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!