To be honest, I did not know about Rakim until he was featured on Truth Hurts’ song Addictive. “Thinking of a master plan / You know anything you need baby, ask your man.” And it was six years later when I first learned of Paid In Full thanks to Erykah Badu’s cover parody in the video for Honey. #BlameItOnMyYouth
Picture Source – Honey Music Video
A Homegrown Effort
Marley Marl synthesized it, I memorized it
Eric B. made a cut and advertised it
– My Melody
Rakim grew up with music, surrounded by talented women and men. His mother was a jazz and opera singer and his aunt Ruth Brown was known to some as the Queen of R&B for decades of music making beginning in the 1950s. Beyond her musical career, Brown also fought for musicians’ rights and royalties which led to the establishment of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in 1988. In his youth, Rakim played the baritone sax and began rapping during high school. He saw rapping and music as a way to thrive:
Cause I don’t like to dream about getting paid
So I dig into the books of the rhymes that I made
– Paid In Full
Eric B. also had a musical upbringing, and played the trumpet and guitar during childhood. He transitioned into the hip-hop art of DJing early in high school. By enhancing his skills on the turntable through his work at the WBLS radio station, Eric B. became a master of sampling. Paid In Full boasts songs from R&B, Disco, Jazz, & Rock. Years of crate digging and musical knowledge influenced the sample choices that eventually brought the album together. Chinese Arithmetic, Eric B. Is On the Cut, and Extended Beat are the three tracks with just Eric B’s production and scratching.
The first single Eric B. and Rakim released together was Eric B. Is President, which was recorded in Marley Marl’s home studio. They released the historic song in 1986, and it appeared again a year later as track 9 on Paid In Full. This track boasted unexpected samples like Over Like A Fat Rat and equally unexpected lyrical delivery from Rakim which heavily utilized internal rhymes. The success of the single led to the duo signing with Def Jam Records under Russell Simmons’ direction.
Even while signed under a major label, homegrown authenticity stayed with the duo through the production and development of Paid in Full, an album so rich with character it sounds like they created it in someone’s basement. Rakim’s first verse on the album’s title track targets the biography of many who were and would be personally impacted by the album:
So I start my mission, leave my residence
Thinking, “How could I get some dead presidents?”
Though much has changed in the music industry since that time, some still experience similar grassroots success, as Post Malone did with his song White Iverson. Originally released on Soundcloud, “White Iverson” lead to Post Malone’s record deal with Republic Records. “Eric B. Is President” and the path it created toward the creation of Paid In Full still serve as inspiration for rappers and producers who want to get their music out in anyway possible.
Rap to Thrive
I Ain’t No Joke is Rakim’s declaration as a rapper. Rakim’s lyrics have layers to their meaning and he unpacks those layers so listeners never miss the full message. Eric B’s straight-forward production helps Rakim’s lyrics shine:
I’m just an addict, addicted to music
Maybe it’s a habit, I gotta use it
Even if it’s jazz or the quiet storm
I hook a beat up, convert it into hip-hop form
Rakim knew his smooth style was innovative and that other rappers would attempt to imitate him. And while mimicry can make one successful for a moment, it doesn’t contribute to a memorable legacy:
You can’t make it so you take it home, break it and bite
Use pieces and bits of all the hip-hop hits
Get the style down pat then it’s time to switch
Back on the title track and armed with his original flow, Rakim mentions how rap saved him from a life of devious ways he knew he didn’t want to embrace forever:
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
Pieced together, we can see how hip-hop provided Rakim with a sense of purpose and originality. Those traits were instrumental in crafting his legacy.
You can feel soul in this album emanating from the lyrics, the scratching, and the expertly chosen samples. I Know You Got Soul stands as a testament to this fact. Rakim’s finesse through this song demonstrates how his rhymes are a deliverance from other rappers who can’t compare:
It’s been a long time, I shouldn’t have left you
Without a strong rhyme to step to
Think of how many weak shows you slept through
Time’s up, I’m sorry I kept you
Soul is all about being original; imitators only drive Rakim to perform more:
You want it next? Then you gotta have soul
Cause if you ain’t got it, I’m a make an encore
I appreciate Rakim’s inclusiveness in his last verse, where he invites people from all the boroughs of NYC and the US to come together and dance. He even provides space, “…For those that can’t dance, just clap your hands”.
Now I’m a stop to see what you got
Get off the mic before I get too hot
I want to see which posse can dance the best
It should be easy cause the beat is fresh
Eric B & Rakim’s worked great as a duo on this album. There is power in their collaboration and balance between the rapping and DJing. Being able to hear all the lyrics on the album clearly without needing to rely on the internet to provide the message was enjoyable. Much of this last decade’s music seems to lack balance between production and lyricism, which means Paid In Full may be as relevant for inspiring artists today as it was almost thirty years ago.