Despite his mush-mouthed voice, lazy delivery, conventional beats and tediously routine subject matter, Long Island’s Erick Sermon became a bigtime rap star as the vocal half of EPMD. Wisely, though, he’s put a lot of effort into outside endeavors, and he’s built himself a major studio career writing and producing both hardcore hip-hop and funky R&B crossovers. Besides his collection of gold-certified EPMD and solo albums, Sermon can hang metal-plated music by Redman, Keith Murray, Shaquille O’Neal, Supercat, Jodeci, Heavy D and others on his wall. Not to mention an ad campaign for Coca-Cola Classic. Go figure.
Strictly Business bites standard old-school samples (Steve Miller, Bob Marley, etc.) with scant imagination; except for the title track’s anti-drug message and a dance called “The Steve Martin,” it’s unprepossessing and amateurish.
Likewise, the rudimentary self-production of Unfinished Business is its most engaging asset: Sermon and his largely silent partner Parrish Smith (the band’s acronym stands for Erick and Parrish Making Dollars) sound like a couple of kids fooling around in mom’s basement, rapping about nothing, singing a line or two, making cut-in jokes with some favorite records and generally amusing themselves while the tape runs. But other than a jokey and commendable condemnation of drunk driving (“You Had Too Much to Drink”), the winsomely autobiographical “Please Listen to My Demo” and a second installment of the first album’s “Jane” sex saga, Unfinished Business is lame.
K-Solo (Kevin Madison), another Long Island native, had been in a pre-EPMD group with Smith, who arranged for him to appear on Unfinished Business (“Knick Knack Patty Wack”) and produced and played keyboards on Tell the World My Name. The rough-edged rapper’s a-n-n-o-y-i-n-g gimmick of spelling rhymes on “Spellbound” is a terrible opener. The strongly worded nationalism of “The Messenger” begins with a speech by Malcolm X and praises, among other leaders, Minister Farrakhan. Likewise, the stark power of the autobiographical “Fugitive,” “Rockin’ for My Hometown” (which contains an early shout-out to Biggie Smalls) and the anti-drug “Tales From the Crack Side” are memorably effective, and “Your Mom’s in My Business” offers a witty perspective on parental meddling. Smith executive produced K-Solo’s second album, and did a little production on it, as did Sermon and Pete Rock.
Business as Usual is anything but: mindful of the roughneck revolution fueling gangsta rap, EPMD turns up the heat with a newly aggressive stance and smoothly charged bustling soul beats. Sermon’s rapping is significantly improved (not good, just better), helpfully augmented by occasional bursts of verbal aggression from Smith (especially on “Manslaughter”) and guest appearances by Redman (“Hardcore,” “Brothers on My Jock”) and LL Cool J (“Rampage”), whose energetic, articulate flow wakes up the album, cutting through the vocal fuzz like a machete. Using violent language and drug references for standard sucker-MC put-downs, boasts, sex tales (“Mr. Bozack,” “Jane 3”) and a bad-marriage grumble (“Gold Digger”), the young veterans get with a new generation while staying true to the innocuous essence of their past work.
It’s only on Business Never Personal, the duo’s final album together, that Sermon and Smith at last hit their stride as a rap/production team, rocking solo and tandem vocals rifled for gangsta gun power over solidly modern and motivated high-pressure music that shares a feel with Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad. Cutting the tension, the album is littered with lighthearted references: “I got more dick than Van Dyke…scream loud as hell like Sam Kiniston [sic]…Ya wanna buy the cassette? Stop by Sam Goody…” Pulling unprecedented inspiration from god knows where, EPMD launch a principled (if, for Sermon, ultimately hypocritical) and amusing attack, complete with vocorderized examples, on artists who attempt a “Crossover,” wrap up their sonic serial in an effective little crime mystery (“Who Killed Jane”), make violins wax funky in “Chill” and get prot‚g‚s Das EFX in for “Cummin’ at Cha,” a deftly rapped track that speeds history along by sampling Cypress Hill.
With EPMD temporarily consigned to history, Sermon — “The Green Eyed Bandit” — gets up to his old nothing-going-on-but-the-rent slackness to cruise lazily through No Pressure, a dull no-effort dose of stripped-down bass/snare funk that brings in ringers (Keith Murray, Kam, Ice Cube, Redman, Shadz of Lingo, others) to help on half the overly familiar, repetitive tracks. The titles say it all: “Imma Gitz Mine,” “Safe Sex,” “Stay Real” and (snore) “Erick Sermon,” in which he reaches for the sky and winds up face down in the sewer. “I have a dream like Martin Luther King/That one day, yo, I could do away with the pitiful, and the critical wack MCs/Separate the ocean and throw ’em in between/Grab my nuts, hold ’em, because they’re golden…” Pathetic.
The woozy, scratchy, blunted and downright weird Double or Nothing is even more of a collaboration, with Redman and Keith Murray rhyming, co-writing or co-producing a third of the cuts; others also help take the onerous load of making a record off the star’s broad shoulders. Getting Redman substantially involved was a smart move: the colorful mindbender hijacks enough of the sprawling Double or Nothing to make it another of his strange rambles on the funky darkside. (Although not a Redman trip, the acoustic 12-bar guitar blues of “Live in the Backyard” is one of the most surprising things ever included on a major-label rap record, and that’s saying something.) Murray and a thoroughly unskilled relative, Roslyn Noble, stumble through a litany of loopy pseudo-intelligence in “Tell ‘Em”; after Sermon also sits out the studio skit that follows, it’s easy to forget whose record this is supposed to be. Erick does hold his own in the entertaining “Boy Meets World,” but otherwise mainly contributes to the deadly ennui that creeps in soon after.
Billed as PMD, Smith produced himself a very cool-sounding, positive-minded but ultimately self-defeating solo debut. Using uncommon samples to summon up slow rumbles from the ambient sub-basement, he vigorously and repeatedly pledges to keep his shit hard and raw, dissing those who would feed hip-hop to R&B: “Seen MCs come and seen some MCs go / Why they choose the crossover ’cause they’re blind and don’t know.” But that’s as far as Smith’s ideas extend. (He does, however, namecheck virtually every hit EPMD ever had and makes a couple of veiled references to his erstwhile partner.) Occasionally borrowing the odd rollercoaster phrasing from Das EFX (who guest here), Smith expends a lot of energy making the simple sound difficult, spewing wordy boasts and celebrity similes inna old-school style. (Pushing that front, “Swing Your Own Thing” is a shamelessly old-fashioned party jam.) Coming into his own, Smith has a sturdy voice but needs a strong creative foil to really set him off on the right track next time.
Insomnia is a showcase-cum-trial-balloon of new Sermon-produced tracks by various artists, including Redman (“Funkorama”), Keith Murray (“It’s That Hit”) and the man himself (“Reign”), as well as a bunch of unknowns (Jamal & Calif, Duo, Domo, the Wixtons) testing the commercial waters.
In late September 2001, Sermon was seriously injured in what was initially reported to be a car crash but was later revealed to have been a purported suicide jump from an apartment window.