Eric B. & Rakim's debut album, Paid in Full, was released on July 7th, 1987—that's 25 years ago tomorrow. I have been having some thoughts about this. If you have not yet run screaming away from your computer to find a mud-pit to wallow in for the rest of what promises to be a horrifically hot weekend, you can read them.
1) Rakim is the most important MC in the history of rap music.
It's still always weird to me to hear people argue about who's the best MC. This has to do my age, and the way that the things you think at certain points in your life crystalize into something more like objective truth than opinion. I was sixteen years old in 1987, and shortly after Paid In Full came out, there was simply no debating who was the best MC. The answer to that question was Rakim, period, the end. Everyone who listened to rap knew this. At least where I was from, in the suburbs an hour outside of New York City. I have since heard stories about how there was heavy argument and rivalry around that time in the city itself. Was Boogie Down Productions' KRS-One better? Was Big Daddy Kane better? Kool G Rap? Big Daddy Kane and KRS-One and Kool G Rap are phenomenally great rappers. And certainly, lots of people knew more about rap than my friends and I did in 1987 (and more about it than my friends and I do now.) But for us, in the halls of Red Bank Regional High School in New Jersey, it was not up for discussion: Rakim was the best.
My opinion has changed over the years: I now say that Biggie Smalls is the best rapper ever. (While Jay-Z is the "greatest" rapper ever, and Ghostface Killah is my "favorite." I am a nudnik who gets hung up on semantics.) But my first reaction, my reflexive response when anyone asks the question is still the same: "What do you mean, 'Who's the best MC?' Don't be stupid. Everybody knows it's Rakim."
Listening to Rakim now, and listening to the styles of rapping that came before and after he arrived on the scene, before and after Paid In Full came out, I think I would argue, that while I think Biggie is technically a better rapper—more eloquent, more versatile, more skilled—Rakim remains the most important rapper of all time. His flow—smooth, monotone, patient, cold—changed the way rappers sounded more than any other rapper before or since. And his vocabulary and his ability to put abstract intellectual concepts into rhyme expanded the rap palate in the same way. He was the first modern rapper.
2) I am old.
To a 16-year-old today, "Paid In Full" probably sounds like Dion's "The Wanderer" sounded to me in 1987—which was 25 years after it came out in 1962. This blows my mind. But no more than anyone should expect it to. The passage of time: Wow, man. The world just keeps changing, doesn't it?
ASAP Rocky, one of the brightest young rap stars to come on the scene this past year, was named Rakim Mayers when he was born in October, 1988. He was named after Rakim, the rapper we're talking about. Eric B. & Rakim are your parent's music. Which makes sense, since their first album came out 25 years ago. I am a parent. I don't mind this. Unlike semantics, aging is not something I get hung up on.
3) Twenty-five-year-old rap sounds better than I expected it to.
Back when Paid In Full came out, a lot of people were still saying that rap was a fad. That, unlike rock, its popularity would dwindle. This view was largely racist, I think, and I never subscribed to it. Like, I am not surprised at all that rap is still as popular today as it is. That said, listening to the old classics, records like Paid in Full, they sound better to me than I think I expected them to. One of my favorite things about rap has always been how of-the-moment it is.
A great rap record just seems to capture the sound of the day better than any other music I hear. (This might be due as much to rap's embrace of new recording technology as anything else—it is music made from new technology: the sampler's ability to incorporate pre-recorded sounds into a new collage form being different than the playing of notes on a piano or guitar, say.) So I think that while I was always into rap, I accepted the thought that the songs that I was loving at any given moment might not age so well. I guess I thought it might sound more like early Beatles records, the skiffle-pop that I have never so much liked, than the fully-realized later masterpieces. But I was wrong in that regard. Listening to "Paid In Full" or "Move the Crowd" or "I Ain't No Joke," songs from the Paid In Full album, they sound as massive and fantastic, as gloriously fresh as they ever have. They sound like Sgt. Pepper.
So this weekend, while you're wallowing in your mud-pit, or huddling in your air-conditioned box, you should listen to Paid In Full. It's on Spotify.