Song 31: Eric B. and Rakim, “I Know You Got Soul” (1987)

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I don’t have many regrets when it comes to music. I try not to subscribe to the idea of guilty pleasures, and I don’t think anyone should feel bad about not having heard a particular song. But I do regret not getting into hip-hop earlier, especially since I was an impressionable youth during hip-hop’s “golden ages” in the mid-to-late ‘90s and early ‘90s. Aside from some Beastie Boys tracks and inescapable songs like “Bust a Move” and “Funky Cold Medina,” I really didn’t seek it out until college.

Why not? I was definitely intimidated, both by the breadth of artists and what I assumed was terrifying subject matter. I knew of Public Enemy and NWA, and that was some scary sounding-shit. And it was (and remains) scary, to its credit, but I probably could have handled it, and I might have loved it.

Of course, there was plenty of (for lack of a much, much better term) non-scary hip-hop that came out around that time, from Run-D.M.C. to A Tribe Called Quest, that I love now and would have loved then. I’ll be writing about some of those groups on this blog, but today I’m writing about a duo that I discovered even later. I’d been meaning to check out Eric B. and Rakim’s Paid in Full for years, and I finally did so last month. Last month! Ugh.

Paid in Full is amazing, not only because it’s flat-out great, but because you can spot the moments that influenced untold numbers of MCs and DJs. In “I Know You Got Soul” alone, you have the phrase “pump up the volume,” which became a popular expression and the name of a cult-hit movie, as well as the sentence “I sink into the paper like I was ink,” which became the refrain to a Mos Def track (“Love”) 12 years later. A couple more: “I’m the R, the A, to the K-I-M/If I wasn’t, then why would I say I am” (from “As The Rhyme Goes On”) became the basis for Eminem’s “The Way I Am”; “A contest is what you owe me” (“My Melody”) pops up in Jurassic 5’s “Concrete Schoolyard.” This referencing happens all the time in hip-hop, of course, but for a relative neophyte like me, each discovery is like a revelation. I love how hip-hop is on a continuum, with admiration and respect under all the bragging and macho posturing.

Rakim was one of the first rappers to use what many refer to as a “writerly” style; his verses, full of internal rhymes and rhythmic complexity (Eminem would use these techniques to great effect years later), are clearly not improvised. Rakim, in this song especially, is a gifted writer and rapper, one who could spit circles around guys like Jay-Z.

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