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The Why & The How

Eric B. to Rakim: ‘I Want You to Laugh Like That When We Get Paid in Full’ 

Eric B. unpacks the title track to their groundbreaking album — and provides insight into what makes the song an enduring masterpiece
Eric B. & Rakim in 1987 in NYC. (Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Eric Barrier—half of the legendary hip-hop duo Eric B. & Rakim—had just learned they were nominated for induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame when he picked up the phone for this interview. With a palpable excitement in his voice, it’s immediately clear he’s simply grateful for the recognition. The latest nomination marks the second time the hip-hop duo is up for the honor, and he’s hoping they’ll make it in this year. 

Released in July 1987, Paid in Full landed with a resounding mic drop. Despite its modest 10-song track list, Eric B.’s keen ear for obscure samples and Rakim’s smooth, nearly scat-like delivery and wordplay wizardry made it an instant stand-out. Tracks like “Eric B. Is President,” “I Ain’t No Joke,” “I Know You Got Soul,” “My Melody,” as well as the title track were instant classics upon their release, helping solidify Eric B. & Rakim’s place in the pantheon of hip-hop greats.

London, 1987. (Credit: David Corio/Redferns)

Rakim’s rapping on Paid in Full set the precedent for other MCs to follow, with his lyrical dexterity and hypnotic cadence. Speaking to Public Enemy’s Chuck D during a panel at SITE Santa Fe on March 5, 2020, days before the pandemic lockdown, Rakim explained how his love of jazz luminary John Coltrane sparked an idea. He and his brother, a saxophone player, were listening to Coltrane’s 1961 album, My Favorite Things, when something caught their ears.

“We got to a certain joint, a live joint, and he played two notes at the same time,” Rakim explained. “We’d heard the song before; we used to play it at least once a week. I said, ‘Did you hear that shit?’ All the times we heard it, we never caught it, and the day we caught it, we caught it at the same time. 

“He pulled the needle back and we couldn’t believe it. Playing the sax, that’s impossible. If John Coltrane can play two notes at one time, what can I do with a pen and words?” 

The result was Paid in Full, and since then Eric B. & Rakim have been credited with inspiring everyone from Eminem and Nas to Wu-Tang Clan and Jay-Z. In a recent interview with SPIN, Eric B. unpacked the title track, talked about how the subsequent Coldcut remix took them to another level, and provided more insight into what makes the song an enduring masterpiece. 

Don’t Sweat The Technique 

I remember I came to Rakim’s house. We were talking in his mother’s basement—his mother and father were still alive at the time—and we were listening to records like James Brown’s “Funky President (People It’s Bad).” I said, we needed to get a bass line, something like Fonda Rae’s “Over Like a Fat Rat.” Rakim was drinking a beer, and he spit it all over the wall. He thought it was so funny. He was like, “Eric, who the hell is going to take a bass line and put it over this thing?” 

So this is what I said—I’ll never forget—I said, “I want you to laugh like that when we get paid in full.” And when Rakim was laughing, his brother Steve [Griffin] said, “Eric, don’t listen to him.” Steve, we called him “Blass,” he said, “All he does is write rhymes. Eric, that’s a brilliant idea. Don’t ever abandon the plan. Don’t listen to this dude.” Blass is a classically-trained pianist. He plays the guitar, drums, the keyboard, the saxophone, the trumpet—he plays everything. 

That’s how “Paid in Full” came together. Rakim still laughs about it. He don’t care. He thinks it’s funny. He thinks our journey is funny anyway.

Power Play All Day 

We did all those records at Power Play Studios. The only two records that we did at Marley Marl’s studio was “Eric B. is President” and the remix of “My Melody.” The reason we did that at Marley’s house was because he was the engineer at the time. So Marley knew how to use the equipment. I didn’t know how to use the equipment. So I paid Marley Marl. I brought my records, and I told him what I wanted and how I wanted them sequenced, and he put the drums and stuff together. And that’s why, if you look on the record, Marley Marl is not a producer on any of the records. He was the engineer. And people confuse the two. Number one, I paid him to do the session. Number two, I brought my own music, so it’s not like Marley Marl came up with the music and Rakim wrote the rhymes. I came with the music and told him what I wanted, and he put it together. 

Remember, [New York City radio DJ] Mr. Magic used to call Marley Marl the “Engineer All-Star.” That’s what we used to call him. Not saying that he wasn’t great in his own right to be able to put stuff together and know what he’s doing, but when it came to Eric B. & Rakim, I brought my own music over there and paid him to do the sessions.

14th Street in New York City, 1989. (Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Teen Dreams 

I was only 18 or 19 at the time when this song came out. I was living by myself and just figuring out the world. Then this thing blew up, and we just started traveling the world. The song that really started it was “Eric B. is President.” “Paid in Full” came out after.

All Night Long

If you listen to the song, we’d been recording all night, and “Paid in Full” was probably one of the shortest songs that we’d done. If you listen to it, you hear me talking on the record trying to fill in because we pulled an all-nighter and had to turn the album in, so that’s why you hear me talking on the record, wasting time. Paid in Full was always the name of the album because that was our running joke. Now that we’re making music, we’re paid in full. We had zero expectations for this record. None. Could not tell it was a hit. If I’d known that, I would have had a couple of numbers to play the lottery. [Laughs]

Bring That Beat Back 

Coldcut did a remix, and we thought it was the worst shit we’d ever heard in our life. We’re New York City kids and we hear, “Dance to the rhythm, dance to the rhythm.” We were like, “What in the hell?” The first time we heard it, we had just got off the Concord. We’d just played the Red Parrot in New York, then we went to the radio station, then we got on the flight and went to London late at night. And I remember we were asleep on the Concord, and people were like, “Hello, you have arrived.”

Me and Rakim were the only people asleep on the Concord. And we woke up and then Lyor [Cohen] said, “I want you to hear this record.” And we were like, “Lyor, if you don’t get out of here with this fucking bullshit. Are you serious?” Lyor was hyped about everything. “Eric, this is the best shit in the world.” Lyor, no, it’s not. Me and Rakim looked at each other, like, “Is Lyor crazy? What did Lyor smoke today? Is he high or something?” The funny part is when we got to the airport, people were looking at us like aliens. You had two Black kids in the London airport with a bunch of jewelry. Then when we did Top of the Pops, we came back and we were like the Beatles. During our historical run, we played The Apollo, Madison Square Garden, and Top of the Pops. We had arrived after that. 

Eric B. & Rakim perform at Shoreline Amphitheatre, June 22, 2019 in Mountain View, California. (Credit: Miikka Skaffari/Getty Images)

Pump Up the Volume

The remix, to be honest, really took us worldwide because it was a club record. And clubs all over the world played that record up until now. We have records that we feel are better records, but that’s a club record, and people know that record when it comes on. People go crazy.

Hindsight Is 20/20

If I could talk to my 18-year-old self, I would tell him to stay focused on the music. Don’t get caught up in the media and what people are talking about. One thing it’s always about—it’s always about the music. If you don’t have a hit song, it’s not about anything else. Everything else is all a distraction. It’s all about the music.

That’s A Wrap 

When I hear “Paid in Full” now? Me and Rakim laugh because we’ll be on the stage for an hour. We’re getting old and when that song comes on, we’re like, “Oh, the show is over.” That’s how I feel about it. When “Paid in Full” comes on, I’m hyped up because I know I’m going to be able to go sit down in the dressing room and drink some water. That’s the song everyone is waiting for. Everyone wants to hear “Paid in Full.”