Queens homeslice Eric B. (Barrier) is the DJ and Strong (Long) Islander Rakim (William Griffin) is the rapper; as the latter sings in “I Ain’t No Joke,” “I hold the microphone like a grudge/Eric B. hold the record so the needle don’t budge.” Beginning with a brilliant summer of ’86 single, “Eric B. Is President,” on an obscure Harlem label, Eric B. and Rakim proved themselves if not the hardest, certainly the most technically intricate — both musically and lyrically — rap duo around. Their follow-up, “Paid in Full,” inspired more than 30 (!) different mixes; the standout was Coldcut’s “Seven Minutes of Madness,” which introduced Yemenite singer Ofra Haza to the international pop audience through the miracle of sampling. (Eric B. and Rakim themselves pioneered the musical appropriation of James Brown in their mixes, initiating hip-hop’s almost obligatory homage to the Godfather of Soul.)
Paid in Full is a spectacular debut LP that includes new mixes of “Eric B. Is President” and its flipside, “My Melody.” Rakim’s lyrics focus on the duo’s prodigious talents and celebrate the joy of money, with the accumulation of wealth’s material accoutrements seemingly serving as an artistic end in itself.
While Rakim can’t seem to move off the subject of his own unbelievable defness, the gold-rope duo gets across on Follow the Leader on the strength of his dynamic delivery and some of the most original backing tracks around (credit Stevie Blass Griffin). Defying convention, the mix doesn’t so much shape the sound around the beat as sink natural-sounding drums into a sonic mid-point, allowing vocals, bass and a variety of other instruments and samples to even things out.
Loaded with Rakim’s quiet power, the amazing Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em expands and refines the team’s style, laying thickly textured tracks — a unique balance of sturdy beats and woozy late-night atmosphere — under increasingly sophisticated raps. The understatement of “In the Ghetto” (not the Elvis song) and “Step Back” make them exceptionally effective; tracks like “Untouchables” and “Run for Cover” raise the energy back up with the duo’s usual musical invention. The CD adds the title track’s 12-inch remix as a bonus.