With a funk-saturated sound formulated way out in Long Island, EPMD took their place up front as part of hip-hop’s fabled golden era back in 1987. Now nearly three decades deep in hip-hop history, rap innovators Erick Sermon and Parrish J. Smith look back on the game-changing night they played London’s Brixton Academy, how the business of hip-hop taught them to break-up to make-up, and the lasting lesson the legendary Run-DMC taught them about always embracing rap’s new generation.
It’s 1988 and the Whistle Posse are in the house at London’s Brixton Academy. Their infernal siren fills up the venue’s atmosphere with a fevered anticipation. Back stage, Run-DMC’s Jam Master Jay is talking to Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith two rookie rappers and producers from the suburban climes of Brentwood, Long Island who rap under the name of EPMD, an amalgam of their monikers and mission: Erick and Parrish Making Dollars. Jay tells the duo, who have been invited along on the tour after Run is impressed by their debut album, Strictly Business, that they should consider using the talents of current New Musical Seminar DJ champion DJ Scratch to bolster their live show.
It’s timely advice, with EPMD in need of a new vinyl-spinning back-bone after K La Boss, who’d established himself as the duo’s DJ-of-choice after Diamond J – who would eventually go on to spin for P Diddy – had briefly flirted with the position only to bail out of the tour and travel back to the US citing illness. Early commercial UK hip-hop success story Derek B had filled in for EPMD the other night, earning the respect of Erick and Parish for memorising their set. But after witnessing Scratch perform an incredible set, the offer to become EPMD’s permanent DJ is made solid.
After this, things will never be the same for EPMD, as the brothers from Brentwood take up their chance to perform nightly with not just Run-DMC, but also Public Enemy, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, and Stetsasonic. Things will never be the same for hip-hop either: the golden era is in full effect. Outside, the Whistle Posse salutes.
The symbolism of that distant night is strong, and sums up a hip-hop era when the defining momentum was with the music, not the images of individual artists. Run telling Def Jam executive Lyor Cohen to track down EMPD and invite them on the road, and Jay recommending a fellow DJ to fit the group’s vibe, seems like one generation graciously embracing the spirit of the next. Run-DMC themselves had already been in that position, kick-starting a new movement by trading up the (often) disco- and dance-helmed grooves of hip-hop’s first recorded wave of old school music for harsh and sparse drum machine beats and abrasive raps.
EPMD heralded their own arrival with thick, mid-tempo funk grooves inspired by cruising around the expanse of Long Island in a car with the low-end frequencies cushioning the ride, not being cooped up on a rattling city subway train. The rhymes were just as comfortable, with the MCs prioritising the effortless way they said something over any allusions to content. As Erick declared on the Zapp-sampling You Gots To Chill: “Relax your mind, let your conscience be free/And get down to the sounds of EPMD.” It could be the group’s motto.
“It was full of five huge TVs, Adidas sneakers with no strings all neatly lined up, nice meals the promoters would have waiting for them”
As Parrish tells it, this willingness of stylistically different artists to commingle was a main part of the reason the time would become enshrined as hip-hop’s golden era. So when he and Erick first walked in to Run-DMC’s tour bus, they reacted with the exhilaration of fans. “It was full of five huge TVs, Adidas sneakers with no strings all neatly lined up, nice meals the promoters would have waiting for them,” recalls Parrish, who before that day had only seen Run-DMC on TV and in concert. But EPMD soon found themselves accepted as artists on an equal level of respect and camaraderie. “It was a tight clique that formed on that tour,” Parish continues. “Remember, this was Will Smith before he became a movie star, when he was hoping Parents Just Don’t Understand would take off, and then Public Enemy and Stet were there, and we’d all support each other and hang out. It was like one family.” Backing up the sentiment, he adds, “I mean, once you rolled up on those tour buses, we had basketball courts set up under the buses.” (Will Smith and his bodyguard, Charlie Mack, were kings of the court. As Parrish remembers: “They’d be dunking and we were just like, ‘Yo, we was just trying to do a little shoot up!'”)
EPMD’s rise was quick, fateful, and a beneficiary of the times. Their profile was established after a first single, 1987’s It’s My Thing, was played by both DJ Red Alert and Mr. Magic on their influential – but rival – New York City rap radio shows; a debut album, the perfectly-composed ten-track Strictly Business – the first in what currently totals seven “business”-punned titles – was roundly received as a classic. (Between the two releases, the group’s name and logo were solidified, after either KRS-One or Biz Markie – the duo’s memory is hazy – told them the original spelling, EPEE MD, was too complicated, and designer Haze created for them a logo as enduringly iconic as Run-DMC’s own one.)
Then came the tour with Run-DMC, the chance to help define an era with fellow Long Island natives Public Enemy (Nassau County) and Rakim (Wyandanch), and the opportunity to extend EPMD’s influence through the early-’90s by putting on their collection of Hit Squad associates: Redman, Keith Murray, K-Solo, and tongue-twisting duo Das-EFX. But as the ’90s moved on, EPMD started to notice changes in the industry around them, not least as bonds that used to be formed through little more than keen creative integration started to fray.
“I think once it hit its height for us in about ’93 or ’94, then it became less about the music and the culture and the art-form and more about the financial thing,” says Parrish. “When hip-hop first came out, the music industry largely looked at it as trash, said it wasn’t gonna be around. But once it looked super-lucrative to them, it was harder for the artists to stay on top of just the music – it became more about the money than the art. I remember meeting 2Pac out in the Bay Area when he was with Shock G and Digital Underground and thinking that it was a little easier for Erick and I to establish ourselves because when we came out you got respect simply on how dope your music was. But ‘Pac and those guys, they had a lot more to figure out.”
During that time of change, EPMD started to make more money – but at the expense of not being able to enjoy it. “You were constantly working,” says Parrish, “and in between our own albums, we had Das-EFX and Redman and K-Solo and Keith Murray to take care of. We went from more or less just trying to define our art to taking care of business and touring the globe and not getting to see too much of what we were doing.”
After a fourth album, Business Never Personal, EPMD split up – business, sometimes, being capable of corrupting a personal relationship. It was 1997 before they released another studio album together, appropriately titled Back In Business.
There is, of course, a new EPMD album being recorded, although since they’ve reunited the musical spark between Erick and Parrish has never been as natural – as telepathic, even – as it once was. But that’s common: It’s hard for any hip-hop artist to stay relevant through so many years, eras, fashions and fads. (Parrish’s own history goes back to the early-’80s, when he called himself DJ Eazzy “P” and rolled with his older brother, Smitty D, the founder of the Rock Squad. “He had a good relationship with Afrika Bambaataa even before Planet Rock came out,” he says, adding that he’s “seen hip-hop since before they even called it hip-hop.”)
Instead, Erick and Parish are attempting to embrace their experience – their vintage status – without turning sour and bitter to the modern scene around them. Looking back over EPMD’s career – ups, downs, break-ups, reconciliations, and all – Parrish says they have “no regrets.” Instead, he figures, “Now that we’re older, it looks like everything is a learning experience.” Then, with a similar humility to the way Run-DMC embraced EPMD’s generation back in ’88, Parish invokes the wisdom of an icon of the wave that followed them: “But I know this – if we stop writing, if we stop producing, then we don’t have a right to complain about the state hip-hop is in. So like I always say to E, ‘We need to keep on that 2Pac work ethic.'”
This article is exclusive to Bonafide and first appeared in print in Bonafide Magazine issue 05: Old-School vs New-School.
Words: Phillip Mlynar
Photography: Jimmy Mould