Eric B. and Rakim – architects of some the funkiest, smoothest, slick-talkingest records of rap's Golden Era – are currently on their first tour since the duo parted ways in 1992. The impact of their 1987 debut LP, Paid in Full – one of Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time – represented nothing short of a changing of the guard: rap energy moving from rock star shouts to jazz cool, flows moving from party-rocking boom to knotty and floating, James Brown samples becoming a generation's funky heartbeat, their Dapper Dan jackets showcasing repurposed Gucci logos as fashion's next wave. The four LPs they made together would provide enough indelible lines and samples to power generations of songs, including classics by the Game and 50 Cent ("Hate It or Love It"), Eminem ("The Way I Am"), Nas ("N.Y. State of Mind"), the Clipse ("Grindin'), and Aaliyah ("Try Again). The tour winds down in May and they will also be performing at Brooklyn's arena-sized Yo MTV Raps: 30th Anniversary Experience in June.
Rolling Stone caught up with them backstage before their homecoming show in Long Island – their first in-person joint interview in years.
If you read interviews with either of you from the last few years, the prevailing sentiment was that you didn't have any beef with one another, but you didn't really talk.
Eric B.: It's just like any band. We started out as kids, so first and foremost, we're family and brothers. I can go not talking to my brother for a year or two years and he's still my brother. … Regardless to what you hear or what we go through, we're still family.
When was the first time someone was like, "Man, we need to get back out there?"
Eric B.: It wasn't hard. Rakim said this thing years ago. They asked him, "Ra, why you didn't say this rhyme?" He said, "I never say a rhyme before its time." And it's like that with Eric B. and Rakim.
Rakim: Me and him didn't have a problem. We had a business problem. … The business, it went bad and that's why the group broke up. We never had a fight before. I never swung at him; he never swung at me. … It was never, never that. But it was just the business went bad and there was a point, at our career and in our life where it was a lot of things going on and I think we just felt it was best to chill for a while. And then, you know, we men, we stubborn.
Take it back to 1985. In the tape of you rapping at the Wyandanch High School jams, you had a yelling style. How did you end up settling on the more calm, chill style of your records?
Rakim: When I was in high school, the energy in hip-hop at that point was the park energy. … I was just trying to develop my style at that point and I think, when you're trying to find your style, you find yourself. … I think maybe a year before I met Eric B., I did "[My] Melody," and I think writing that song kind of created that style. I don't know if it was falling in love with that tempo, but writing that song kind of created the style.
Eric B.: Ask Ra how long is the original "Melody."
How long is the original "My Melody?"
Rakim: Shit. It was like 30 minutes.
Eric B.: No, nah, I got a tape. I think it's like one of the old [Maxell] 60-to-90-minute tapes. And it was just the "Melody" kept going on and we had to find a way to edit it to fit down on a record. Rakim rhymed all day on the tape.
What about your delivery, though?
Rakim: Oh, now, I think that's my upbringing, my musical influence that my family put on me. You know, my mother sang music when she was growing up. I love, you know, a lot of jazz, John Coltrane.
Eric B.: You know what I tell people, it is, Ra? I said, "From his father. The man's father … is one of the smoothest men I know." [Laughs] His father, he made cutting the grass look cool. [Smooth voice] "Hey, Eric. I'm here taking take of the grass, baby. Ain't about nothing."
Rakim: Pops was cool.
Eric B.: Smooth. Smooth as a violin, man. I'm telling you. Hair always in place, Afro always together. He always together. And that's what I tell everybody. "Where did Ra get that?" I say, "Mr. Griffin."
Eric, let's talk about your style for a little bit. Your scratching style is almost in opposition, very martial and percussive. Where did you get your percussive influence?
Eric B.: There were so many DJs like DJ Vernon or King Charles and just watching Flash and all of these guys as a kid. I remember sneaking out to the armories at night, sneaking out to the parties at St. Gabriel School on Astoria Boulevard.
How old were you when you started sneaking out going to parties?
Eric B.: Probably nine, 10. … You know, when we came up in Queens, the DJs had real sound systems. They had the Cerwin-Vegas, they had, you know, the B36s, L48s, and then Dance Master had his own speakers called the Berthas. The Disco Twins had the Altec. … The Bronx always said that they started hip-hop, but there really wasn't no strong sound system. These guys, we laugh today, and said, "Y'all had little guitar systems." The Bronx, they get mad when I say that, but they really didn't have that strong sound system like the guys in Astoria and the guys out in Jamaica, Queens.
Kool Herc's sound system is legendary, though. That's the origin story!
Eric B.: No. Who said that? When you see Kool Herc in those pictures, right, he got two guitar speakers in the back of the car. And I'm like, "I never remember Herc having a big system." I was a little kid … I don't know. Maybe somebody's here to correct me. But it doesn't take away from who he is – let's be clear about that – and the mark that he's made.
Did you guys have any sort of park jam history at all?
Eric B.: No. … I remember we were in the basement, his mother's basement. … I remember we were talking about Fonda Rae, remember Ra, "Over Like a Fat Rat." I was like, "Yo, Ra. We need to take this bass line." Rakim spit the beer all of his mother's wall.
Rakim: I fell out laughing. First we pulled "Funky President" out. "Funky President," James Brown. Eric B. was like, "Yo, we 'gon put this over Fonda Rae. Fonda Rae over 'Funky President.'" Yeah. I bust out laughing, I spit beer all over my mother's basement and shit. Laughing on my knees. "Yo, that shit would never work."
Eric B.: And [Rakim's brother Stevie] Blast told me something that I stay true to today. Blast said, "Eric, don't abandon the plan." He said, "Don't listen to this dude. All he does is write in books all day [laughs]. He's got a stack of books like this. He just writes in 'em."
A lot has been made of when Public Enemy heard "I Know You Got Soul" in 1987 and inspired them to change their sound.
Eric B.: Chuck tells that story all the time. It had me laughing. You ever hear that, Ra?
Rakim: Yeah. Big up to Chuck, man.
Eric B.: Chuck talking about he was gonna quit. I said, "Chuck, stop."
Rakim: Chuck said he heard it and then he kind of had to go back to the drawing board. You know how sometimes you hear something new, it inspires you to go to the studio or go make a new song, I think that's what it was
Eric B.: And it pushed him to another level.
How aware of that were you at the time?
Rakim: I wasn't. We was just trying to do good music. We was hoping that it resonated with people. We had no idea of how people would receive it.
Do you remember the first time you heard "Rebel Without a Pause" by Public Enemy?
Rakim: After the album dropped, I started hearing a lot of me and Eric. Styles of what we was doing. But at that point, to me, it was dope. I was a young cat from Long Island trying to make my way in the game. But to make your way in and the people was kind of gravitating towards what you doing, it was the best shit in the world.
When was the first time someone floated the idea to you that you might be the greatest MC ever?
Rakim: I think the realest thing that I can remember was when we came out in, I think it was The Source magazine? They did the 50 Greatest MCs. True story, man, I remember sitting with my kids just watching TV. Phone rings, A&R for the label. They say, "Hey Ra, did you hear about the new 50 Greatest MCs? "They did it, you in there. Guess where they put you at?" I'm thinking like 10, 15. Like, just the way he said it. At that point, I didn't even want to hear the conversation. So he's like, "Yo, guess!" I'm like, "Yo, come on, now. I don't feel like playing no games, bro." He was like, "Yo, number one."
And that shit hit me like a ton of bricks, E. I think I smiled, laughed and cried at the same time. What was funny was my kids were sitting in the room and they seen my demeanor change, so everything stopped. They was all looking at me. I just remember I was looking at the TV, and I could just feel the room stop after he told me. Then I looked over at my kids, I had a tear in my eye, straight up. I looked over at my kids, and they looked at me like, "Oh, shit! Dad got a tear in his eye!" [Laughs]
Eric B.: Superman has left the building!
Rakim: Word up, man! And I realized what was going on, took my thumb and wiped my tear. I was like, "Yo, get back to what y'all doing." From then on, it put the thought in my head, man, and I kind of wrote rhymes with that in mind ever since.
When did wearing the fat chains became important to you?
Rakim: Soon as we went and got our check, we went to the jewelry store. ... When I first met him, he had jewelry on. We was wearing jewelry already and we both love jewelry. What was funny is when we got our check, I didn't know where he was going. We both went our way, but when we came back, we was heavy. [Laughs]
Did you have to get used to the weight?
Rakim: Nah, just remember that you had 'em on sometimes and you couldn't kind of do certain shit or you'll bust yourself in the face.
Eric B.: Exactly. That shit wasn't light.
Rakim: You gotta kind of remember that you had the jewelry on, hold it down or whatever and do certain things. Definitely could knock a tooth out if you're not careful.
Do you guys remember hearing the Coldcut "Paid in Full (7 Minutes of Madness)" remix for the first time?
Eric B.: We played the Red Parrot, then we went from the Red Parrot to [radio station] BLS. We did BLS in the morning then jumped on to Concorde. Never forget. They said, "Hello! You have arrived!" We the only people left on the Concorde, sleep. 'Cause we were up all night and then went to the radio station in the morning, and then we had a show in London the same day.
Rakim: Took the Concorde straight to London, got off the plane and went did the show.
Eric B.: Yeah, and they played the Coldcut remix for us on the way there. We were like ...
Rakim: What the hell is that?
Eric B.: What the hell just happened here?
Rakim: First of all, who the hell did that shit?
Eric B.: Who authorized this bullshit?
Rakim: Word up, me and Eric was mad as shit.
Eric B.: Exactly.
Rakim: As we was arguing a bit, the shit's playing. Then later on our argument get a little lighter, and a little lighter, and then listened to it some more. And you see me and E like this ...
Eric B.: That shit ain't that bad.
Rakim: Hey, run that back, bro! Take it to the top, man. It was dope, man.
Eric B.: 'Cause we young and …
Rakim: It was our shit! You can't take somebody's picture and then add colors to it. Who the fuck did that?
Eric B.: Picasso did a painting and then all of a sudden somebody just came in with a brush and tightened it up. No man, you crazy?
Rakim: Word up. We started listening and before we started realizing, like, this shit is like specially made for London, like, we kind of big over here, bro.
Eric B.: The funny shit is, coming in, people looked at us like we was aliens. We came back, "Hey, I seen you on the Top of the Pops last night!" We were like the Beatles coming back through the airport.
What were those first London shows like?
Eric B.: I remember we was sitting there on the side of the stage, sleep. … Man, we got on the stage, them motherfuckers starting blowing horns.
Rakim: Tambourines, whistles, horns.
Eric B.: They ripping their clothes off.
Rakim: Sticks with pot tops.
Eric B.: Woke us right up.
About "Paid in Full"'s lyrics: Was fish actually your favorite dish?
Rakim: It still is. … I just had some a little while ago. I'm doing more baked than fried now, you know what I mean?.
After the breakup, was it hard ...
Rakim: What breakup?
Well, you know what, tell me. … The information needs to be out there about what it actually was, because people don't seem to know what it actually was.
Eric B.: You know what's so funny about that? I think that adds to the mystique of Eric B & Rakim. What they don't know. Everybody got their own version.
Rakim: Word is bond.
Eric B: We just like, "Alright, if that's what y'all wanna say, let it go."
Rakim: You come up, you love music and then business interferes. You're like, "Yo, what the fuck is this?" … I wanted to quit a bunch of times. If it wasn't for Bert Padell. Allah, bless him, man. Our accountant. I thought I was going to be able to quit back then. I would wake up in the morning and be like, "Yo, this is it."
Why'd you wanna quit?
Rakim: Because ...
Eric B.: The business, man.
Rakim: Yeah. … It wasn't fun for me anymore. When you realize that you gotta basically write with business in mind. Meaning, you know, your contract is structured like this or the market is structured like this, they want you to make this kind of song. It's not from the heart or organic anymore.
Eric B.: You can't make what you want to make.
Rakim: I just felt it was too much. When me and Eric did songs back in the day, we didn't go and sit down in front of no A&R. We made our album and then when we finished we handed it in and then we picked the best song for the first single. We never sat down and tried to make a single, you know what I mean? A lot of things change, the structure of things change, and you know, I just felt like it was kind of becoming a gimmick.
Eric B.: Life. Anything is possible, man.