Erik B and Rakim

Eric B and Rakim ceased trading as a partnership in 1992 but they still cast a long shadow over hip-hop. Since the passing of what many believe to be the best rap act ever, no one has successfully filled their sneakers. As hip-hop sub-divides, so does its audience: "ghetto fabulous" materialists keep Daddy's wallet Puffy, afro-bohos and their vanilla cohorts keep it real with the Rawkus catalogue, pop-rap kids have got Eminem. But no one, it seems, speaks to the unified "Hip-Hop Nation" in the way that Eric B and Rakim did, back in the day. Eric B (né Barrier) and Rakim (William Griffin Jr) were part of the rich seam of hip-hoppers from the polite quarters of suburban New York – Eric from Elmhurst in Queens, Rakim from Wyandanch, Long Island. Along with Public Enemy, EPMD and De La Soul, they formed part of hip hop's second wave, as it spread from its cradle in the blighted South Bronx to metropolitan New York, en route to going global.

A gifted musician, Eric Barrier starting DJing in the early 1980s, and had acquired sufficient turntable skills by 1985 to land the coveted DJ slot on the WBLS-FM roadshow. Rakim met Eric at one of his gigs and a partnership was formed. They cut their first single, "Eric B For President", at Power Play studios in Manhattan in 1986 for the independent Zakia label, and following a move to Universal/MCA, they embarked on a seven-year recording career during which they released 13 singles and four albums. These set a new benchmark for articulate, lyric-led hip-hop. In early hip-hop the DJ was king. Even as rapping developed out of MC banter it was still Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, Afrika Bambaataa and The Soul Sonic Force.

Rakim was one of those responsible for changing this by perfecting the art of the written lyric. "The R" was neither a battler, a freestyler, nor a "put-your-hands-in-the-air" master of ceremonies, he took his time to write a rhyme, and it showed. He specialised in the elliptical, spring-loaded rap-as-poem, delivered in the silky-steel voice of a gentleman criminal. Compared to the simple-minded nastiness of 1990s thug-lifers, Rakim comes off like Hannibal Lecter in a room full of B-movie baddies, his measured modulation only adding to the menace. In the days before MTV embraced rap and the Benz 'n' booty video became drearily ubiquitous, Rakim slayed the crowd with mere words, ideas and the rough grain of his voice.

At the same time Eric B's tell-tale beat architecture of smoothly cut together James Brown samples, 808 drum kicks, and hand clap samples provided a dense sonic web against which Rakim spun his verbal magic. Despite Eric B's sonic gift, Rakim's style made the lyricist the star. It nudged hip-hop in a new direction, away from the era of the hip-hop band – Public Enemy, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest – and towards that of the solo superstar lyricist – Busta, Snoop, 2Pac, Meth, Nas and, eventually, Eminem. Never one for the gangsta lean, Rakim employed hip-hop's rhetoric of drugs and violence metaphorically, in cunning confirmations of his own intellectual superiority. Thus, the microphone becomes "a magnum murdering MCs", lyrics are "ammo", the tongue is "a trigger", and the music is the narcotic: "If ya need another hit from the freestyle fanatic/Attention: follow directions real close/Keep out of reach of children/Beware of overdose". If there is addiction involved, it is to self-expression: He was a self-confessed "microphone fiend".

With their first two albums Paid In Full (1987) and Follow The Leader (1988), the duo helped redefine contemporary music. Rakim's sinuous rhymes etched his trademark phrases into the consciousness of a new international generation: "Pump up the volume" "It ain't where you're from, it's where you're at" "A pen and a paper, a stereo, a tape". The single "I Know You Got Soul"(1987) kicked off the "godfather rap" movement, its funky samples and jazzy textures sending a generation of DJ/Producers digging in crates for rare funk and soul.

They released two more albums in the early 1990s. Let The Rhythm Hit 'Em (1990) failed to live up to their Olympian standards, though Eric's double-bass-driven grooves on Don't Sweat The Technique (1992) compared favourably to the work of contemporary jazz-rap outfits such as GangStarr. In 1992, however, it all came to a rather ignominious end over a contract dispute. They never recorded together again. Rakim, out of view for five years, re-surfaced in 1997 with The 18th Letter but, with Pete Rock and DJ Premier's productions lacking the symbiosis of the Eric B collaborations, it bore the unmistakable whiff of nostalgia – a legend resting on his laurels, rather than a new rap blueprint. For all that, Rakim offered suitably trenchant commentary on the decline of the artform he once commanded: "Back before they turned hip-hop to rap/It was always a place to party/Remember that."

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