It was 1988 when my life turned Strictly
Business, when both EPMD and I made our
debuts on the scene, and that shit was dope. I smoked weed with Felicia in the stairwells of the mall’s parking lot. I got really drunk on Cisco with Paco and Riley, who stole Benzi Boxes and radar detectors. I witnessed Riley once and he worked like clockwork: all you needed was a handful of pebbles to chuck at a car window and there you had it, smashed with ease and relative silence. By All Means Necessary came out and I learned all about jimmys. (That summer at high-school orientation, a few seniors came up to me and my friend and tested our jimmy knowledge, and, realizing we were no novices, proclaimed, “You’ll have no trouble here.”) My fragile identity was changing: Doc Martins were replaced by a myriad of sneakers in all shapes, fabrics, and colors; silver jewelry exchanged for gold.
And a new sound had emerged: whereas rappers like Biz Markie, Rakim, and Slick Rick used their voices to alter rhythm and tempo, EPMD’s new greatest hits album (available for now as a double CD with their new Out of Business, supposedly their final record) shows how Erick and Parrish relied on ’70s and early-’80s funk tracks (Kool & the Gang, Zapp, Parliament), freeing up the possibility of rhyme as slow-paced meditation minus the monotony.
That the Strong Island duo had lyrical skills was evident from the get-go. A fast-forward whoosh, a reggae guitar loop from “I Shot the Sheriff,” and Parrish proclaiming “Don’t get too close because you might get shot,” segued into some serious rhyming on the title track. The beats on Strictly Business had me, C-Funk (my tag in those days), wigglin’ and jigglin’ like gelatin.
Like KRS-1 in “My Philosophy,” EPMD (and, to give props where due, the weed that was now getting me zooted, blooted, and sclamsclooted daily) was teaching me: “To be a real MC you can’t be obedient/To be smooth is the main
ingredient.” My acceptance downtown was contingent upon my individuality, upon speaking my mind. That meant not only disobedience to the law and my mom, but disobedience to my friends. “My so-called friends/They smile at my face, behind my back they talk trash.”
Weak-minded little girls had no business messing around with us or the boys in our posse. If they got used, they deserved it, the dumbasses. If they flouted it, we were gonna bring them back down to earth. The rules don’t matter ’cause I sure as hell didn’t make ’em. But I can break ’em. I’m gonna have a good time at it too. “The style of the rap, makes your hands clap.” The music was funky. It made you jump up. It was laid-back too. All at once. Wanna cut school and chill out with some 40s? Wanna try and roll a spliff that rivals Cheech and Chong’s? Wanna sit on my lap? Yes to everything! School isn’t real. This is real. I can dance to it.
But now it’s work. It’s bills to pay. That sureness— I know who I am!— fades a little. People have babies. People are incarcerated. People gotta work. Cynicism. Less open. EPMD have hardened with age too. And I like it that way; it makes sense. Erick and Parrish reunited in 1997 for Back in Business. “Overcoming setbacks, jumping over obstacles,” ’cause that’s what you have to do. And it was raw like the Wu. “Da Joint” was hardcore: the rhyming no less accomplished, but no longer so slow, so self-assured. Words speeding up, slowing down, evolving with the world around them. “Me and my squad stay on point.” Shit, West Coast rhymers are still stuck on the duo’s easy flow made so simple back in the day. But EPMD got rougher, as it should be.
Greatest Hits stretches back to 1988. The tracks literally sound different, remixed and rerecorded, at times with new rhymes. Revising the story, remembering it differently,
making it fit with the self that is now, in 1999. No longer making dollars, but millennium ducats.
Which brings me to Out of Business. The flip side of the Greatest Hits package continues the Back in Business trend: a little older, a
little more cynical, but still on point. New rhymes from new friends, new realizations. Right now, most slammin’ are collaborations with, respectively, MOP (“Symphony”), and Redman, Method Man, and Lady Luck (“Symphony 2000”)— heavier, less time to play. M.O.P. “ain’t no motherfuckin’ role model, kids don’t follow, cause I’m gonna hit this full throttle.” Method Man says, “I rock for the low class from low cash, the broke ass, even rock for trailer park trash.” Yet, the symphony stretches
outwards beneath all the mic juggling, like some dramatic moment in a movie that is themselves, myself, that both EPMD and me are recalling.