Friday, April 18, 2008

No. 459: Strictly Business

Sadly, this is Padraig's final contribution to the site. Read his other three pieces here, here and here.

Band: EPMD
Album: Strictly Business
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: A high point of 1988, one of hip hop’s greatest years, that basically defined the blueprint for classic Golden Age albums – funk/classic rock breaks + dope rhymes.
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: This is about right, even if it’s better than many of the albums RS ranked higher.
Best song: “You Gots to Chill” or “It’s My Thing”.
Worst song: “The Steve Martin” is kind of a novelty song.
Is it awesome?: Yes.

They weren’t the first to popularize the newer complex style of rhyming – that honor goes to the likes of Kool Moe Dee, KRS-One & Rakim. Nor were they pioneers of sample-based production like Marley Marl or Ced Gee. What Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith did do was make one of the most solid and enduring hip hop albums of the 80s. Even today it manages to be all things to all people; rough and rugged enough for discerning heads but still smooth as hell, great house party music but still funky and raw as hell. It’s also one of the hip hop records mostly frequently sampled by other rappers and producers.

How did they accomplish this formidable task? Well, first off, as I mentioned, they made good use of the hip hop toolkit circa ’88. Classic breaks from familiar sources like The J.B.s and Mountain show up, not to mention possibly the first sampling of Zapp’s electro-funk masterpiece “More Bounce to the Ounce” (since used for “Going Back to Cali” and roughly a trillion G-Funk songs). The beats are still stripped-down and minimal by modern standards but at the time they were as advanced as anything out besides the Bomb Squad and possibly Prince Paul’s work for De La Soul.

EPMD were also, along with those aforementioned producers and the Ultramagnetic MC’s, among the first to look to classic rock for loops. They began a long tradition of hip hop producers flipping terrible, generic rock (and later on, terrible easy listening as well) into great beats, here copping from Eric Clapton’s version of “I Shot the Sheriff” and especially our boy Steve Miller. Ah, the early and glorious days of sampling when dudes could get away with rapping for “Fly Like An Eagle” on two different songs on the same album (!) and still make it sound awesome. They also sample Kool & The Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” on three different songs, but hey, what’re ya gonna do?

On the rhyming front they come correct as well. Neither is on the level of a Rakim or Big Daddy Kane (though, who is?) nor do they constantly wow you with jaw-dropping wordplay. On the other hand, both have good flow and breath control and the rhymes are consistently on point and entertaining over the course of all ten songs. In true late 80s fashion they mostly stick to destroying wack MCs and talking about how great they are, but damned if it doesn’t sound fly as hell. They even do a little storytelling and flip the typical player anthem on “Jane” (over, of course, a loop from Rick James’ supremely funky ode to marijuana), initiating a series of songs that would run through all their albums.

The formula of “Strictly Business” was in fact so successful that Erick & Parrish decided to basically copy it for their next three albums, which are all, especially the follow-up “Unfinished Business”, worthy of attention if not quite on the level of the original, until breaking up in 1993 (there are a couple of predictably bad reunion albums as well). They also, through their crew The Hit Squad, released a bunch of great rap in the early 90s from the likes of Redman, Das EFX and K-Solo among others.

Finally I’d like to mention one more thing of possible historical interest – this album and “Unfinished Business” both came out on Fresh Records, subsidiary of Sleeping Bag Records, which was founded by none other than avante-disco legend Arthur Russell. The A&R for both Sleeping Bag and Fresh was Kurtis Mantronik of electro titans Mantronix. Fresh also put out albums by the likes of T La Rock (one of the originators of the modern style of rapping), original gangsta Just-Ice and Nice & Smooth, whose sex jams prefigured Snoop’s whole Don Magic Juan worshipping shtick. Maybe I’m the only one finds this interesting but I find it fascinating that so many different hip hop trends co-existed side by side on the same indie label not only with each other but also with a variety of weird 80s NY disco and garage house.


taotechuck said...

Thanks for the history lesson, Padraig. I'm fairly ignorant when it comes to hip-hop, so this is a great read. I'm especially intrigued by the ties to disco and house, as I've been digging back into the culture of disco and discovering there was a lot more to it than most of us realize.

padraig said...

no problem, dude. check out the review I did for "Criminal Minded" by Boogie Down Productions a couple of weeks ago as well. as far as the connections between disco, house and hip hop - well, yeah, I think a lot of people confuse the awful, vapid culture with the actual music. Disco had a lot to do with funk and soul, especially the smooth, uptempo Philly Sound and Isaac Hayes' work w/all the elaborate, lavish string arrangements. The big innovation was that 4-to-the-floor pulse from dudes like Giorgio Moroder. I'm a huge disco fan.

That whole Sleeping Bag records deal - yeah, it's crazy that Arthur Russell and Mantronik ran a label together. But I think the early 80s in NY everything was just jumbled up together - it was all on the cutting edge, you know? The No-Wave bands and the hip-hop pioneers and weird avante-garde cats like Russell found common cause. even Blondie w/that video for "Rapture" and "Call Me" - which was originally the theme song for American Gigolo and which was written/produced by Moroder.