30 years later, 1988 still stands as rap’s greatest year. The lyrical molotovs of Nation of Millions and Straight Outta Compton, the post-modern (and pre-lawsuit) free-for-all of sampling, the national spotlight of a new show called Yo! MTV Raps and much more. To celebrate 30 years, Rolling Stone’s Best of ’88 explores some of the greatest songs from those explosive 12 months. See our other entries on Rob Base and D.J. E-Z Rock, Run-DMC, Sir Mix-A-Lot, Slick Rick, MC Lyte and Biz Markie.
In 1988, as New York rattled and popcorned with tense, funky drums sampled from James Brown records, two kids from Brentwood, Long Island stumbled across a smoother groove, giving East Coast rap more bounce.
Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith had rocketed to success the previous year with their first single, “It’s My Thing” b/w “You’re a Customer.” Taxed with writing an album, they took inspiration from what was in their immediate vicinity: Not a carefully crate-dug selection of Sixties and Seventies breakbeats, but Smith’s dad’s cassette of Zapp’s 1980 classic “More Bounce to the Ounce,” a liquid, electro-funk tune whose status as a Number Two R&B smash was still barely in the rearview. Constructed with engineer Charlie Marotta at North Shore Soundworks in Long Island, their second single “You Gots to Chill” gave New York a new way to funk.
Rolling Stone invites you to relax your mind and let your conscience be free, as Sermon and Parrish reflect on 30 years of a hard-but-smooth classic.
What was the immediate aftermath after the success of “It’s My Thing”?
Smith: We was watching hip-hop from an outside standpoint of view. We was from Long Island so people always looked at Long Island as basically last on the totem pole. Back then you had Mr. Magic [on WBLS] — that was an artist’s biggest goal, was just to hear your song and get that “wor-wor-wor-world premiere.” Remember back then that hip-hop was only an hour [on the radio]. It wasn’t every day like it’s now. So, if you didn’t get your song played on a Friday or Saturday, you had to wait till the next one.
Sermon: Me and Parrish was at his dad’s house, drinking Heinekens. [KISS-FM’s] Red Alert ends his show at 11 o’clock every night. He played the original breakbeat some nights [the Whole Darn Family’s “Seven Minutes of Funk”], but then this night, the helicopters [from the intro] come on. So after that, it’s pandemonium, ’cause there was no two-way calling on the phones yet. So all the phones were busy. Everybody’s calling to us saying “yo!” about the record being played on the radio, ’cause everybody must have heard at the same time. But it was pandemonium from day one when the record hit the radio.
How deep into the album recording was “You Gots to Chill”?
Parrish: It was early in the session. Erick and I was like a little weird when it came to the music and hip-hop. We always thought everybody did their music. We didn’t really, know the producer-writer [distinction], so we just was trying to come up with our own sound. And with Erick and I, it’s like every song we made, we put out. Like you know how some people have the lost files and stuff stashed away and stuff like that? After “It’s My Thing”/”You’re a Customer,” we went right in and did “You Gots to Chill.”
Parrish: Sleeping Bag Records was looking at the way the single was moving for “It’s My Thing” and “You’re a Customer.” So out of nowhere, me and Erick was just chilling, and we got certified mail to my dad’s house, like “Yo, we want y’all to do a whole album.” Like, a whole album, we wasn’t even thinking that way. We was just down with hip-hop, doing the A side and the B side.
“Whatever came to our minds that we liked, we made.”
Sermon: We was building a ’68 Camaro, that car that we talked about in [1989’s “Please Listen to My Demo”]. Me and Parrish really built a ’68 Camaro, a car that he had bought. So during then, his dad had a cassette tape of Zapp. And Parrish said, “Erick check this out” and it was “More Bounce.” We went to the studio and we looped it up, like immediately.
Yeah, your music was hip-hop, and something released only about 8 years earlier seemed like it was from another generation?
Sermon: Right, right. But, you know what, Me and Parrish we sampled and used what felt good to us. All our records that we used either came from home, or came from Parrish being a DJ. EPMD wasn’t diggers or stuff like that. It was predestined for us to be what we are, cause it was fast, it was in front of us. We was able to create on the spot when we felt like it. Whatever came to our minds that we liked, we made.
Was DJ K La Boss from Brentwood?
Sermon: Yes. But, Diamond J [EPMD’s current DJ] was our first DJ though.
Parrish: That’s how fast it took off. I think we may have got to do a show and half with Diamond…
Sermon: And, that’s it, ha!
Parrish: Like a show and a half, or a half a show, and then we were gone. Diamond J rocks with us now. So when we went to the Run’s House tour, Diamond J connected with Prince and started doing his own thing. So, he was out there on the road DJing for Prince for real, when Prince was hot.
“We always felt in our heart, everything that we was listening to, that we can do better and that we can hang with the best of them.”
Roger Troutman of Zapp wanted cash for the sample, but the process wasn’t as established in 1988.
Sermon: Yeah, well, the label told us it was 10 thousand dollars, but, at the end of the day, Roger ended up becoming friends with me and P, so I wouldn’t think that he would’ve charged that money knowing that we end up going to his house, we end up making a record with him in ’91. So, I mean, it says that he took 10 thousand from us, but the way that our relationship was, it doesn’t seem to be like that.
Parrish: Right, because in the beginning, you know, what we were hearing — because there was no communication with R&B, and hip hop — but it was a vibe out there, like, “Why are these guys borrowing our music?” That’s what we was hearing. But then one day, Erick and I just so happened to be in the same studio as Roger, and we bumped into him. And then there, that’s where we had the conversation, and from that point on then, Roger shows us nothing but love.
The iconic opening line of the song, “Relax your mind, let your conscience be free,” do you know where that line originated?
Sermon: Nah. It was just writing rhymes.
Parrish: Erick has a lot of rhymes like that, you know what I mean? Like, “Yo, where did that come from?” Like, he was talking about computers back then, before computers was even available…
Sermon: “I be the personal computer information on rap”
Parrish: He was like, “Relax your mind, let your conscience be free” is what it’s all about! Like, that’s like the master enlightenment in life. Meanwhile as a teenager, Erick wrote that. When you get older, and you see the people’s into yoga, and you know the people’s into praying, that’s the ultimate level of the mind.
Have you guys gotten into yoga, or meditation in the years since?
Sermon: I think Parrish does, just because Parrish goes to the Grand Canyon, and all that type of stuff. The relaxation is a kind of hard thing to do, to sit there and yoga, I don’t know yet.
The Zapp sample is so different than what was going on. It really makes “You Gots to Chill” a unique song compared to everything else at the time.
Sermon: Everybody said that, at the time, New York rap was definitely James Brown-heavy. So, everybody was sampling a lot of James, a lot of breaks, and for us to do what we did, even with “So What Cha Sayin” with the [Funkadelic sample] — people thought we were West Coast group, ’cause we did pick out samples that just wasn’t normal for New York City.
When you guys go to California or Miami, do you notice a different reaction to this song than other parts of the country?
Sermon: Well, it’s big everywhere, but California, we used to be called back every two weeks to go perform when we came out. That’s how popular that record was as far as there, Texas, the South — it was huge everywhere, y’know. Because, again [“More Bounce to the Ounce”] was played as a record, like you said, 10 years before. It was very popular. I mean, popular-popular. We didn’t know that.
Parrish: Markets like Chicago and definitely Detroit, when “You Gots to Chill” come on, it’s a big thing.
I have to know about the music video.
Sermon: That’s one video that [people] remember everything about.
Parrish: To this day. [EPMD dancer] Stezo doing the Stezo, which was a big dance that came after the “You Gots to Chill” record, that people still do today.
Sermon: Soon as that record come on, people start doing that dance.
How soon after that video did Stezo go solo?
Parrish: Stezo went solo right after we come off the Run’s House tour.
Sermon: Yeah, he had his mind made up, not telling us what’s going on, as you can see ’cause [laughs] he already knew what he was gonna do.
Where in Brooklyn was the ice factory in the video?
Sermon: I don’t have a clue.
Parrish: We had a show the night before with Patrick Moxey. So that night we did a show in Manhattan, so the voice and the vocals were sore, and then the very next morning we went to go shoot “You Gots to Chill” in the freezer.
A truncated version of it was of was played in the pilot episode of Yo! MTV Raps. So the video made before there was a Yo! MTV Raps.
Parrish: Yeah, but, at that time they had like [BET’s] Video Soul. That’s when, because there wasn’t a Yo! MTV Raps, in every state there was a huge video show outlet, so that used to be big when Erick and I used to go do shows. Soon as we land, we would have to go to like four video shows in each city that was already playing our video.
Did you notice a change in your national profile once there was a Yo! MTV Raps later in that year?
Sermon: To me, when the first song hit, we was already, talked about as being the next Run-DMC. So when the video hit it just made it worse.
Parrish: And then the Run’s House tour put us in a —
Sermon: Made it worse.
Is there anything else we should know this song?
Parrish: Yo, this song just was like just two real cool brothers from Brentwood, Long Island that really just love hip-hop and we rolled around in that ’68 listening to that radio every Friday and Saturday. And we always felt in our heart, everything that we was listening to, that we can do better and that we can hang with the best of them.