Why Eric B and Rakim's Paid in Full is one of the most groundbreaking albums in rap history

Maestro, Michie Mee and Rich Terfry on how the duo's debut album, released 30 years ago, changed their lives
Eric B & Rakim's influential Paid In Full album was released on July 7, 1987. (ericbandrakim.com )

by Del Cowie

Eric B and Rakim's debut album, Paid in Full, was released 30 years ago on July 7, 1987, and is widely regarded as one of the most important hip-hop albums ever made.

Ranked on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, Paid in Full exhibits Rakim's complex internal rhyme schemes and calm demeanour atop infectious James Brown samples. The MC's style would prove to be game-changing.

In the mid-'80s the loud, boisterous vocal delivery pioneered by Run-D.M.C. — which favoured forceful, elongated syllable pronunciation — was the style du jour. However, the arrival of DJ Eric B and MC Rakim immediately changed everything on the hip-hop landscape, kicking off the genre's golden age that built on the foundation of hip-hop's pioneers with advanced sampling and lyrical techniques. 

To mark the 30th anniversary of the Paid in Full, Rakim and Eric B are reforming for the first time in more than 20 years to perform tracks from the album at New York's Apollo Theater in Harlem this Friday.

New York-based Nelson George, hip-hop historian and recent q guest, described the significance of the duo's first single from the album, "Eric B. is President," zeroing in on why the seminal album is still relevant today.

"'Eric B is President' represents the beginning of a new era of rhyme style," George told q earlier this year in his guide to New York hip-hop in the 1980s. "One thing that almost all the MCs up until then [did was that] they all rhymed like they were at a party. There was a lot of grunting and shouting. And what Rakim introduced was rhyming conversationally. He didn't really shout. There was something really economical and poetic about his style. His words were revolutionary in the sense that he invoked mysticism, he invoked the Five Percenter religion. He's one of the most revolutionary MCs. To this day, anyone who rhymes in a conversational voice is coming in the legacy laid down by Rakim."

George is not alone in his admiration for Paid in Full. Below, Maestro Fresh Wes, Michie Mee and Rich Terfry talk about how the album changed their lives in Canada.

Maestro Fresh Wes

"Paid in Full is one of the most important hip-hop albums ever. Rakim inspired me to tap deep into my lyrical ability as well as to pay homage to the DJ.... The subject matter on the album symbolized the idea of hip-hop culture. Certain quotes stay in my mind. Any time I am stuck with a task, I recall the lyrics in 'Move the Crowd': 'There's nothing I can't solve/ at 360 degrees I revolve.'

"'I Ain't No Joke'  is one of my favourite songs ever. The video was inspiring to me and it was also the very first video Flavor Flav from Public Enemy ever appeared in. Rakim let MCs know that being an MC is a serious position to have and he had no time for jokes. 

"The beats they selected were crazy. The James Brown influence as well as overall soul music samples were timeless and infectious. Paid in Full is a timeless album that made a major impact on me as well as the hip-hop world."

Juno Award-winning hip-hop artist Maestro Fresh Wes' 1989 single "Let Your Backbone Slide" was Canada's best-selling hip-hop single for over 20 years. The hip-hop artist is also an actor appearing regularly in CBC-TV's Mr. D. 

Michie Mee

"The album had six classic hip-hop singles, easy. What an album if you had the cassette with artwork or 12". That in itself was special. As a Canadian, I settled with my own taping of it off the radio and played it 'til the tape broke and I went to NYC.

"Eric B and Rakim signified what hip-hop was and looked like as reflected in their videos. Rakim said everything every MC felt. 'I ain't no joke,' 'Check out my melody,' 'I'm a microphone fiend.' It let you know in the middle of the crack era you could fiend for a microphone and 'move the crowd' after all, because MC means 'move the crowd.'

"Going to NYC and meeting a cute man who spoke mathematics and hip-hop was a definite keeper! We would bond over Rakim and hip-hop of course. But if you turned up 'Eric B. Is President' in your ride, or boom box outside or you simply lost control on the dance floor, doing the wop 'til you relocated your neck — that, my dear, was true love.

"Rakim remains the top-listed MC and this album was the beginning of many people's golden era after [Sugarhill Gang's] 'Rapper's Delight.' Paid in Full still sets the pace for DJs. When you hear this record you know what time it [is] in the party!"

Michie Mee was Canada's first hip-hop artist to sign a major label deal in the United States. She released her groundbreaking album Jamaican Funk: Canadian Style with DJ L.A. Luv in 1991. Her latest single, released last month, is entitled "Thank You."

Rich Terfry, host of CBC Radio 2's Drive

"Growing up in the Maritimes, I ate a lot of seafood when I was a kid. Both of my grandfathers fished. I didn't appreciate how good I had it and grew to hate seafood of any kind, including fancy stuff like lobster and crab. That changed when I heard Eric B. and Rakim's Paid in Full album 30 years ago. I think I was 14 years old. When I heard Rakim rap the words, 'Me and Eric B. and a nice big plate of fish/ which is my favorite dish' on the album's title track, I thought to myself, 'Well, geez, if it's good enough for Rakim, it's good enough for me.' 

"Rakim made fish cool. I've been eating as much as I can since 1987. 

"My all-time favourite hip-hop song — maybe my all-time favourite song, period — is 'My Melody' by Eric B and Rakim. I'll never forget the first time I heard the album. It stunned me. Simply put, it was the most sophisticated hip-hop I'd ever heard. Rakim's lyricism was abstract and complex. I didn't put it together at the time, but looking back, I get the sense he must have been picking up some musical ideas from jazz. There are old photos floating around that show him playing saxophone when he was in high school

"Although Eric B disputes it, some have said the great Marley Marl produced the 'My Melody' track. I can believe it. It doesn't sound like the rest of the album. The production sounds a lot like Marley's work on MC Shan's Down By Law album. Regardless of who produced what, Paid in Full was one of the first albums I heard with beats put together with sampling. It was right on the cutting edge of my favourite era of hip-hop: the sampling free-for-all that ran from the late '80s into the early '90s when DJs and producers sent me on the musical scavenger hunt that changed my life.

"Paid in Full was something completely brand new. You could argue that it was the first 'grown folks' hip-hop record. It will always be an important work of art for me and I'm sure I'll be able to recite the lyrics of every song when I'm 90 years old."

Rich Terfry is the host of CBC Radio 2's Drive. He also performs under the name Buck 65.