Review: Richard Grabel, NME Aug 1987

This boy Rakim has a helluva style on the mike. His voice is slung lower than a gunfighter’s holster. It’s insinuating, sexy and strangely soothing. The tracks he and DJ Eric B. deploy are like smoothly undulating oceans that buoy up that silky voice and carry it to us, incessantly, unavoidably, like waves caressing the beach.

The sound is the groove that makes the best hip-hop move these days-very sparse, very funky. Eric B. & Rakim’s signature to the style is their very skilful use of similarly spare and funky old soul (rare groove) material. Most famously there’s the appropriation of Bobby Byrd’s ‘I Know You Got Soul’ for their own brilliant single of the same name. But check too the way the bass line and melody of Dennis Edwards ‘don’t Look Any Further’ adds juice to ‘Paid In full’, or the way the horn line from the JB’s ‘Pass The Ps’ sparks the beat of ‘I Ain’t no Joke’. This aural pick-pocketing is an art, and this Eric B. & Rakim it’s a creed. “Even if its’s jazz or the Quiet Storm / I hook up a beat, convert it to a hip-hop form.” Seems like everybody in rap is trying to do this. These guys make it work.

What makes this problematic as an album is that two of its best tracks are already well familiar as singles. ‘Eric B. For President’ was a New York street smash last summer. It’s a solid string of wordplay with funny lines like “You though I was a doughnut / You tried to glaze me”, and a year later it still sounds fresh. The star of the show is the awesome ‘I know You got Soul’, one of the most infectious and funky singles of this or any summer. Its’ not just the greatness of the Bobby Byrd source material that makes this work. It’s the way they stake their claim to it and remake the old groove into anew one. Here, Rakim’s rap is perfection, the track is moving and truly musical, the combination is magic.

There are two other great tracks. ‘I Ain’t No Joke’ is as hard as nails serious groove, while ‘Paid In Full’ is a strange mind game in which the boys do a little dialogue about their business arrangements, name checking their booking agents, record companies and managers. Then, the melody switches off leaving the drum machine rocking away, “and we outta here”. Weird and ingenious.

But unfortunately most of the rest just repeats the best. There’s even a novelty hip-hop instrumental called ‘Chinese Arithmatic’ which should have been called Chinese Torture.

This is going down as the year rap albums truly came into their own. We’ve had Salt’N’Pepa, LL Cool J, Public enemy, MC Shan, and most crucial of all Boogie Down Productions’ mind-blowing ‘Criminal Minded.’ As an album this one isn’t quite at that level, but if you don’t already own the singles, it’s certainly a def buy.