About a year ago, I brought Eric B. & Rakim’s Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em out of storage and back into my listening rotation. It was during one of those widely publicized Nirvana anniversaries — I honestly can’t keep track of which one it was — that I started thinking about was actually listening to in 1991. I liked Nirvana, which is still the sound of a bunch of dumb kids with freshly laminated driver’s licenses to me, but I was always far more invested in Yo! MTV Raps than 120 Minutes.
While I loved all the rap artists coming up at the time, from the strictly underground to the deeply uncool—there was very little hip-hop I did not care for at that age—a lot of the early-90s rap albums I liked were by 1980s holdovers: Slick Rick’s The Ruler’s Back, 3rd Bass’ Derelicts of Dialect, Public Enemy’s Apocalypse ’91…the Enemy Strikes Back, Run-D.M.C.’s Back From Hell, Big Daddy Kane’s Taste of Chocolate, Boogie Down Production’s Sex and Violence, EPMD’s Business as Usual, stuff like that. Nearly all of these artists were considered to be inching past their primes at this point in their careers, and in some cases that was true, but these albums are pretty strong in any context.
The best of them all was Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em. Eric B. & Rakim’s two undisputed classic albums were behind them and their most indelible single—“(Juice) Know the Ledge”—was yet to come, but this album is their sweet spot, the place where their talents melded most gracefully into one mature artistic vision.
Eric B. had a much more successful career than Rakim when they got together in the mid-80s, and as legend goes he was even planning to team up with Freddie Foxxx before Freddie blew a meeting and Eric B. ended up with Rakim instead. I’ve always assumed that despite Rakim’s magnetism, Eric B.’s more established reputation is why his name is first—which actually meant something in the days when record stores filed releases alphabetically—but I don’t know. Eric B. clearly didn’t need Rakim at the time, and it’s hard to say whether Rakim needed Eric B. They both were so talented it’s fair to say that, given the opportunities, each of them would have been a star without the other.
And so Paid in Full sounds like a record made by two people who would have been stars without the other. The beats are incredible, and the rhymes otherworldly. Isolate one or the other and you might still have a masterpiece. Personally, I’ve always felt it was slightly more a “Rakim album” than an “Eric B. album”—which makes a little bit of sense, as Rakim was more unknown and thus had more to prove. On their follow-up, Follow the Leader, I’ve always felt the opposite. Listen to the beat of “The R”, a song named for Rakim, and tell me where the spotlight belongs. Eric B. is one of the more underrated figures in rap’s history, and he was hidden in plain sight.
Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em is the album that most sounds like a creative collaboration. In basketball terms, it’s the sound of two players who know where the other is going to be on the court at all times, as Eric B.’s beats and Rakim’s flow weave in and out effortlessly. I’ve always been drawn to the slower tracks on the album—Rakim drops one of the best romantic narratives in all of rap on “Mahogany,” while Eric B. effortlessly flips Al Green’s “I’m Glad You’re Mine” into the kind of beat that Kanye would inject with steroids and popularize a decade-plus later.
“In The Ghetto,” posted above, is the album’s undeniable highlight. If possible, I’d you to listen to that song and put out of your mind everything you know about Eric B. & Rakim and the hip-hop canon, all of your personal associations with the duo, everything, and just listen to the song and the words. These are arguably the best verses ever laid to tape; in another era, a man of these gifts for words might have medals hung around his neck by U.S. Presidents. Not everyone recognizes this talent, but Eric B. does; pay attention to how he keeps the beat almost respectfully quiet and smooth, and when to drop the drums out or let the “ghetto” sample slip in to accentuate some of Rakim’s details.
The arc of Eric B. & Rakim’s career mirrors the evolution of rap during the same time period, beginning with loud drums, brazen funk, and hard rhymes on Paid in Full and ending with slick, almost new-jack production on Don’t Sweat the Technique. In between, they perfected the bass-heavy jazz flow that was popular in New York rap circa 1990-93. This remains my favorite era of hip-hop, and so Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em remains my favorite Eric B. & Rakim record.