The ’87 Sound: “System of Survival” by Earth, Wind & Fire

By 1987, Ronald Wilson Reagen had been serving as the 40th President since January of 1981. He’d already enacted several major tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, while slashing social programs and increasing military spending. And it seemed for a brief moment in ’87, during the Iran Contra trials, that the evidence existed to bring Reagen down for good. That was not to be and Reagen would hold on to pass the baton on to his Vice President in 1989 to continue what Chuck D called, “12 years of R&B (Reagen & Bush).

The effects of Reagen’s rhetoric and political policies were not lost on musicians during the ’80s, though the decade is typified as having less musical social commentary than the preceding ones. Many songs such as Run DMC’s “Hard Times” focused on the challenges of making it for the average working person in the Reagen era. Earth, Wind & Fire, one of the most musically and socially inspirational groups of the 1970s joined this discussion in ’87 with their R&B smash hit, “System of Survival.”

EWF was due for a comeback by ’87. Their prior album, “Electric Universe”, was considered a disappointment by many fans of the group, in particular, because most felt that the electronic orientation of the music smothered the group’unique musical personalities.

“System of Survival” is a song that EWF came by through unusual means. While recording in San Francisco, a songwriter named Skylark placed the demo tape for the song on the front of Maurice White’s Cadillac. Liking what they heard, the band recorded the song. “System of Survival” would prove to be EWF’s biggest hit in many years, hitting #1 on the R&B and Dance charts. Again, proving how alienated the pop charts were from many veteran Black Funk/R&B artists during the ’80s, this #1 R&B song charted at #60 pop.

The song begins with an announcer’s​ voice saying, “The biggest unanswered​​d question is where is the money.” A statement that could relate to any number of socio-political​ problems! After which, a serious electro funk groove kicks in. The groove has the typical big ’80s drums, but the snare is much more live sounding than most drum parts of the era. The main key to the groove is the main rhythmic/melodic element, a lead synth line playing a rhythmic pentatonic figure. That figure is played on several synths and delayed, so that it creates a hyperactive, jittery wall of sound. Its also backed by funky rhythm guitar playing that accents the busy synth groove. The song title, “System of Survival” is sung by Maurice and Phillip, but also supported by a Vocoder voice.

The song goes on to lay out the common man’s plight during the ’80s, with Maurice singing “The Human race/is running over me”, with Phillip awnsering, rather unusually at that time in his lower voice, “I punch a clock at 9 to 5/just tryin to make a living.” “A plastic face/on satellite TV/says life is full of give and take/he’s taking and I’m giving.”

Maurice goes on to say “So I dance!” Which is answered,​ “It’s my system of survival!” The band here affirms dance, and music, as a survival strategy, a thought that goes very deep into the heart of Black experience in America. The metaphor could also be extended to anything which one enjoys and does well, which reaches the aesthetic and spiritual condition of dance. Philip goes back into his classic falsetto to sing “At times it’s the only way/Im gonna make it through this day.” After which EWF demands “Everybody get up!!! Do your dance! Stay alive!!!”

After that call, the groove shifts to a funky interlude, with bass being introduced. Prior to this the groove was skeletal, based on drums and the trebly sounds of the synths. In addition to the newfound bass, EWF’s new horn section schorches the top of the jam with a funky horn line, while Sheldon Reynolds, the new member, laid down a funky sustained, “Chicken Grease” guitar part of steady sixteenth strums.

The next verse goes on to find the band singing about the unsafe nature of the streets, after which the bass makes its presence felt once again. The song goes out on a long jam with more political news snippets, and a raging, fiery saxophone solo, backed by a more full band sound that includes bass and guitars while pushing the insistent synthesizer sequence more to the background.

1987 would see an increasing number of Black groups rekindle the fire of past years in talking about the social issues that grip the world. It was big for Earth, Wind & Fire in particular, a group that had always represented spirituality, togetherness, a strong sense of ancestry and history, as well as love, to come out so hard with “System of Survial”. The amazing thing for me about the song is the way they seemed to speak for the common, adult middle-aged​ person in the changing world of that day. They spoke for people just trying to work and get by and deal with all the B.S while still trying to enjoy life and hold on to some sense of hope. That’s why this song stands out as one of the most realistic and pratical in the entire EWF song book. And their usage of music and dance to get through rough times validates the reason for the groups entire existence.

“System of Survival” was a favorite of my Dad in particular, and I always think about him when I hear this track and watch this video. And the video is one of the best of its day, featuring people of all ages and walks of life doing the dances that they know and that bring them joy. “Touch the World” was a wonderful comeback for EWF that returned them to their positon as socially conscious yet musically wonderful Funkmasters. And this song itself became a part of many people’s “Systems of Survival” back in ’87, as proven by its chart and sales success!

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The ’87 Sound: “Don’t Disturb This Groove” by The System

“Don’t Disturb This Groove” by The System is another one of the defining tunes of 1987 in my book. The mellow but strong synthesized groove and clever title hook seemed to serve as a soundtrack to many of our long drives and excursions for about three years after it was released. And like the unhurried synth groove concocted by group members David Frank and Mic Murphy, the song took a long time to build up to the summit of the charts, seeing a release in January of ’87, hitting the top of the R&B charts in May, and making it all the way up to #4 pop by July. It seems that as the temperature warmed up, the appeal of the mellow yet potent synthesizer track became more and more irresistible. And in the end, the song became the biggest hit for one of the defining musical entities of the ’80s, in influence if not massive sales. Keyboardist David Frank was a key figure in ’80s R&B synth programming, besides his own records, contributing to records by groups like Kleer, Chaka Khan, and Phil Collins. It has also been expressed by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis that The System’s records were very influential on their own technological jams. “Don’t Disturb This Groove” stands out as a highly synthesized song that grooves in as human a manner as possible.

The song begins by musically setting up the groove that the title tells us not to interrupt! A highly melodic yet grooving digital Clavinet part gets it going over a big fat drum machine part. The bass line of the piece was always very interesting to me, large intervals played in an almost robotic, machine making calculations manner, on a fat analog synth patch while moving through the tune’s pretty chord changes. Funky muted guitars add to the groove as digitally synthesized bell tones play lazy arpeggios on top of the track. The track begins with a long interlude of music as singer Mic Murphy ad libs just a little, “I’m in heaven.”

Murphy asks his girl to excuse him for a moment, he’s “In another world.” He goes on to describe an idyllic romantic situation, saying “With Venus/and with Cupid/the picture’s very clear.” The song then hits a break for him to sing, “Hang a sign up on the door/it says don’t disturb this groove.” At which the synthesizer bass groove gets more active, agitated, aggressive and in a word, funky! A Female voice comes in to sing with Murphy on the active chorus section, which ends rather shortly and unusually, putting all the momentum back into another verse.

“Don’t Disturb This Groove” is a song that personally makes me feel as good as any other good piece of music I can think of. It’s unique, slow crawling , deep and funky synthesized soundscape, matching depth with airiness, seemed to serve as a near perfect aural metaphor for some of the best days and feelings of my youth. But this song is by no means limited to those days, because it took until I became an adult to truly experience the feeling expressed in the record! Which when you add it all up, makes this record one that stays in heavy rotation on my charts!

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The ’87 Sound: “Tina Cherry” by Georgio

One of the defining features of the R&B sound during the 1980s is the absorption of the musical innovations of Prince. The year 1987 was no different. “Tina Cherry” by Georgio is a fine example of the type of Funk that was inspired by Prince and The Minneapolis sound. Georgio Allentini is a Bay Area native, to the extent that one of my best friends went to High School with him. The word is that Prince pursued him for Paisley Park, which is a rumor many Prince fans vehemently deny but those close to the situation confirm. He ended up signing to Motown and seeing success on the dance charts with his album “Sex Appeal.” The influence of Prince is reflected in “Tina Cherry” through the synthesized dance groove topped off with an incredibly funky, furious guitar lick. It’s also reflected in the title characters name, “Tina Cherry.” So much so that when I was a kid and used to hear this on local Bay Area radio, I thought it was Prince! At that time I did not know “Funk” was a musical genre of its own, but I did know the word “Funky” and I knew what was “Funky” when I heard it! And this song definitely passed the funk test and has remained in my memory banks from that time till now.

Coming out as it did during the heyday of the 12″ club mix, there are many versions of “Tina Cherry.” But the one I selected here is the one I first heard on the radio all those years back and the one I feel brings the funk the hardest. The song begins with a big drum beat that has lots of air around it. On top of this they give us a phat ’80s horn stab, which revs up like an organ before slapping the groove. Also prominent is a cowbell methodically marking out all four beats of the groove. Georgio tells the doorman or his handlers to send her up to his room on the intro. When the whole beat comes in, its marked by a busy synth bass line, and those guitars, a high up the neck, hammer on and off funky blues guitar lead supported by a chocked chicken scratch that brings the funk to your face.

Georgio uses that funky base to tell a story about a girl whose name is Tina that “plays a cherry game.” He sings about how she “Works and works”, her hair, eyes, clothes, everything she has in the name of sex appeal. The guitar takes over on the chorus to the point that it sounds like Georgio is singing in support of the funky guitar. Georgio goes on to tell us that Tina is a Creole woman, which of course, in Black American folklore makes her a very dangerous woman in as many ways as you could imagine! Over the dance groove he goes on to spit double entendre like, “Tina baby/Dont make it hard/we’re almost there/let me park my car.”

This jam has fond memories for me because of the mesmerizing guitar groove. I can also recall a commercial for Georgio doing an in-store appearance at a now defunct local record shop, the Black owned “T’s Wauzi Records.” As it is “Tina Cherry” is a great jam from a lesser-known artist that exemplifies state of the art funky dance music in 1987, made under the influence of Prince and the Minneapolis Sound. In a decade of the ’80s that had few funk bands that were strong and was touched by the influence of emerging musical technologies and new genre’s, it was no small thing to bring the funk, and Georgio did it very well on this song and his album “Sex Appeal.” Definitley one to check out from ’87 if you’re unfamiliar with it!!!!

Here is the video for “Tina Cherry” which featured the song with a different mix, the guitar part is still there but the overall groove doesn’t work for me as much as the one I heard on the radio back in the day

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The ’87 Sound: “Sign Your Name” by Terrance Trent D’Arby (Sananda Maitreya)

Terrance Trent D’Arby (who now goes by the Buddhist name of Sananda Maitreya)’s 1987 LP, “Introducing the Hardline According to Terrance Trent D’Arby”, was one of those albums that totally rocked the International musical community in its time. D’Arby’s skillful mix of Funk, Soul, Rock and Pop flavors seemed to introduce an essential new artist, and D’Arby himself was not afraid to let you know this. When I was young, not knowing the full story, just by listening to the music and observing the artist, I thought him to be a part of the wave of UK Soul coming back to America from across the pond, along with groups like Loose Ends, Five Star, Central Line, and the great Sade. And this 1987 classic, “Sign Your Name”, has all the deep, brooding lovelorn groove of Sade at their peak. The writer Nelson George began to identify a style of music he typified as “Retro Nuevo Soul” during the late ’80s. This was the first stirrings of a Soul/R&B music that attempted to recapture the songwriting and sound of the classic soul records of the height of the ’60s and ’70s. D’Arby’s music was one of the prime examples of this impulse, and it would be seen again during the 1990s with the “Neo Soul” movement of D’Angelo, Lauryn Hill, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, and others. But “Sign Your Name” and the rest of D’Arby’s album would be a very early warning shot in 1987 of a return to a Black musical impulse deeply rooted in instrumentalism and songs of great emotional depth and substance, otherwise known as Soul.

The song begins with an irresistible groove, with a synthesizer bass patch laying a bass part based on an Afro Latin Clave rhythm, outlining a two bar chord progression. Underneath this bass groove is a grooving Conga drum pattern, and over the top is a synthesized string type of sound playing a deep blues, pentatonic melody. What’s amazing is that I always associated this song with being played live, but when one listens to it, you discover its actually a spare, human sounding, and very funky usage of synthesized instruments. The bass and groove modulate to some tense chords to lead you into D’Arby’s singing verse.

D’Arby sings his song in that unique vocal tone I remember from way back then, full, rich and chesty while also being fairly high up in the register. When he reaches the lead in line to the chorus, “We started out as friends….” the arrangement moves to those tense, questioning chords that sustain and decay on top of the Afro-Latin rhythmic break, to be picked up by the chorus, “Sign Your Name/across my heart/I want you to be my baby”,on which D’Arby and producer Martyn Ware lay down two parts of D’Arby singing in different octaves. The song progresses from there with D’Arby delivering impassioned, earnest vocals, and his vocal performance rising in intesity over the same sensous, undulating rhythmic groove.

“Sign Your Name” is one of my favorite songs from ’87 and it seemed to herald a new artist at the time. D’Arby seemed to be another uniquely talented artist in the mold of Prince, who could deliver Afro American music with the kind of idiosyncratic pop-rock edge that could attract a wide pop audience. And he did, with “Sign Your Name” in particular going all the way up to #4 on the U.S pop charts and his album selling platinum in a mere three days. D’Arby, like Jackie Wilson and James Brown, had a background as a boxer, and it showed in his physical, acrobatically macho performance style, in particular when he’d perform soul-funk classics such as “Soul Power” during his shows. D’Arby’s album was one that seemed to satisfy all sides at the time, from the contemporary fans to some of the old soul heads, to the critics, to the teen idol crowd, to the general pop crowds. Such success would not last for D’Arby, and he would take his life in a more spiritual direciton while also continuing to do music. Though he was not British himself, he did spend time there and end up crossing back over to the states by recording in British studios with British musicians, which in itself represented a unique crossover of American Soul, from an adopted country back to its homeland. So no matter what other intersting turns the career of Sananda Maitreya has taken, “Sign Your Name” still stands tall for me as one of the most passionate and deeply rooted Soul songs we were introduced to in the year of 1987!

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The ’87 Sound: “Casanova” by LeVert

“Casanova” by LeVert completes the Griffey like feat of Eddie LeVert and his sons Gerald and Sean both having R&B Number One hits in 1987. In the case of “Casanova”, written and produced by Midnight Star’s Reggie Calloway, the song also went all the way up to #5 on the pop charts, being used in several movies in the same year it was released. “Casanova” was a major touchstone for me in my childhood too, a pop R&B song with a clever lyric, strong singing and harmonizing, and a huge drum beat. It had an early New Jack edge that represented something new in R&B music at the time, a true R&B, soulfully pleading love song that had a pulverizing 1980s drum beat, as powerful as one you might hear on a record from UTFO or another Full Force production.

The song begins with that monster drum beat, in which the snare and the kick are both doing much damage, with a slight touch of the swing that would soon come to define the rhythmic feel of the early ’90s. On top of that big beat, Calloway lays a bright, gospel/pop, major chord happy, digitized Fender Rhodes sound. It’s interesting for me because I heard that sound in my youth without realizing it was the digital imitation of the Dynoed Fender Rhodes electric piano. So even in the ’80s when the real Rhodes was hardly used, the sound was still very influential! After a four-bar intro of drums and keys, Calloway lays down a glissando on the synthesizer bass, which comes in playing a laid back, swinging, sparse but funky line. On top of that, we have the harmonizing of LeVert, with space for Gerald to adlib. After setting the groove up, they hit us with the chorus on the top, “I ain’t’ much on Casanova/me and Romeo ain’t never been friends/cant you see how much I really love you? All of these lines are harmonized beautifully by the group, but they drop out to let Gerald sing by himself, “Gonna sing it to you time and time again”. After which comes the refrain, “Oh, Casanova!!!” When I first heard this as a kid, it was very chilling for me to hear LeVert harmonize over a straight drum beat in this fashion, with no music backing them, similar to the way I would feel a few years later when P Diddy and Mary J Blige started putting out R&B songs over heavy Hip Hop breaks.

The structure of the song itself is heavily groove-based, and other elements are added, like a synthesized flute sound and a funky muted guitar. It’s almost a minute and a half in until Gerald LeVert actually begins to sing an actual verse that tells us the story of the song. As Gerald sings the verse, funky guitar pops and accompanies his lines. Calloway brings in instruments in and out in a very tasteful way, supporting but never competing with the all-powerful, jaunty drum beat that lies at the heart of the arrangement. The lyrics are basically a showcase for Gerald LeVert’s strong vocals and his pleas of devotion, and the song goes to a nice bridge that introduces some new harmonic twists.

“Casanova” was a true hit in 1987. It was fresh, jaunty, high spirited, youthful sounding, and very funky. It rarely gets discussed for its musical innovation, as it joined records by Larry Smith the producer of RUN DMC and Whodini, Full Force and Teddy Riley and Club Noveau in mixing the sensibilities of R&B and Hip Hop successfully. The producer Reggie Calloway, along with his brother Vincent, were pioneers in this. After making such a mark with synthesizer funk in Midnight Star, they were on a very hot run in 1987 and 1988 in particular, producing other absolute jams such as Natalie Cole’s “Jump Start”, Gladys Knight & the Pips “Love Overboard”, and one of my favorite’s, Teddy Pendergrass’ “Joy.” For Gerald LeVert in particular, he would go on to become one of the most preeminent in his specific lane of the music during his era. Basically he was an old school Soul man in the late ’80s and ’90s, and a perennial favorite on Black radio. I recall reading an article where his father Eddie lamented the fact that Gerald possibly couldn’t get as big as his talent warranted because of where music was at the time. But both he and his brother Sean, both of them now deceased, are well remembered for the musical contributions they did make!

For me personally, “Casanova” was probably where I learned about who “Casanova”, the famous lover, was. I had probably heard of “Romeo” from other sources, but I surely learned about “Casanova” through this song. I remember my Dad enjoying this song greatly and being tickled by the approach it took toward a love rap. It had a self-depreciating angle similar to the one Sam Cooke used to take (Dont know much about…). When you add the fresh, powerful New Jack beat, with the synths and the energy of LeVert’s voices, you get a song that really encapsulates alot of my memories and good feelings about those days and one that always puts me back into that good groove when I hear it today!

Bonus: Three years later, the Griffey’s make like the LeVerts

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The ’87 Sound: “Lovin’ You” by The O’Jays

 

In 1990, baseball player Ken Griffey, and his soon to be superstar son, Ken Griffey Jr, both hit home runs in a game for the Seattle Mariners, becoming the first father and son duo to hit home runs in the same game. I don’t know if they were the first, but Eddie LeVert in his group The O’Jays, and his sons Gerald and Sean, with their group Levert, both hit the top of Billboards R&B charts in 1987. The O’Jays did it with this song, “Loving You”, which marked a reunion with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who provided much of the music and label for their ’70s success. “Lovin’ You” is an incredibly unique song for ’87, sounding as if it had been plucked right off one of The O’Jays late ’70s albums. Even though it’s live instrumentation, replete with human rhythm section and tasteful string backup were not common for ’87, it fit in very nicely with the “Quiet Storm”, “Baby Making Music” format that had developed through the ’80s.

The O’Jays had themselves helped pioneer that format with the subtly grooving side of their repertoire, which included songs like “Forever Mine”, “Darlin Baby”, and “Cry Together”, among many others.

“Loving You” represented a reunion of The O’Jays with the production of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. They teamed with Vince Montana of the original MFSB on Vibes and an arrangement from Philly Soul arranger Jack Faith. All of these musical chefs combined with The O’Jays to deliver this solid gold sensuous soul record in 1987. The record begins with upbeat piano riff that soon gives way to the laid back, sensously undulating bass line, backed by Faith’s subtly tasty, sustained horn arrangement, full of dark, warm horn tones that lay behind the track in a subtly supportive manner. The groove is slow and heavy, full of open spaces and pregnant pauses, with the whole arrangement stopping at an interval and hitting a tense chord before resolving. The 8 bars of music that start the song off before the vocals feel like much more due to the languid, luxuriously sensual pacing and arrangement.

The song begins, as The O’Jays did on so many hits, with Walter Williams crooning in his smooth baritone, “Lovin’ You/has made my life much sweeter baby”. As he sings that line and begins the next, Gamble, Huff, and Faith insert very tasty, fluctuating, jazzy guitar octaves into the arrangement, as the whole group joins to harmonize on the next line. Walter again sings the next lines, with the group harmonizing on “ooh baby.” “When I make love to you/I’m in Paradise”, Walter goes near the top of his full voice to sing “I’m in Paradise”, after which the drums and arrangement build up energy for the liturgical soul vocals of Eddie LeVert. Eddie goes on to sing powerfully about how his lover, makes him feel good from his head to his toes. The arrangement is much more obvious, and played at a louder volume, increasing in dynamics as a classical orchestra would. While Eddie brings the noise, Walter sings in an ecstatic falsetto in the background. After the power interlude, the arrangement simmers back down to Walters cool, “Lovin You/I need you in everything I do.” After that verse, a musical interlude follows, during which Jack Faith orchestrates and expands the piano riff that opened the song up.The song again goes to one of Eddie’s throaty interludes. The song includes a long vamp out section where the arrangers left room for the band to ad lib their way on out, led by Eddie, but eventually featuring the whole band going out on the line, “Everything’s all right.”

“Lovin’ You” stands out for me among all the songs I’ve talked about to this point that were released in 1987 because it represented such a timeless approach. Later on, during the 1990s and 2000s, musicians and producers all over the world would put in some serious study to try to make music with this Philly feel, including Lenny Kravitz on his classic, “It Aint Over.” But this song represented Gamble and Huff producing a classic song on The O’Jays in the late ’80s, replete with all the stylistic flourish of hits during their classic ’70s run. And this song also made it all the way to #1 on the R&B charts in November ’87, knocking Michael Jackson’s epic “Bad” off the top spot for one week. When it came out, I was a bit confused as to whether it was a current song or an older one. To my young ears, it sounded of the same vintage as all the other O’Jays music my father never stopped playing, as if it could exist on the same album as “Forever Mine.” In fact, I thought it was a throwback record that somehow got popular again. It wasn’t until much later that I found out that song was actually released in 1987. I can imagine a dyed in the wool soul fan in the late ’80s saying, “Hey, you hear that new one the O’Jays got? That slow one? It’s just like the old stuff!” And mean that with the highest of praise too! And it seals up the year of 1987 as a phenomenal one where Gladys Knight, Eric B & Rakim, Public Enemy, Prince, Michael Jackson, Stephanie Mills, Georgio, Sting, George Michael, and The mighty O’Jays could all exist and thrive on the Rhythm & Blues charts!

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The ’87 Sound : “Paid In Full” by Eric B & Rakim

 

 

Eric B & Rakim’s “Paid in Full” album was at the center of musical change in 1987. The musical, densely metaphorical, Black consciousness allusion-filled rhymes of Rakim, along with the rough and ready scratches of Eric B (and Rakim himself we would find out later), combined with the selective and sparse sampling of producer Marley Marl began to set the Hip Hop world on its side in 1986 with the singles “My Melody”, and “Eric B is President.” From almost the very beginning, Rakim’s precise rhymes rapped in his powerful, calm, but razor-edged baritone would introduce a new concept for rappers, the concept of “Flow”, which is rapping in a musical cadence that accentuates the rhythm and melody of the beat. The sound of Rakim’s voice and the peppy, Funky breakbeats that the combination of Eric B, Marley Marl, and Rakim himself chose for their music would also have far-reaching effects on music outside of the world of Hip-Hop, particularly in the world of dance music. In the very same year M/A/R/S would sample Rakim’s verse from the hit, “I Know You Got Soul” for their “Pump Up the Volume.” And the samples they used for this song, “Paid in Full”, would soon become the basis of dance hits such as “Back to Life” by Soul II Soul and “Girl You Know It’s True” by Milli Vanilli. “Paid in Full” itself is a song that has always captivated me since I first heard it on my brother’s cassette tapes in ’87. Even as far back as that time, my basketball playing brother Herman introduced Rakim as “the Jordan of rap”, and that was before Jordan had won a championship! “Paid in Full” consists of one solitary rap verse over a funky, deadly serious rhythmic groove.

“Paid in Full” begins with a conversation between Eric B and Rakim, shouting out their record label and management team. Rakim tells Eric B he’s “trying to do the knowledge” so he can get “Paid in Full.” The phrase “do the knowledge” comes from the 5% Nation of God’s and Earth’s, an offshoot of the Nation of Islam that taught lessons that were to be recited from memory. It’s just another example of Rakim’s influence, as in the coming years, mastery of Hip Hop lyricism would also include the ability to use the esoteric languages of the Five Percenters as a means of both educating the audience while also taking Hip Hop braggadocio to a new, spiritually based level. This monologue takes place over the foundation of the track, a vicious drum break sample from The Soul Searcher’s “Ashley’s Roadclip”, a pre “Bustin Loose” mid ’70s hit for the Godfather of Go Go, Chuck Brown. “Ashleys Roadclip” is one of those classic Hip Hop breakbeats, and it has a unique sound, a strong kick and snare drum combo given flavor by the way the drummer opens the hi hats toward the end of the bar with a little bit of percussion sprinkled in and topped off by an insistent tambourine. It also has a high amount of reverb on the track. Before the rhyme starts, they kick the bass line in, which is a subsonic version of Dennis Edwards & Siedah Garrett’s “Don’t Look Any Further.” It has always fascinated me that they would use such a recent R&B song for a sample, but Rakim has said that was a song he and many other M.C’s always dug rhyming over in the park jams. And its understandable, as “Don’t Look Any Further” has a very unique for its time, deep dub Reggae style bassline. And then, when Rakim begins his rap verse, a flute spins melodies in the background. All of this signified an extreme street level, Ghetto yet global exoticism the first time I heard it, which would only be intensified by Ofra Hazra’s singing on the remix version.

Rakim mentioned that the title of “Don’t Look Any Further” also inspired the rhyme for “Paid in Full”, which was about a person trying to reform from a life of crime to find a legitimate job. He begins his rap with one of the most iconic lines in rap, “Thinkin of a master plan/this ain’t nothin but sweat/inside my hand.” He goes on to rap about leaving his house to look for work. He says he “use to be a stick-up kid” robbing people for a living, “But now I’ve learned to earn/cause I’m righteous.” At the same time that he goes to look for jobs, in the end, rapping is what will provide for him.

The British group Coldcut were commissioned to do the remix and the job they did is legendary and often heard as much as the original version. Coldcut interspersed cuts from James Brown’s “Hot Pants”, samples from other Rakim songs, and most crucially, Ofra Hazra singing her 1987 hit recording of the traditional Middle Eastern song, “Im Nin’a lu.” Ofra Hazra’s melismatic Middle Eastern singing added a special ingredient to Rakim’s dead serious, Islamic flavored rap that made for a true musical masterpiece with a truly new, Ghetto-Global thematic heft.

“Paid in Full” was probably one of the first rap songs I ever learned all the words to, consisting as it does of one verse. Rakim achieves the incredible feat of telling a complete story in one solitary rap verse. The song itself would be very influential with its combination of a breakbeat, the dub style bass of “Don’t Look Any Further”, and the musical instrument that is Rakim’s voice. In its remix form it was a big hit overseas, opening up the possibilities of Hip Hop music that could incorporate the music of the world. This past summer I attended a Rakim show in Oakland, California, and he let the audience rap the verse to “Paid in Full.” Which just goes to show the influence of Rakim, standing tall as a rapper who made rap sing!

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