can’t remember when or how I first heard about their break-up. The internet was barely a thing in early 1993, so I imagine I might have heard something on (Bay Area radio station) KMEL’s “Wake Up Show” or possibly read about it in the paper. I didn’t even find out the details of why it supposedly happened until a few months later, when I read about it in The Source. I just knew that it had really bummed me out. It had barely been six months since the duo had released their classic fourth album, Business Never Personal. They had been in the midst of a run of legendary proportion, and now I had to face the reality that it was over. Man, did it suck.
EPMD wasn’t the first hip-hop crew to face a rift during the early ’90s era. Just months before, 3rd Bass had split on less than amicable terms and Willie D had left the Geto Boys. But EPMD’s break-up just felt so much worse. They were one of those rare duos where it was all but impossible to picture one emcee rhyming on a track without the other. Hailing from Brentwood, Long Island, Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith had a chemistry on the mic that was hard to duplicate or fake, owing in no small part to the fact that they’d been friends since junior high and rapping together since high school.
Though Rakim may have introduced the world of hip-hop to the slow flow, EPMD were fine practitioners of the style as well, with Parrish assaulting the mic with his sinister yet aggressive rhyming style, while Erick’s heavy delivery and cadence was drenched with his thick lisp. Yet their styles meshed perfectly. Through their first four albums, they were inseparable on the mic; none of those albums featured a solo cut by either emcee. The idea that they were parting ways seemed absolutely ludicrous.
The split was so unseemly. There was talk that Parrish was withholding money from Erick. There was talk that Erick had sent masked and armed goons to Parrish’s house in response. There was talk that Erick and Parrish weren’t speaking to each other as they travelled across the country on their tour to support Business Never Personal (a tour I went to with my younger brother and a high school buddy the previous fall at Oakland’s Henry J. Kaiser Center). It seemed like such an ignominious end to what was the greatest hip-hop duo of all time.
Business Never Personal, released 25 years ago, was the unanticipated final chapter in a legendary four-album run between 1988 and 1992. It appeared that by the summer, 1992 was shaping up to be the year of the newly minted Hit Squad crew. Das EFX had changed the game in early spring with Dead Serious, K-Solo had released a dope sophomore album in Time’s Up, and now EPMD, the ringleaders of the collective, unleashed Business Never Personal, a rugged and rough album that showcased the group firing on all cylinders.
EPMD had always excelled at starting off their albums charging out of the gate, and here they succeed again with “Boon Dox.” Erick and Parrish attack the raucous track, punctuated by crispy drums and war chant-like yells from Earth, Wind & Fire’s “I Can Feel It in My Bones,” as DJ Scratch adds his flurry of cuts, scratching vocals from the Commodores’ “Assembly Line.” The duo doesn’t let up on the gas with “Nobody’s Safe Chump,” a brief but severely underrated track from the album. Over a guitar loop from Bobby Womack’s “Nobody Wants You When You’re Down and Out,” Erick and Parrish ostensibly warn emcees and jealous knuckleheads to watch their mouths, because they’re always armed, either with lyrics or hardware.
Eventually the two slow down the tempo of the tracks, but continue with their lyrical aggression. “Chill” features stellar production from the duo, as they loop the intro synthesizers from Foreigner’s “Street Thunder” instrumental, but slow them down to a molasses-like pace (ostensibly by sampling the 45 rpm of the song playing at 33 1/3 rpm). It makes the track sound like a theme song for an unproduced hip-hop sci-fi flick. Again, both members of the group are in full attack mode. While Erick raps that “I’m the original, my style’s deformed / So it can sound crazy ill when I perform,” Parrish warns enemies not to test them, rapping, “Back up, boy, move easy with the hand motion / Don't even blink kid, or Imma start smoking.”
The album’s first single was “Crossover,” and there’s a bit of obvious irony that a song dedicated to warning emcees comprising their principles in order to sell out was the group’s most commercially successful song. Even though the beat for the song, which samples Roger Troutman’s “You Should Be Mine,” is probably the most commercially palatable track that EPMD had recorded to that point, the duo doesn’t dumb down their lyrics, as the pair implore rappers to stay true to their spirits and eschew sacrificing integrity for fame.
EPMD does an effective job at showcasing the lyrical talents of all of the members of the crew on Business Never Personal. Krazy Drayz and Skoob of Das EFX join Erick and Parrish on “Cumin’ At Cha,” a low-key endeavor with all four emcees rapping over a stripped-down drum track and muted bassline. However, “Head Banger” remains the album’s best track, and on the shortlist of the strongest hip-hop posse cuts of all time. The boisterous and chaotic track, with its piercing keys and bird-like whistles, helps make it one of the all-time great “get hype” songs.
Lyrically, Erick, Parrish, K-Solo, and Redman all contribute exceptional verses. Parrish leads off, warning enemies to “get a grip and don't slip or catch a clip / From the infrared aimed at your head as I blast my target / The Bozack, I rip up flows that / Make an MC stop and chill and say he’s all that!” Meanwhile, Sermon professes to be “A real Damian, amen, possessed by the devil / You dig the rhythm, and I’ll play the running rebel!” and K-Solo promises to execute doubters with his digital trigger finger. Redman finishes up the track with not only one of the best verses of his career, but one of the best verses in hip-hop history. He flows effortlessly with lines like, “Remember Redman? Last album I was ‘Hardcore’ / Now I’m back to tear the frame out your asscrack / ’Cause I get wreck with the tec, with the blunt or Möet / And what you see is what you get, and what you're getting is your ass kicked, n%#&a / Hit you with the funkdafied figure / Like A-Plus funk, funk times stuffed in your back trunk, punk!” It’s an absolute star-making performance that primed the audience for his forthcoming debut solo album (1992’s Whut? Thee Album) and set the stage for one of the great hip-hop solo careers.
Perhaps EPMD subconsciously knew the end of their reign was nigh when they recorded “Who Killed Jane?” seemingly the final installment of their “Jane” saga. All of EPMD’s previous three albums featured a “Jane” themed track, with Parrish describing his various fictitious misadventures with the groupie-turned-stalker of the same name. “Who Killed Jane?” is the weakest installment of the series up to that point, as Parrish describes being framed by crooked cops for Jane’s murder. The incredibly dope beat, built around a sample of Curtis Mayfield’s “Stone Junkie,” can’t mask the weak narrative.
EPMD folded only months after Business Never Personal was released, 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.
To this day, both Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith don’t talk publically about the circumstances that fractured the group almost 25 years ago. They seem content touring either on their own or with whatever “throwback rap tour” is on the road during any given summer and maintaining a professional partnership. But no matter the current state of affairs, the teenager in me wishes it was 1992, and for the illusion to be reality. Back then, when I first heard Business Never Personal, I knew that EPMD was going to be forever, and that hip-hop would never die.