In an art form prone to hyperbole, words like “classic,” “legendary,” and “game-changer,” are thrown around way too often in rap. Yet such superlatives and more could easily apply to the double single, “Eric B. is President/ My Melody” (Zakia Records, 1986), a record that created a major tectonic shift in hip-hop, helping to define the 80s golden era.
At the time, both DJ Eric B. (Barrier) and the recently rechristened Rakim Allah (William Griffin) were unknowns who literally came out of nowhere. While Eric worked deejay promotions for WBLS, New York’s premier, urban radio station to feature a regular rap show—"Mr. Magic’s Rap Attack,” hosted by Mr. Magic and his on-air deejay Marley Marl—Rakim, a new convert to the Nation of Gods and Earths, was still in high school and preparing to play quarterback for Stony Brook’s college football team. The duo was brought together in chance fashion by mutual friend Alvin Toney when Eric was looking for an MC to rap over his tracks. Originally, Toney had recommended Freddie Foxxx (James Campbell aka ‘Bumpy Knuckles’), another Long Island MC, but when he wasn’t home, they went instead to Rakim’s house in Wyandanch.
The God MC threw on a 60-minute Memorex cassette of himself rapping nonstop, but five minutes into it, Eric B. was sold. In his memoir, Rakim recalled, “Eric said, ‘Yo, we can go to Marley Marl’s crib and make a record right now.” A week later they hopped on the LIRR for an appointment with destiny to meet the man who was making a name for himself as hip-hop’s premier producer.
Fresh off street hits by Roxanne Shante and MC Shan, Marley was still working out of a makeshift studio in the living room of his sister’s apartment in the Queensbridge Houses, the largest housing project complex in the U.S. Rakim brought the demo tape of him rapping, which Marley used to quickly recreate the beat. Then, while calmly sitting back on the sofa, Rakim recorded his verses. He thought it was a wrap until Marley told him to do it over again with “more energy,” but continued in the same laid-back style that became his vocal signature. Meanwhile, Marley was getting visibly frustrated because he wanted the young gun to be more like the day’s superstars--L.L. Cool J or Run DMC--who shouted.
“I respected those MCs, but I didn’t want to sound like that,” Rakim explained in his memoir, “I wanted to be more thought-provoking, and if people were going to really hear my ideas and the intricacies of my rhymes, it was better to have a calmer delivery. I had to yell in the park, but when I went into the basement studios, I saw I could rhyme without yelling. I liked being more conversational because then I could have more control over the tones in my voice, and you’d be better able to really hear me. If you could hear me, then you’d have to think about what I was saying. I put a good deal of effort into intentionally changing my delivery, and over time I taught myself how to remain calm while I rhymed. With that, I sounded like no one else—and I loved that.” Everybody else would, too.
Finally, Marley left the session in frustration putting his colleague MC Shan in charge. As a rapper himself, Shan was bowled over by the lyrics but also felt that this cocky youth could have displayed a little more gusto. But that was all he was getting out of Rakim that day, for a song with no hook that became known as “My Melody.”
While hanging out back in Rakim’s basement after the session, Eric gave his new partner a preview of the next song he wanted to do. Using the popular breakbeat from James Brown’s “Funky President” he paired it with the bassline from Fonda Rae’s “Over Like a Fat Rat,” a tune that was known to get the party jumping. According to Eric, “[He] thought it was the funniest shit in the world. I told Rakim, ‘Just like you laughing now, you going to be laughing all the way to the bank and be a millionaire one day because of this record.’” Little did the DJ/producer know that his words would be prophetic. The double single made a huge splash in New York setting up the duo for their seminal debut, Paid in Full (4th & Broadway/Island, 1987), a benchmark album of the golden era that raised the standards for rhyming and production.