Don't sweat the technique: The story of Eric B. and Rakim

Eric B. and Rakim were more than a rapper and DJ duo, they were hip hop innovators. Widely known as the most influential DJ/MC duo not only in the history of hip hop but in pop music, Eric B. and Rakim helped usher in a new era of the sound by combining the minimalized beat that Run-D.M.C. was famous for with clever, methodical lyrics, and for a time in the late '80s until their breakup in the early '90s, very few hip hop acts could touch this duo.

The origins of the duo lie in Elmhurst, Queens, and it was here that a boy name Eric Barrier would develop a love for music. Throughout his high school years, Barrier learned how to play the trumpet and drums, but after he graduated, he began to learn how to work the turntables.

Calling himself “Eric. B,” it didn’t take much time for him to gain notoriety in the New York area, and in 1985 he was offered a DJing gig at legendary New York City hip hop station WBLS. It was here where he met Alvin Toney, a Queens music promoter, and Barrier hooked up with Toney to search for MCs to rap over his beats.

Originally, they zeroed in on Freddie Foxxx, an MC from Long Island, and when Barrier went to visit Foxxx, he wasn’t home. So, with Foxxx scratched out, they went with their second choice: William Griffin, better known as Rakim.

Rakim was also into music as a teenager, but instead of playing instruments, he wrote rhymes. He took his name from the Nation of Gods and Earth, and in 1986, Barrie and Rakim decided to record material together under the name Eric B. and Rakim. The man that made it happen was New York City hip hop legend Marley Marl, and the first single that the duo would record was “Eric. B is President.”

Using the break from Fonda Rea’s 1982 hit “Over Like a Fat Rat,” the single became an underground sensation in the New York area and it lead them to score a record deal with 4th and Broadway/Island Records, a subsidiary of MCA Records at the time.

In 1987, the single was included in their debut album Paid In Full, an album that was unlike any other at the time, both sonically and lyrically. On the sound side, the duo took the minimalized beat that fans had gravitated to at the time and smooth it out, and lyrically, Rakim didn’t boastfully spit out his cleverly written rhymes, but instead got his point across using a smoother, softer tenor that still went hard. Fans ate up Paid in Full, and by the end of the year, the LP was sitting in the top ten of the R&B/Hip Hop album charts.

Wasting little time in capitalizing on the success of Paid in Full, Eric B. and Rakim released Follow the Leader the very next year, and it was an even stronger album than Paid in Full. Follow the Leader became their highest-charting album on the pop side, going to number seven, and going one spot higher on the R&B/Hip Hop side (No.7, Paid in Full went to No. 8).

Thanks to their two huge albums, Eric B. and Rakim found themselves near the top of the hip hop world. In 1989, they teamed up with Jody Watley on her top ten hit “Friends,” but when it came to collaborating with other rappers, it was a no-go for the duo.

In 1990, fellow New York City MC KRS-One, who was enjoying his own success at the time, gathered other hip hop MCs in the area to put together a single to support his Stop the Violence Movement. Eric B. and Rakim were the only ones absent from the single, “Self-Destruction,” but years later, Rakim told that KRS didn’t even contact the duo to be on the single, feeling like they carried the negative image he was trying to speak out against.

Nevertheless, it didn’t stop their commercial winning streak, and that same year they released Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em to critical acclaim. Commercially, it was a minor setback as it narrowly reached the top ten of the R&B/Hip Hop album charts and only went to number 32 on the pop side, but it was hailed as one of the best hip hop albums ever made, and it also was the first album to receive a “5 Mic” rating from The Source magazine.

In 1991, they appeared on the House Party 2 and Juice soundtracks, and the next year, they released their fourth album, Don’t Sweat the Technique, that was both a commercial and critical success. But that same year, both Eric B and Rakim expressed an interest in recording solo LPs, but in order for them to do it, the two of them would have had to sign a clause that would release them from their original deal with MCA.

Fearing that Rakim would abandon him, Eric B. refused to sign the clause and this would lead to Rakim taking Eric and MCA to court over the release clause in 1993. But instead of finding a resolution between the two, the court case wound up dissolving the duo.

In the aftermath of their breakup, Eric B released a solo album in 1995, but legal woes held up Rakim’s solo debut until 1997. Although they went their separate ways creatively, Eric. B and Rakim are still friends today, and in 2011, they were announced as finalist to be inducted into Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which is much deserving because hip hop would not be where it is today if they sweated the technique.