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Hip-hop’s carpetbagger fans looked a bit upset last Friday by the end of the Apollo Theater’s Eric B. & Rakim show. The mythological duo reunited for the first time in twenty years to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of its debut, the classic Paid in Full. But no amount of combing Rakim lyrics on Genius or rereading histories of hip-hop like Can’t Stop Won’t Stop would have prepared you for Friday night. You can wear the commemorative T-shirt, but if you weren’t actually knee-deep into rap in 1987, you would only have exited onto 125th Street sorely disappointed.
Because, quick, who’s B. Fats? What about Joeski Love? Both commanded the stage last week, rhyming over their own dusty twelve-inch singles DJ’d by the legendary Lovebug Starski. For the record, both rappers’ songs exalted two different dance crazes from 1986 — the wop (“Woppit”) and the Pee-wee Herman (“Pee-wee’s Dance”), respectively — and were barely ever heard from again. But their performances, the first of many from old-school tributaries, marked the two-hour concert as more of a This Is Your Life for hip-hop’s original golden age than a Paid in Full memorial.
One might have expected Eric B. & Rakim to tackle Paid in Full from beginning to end, from “I Ain’t No Joke” to “Eric B. Is President,” like similar shows from Nas, Bruce Springsteen, or Stevie Wonder. But there’s the professional, polished live hip-hop model of, say, Jay-Z, and there’s the…let’s say, more anarchic model of Wu-Tang Clan. Rakim could be the quintessential MC of the Eighties raucous rap era. And so those in the audience who danced the wop or the Pee-wee Herman at the Latin Quarter or the Rooftop nightclubs thirty years ago weren’t surprised to see a crowded stage full of one hundred hangers-on for a Rakim show in which the god MC performed five songs.
In fairness, Paid in Full only contains seven songs, with two more tracks of DJ Eric B.’s scratching. (Their performance ignored Eric B.’s solos, plus “As the Rhyme Goes On” and “Move the Crowd.”) The reason the record deserves such a show seems so self-evident as to not even warrant explanation. Rakim reinvented MC’ing like Hendrix reinvented the electric guitar. His menacing cadence, multisyllabic flow, metaphor-laden lines, and Five Percent Nation references immediately became cornerstones of hip-hop, taking the genre from the Run-D.M.C. era into an age where immensely more complex MCs could flourish. No greatest-of-all-time list is complete without him.
Ironically, Eric B. played master of ceremonies (the original meaning of “MC”), decked out in a tux and introducing more than twenty special guests. Hip-hop godfather Kool Herc stood to the side. Flavor Flav popped up, in a nod to his first appearance on film: the video to “I Ain’t No Joke.” Slick Rick, Kid Capri, and Video Music Box creator Ralph McDaniels waved. Sweet Tee and Roxanne Shanté rocked “It’s My Beat” and “Have a Nice Day,” respectively. T La Rock — the MC blessed with Rick Rubin’s first production — killed “It’s Yours.” EPMD, Main Source, Special Ed, Lost Boyz, Mase, Fat Joe, Ice-T, Al B. Sure!, and others all represented for Rakim, easily filling out the two hours dedicated to an album with seven four-minute songs.
So in the heart of gentrifying Harlem, a celebration of Paid in Full turned out to be sort of an indecipherable occasion if you weren’t truly of the culture ever since the Eighties. Which is, in a way, as it should have been. If one has to use Shazam to identify “Looking at the Front Door,” perhaps one should have saved his money.