Let’s make this very simple: if Public Enemy
are to rap what the Clash
are to punk and NWA
were their era’s Sex Pistols
, EPMD will forever be hip-hop’s New York Dolls
: massively influential, revolutionary, but completely forgotten. OK, that could have been less obscure, I guess, but the sentiment is a good one.
EPMD is an acronym for Erick and Parish Making Dollars, referencing its two full-time members: Erick Sermon (E Double E) and Parrish Smith (PMD). This was more than likely in tribute to (or an attempted association with) fellow middle-class east coast stars Run-DMC
, but it’s nothing Jon Bon Jovi hadn’t attempted before. EPMD were neither gangsters nor political agitators. Their message wasn’t violent or political, simply because they didn’t really have one. OK, technically NWA didn’t either, but while they had violence, rebellion and misogyny and Public Enemy had black power and pseudo-militancy, EPMD were the first real proponents of what would become hip hop’s money and fast women obsessions. For their debut release, the authoritatively-titled Strictly Business
the band were joined by DJ K la Boss, his one and only outing with the band.
Now I said EPMD were influential, and they were, massively so. EPMD, sonically, have had an unparalleled influence in hip hop. One a purely concrete level, artists from NaS
to Puff Daddy (now “Diddy”) have borrowed beats from EPMD, making them the most sampled group ever, but on another level EPMD basically pioneered the entire art of sampling in hip hop along with contemporaries the Bomb Squad and the Dust Brothers, who worked with Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys
respectively. Ever wondered how Dr. Dre managed to shake off the Ice Cube Jr. image and become the face of his very own branch of west coast hip hop? Well, rightly “his” sub-genre G-Funk is EPMD’s creation, but we’ll let him have it because Death Row was just a badas
Like the Beasties, Strictly Business
’s excellence lies in its utilisation of well-known (and obscure) samples in a way that almost forces association not with the original but with the new track. Like the Beastie Boys can rightly lay claim to The Beatles
’ ‘The End’ (The Sounds of Silence), EPMD must surely be granted exclusive rights having salvaged more than a little merit from Clapton’s horrorshow ‘I Shot The Sheriff’ cover. And that’s not even in the Puff Daddy “lift the entire chorus”-type way, EPMD had the luxury of essentially free-rein on any samples they liked- it wasn’t until the early ‘90s that the boundaries of “fair use” shifted substantially and henceforth necessitated pre-clearance of every sample used- EPMD used many samples with the utmost tact to ensure their original context was forgotten completely. The ability to de- and then re-contextualise a piece of music holds true for every instrumental discipline, but it’s perhaps most marked in hip hop for the unwillingness of certain parties to exorcise the spirit of the sampled track.
Great samples litter the album- Aretha Franklin
’s ‘Rock Steady’ is given a whole new life in party track ‘I’m Housing,’ and Kool and the Gang
’s funk classic ‘Jungle Boogie’ receives not one but two airings, on ‘You’re a Customer’ and ‘You Gots to Chill’- but not only are they brilliantly chosen, but they’re used sparingly. There’s no wholesale rips here in the vein of Biggie’s ‘Notorious’ or Diddy’s ‘Every Breath You Take simply because they didn’t need to. If you’re going to hand over 70% of your royalties for a two-second bass sample, you’d just as well take the chorus as well, right? Free from restrictions, the group was free to string together three, four, five samples in a song, as if to mimic the carefully laid-out structure of an orchestra.
Granted, this is no Endtroducing
, but the samples are put together in such a tasteful and careful manner that it’s hard not to marvel at the productive minds behind the record. ‘You’re a Customer’ is a perfect example: the duo drop one of their more animated raps (even finishing each other’s sentences in true Run-dmc fashion) to the backdrop of the bone-shaking bass and drum section from ZZ Top
’s ‘Cheap Sunglasses.’ A weird combination, right? Not hardly; add a second outing for ‘Jungle Boogie’ and the opening line of Steve Miller
’s ‘Fly Like an Eagle’ and re-assess.
‘You’re a Customer’ is arguably the album’s finest moment production-wise, but the record is, without exaggeration, packed with such moments. This is an album without filler, without skits (indeed, the lyrics themselves often serve that function), nine tracks of circa five-minute hip hop tracks which could stand up on any album or mixtape, and a rather more listenable than expected solo deejay track from DJ K la Boss.
The main criticism levelled at EPMD is the apparent simplicity of their act- both share an almost passive monotone delivery with little of the frightening dynamic and theatrical flair favoured by hardcore rappers. Sermon is criticised for his noticeable (but I think overstated) lisp, but surprisingly rarely for the phlegmy character his voice sometimes takes on, obscuring and slurring his world. Parrish’s delivery is clearer and smoother, and somewhat more confrontational, but his disinclination to vary his pitch is nonetheless likely to draw criticism. Certainly for former battle rappers (their most frequently visited subject remains sucker MCs) they do exhibit a curious casualty, but it’s difficult to imagine them sounding any better at an increased speed because they just sound so damn good, especially against the backdrop of classic funk and AOR cuts.
The group’s first ever recording and single, the much-revered ‘It’s My Thing’ exemplifies the point exactly. A veritable statement of intent from the young duo, it does everything a lead single should do: it draws together everything that’s utterly unique about the group in one six-minute burst, marking them out as a group to watch when the bulk of their material may not have been so superficially remarkable. Opening with a sample of a helicopter lifted from Pink Floyd
, it explodes into a bouncy, upbeat funk track (instantly recognisable bass line supplied by the Whole Darn Family) upon which Erick and PMD deliver with astounding self-confidence a rap which simultaneously announces their presence and warns off imitators:
"The rhythmatic style, keeps the rhyme flowin
Good friends already bitin, without you knowin
Can't understand, why your body's gettin weaker
Then you realize, it's the voice from the speaker
The mind become delirious, situation serious
Don't get ill, go and get curious"
"Nuff about that, let's get on to somethin better
And if gets warm, take off the hot sweater
And if you want some water, I'll get you a cup
And if you don't want it, then burn the hell up
I'm tellin you now boy, you ain't jack
Talkin much junk like Mr. T at your back
but he's not, so don't act cute
Cause if you do you in hot pursuits" (Erick)
And again I have to note the production. In one of the most thrilling breakdowns in modern music, an echoing Parrish instructs the DJ to ‘Freeze!’ before calmly stating: “music please” and the “lesson” continues. ‘Get off the Bandwagon’ treads similar waters but with eerie foresight; Sermon warns his partner: ”Yo, whole thing man, got a lot of customers out there man, trying to get paid off what we made.”
The theme continues, though the context reveals it’s as much playful bravado as anything, but the sentiment both mirrors the position of the recording industry at the time (however distant from reality it was) and acts as prophesy for the turbulent 90s which would see EPMD become both the most oft-sampled music group in history and utterly forgotten in their own right, their own achievements (if not intentionally) usurped by the dozens of rappers who borrowed their music and methods.
But I couldn’t allow this review to finish on even a vaguely serious note, because, well, it really wouldn’t reflect the mood of the album at all. Strictly Business
may be just that, but that business is making fun, relatable party music and that they do as well as any hip hop group since. Even a cursory glance at the track list would be enough to raise many eyebrows as one title does seem to stand out from the crowd, and that track is ‘The Steve Martin.’ Now, I know what you’re thinking: there’s no way this track refers to a semi-fictional dance which became a reality first through Martin’s portrayal of “The Jerk” on the silver screen and later through a tragically non-enduring fad begun by none other than Parrish Smith. Well you’d be right- Erick Sermon’s involved too. Make no mistake: this is a dance fad which deserves pride and place beside the Pee Wee Herman and the Humpty Dumpty, but alas not even the sexy horn refrain could save this track from the dustbin of hip hop fad history.
On an entirely different note, closing track ‘Jane’ (so-named after Rick James’ ‘Mary Jane,’ which is sampled herein) is the first installment in one of music’s most epic sagas: the story of the girl who everyone thought was innocent but wasn’t so innocent after all, as the duo found out to their sexual delight and morning-after bemusement. Each further installment became progressively crazier, but it’s hard to beat the original, especially when the line-to-line interplay is so smooth, again invoking Messrs Run and DMC. It’s a fitting close to the album as it puts perfectly into context the contrast between groups like EPMD and the other groups of the time: Public Enemy would never be caught discussing such a non-egalitarian topic, while NWA would have laughed at the duo’s unwillingness to put six bullets in Jane’s head (hell Ice Cube
has all but lived the scenario albeit with real deaths; listen to The Predator