Eric B. & Rakim ‘Follow The Leader’: A 30th Anniversary Retrospective
The duo wasn't just in the business of making rap albums, they created fine art.
In July 1987, Eric B. & Rakim released their brilliant debut LP Paid In Full which helped to convince those who didn’t yet believe rap was a legitimate artform otherwise. Rakim’s masterful wordplay, lyricism, flow, and delivery almost singlehandedly changed the way emceeing was viewed during a time we now refer to as the “Golden Era.” Regardless of how well received their debut was, Eric B. & Rakim had to guard against not only the sophomore jinx but the fact the rap landscape had vastly changed in just the short calendar year since they initially released it.
Every rap era features MCs and producers who serve as both standard bearers for the rest of the field and providers of impetus or inspiration to those succeeding them. Rakim was widely regarded as the MC who ushered in rap’s sea change with his debut single back in 1986 but at the time Eric B. & Rakim were set to release their second album, they needed to reclaim their place amongst the hip-hop elite. Releases from their contemporaries now dominated the airwaves, Walkmans, car sound systems, and block parties of 1988. Due to the sheer amount of high quality competition from both up and comers and veterans alike, they needed to undergo yet another sonic and lyrical evolution in order to maintain their dominance in the rap world. The lead single would serve a dual purpose in both announcing the duo’s return to the fray and restore them as apex predators atop the rap food chain. The title? "Follow The Leader."
Black music as a whole had reached its creative zenith in the Summer of 1988. Boogie Down Productions, Run-D.M.C., Doug E. Fresh & The Get Fresh Crew, MC Lyte, Audio Two, EPMD, Stetsasonic, Big Daddy Kane, and Public Enemy’s tapes were selling like hotcakes made with crack batter. As innovative as “Eric B. Is President,” “My Melody,” “I Ain’t No Joke,” and “Move The Crowd” were when they dropped, the gold standard for lyricism had now been raised. The sonic aesthetic Eric B. & Rakim set the year before now seemed like the old arcade cabinets no one played anymore once newer games came in. Follow The Leader was a lyrical tour de force, a veritable emceeing TED Talk demonstrating how to construct flawless rhymes then spit them effortlessly. Rakim’s booming voice and demeanor alone were intimidating enough but his aggressive tone and speed with which dense vocabulary was converted into pugnacious poetry. Rakim’s rhymes often forced listeners into making the same face Wee Bey did after Stringer Bell informed him they shot a cop. YouTube the scene if you’re not familiar…
Rakim’s flow, cadences, and voice, coupled with precise breath control, set him apart from his peers, but now with Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap on the scene he needed to elevate his game to keep pace. This would’ve been a daunting task even for an elite MC but Rakim was more than up to challenge. Eric B. & Rakim weren’t just in the business of making rap albums, they created high art. We marveled at “Follow The Leader,” were astounded by "Microphone Fiend,” and left dumbfounded by “Lyrics Of Fury,” Mind you, that’s just within the first three songs of Side A on the cassette tape! I spent so many manhours reading those album credits from the insert and staring at the cover photo of them rocking matching personalized Dapper Dan outfits, it rivaled the cumulative amount of time spent reading ingredients from cereal boxes during breakfast in my childhood.
The production on Follow The Leader was other worldly. The way Rakim’s declarations of lyrical superiority all over the album didn’t sound like mere braggadocio but indisputable fact was awe-inspiring. Side B opens with the kinetic “Put Your Hands Together,” hard drums with sampled horns punctuated by a scratched hook all melded together perfectly way to re-engage the listener after they flipped the record or the cassette over. “To The Listeners” and “The R” were virtuoso performances that each showcased Rakim’s versatility. Rakim could seamlessly transition from battle rap mode where he spit a rapid fire barrage of lyrics aimed at a nameless foe into a smooth, profanity free flow that radiated the confident cool of Miles Davis’ trumpet. Not surprisingly, in his youth, Rakim also played the trumpet. There are no coincidences. Just unadulterated genius.
Many years later, I discovered it was Rakim who performed the scratches on “Musical Massacre” which exponentially increased my appreciation for that track. Song titles weren’t chosen because they were punchy or clever; they each were standalone statements bordering on edicts. There was no room for speculation on this album’s tone with names like “Eric B. Never Scared” or “No Competition” in bold print on the back cover with the old iconic Uni Records logo stamped on the cassette tape case. I had the privilege of riding around in cars with the windows down blasting “Just A Beat” out the sound system.
The usage of break beats blended with the keyboard playing of Rakim’s elder brother Steve “Stevie Blass” Griffin on the album closer “Beats For The Listeners” was used for everything from personal theme music, a track to write rhymes to emulating Rakim’s on “To The Listeners,” or an opportunity to devise dance routines for the next block party. Follow The Leader is a perfectly sequenced project devoid of any weak moments.
Rakim’s effective implementation of almost all of the countless literary devices I studied in English Composition class the previous school year motivated me to expand my vocabulary, improve my oratory skills and master the English language far more than any book assigned to me on my summer reading list ever did. Given the sheer amount of incredible Rap albums that were released directly before and after Follow The Leader hit store shelves, it still managed to go Gold in only two months. Follow the leaders.