25 Years Later: Why ‘Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em’ Cemented Rakim as Rap’s Preeminent MC
Rakim is arguably the most influential MC of all time. While a statement like that is often met with a side-eye or a drawn-out debate, being that it's Rakim, there's not many arguments against it.
He emerged on the scene in 1986, alongside his partner Eric B., with the classic single "Eric B. Is President." The man born William Griffin Jr. built a reputation as one of the most skilled wordsmiths ever to step into a recording booth and played a major part in helping to revolutionize the art of rhyming as we know it.
Releasing their debut album, Paid in Full, in 1987, Eric B. and Rakim quickly went from new jacks to the cream of the crop, turning in what is considered to be one of the definitive LPs in hip-hop history. Looking to up the ante, the pair released their sophomore album, Follow the Leader, in August of 1988 to much fanfare and delivered another classic album powered by gems such as the title track and "Microphone Fiend," which is one of the most popular songs in their catalog. Both albums were critically acclaimed and positioned Eric B. and Rakim as the premier duo in all of rap by the end of 1988.
But around the same time, hip-hop was in the middle of the genre's first golden era, with landmark releases from the likes of Public Enemy, Slick Rick, KRS-One and N.W.A. among others. And while Rakim was still seen as rap's golden child, there was an increasing number of challengers eyeing the throne themselves and were equipped with the skills to potentially pull it off.
But out of all of the new jacks, the one that seemed to pose as the biggest threat to Rakim's reign was Juice Crew MC Big Daddy Kane, a suave, yet rugged MC out of Brooklyn that had won the public's approval with consecutive monster releases like 1988's Long Live the Kane and '89s It's A Big Daddy Thing, both of which spawned multiple hit singles and turned Kane into rap's man of the moment.
Listen to Eric B. & Rakim's "Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em"
A subtle rivalry soon brewed between the two lyrical titans and the pressure was now on for Rakim to head back in the studio and emerge with an album that would prove he was still the game's most gifted MC. And he proved just that with the release of Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em on May 22, 1990. The album was heralded by critics such as Rolling Stone writer Steve Futterman, who wrote, "There's nothing trendy about this impassive duo, no Steely Dan bites or bits of Afrodelic rhetoric here. Eric B. and Rakim are hip-hop formalists devoted to upholding the Seventies funk canon and advancing rap's original verbal mandate."
Futterman also dubbed Eric B., who was believed to be behind the group's production at the time, as the Max Roach of the twin turntables. But the critiques weren't all positive, as evidenced by Greg Sandow's review of the album in Entertainment Weekly, in which he pegged Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em as "out of date and, compared with the content of most rap today, constricted."
But with 25 years having passed since the release of this album, those assessments only tell a part of the story and fail to convey the significance of an LP that cemented Rakim's standing as the most revered voice in rap up to that moment. Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em opens with the pulsating title track and Eric B. and Rakim quickly prove why they're touted as one of hip-hop's most respected duos.
Produced by Paul C, the beat contains a sample of the Commodores' "The Assembly Line" and features live drums, jittery sound effects and well-placed scratches and grunts, making for an action-packed soundbed that's gritty, yet riveting. Rakim runs roughshod over the track and delivers elite bars, rapping, "Of the arsenal, I got artillery, lyrics of ammo / Rhymes are rhythm, venom or give em piano / Bring a bullet-proof vest, nothing to ricochet / Ready, aim at ya brain, that's what the trigger say," giving evidence of his lyrical aptitude and steely demeanor. By the time the song is through, it's more than clear that Rakim remains at the top of his game and deserves top-billing as a supreme soloist.
The tempo remains rapid, but sound transitions from menacing to funky on "No Omega." Produced by Rakim, he based the track around a sample of James Brown's 1969 cut, 'You Got to Have a Mother for Me," a song that was given to him by Paul C. The beat contains grunts courtesy of Brown as well as precise scratches that complement the drum loop and soulful horns. Breaking in the lively track with ease, Rakim attacks without hesitation, spitting, "Rhymes everlasting, there'll be no part two / Knowledge is infinite once I start to / Draw a better picture for ya third eye if ya blind / You know with a mic, I'm a black Michelangelo / I'm the brother who's ideas are colorful / Giving em insight, but giving em trouble too," and continues to push his point that knowledge indeed reigns supreme.
Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em reaches its climax early on with the Large Professor-produced "In the Ghetto." The beat brings to mind a deserted block in the slums of New York City, equipped with a broken street light and roaches and rats scurrying about with its dusty drums and haunting vocal sample. Rakim serves as a streetwise narrator on this outing, reporting live from ground zero while embodying the vibe of the ghetto through rhyme and implementing Afrocentric imagery and 5 Percenter lingo. Known for their authentic depiction of life on the streets during a time when the Big Apple was rotten to the core, Eric B. and Rakim craft one of the most vivid descriptions of the inner-city through song in rap history without coming close to toeing the line of glorification.
Watch Eric B. & Rakim's "In the Ghetto" Video
"In the Ghetto" is a tough act to follow, but "Step Back" contains enough potency to pull off the trick and does just that with it's cold-chilling beat and Rakim's steady performance behind the mic. Containing scratched samples lifted from "Paid in Full" and elements of Black Heat's "Zimba Ku, when paired with Large Professor's drum-programming, the beat serves as a sublime sonic selection and is dope enough to induce a head nod or two.
Unlike today, the DJ was considered an integral part of a rapper's album in the '90s and during a live show. Plus, the DJ was often honored with a song dedicated to his prowess as a turntablist and all-around fly guy on most albums. The dynamic between Eric B. and Rakim was no different, hence the intermission cut, "Eric. B Made My Day," which features what may (or may not be, depending on who you ask) be the enigmatic DJ's best handiwork behind the wheels of steel.
The B-Side of Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em kicks off lovely with "Run for Cover," which features the R. going for broke over the Paul C production, which incorporates live drums and guitars, as well as a sample of Tony Alvon & the Belairs' "Sexy Coffee Pot." Paul C also lends his talents to "Untouchables," which is a jazzy number that packs a little less punch than previous offerings on the album, but is far from a dud or a waste of time. Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em hits its first slight hiccup with "Mahogany, a tale about Eric B. and Rakim meeting a pair of hotties named Ebony and Mahogany. Rakim comes off a bit clunky over the production and would never be mistaken for a rhyming Casanova after giving a listen to this underwhelming performance.
The original God MC redeems himself on the aptly titled "Keep 'Em Eager to Listen," another Paul C contribution that wins the listener over with its rollicking drums and implementation of Kool & the Gang's "Chocolate Buttermilk," before ending the musical journey with "Set 'Em Straight," a serviceable offering that fails to wow you, but jams enough to keep you from rushing to push fast-forward.
Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em failed to reach the commercial success of their Follow the Leader LP and was devoid of any smash singles, but is considered arguably the duo's most complete body of work from start to finish and showcases the evolution of Rakim as a MC, as well as the evolution of their sound. Large Professor is reminiscent of the straw that stirs the drink analogy once made by another famed New Yorker (former New York Yankees player Reggie Jackson) known for hits due to his assistance on the production tip that helped usher the Eric B. and Rakim sound into the '90s.
The contribution of late Paul C -- who was tragically murdered in 1989, during the making of the album -- may have been unknown upon the release of Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em, but time has revealed his role in the making of this classic, which stands as a testament to his potential as a beatsmith and a bittersweet reminder of the classic we missed out on.
Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em is a classic -- critics and fans alike will agree. The effort became one of the first albums to receive the coveted 5 Mic rating from The Source, as well as a slot on the publication's 100 Best Albums list that was released in 1998. Eric B. and Rakim's work on this LP had staying power, as subsequent releases from the likes of Big Daddy Kane (Taste of Chocolate) and Slick Rick (The Ruler's Back) would ultimately pale in comparison to Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em.
While Eric B. and Rakim would ultimately call it quits as a duo after the release of their 1992 album, Don't Sweat the Technique, Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em is a major reason their names are included in hip-hop history for the better. They delivered some of the highest quality rap music ever heard and when it hit, the eagerness to listen was real.
Listen to Eric B. & Rakim's "Mahogany"
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