Wednesday, August 15, 2007

[090] Strictly Business

Album: Strictly Business
Artist: EPMD
Release Date: June 1988
Label: Sleeping Bag; reissued on Priority
Producers: EPMD (Erick Sermon & Parrish Smith)

"Catch every word I'm sayin', no there's no delayin'
Don't hestitate to motivate the crowd, I'm not playin'
Seeing is believing, you catch my drift?
Don't try to adapt because I'm just too swift
(How swift?) I'm so swift and that's an natural fact
I'm like Zorro, I'll mark a E on your back
I don't swing on no ropes or no iron cords
The only weapon is my rappin' sword"
- Erick Sermon, from "You Gots To Chill"

If you’re a bit younger than me, let’s say born in the 80’s, then you’ve probably never heard of EPMD. But it’s not your fault; they rarely get mentioned with the greats of Hip-Hop despite their longevity and consistency. Over four albums from 1988 to 1992, they were always at the forefront of the genre, only breaking up right as they were having their biggest commercial breakthrough (They reunited for two more albums in 1997 and 1999). Erick Sermon remains one of the greatest producers in the music’s history, one of the first men to break from James Brown beats and sample late 70’s funk to great effect – he’s basically the east coast’s Dr. Dre, and The Chronic owes more to Strictly Business than Straight Outta Compton. Throughout EPMD’s classic debut, Sermon and his partner Parrish Smith sample enough Zapp, P-Funk, and Kool & The Gang to fill a Snoop Dogg album, and still have a few tracks left over for a Tarantino soundtrack. The brutally funky “I’m Housin’” is based on one of Aretha Franklin’s best hits, the frequently overlooked “Rock Steady”, while “Let The Funk Flow” is cruising, perfectly laidback with its golden horns. Sermon also had no problem sampling Rock records, bragging, “Listen to Heavy Metal, hardcore Rock & Roll”; it wasn’t such a stretch to hear Steve Miller’s funky pop sampled, but Sermon opens the album by constructing the title track over Eric Clapton’s cover of “I Shot The Sheriff”, chopping it to pieces and pasting it back together as a slick funk loop. At the other end, he closes the album by building the classic diss track “Jane” over the absolutely killer piano riff from Cream’s “Politician”. As with most late 80’s Hip-Hop albums, there’s also a DJ cut, but the eponymous “DJ K La Boss” goes much further than just some scatches over a beat; La Boss creates an actual song, with verse/chorus/verse structure, and in the process predicts DJ Shadow and Prefuse 73 as much as Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” did.

If the duo and their DJ had made this an instrumental record it would still be a contender for the list, but it’s the lyrics that make it really worthy. EPMD (“Erick & Parrish Making Dollars”) were one of the first Hip-Hop acts to move past just talking about their thick gold ropes and four-finger rings, and instead turned flossing into a way of being; you know the endless succession of fly and jiggy and crunk and pimpin’ and whatever it is now – that all goes back to EPMD. They coupled that chest-out swagger with a hard stance, but still kept focus on making your head nod. In that way, they were the bridge from the pop-friendly Sugarhill Gang to the cartoon thugs in G-Unit; they influenced every rapper in the two decades to follow who wanted to stay tough but also hit the pop charts. Jay-Z may think he’s a child of Slick Rick’s storytelling, and 50 Cent may think he was born on the grimy corners Biggie talked about, but it’s really EPMD whose coattails they’ve been riding; Erick Sermon came strong with a mush-mouth delivery long before 50 got bullets in the jaw, and even Jay’s breakthrough hit, “Ain’t No Nigga”, was laid over EPMD’s debut single “It’s My Thing” wholesale (Nas also got in on the act, snatching “Let The Funk Flow” for his “Nastradamus” single). Strictly Business is filled to the brim with classic boasts, one-liners that slay with such ease, but also with deeper detail than most, and that’s why they’ve been sampled for hooks countless times.

This album is in danger of slowly getting lost to time, beneath the crowded crop of new classics of the mid 90's, the Illmatic's to The Infamous to the Cuban Linx, but what keeps this album alive is that it still kills at parties. The first six songs are flawless good-time Hip-Hop, and only “The Steve Martin”, a ridiculous attempt to spawn a dance craze based on The Jerk, feels dated. Of special note is “You Gots To Chill”, one of the greatest singles in Hip-Hop history, an apocalyptic funk bomb that breaks ankles cuz people can’t dance hard enough. I’ve seen young girls go berserk and rush to the dancfloor when it comes on, girls who weren’t even born when the song came out. And maybe that’s a hint at why this is a classic – its grooves are universal.

01. “Strictly Business”
02. “I’m Housin’”
03. “Let The Funk Flow”
04. “You Gots To Chill”
05. “It’s My Thing”
06. “You’re A Customer”
07. “The Steve Martin”
08. “Get Off The Bandwagon”
09. “DJ K La Boss”
10. “Jane”

"You Gots To Chill" [video]

- BONUS: "It's My Thing" [audio]
- BONUS: "Strictly Business" [video]
- BONUS: Maybe they won't be forgotten...
EPMD opening with "It's My Thing" at the Rock The Bells festival - 07.27.07 at Randall's Island, NYC

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