A show boasting Rakim, EPMD, Slick Rick, Doug E. Fresh and other legends of hip-hop’s golden era comes to Boardwalk Hall Sunday, Jan. 15. We had the pleasure of speaking with Slick Rick and EPMD's Parrish Smith.
More and more frequently, over the past five years or so, promoters will put together a show, or even a tour, featuring the elder statesmen and women of hip-hop. It’s a way to bring old-school hip-hop artists back to the stage to do their thing, while fans get to relive special lifetime moments tucked inside their memory banks, moments that are forever attached to a song or a beat or a chorus sample hook.
Under the spotlight, and in front of several generations of fans — some of whom may remember with vivid detail exactly where they were and what they were wearing when they ripped off the cellophane of their new Eric B. & Rakim Paid in Full cassette; others, mainly younger, who can only imagine what it was like living in the “golden age” of hip-hop during the mid-to-late 1980s and early ’90s, when artists such as Doug E. Fresh, Whodini, Slick Rick, Run DMC, Public Enemy, De La Soul, Biz Markie, MC Lyte, Big Daddy Kane and a host of other seminal rhyme makers, DJs and beat-boxers ruled the hip-hop hierarchy, releasing (entire!) albums via these antiquated things called record labels — these 40-something hip-hop legends get a chance to reunite with their peers, say hello to old friends, and, as a unit, give a face to the music that was rooted in their collective childhoods.
Over the past few years, several of these shows have passed through Atlantic City, as well as other cities across the globe.
This year, Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall hosts a holiday weekend show dubbed The All-Stars of Hip-Hop slated for Sunday, Jan. 15 (Martin Luther King’s birthday), featuring Rakim, Slick Rick, EPMD, Kid n’ Play, Doug E. Fresh, Big Daddy Kane, Whodini and Rob Base.
This writer, who had the delight of growing up during hip-hop’s golden era, had the opportunity to speak with two of the show’s performers — Parrish Smith, half of EPMD with Erik Sermon (who, at 42, suffered a mild heart attack late last year just days after rapper Heavy D died of health-related causes), and who says to watch out for a new solo album in addition to a new EPMD album in 2012, and Slick Rick. Below are full interviews with both.
(L to R: Erik Sermon and Parrish Smith)
Interview with Parrish Smith of EPMD (Erik and Parrish Making Dollars)
Parrish, it’s an honor to talk to you. I can’t tell you how much Strictly Business the album affected me when I was growing up.
Oh, man. That is tremendous. It’s always great to hear! Every time, it never gets corny.
I mean, in my opinion, it’s one of the best albums ever made — any genre.
Wow. That’s crazy. I never even thought of that.
I really dug the interview with you and Erik [Sermon] in Waxpoetics, that came out last June. Remember that?
It was a cool article on the making of Strictly Business and how EPMD started out in Brentwood, Long Island. And how you guys went to high school with Biz Markie.
Yep, he’s older than us. We went to the same school, but at a different time.
There was a funny thing that Erik said in the article, about Biz, when he said he would come into the cafeteria at your school and start banging tables and rhyming. Then he said, I don’t know if he ever went to school. I never saw him in class.
Right, exactly. Biz stayed on the scene. Every time you came out of class you saw Biz Markie.
Strictly Business is widely regarded as a milestone record for modern music in general. If there were an encyclopedia of hip-hop how do you think EPMD would be described?
One of the few rap duos that stayed true to [its] music and [its] sound.
EPMD put an album out in 2008 [We Mean Business], about 20 years after the first album. Was there a period in between there when you and Erik didn’t want to work together as EPMD?
Well, during the breakup, between 1992 and 1997, there was like a five-year gap. And then we came back in ’97 with Back in Business. But in that gap, you know, I got to learn a lot about life, catch up with stuff that you missed, because being out there with the first four albums, with Run DMC, Jazzy Jazz and the Fresh Prince, Public Enemy … we were like on the road nine months out of the year, so we missed a lot of personal time. But you know, same story. So, we got to catch that little break and then get up and see the reality and see the value in terms of what we mean to hip-hop and the importance for us to actually continue to move forward because so many artists learned from us. We’re like the most sampled rap group in history.
And that’s something that must be really gratifying for a rap group, to have your peers want to sample not James Brown or Led Zeppelin, but another rap group.
Yeah, it’s very gratifying. And in that five-year gap, that’s when Jay-Z, DMX, Nas, Mary J. Blige, Biggie [Smalls] and several other artists sampled music that went gold with us, that helped them go triple, double and, some of them, four-times platinum.
Was the rise of the new generation of rap artists in the 2000s what motivated EPMD to put out We Mean Business?
Yeah. And it was a lot easier for us because when we first came in [everybody thought that hip-hop] was only going to be a fad. So when we left [the business] and then people started sampling our music, it only secured who we were, and who we are, and how important the music is. Like if you have a choice of using a new beat or use [the beat from the EPMD song] “It’s My Thang” — Jay-Z chose “It’s My Thang” and it got him platinum. DMX chose [“Get the Bozak”} for his “Get at Me Dog,” and it got him triple platinum.
Does EPMD ever see any money from all the samples of its music in other artists’ songs?
Well, that depends on how the artist works with us. You know, because with a huge catalog like ours — we’ve been doing music for like three decades now — some of the music is owned by different people, but the majority is owned by us. So, this year [in 2011] what I actually did was take our first five albums in our catalog and put it with one publishing company to reactivate it.
That sounds like a business in itself, speaking of ‘Business.’
Yeah, definitely. So we definitely do see something because of the way I handled business in the earlier part of my career, we own that music.
That’s great. You always hear more about artists getting screwed out of the money they could have made.
And it’s kind of crazy, because you didn’t know what was going on. I mean when you was younger you didn’t know, you just wanted to make a record, get on the radio, so you didn’t have no idea that you could just sign a piece of paper giving away 100 percent of your music — like Billy Joel.
Do you remember working on that unbelievable title track and album opener from EPMD’s 1988 Strictly Business album?
That song was done when 90-percent of the Strictly Business album was already finished. That was one of the last songs that Erik and I did. We went into Charlie Marotta’s studio, and that was one of the quickest songs that we made because the album was just about almost done. We already had the vibe from “It’s My Thang” and “You’re a Customer.” Sleeping Bag [Records] had already asked us to come in and do an album, so we did “You Gots to Chill,” shot the video in a freezer! So, we was kind of getting there, you know?
Did the writing of the verses in that song happen quickly too? They are so memorable, catchy, dynamic — I can still recite the entire song when it’s playing.
Yeah, because of our perfection of hip-hop. For those who knew what it was and you wasn’t a part of it, you could only imagine to be a part of it. So when you got that opportunity, living on Long Island, where you had Public Enemy here, you had Biz Markie here, you had De La Soul here, you had Rakim here — so once it went a couple exits to us, we was already on stand-by ready to go. So that’s why we was like [in the second verse of the song]: Total chaos, no mass confusion / Rhymes so hypnotizin’ known to cause an illusion / like a magician, he draws a rabbit out his hat, son…you know? We was like, yo, it’s our turn! So that’s crazy, what this means.
Do you enjoy performing in these “legends” or “all-stars” of hip-hop retrospective shows?
Yeah, we have done a few with Funkmaster Flex, and then we have promoters all around America, Asia and Europe. It’s not only about the show, it’s cool to get up with Big Daddy Kane, Slick Rick, you know, Doug E. Fresh, who leads the pack with the most shows each year, and everybody’s catching up. So it’s more than just a show, it’s kind of like checking who weathered the storm, who has stood the test of time, and it’s about a second coming coming back around because [hip-hop] music of today is not what it was yesterday.
How is it backstage at these shows when old friends are seeing each other again?
Well, it puts everything back in perspective because when you was young, you know, everybody was the Alpha Male, and the music was what it was, and there was so much competition. Now that you’re older and mature and everybody’s been through different things in life, it’s kind of like a rest. [With the shows] you get to kind of take a break and catch up and more importantly you keep things in perspective. Like EPMD was the last group to come in. We even came in after MC Lyte. So with that being said, there’s no pressure on us when we rock with the hip-hop legends. Like when Kane’s there, boom! — I feel like a student again. When Slick Rick’s there, I feel like a student. When Chuck D’s there I feel like a student. So when we get to get back with them, we’re the youngest in that circle and it kind of puts things back into perspective. It’s like a breather. No pressure.
Do the legends in the show get to hang out at all, maybe go to dinner, or just chill backstage?
Well, Slick Rick, Big Daddy Kane, and Doug E., I’ve got great relationships with all of them. So the same way I looked at them before I got a contract, and even when I had a contract, now that we’re older, and even with Biz Markie, you know [he’s] saying the same old thing that he used to say in the early parts of our careers, so after the show, you know usually we’re on the move, but we find our little spots to update [each other] and then keep it moving.
But you have kept in touch with Slick and Kane and Doug E. over the years?
Yeah, I see Slick a lot. I just saw Big Daddy Kane about two months ago, Biz Markie, same thing and same thing with Doug E.
How is different performing songs like “You’re a Customer” or “Strictly Business” today as opposed to when you first wrote the song 25 years ago?
Well, in my early career … it was pandemonium because by the time you realized you were doing the record it was over because there was just so much pandemonium. Now, because we have gone through a transition in hip-hop, and [have lost] Biggie [Smalls] and [Tupac] and Jam Master Jay, and where hip-hop is, people gravitated to it. So there’s a new age group, 18, 19, 20-year-olds at our shows, because their uncles and their fathers schooled them. So it’s a whole new era showing up and more importantly they’re showing up with their parents. You know, when you start out it’s good to have a hit record, and it’s good to be hit, but then there’s nothing like returning [decades later] and hearing the crowd, and you could just like turn off the music and they just sing every verse! We don’t got it like Slick Rick does with [his song] “Children’s Story,” [that everybody sings along with], but Rick’s stuff is crazy because he’s got crazy sing-a-longs. So, to [answer your question], the difference is that before it was just excitement and fans, but now we’re older, our fans have matured, we’ve matured, so sometimes we can turn the music down and they sing the whole verse. That’s the main difference.
And it must be cool to several generations of people in the audience.
Yes, it’s timeless music.
Did you ever think when you were making your first record that 20 years later or so they would be looked upon as such milestone records in hip-hop and music in general? I mean when you were baking up the record in the studio did you ever think that it would become as big as it did?
Well, it felt like that because of the energy. And being in New York, the mecca, with DJ Red Alert and Mister Magic … and knowing that Rakim and Biz Markie and Public Enemy were from the same place, the energy was definitely there for it to go that far, but then to actually be in it in 2011, which was considered the future from back then, we’re still working. We’re on the independent scene now. So now we’re the label [EP Records], we’re the publishing company and we’re the distribution and we [handle] the merchandise.
Have a lot of artists like EPMD taken control over their music like you have?
Yeah, I think so because it’s the only way. I mean before when you didn’t know any better that’s one thing, but the truth of the matter is, I mean, right now instead of going into [a record label studio or office], we are the label. And it lets you sell less records. I mean, you’re learning, you’re getting in there and finding out what to know, and you’re controlling your own destiny and when you love the music from back there, you set yourself up for the long run. This music is still here. And in our minds and hearts because of the Hit Squad [reunion show] Feb. 24 at the Best Buy Theater [in New York], we feel like we’re starting all over again. But from the eyes of a like a BB King or an Eric Clapton or those big dogs, like Metallica and bands like that, U2 — because the mentality in hip-hop is sometimes old school and new school, we go with the theory that that’s corny. It’s timeless music.
Right, I mean BB King has been touring for more than 60 years or whatever.
Yeah, so sometimes when you’re like thinking, right before a show, you’re getting ready and you’re like, wait a minute, BB King is like eighty-something and he’s still doing this! Yo, c’mon, get over it.
I spoke with the late Gil Scott-Heron before he died a few times and he joked with me once that he’d go out and play some shows when his band needed to buy groceries. Not that he didn’t want to go out and perform, but it’s almost like it was a necessity rather than him realizing how amazingly gifted and talented he was.
Wow, Jeff, that is big. I heard that right there. That is huge. Yeah. I mean sometimes with the stress, and the headaches, and with Guru [from Gang Starr] and Heavy D. [both dying], we’re all huge figures and know where we’re supposed to be, but sometimes in your personal life, like if you don’t have the right people around you, then you don’t really know what your price is worth.
You play Atlantic City on Jan. 15, are you a fan of Boardwalk Empire?
Yeah, yeah! I be catching it. I think it’s kind of interesting … to be reaching back into the original history and then putting into a cable TV format helps those who weren’t around during the ’20s, you know? That’s a huge question, because — put it this way: We came out in the ’80s; the music we was sampling came from the ’70s and ’60s tops. So as big as it felt and seemed, the music that we were sampling was only 10 or 15 years old [at the time]. But now, with a show like Boardwalk Empire, it shows the progress of man.
Hip-hop music of the 80s and 90s has a special place in people’s hearts, from the artists to the listeners. Why do you think that that era is so highly regarded? I mean it seems like some of the raw energy and the creativity has been lost in a lot of today’s music overall.
Honestly, it’s all about balance. When we came in we had Run DMC to look at, Public Enemy with the S1Ws so you knew they were serious, we had Will Smith — you know, even though he made a certain type of music, he and Jazzy Jeff were very serious individuals so you knew there was a discipline that you had to have inside yourself. You came up in it. You had Jam Master Jay coming up to you always making sure things were up to par, and in today’s era, what happened was, once we came on the scene with the Hit Squad and Das EFX went double platinum, it turned into a corporation thing and a money thing and business thing and with that, the love and the creativity in the [hip-hop] culture got lost. The music got too far ahead of itself and now it’s too thin and it doesn’t really represent the true culture … and that’s why there is a resurgence of the golden era. Two or three years ago everybody [like Big Daddy Kane and Slick Rick] were just coming out of their cocoons — even Chubb Rock.
We all went back and learned a little about life and now we can bring what we learned back to the game, like we did before, and give it balance without knocking the young guys. Erik and I talk about it all the time; you can’t knock these kids because when it was Grandmaster Flash, boom! — “Broken glass everywhere…” — and then came Run DMC, [with their early songs] “Sucker MCs,” and “Rock Box,” so think about how Flash must have looked at them. Then EPMD came in and it was “bring in the choppers,” so think about how Run DMC must have looked at that. And at the time, who could tell any one of us anything? And today’s young artists, you know how they are too. So you kind of have to work with them to give them direction, like work ethics, demonstrating by example, as opposed to knocking them, because then you just lose their attention and it turns into something negative. So I think the leadership from Chuck D., the leadership of KRS-One, the leadership of EPMD, it kind of gives a balance from the origins of where this music comes from. One’s all about the corporation and making money, and [about your financial security] in the end and the other is if you’ve got respect and talent then you’ll always be able to get busy.
Do you think that some of the young hip-hop artists of today that are in the game and with the labels that still exist, that if they’re not careful they could fall into the same kind of traps as musicians before them?
Before they used to get really robbed, but now it’s just a day-time mugging with no ski mask on.
Interview with Slick Rick:
How was your Christmas?
Oh, it was great. Thanks for asking. I had a wonderful Christmas. Got to spend some time with the family.
What you brought to hip-hop, coming from the U.K., was sort of a singing style of rap, almost a jazz type of storytelling.
I guess it just came from partially growing up in England, and partially in New York in the very early ’80s. I pretty much just incorporated the melodies and the ambiance that was around at that time that made an impression — from the Beatles, to Dionne Warwick to Diana Ross, you know?
You lived in England until you were 11 years old, so most of the music you soaked up would have been when you came to the States right?
After 11, yeah.
Plus, upcoming events at the Atlantic City Free Public Library, the Album of the Week (Fat Boys) and Drew Toonz
Boardwalk Hall has announced a stellar 2012-2013 winter line-up with events featuring mega-superstars, undefeated heavyweights, and sport icons sure to provide patrons with top entertainment and the “best seats at the shore.”
Rakim, Slick Rick, and Biz Markie, who will join Special Ed Friday, Aug. 24, at the House of Blues at Showboat in Atlantic City.
"As far as the new stuff goes, the new stuff is definitely very, I don’t know, I would probably say it’s our most aggressive stuff to date. As far as a full collection of songs that we have so far, we’ve probably got about 10 songs for the next album, and then, yeah, it’s definitely not leaning towards the acoustic sound at all. "
"[Atlantic City's] location was really central. You’ve got good facilities, it’s not, you know, like 39 miles on some two-lane country road — that kind of vibe, you know, so it’s just the fact that it’s practical, there’s a lot of facilities and since we’re not doing like a camping thing we thought it would be good to be close to infrastructure so the fans do have like the backbone of a place like Atlantic City at their disposal."
“I just want to get out there and do what I want to do. I love to go to the stage, that’s particularly so at Stubb’s. I feel very comfortable there. Some of the best and most knowledgeable fans are in Austin and that shows whenever I play there. It’s a great place to record. But I love to play anywhere. Just give me that opportunity and I’ll go.”
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