Eric B.





IT’S BEEN A LONG TIME—TWENTY-FIVE YEARS TO BE EXACT—SINCE ERIC B. AND RAKIM CHANGED HIP-HOP FOREVER. BRINGING AN ICY SERIOUSNESS AND A TRUCKLOAD OF SAMPLED JAMES BROWN SOUNDS to the streets of New York City, the duo’s debut album, Paid in Full, proved, more conclusively than anything that had come before it, that rap music was art with a capital A.

Combining the diamond-sharp lyrical brilliance of Long Island–based rapper William “Rakim” Griffi n Jr. with the rough beats and record-scratching fury of Queens native Eric B., whose government name is Barrier, the partnership began in 1986 with the stellar double single “Eric B. Is President/My Melody.”

With strong, dark features, the stoic rapper looked to be chiseled from onyx. And his fluid monotone—speaking, never shouting, in cool, calm, collected rhyme—set the scene. “Rakim was the first rapper who used his voice like a musical instrument,” says famed graffiti artist and former Yo! MTV Raps host Fab 5 Freddy. “He was like Miles Davis. His sense of poetry gave the words a real essence. People felt what Rakim was saying on a deeper level.” Soulful spitters from Nas to Erykah Badu to A$AP Rocky have since cited the “God MC” as their guiding light. (A$AP Rocky, born Rakim Mayer was, in fact named after him.)

Released on the independent Zakia Records, the 12-inch single was an instant hit that rocked the corner pavement and dance floors alike. “I can still remember when label owner Robert Hill brought ‘Eric B. Is President’ for me to play at the Latin Quarter,” says longtime 98.7 Kiss FM DJ Chuck Chillout. “When I put that record on at the LQ, man, the crowd lost their minds.”

After the success of the single, Hill signed Eric and Ra to an album deal with Island Records subsidiary 4th and Broadway and booked them time at Power Play studios, located in Long Island City, Queens, where they made new material like “I Ain’t No Joke,” “I Know You Got Soul” and the monumental, confessional song that would become their first album’s title track. “Rakim was so creative, but he couldn’t be rushed,” explains former 4th & Broadway A&R director Kookie Gonzalez. “While writing the song ‘Paid in Full,’ he got writer’s block. Unfortunately, we had to take the album away from them before he finished.”

It was finished enough. Combining musical brilliance, Five Percenter philosophy and stylish sensibilities, Eric and Rakim were new-school heroes for the hood—righteous and real, and stylish enough to be precursors to the ghetto fab movement.

“Their presence was so powerful,” remembers Brooklyn’s revered DJ Scratch. “Eric B. and Rakim made the hood believe they too could be successful. Their concepts, the rapping, the album cover—everything about Paid in Full was just right.”


While the LP’s place in hip-hop history has never been up for question, the story behind its construction has been in dispute since 1987. Juice Crew members Marley Marl, MC Shan and Rakim himself have all claimed musical credit for Paid in Full, but Eric B. is the only person named as producer in the liner notes.

Eric’s mentor, Harlem rap legend Doug E. Fresh, defends his old friend. “I don’t care what anybody says,” he says. “I know that Eric B. did the music for that album.” Lounging inside his local chicken and waffl es spot on 132nd Street and 7th Avenue, Doug remembers Eric bringing records to his crib on Manhattan Avenue, full of ideas about song construction. “Eric is a creative dude whose talents are often underestimated,” he insists. “I remember us talking about how he wanted to put records together, fusing Funkadelic drums with James Brown bass, stuff like that. What Eric B. brought to the table was instrumental in the success of Paid in Full.”