11. Eric B. and Rakim, "Eric B is President"/"Check Out My Melody" (1986)
If I were given hip-hop's timeline wand and asked to draw the line in the sand that would define the moment that hip-hop stepped into the post-modern age, this song would have to be my choice. Rakim's no-nonsense, straight-laced, non-minstrel, dead-panned delivery is one of the hardest sells in hip-hop. I mean, think about it. Some of our favorite characters in hip-hop are just that: characters. Colorful, all over the place, full of inflection and humor. Rakim was none of that. Pssssh, even his most humorous punchline – gotta remember, "President" was a part-time response record to Janet Jackson's unexpected red-hot "What have you done for me lately" – was dry enough to make Steven Wright take notice. "You scream I'm lazy?/You must be crazy/Thought I was a donut, you tried to glaze me . . . "
Rakim was John Coltrane personified as MC: all cool and steady hand. Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys were screaming hip-hop's power from the top of the mountains. Rakim was doing the exact opposite – mountains came to him. Just to prove this was no fluke, his every word on the B-side "My Melody" was like the holy scriptures. Damn near the 10 Commandments for any real MC worth his or her weight in gold. There was no MC from this new Renaissance period that wasn't running for cover when Rakim was within earshot. Remember those old Westerns, when the cowboy dressed in all black comes to the saloon and the tavern gets all silent and even the piano player stops the music? I don't, either, but you get the picture I'm trying to make. Rakim turned MCing into a serious art. He was no joke.