Eric B. & Rakim’s Let The Rhythm Hit ‘Em Turns 25 Years Old & Hits Just As Hard
June 19 marked the 25th anniversary for Eric B. & Rakim’s third album, Let The Rhythm Hit ‘Em. Perhaps forever in the shadows of Paid In Full, and to a much lesser extent, Follow The Leader, L.T.R.H.E. is a black sheep within a truly classic catalog from the iconic pair. Three years later, Don’t Sweat The Technique (released 23 years ago today, to be exact) would signal the end of Eric B. & Rakim as a unit. Thus, in an eight-year run, third albums can suffer slings of being passed over, unless of course, you’re A Tribe Called Quest, Scarface or Naughty By Nature.
1990 remains one of Rap music’s most transitional years. Run-DMC were Back From Hell, while Digital Underground, Compton’s Most Wanted, X-Clan, and Brand Nubian formally introduced themselves. Ice Cube went solo, while Big Daddy Kane dabbled with R&B. Salt N’ Pepa and LL Cool J made mainstream comebacks—or so they were called, just several years removed from their mid-’80s breakthroughs.
Eric B. & Rakim needed no comeback as it were. The duo had achieved platinum and gold success already, before the dissolving of Uni Records into MCA. Rakim (with Kane and KRS-One) was widely revered as Hip-Hop’s elite MC. However, musically, the group had evolved from the days of the 12″ single, into the music video era. Now, as the Rap album was becoming more than just a sum of its parts, Eric Barrier and William Griffin were out to leave marks.
Let The Rhythm Hit ‘Em watched Rakim fill the void King Asiatic was arguably leaving with his Taste Of Chocolate album (which was still recording in June, 1990). Ra’ would steer his aggressive style on the title single. Cocky, confident, and rhyming with little room for breath, Rakim wanted to prove to his peers that a mid-80’s MC refused to give way to the expanded class. Only 10 tracks long, with a bonus remix, this effort showcased Rakim doing what others couldn’t. His flows were other-worldly, and songs like “Run For Cover” showed rhythms that no other MC could keep time with. “No Omega” showed Rakim in sixth gear, playing with his speed, and providing interplay with his DJ, not unlike drummers and horn players in Jazz.
However, this album was not strictly a rapper-showcase. Single “In The Ghetto” extended Rakim’s introspection. More than just a highly-technical flow, intelligent mind, and smooth microphone operator, Ra’ could get deep. This song was not Gangsta Rap, but certainly the same “Reality Rap” that peers like KRS, Ice Cube, Kool G Rap and Ice-T were toting. Rakim may be “paid in full,” but he was still a man of the people, who could write in a way that glorified communities across the globe that were often passed over in politics or social programs. “Step Back,” the very next song after “In The Ghetto” furthered the message. Rakim empowered his people, universally, beyond just borough, race, or something specific.
“Mahogany” would prove to be a seminal Hip-Hop love song. Here, Rakim flaunted his skills as a storyteller and a versatile songwriter. The Long Island, New Yorker added a hit to his repertoire. Moreover, as Kane would overtly aim for the female base (something he arguably secured since his career’s inception), Rakim Allah achieved it while staying the course.
Sonically, this album was in step with the advanced lyrics. Sadly, the LP’s credits (all slated towards Eric B & Rakim) have muddied the history. However, this was among the final albums that late engineer/producer Paul C. (a/k/a Paul McKasty) worked on. Paul was murdered in Queens, New York 11 months prior to the album’s release. In his absence, Paul’s protege, The Large Professor, was brought in. Uncredited (and an alleged source of tension to come), the man who would join the Main Source that year helped bring a totally different sound than heard on Paid In Full or Follow The Leader. 45 King also remixed the title track, arguably at the peak of his first era in Dance-Rap production and remixes.
Eric, who never rapped, did certainly appear to improve in his creative role. The scratching and DJ presence on the album improved. Rakim and Eric, who undoubtedly had a strong production hand, certainly shed their 1980s audio skins, and made an album that sounded somewhere between Critical Beatdown and Enta Da Stage. “Eric B. Made My Day,” the obligatory DJ cut may get lost in history. Barrier is often thought of as a street mastermind and a studio tough. However, for reports of his green hands on the turntables in the Paid In Full era, Rhythm showed just that, from the Queens, New Yorker.
History loves 1988, and it loves the early 1990s. In between, Let The Rhythm Hit ‘Em is an emblematic album of Rap music in change. Eric B. & Rakim were as hardcore as any act in Hip-Hop, and yet they weren’t prone to curses, sensationalism, or vulgarity. Rakim and Eric stood tall as Hip-Hop icons who had weathered the storm of the 1980s, moving from independence to mainstream. They were never corny, and never catered to trends. Instead, this defiantly New York musical experience set the very trends. Skills spoke the loudest, and the jewelry, confidence, and unimpressed attitude only enhanced the experience.
A “5 mic” album in The Source (when such things were paramount), Let The Rhythm Hit ‘Em may be truly the most cohesive album from Eric and Ra’. This LP catches them in the middle, comfortable with each other, and taking steps towards a fuller picture. No, the hits are not there—but just the same, there are no weaknesses on this album. Twenty five years later, it still plays beautifully, and cannot be criticized in its listening. Sure, there are unseen hands–such as Paul C., Large Professor, and presumably others. But like The Chronic or Ready To Die, that fact only adds to the album’s mystique and appeal. Additionally, this is most certainly the creative turning point that Rakim seems to draw from in his 20 years of solo pursuits since. Thoughtful, self-righteous, and street, this is how the God MC likes to appear before his believers.
Let The Rhythm Hit ‘Em is an appropriate title for this work’s sound, feel, and syncopated style throughout. Even as Eric B. & Rakim quietly appear together (as they did to accept a Long Island Music Hall Of Fame Award in 2010), this album says so much about what made them a great outfit. Paid In Full has the swagger and style. Follow The Leader is Rakim’s spotlight with the mic. Let The Rhythm Hit ‘Em, the album that made so many casual listeners into Hip-Hop Heads, celebrates the group, its impact, and the music that’s still hittin’.