Hip hop duo Eric B. & Rakim didn't just change the game: they wrote the rules by which it was played. The duo helped usher hip hop's golden era with their 1987 debut, Paid In Full, which showcased Rakim's intricate flow and revolutionarily complex internal rhymes.
Their sophomore album, Follow The Leader, continued to play up the rapport between DJ and emcee, featuring frequent turntablism and lyrical showcases. Whilst opening tracks "Follow The Leader," "Microphone Fiend" and "Lyrics Of Fury" feature some of Rakim's best performances, tracks such as "Eric B. Never Scared" and "Just A Beat" belong the the titular DJ alone. There's much debate about Eric B.'s actual role in the outfit: '80s superproducer Marley Marl is rumoured to have produced "Eric B. Is President," the group's first track, and later albums allegedly featured significant production from artists such as Paul C, The Large Professor and Rakim himself. The 45 King claims to have produced Follow The Leader cuts "Microphone Fiend" and "The R."
Though it proved less influential than many of the year's defining records, Follow The Leader is a thrilling and satisfying sequel to one of hip hop's most pivotal debuts. It expands upon the tenets that made Paid In Full such a decisive step forward, featuring uncommonly complex yet party-ready rhymes steeped in the performative philosophy that defined early hip hop. Like a truly old school emcee, Rakim raps about rapping, extolling his position as mic rocker and party starter. Whilst his work may lack the socio-political edge of his successors, you'd be hard pressed to find a more earnest and invigorating celebration of pure emceeing talent.
In celebration of the record's 30th anniversary, we're spending this instalment of the Behind... series diving into the samples that make Follow The Leader such a classic listen!
"Follow The Leader"
The dark, brooding soundscape of "Follow The Leader" sets the tone. Follow The Leader is undoubtedly a darker record than Paid In Full, and the title track is underpinned by suitably heavy bass and menacing lyricism.
The vocal sample that opens the track is a direct sample of Eric B. & Rakim's "I Know You Got Soul," a cut from their 1987 debut.
"Microphone Fiend" was produced by The 45 King, who originally offered it to Fab Five Freddy. He never passed on the track, and though The 45 King had to later inform Freddy that he'd given the beat away, there wasn't any bad blood. Interestingly, Freddy himself was indirectly sampled on the track, by way of a female remix of his 1982 single, "Change the Beat."
Most of the instrumental is taken from Average White Band's "School Boy Crush," a track from their third LP, 1975's Cut The Cake. Despite their name, the group are anything but average: they're best known for their insanely successful instrumental cut, "Pick Up The Pieces," and are well respected for their funk abilities. The Scottish group are amongst the most sampled acts of all time, and elements of "School Boy Crush" are also sampled on Nas' Illmatic cut, "Halftime."
The prominent scratching at 2:24 samples Beside's "Change The Beat," one of the most sampled sound effects in hip hop history. The original single contained two versions of the track: one featuring verses by Fab Five Freddy, and the other featuring French verses from female rapper Beside. This 'female version' of the track features particularly turntable-friendly vocoder vocals at the close.
"Lyrics of Fury"
Featuring another of Rakim's most furious performances, "Lyrics of Fury" pairs the God MC with the nigh-omnipresent funky drummer and bursts of funky psychedelia.
The hard-hitting drums throughout "Lyrics of Fury" are taken from James Brown's "Funky Drummer," which features one of the most sampled breaks of all time. The track was included on Ultimate Breaks and Beats SBR 512, released in 1986, which made the already-famous drum break readily available for fledgling producers.
Though "Lyrics of Fury" is one of just two tracks to sample "No Head, No Backstage Pass," album track "Get Off Your Ass and Jam" was sampled by contemporaries such as N.W.A., Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest and Eazy-E.
"Eric B. Never Scared"
The sequel to the group's original turntabling display, "Eric B. Is On The Cut," "Eric B. Never Scared" doubles down on sampled vocal refrains and invigorated scratching.
The clear bass hits from 0:11 onward are taken - surprisingly - from a track by soft rock legends The Eagles. The track was included on The Long Run, the 1979 follow up to the group's magnum opus, Hotel California. Though it topped the Billboard 200 for nine whole weeks, the record received lukewarm reviews and would be their last studio effort until 2007's Long Road Out Of Eden.
Rakim's chopped-and-screwed vocals are lifted from "Eric B. Is President," the first track ever recorded by the pair. The first sample - "never scared, I'll just bless one" - is juxtaposed with a sample of Rakim saying "Eric B.," giving the track its name. The second sample comes five seconds later, pulling the now-famous phrase, "Eric B., make 'em clap to this."
The sample of vocal ad-libs that appear at 0:24 are taken from The Mohawks' "The Champ." The Mohawks are a bizarre group - founded by British composer Alan Hawkshaw, the group of session musicians produced just one 1968 LP. Their sole, unsuccessful single, "The Champ," has become a much-sampled staple in hip hop circles.
The high-pitched backing sample that appears at 0:40 sings: "ah, this living man." The voice belongs to none other than reggae innovator Bob Marley, and is sourced from The Wailers' 1973 hit, "Get Up, Stand Up."
The track would become one of Marley's signature songs, and was the very last one he performed live. Public Enemy sampled the track on their 1988 cut, "Party For Your Right To Fight."
"Just A Beat"
As the title suggests, "Just A Beat" is a two-minute instrumental from Eric B. himself. It makes use of a single sample as well as distorted, conversational vocals, presumably provided by the DJ himself.
The sole sample on "Just A Beat" is taken from Jackie Robinson's "Pussyfooter." That track was included on her 1976 debut, I'm Different. It would be more than two decades before Robinson, real name Gitta Walther, released another record. The same track was sampled on "Moe Luv's Theme," a cut from Ultramagnetic MC's acclaimed 1988 debut.
"Put Your Hands Together"
Though it opens with an intense piano performance, "Put Your Hands Together" is one of the more upbeat and celebratory tracks on Follow The Leader. The raucous party-starter is an ode to the craft of hip hop, extolling the skills of the DJ, the nature of the sample and the lyrical trappings of the accomplished emcee.
The prominent brass lick that plays throughout the track is a pitched-down sample of The Magic Disco Machine's "Scratchin'," a track from the group's 1975 debut, Disc-O-Tech. Despite the track's relative obscurity, it became a popular sample in new school hip hop, appearing in earlier tracks by Run-DMC, MC Shan, Biz Markie and Eric B. himself.
The instructional sample that says "clap your hands!" is lifted from the introduction to Mountain's "Long Red."
This version track was recorded live at Woodstock and, though it was originally a solo track by frontman Leslie West, the rendition became the definitive version. The introductory drum break has been sampled in tracks by JAY-Z, Kanye West, Nas and J Dilla.
The kinetic drums that enter at 1:14 are taken from Upp's "Give It To You." The breakbeat was features on Ultimate Breaks and Beats' SBR 503, a 1986 volume which also included Jackie Robinson's "Pussyfooter," sampled on "Just A Beat," and Incredible Bongo Band's classic hit, "Apache."
Though not a member of the group, Jeff Beck contributed guitars and production to their debut, but went entirely uncredited in the liner notes.
The concentrated bursts of psychedelia that appears from 1:37 is lifted from Dennis Coffey's "Son of Scorpio," a sequel to his 1971 hit, "Scorpio." The second instalment was included on Dennis Coffey and the Detroit Guitar Band's second and final LP, 1972's Electric Coffey.
Rakim interpolates his own work, lifting lyrics from "As The Rhyme Goes On," a track from 1987's Paid In Full. On that track, he raps that "the rhyme gets rougher as the rhyme goes on," whilst on "Put Your Hands Together," he alters the quote: "remember as the rhyme goes on, it gets rougher..."
Rakim would sample the track on "It's The R," a cut from his 1999 solo album, The Master.
"To The Listeners"
Defined by a distinctive synth melody and buoyed by a slow-going verse from Rakim, "To The Listeners" is one of the album's more eccentric tracks. Featuring multi-instrumentalist Stevie Griffin - Rakim's brother - on keys, the song recalls the duo's 1987 album track, "Move The Crowd."
The ambling drums throughout the track are lifted from the break in The Headhunters' "God Make Me Funky." The nearly-ten minute jazz-funk track, released in 1975, featured female R&B group The Pointer Sisters. The track was included on Ultimate Breaks and Beats' SBR 511, and has since appeared on tracks by N.W.A., The Fugees, Santana and Biz Markie.
A return to the horn-heavy uptempo of "Put Your Hands Together," "No Competition" is a firm refutation of any and all challenging emcees. Like much of the album, the sampling within is simplistic when compared to contemporary efforts by production units such as The Bomb Squad, whose sample-heavy tracks would push hip hop in a new direction.
The distinctive sound effect that opens the track is taken from Manzel's "Space Funk." The much-sampled track was released as their debut single in 1977, and the band released just two other official tracks. Despite the bands total obscurity, they became popular amongst producers after "Midnight Theme" was sampled on De La Soul's "Plug Tunin'." "Space Funk" was also used to open Childish Gambino's 2016 track, "II. shadows."
Juice's "Catch A Groove" is frequently sampled for its breakbeat, though Eric B. also makes use of the track's soulful horn melody. The samples that run throughout the track are sourced from 1:51, utilising only about four seconds of runtime. Despite the tracks pervasive place in golden age hip hop, Eric B. never again used the common sample.
Allegedly ghost-produced by The 45 King, "The R" builds a spacey, atmospheric vibe from a single soul sample.
The sole sample on "The R" is taken from The Blackbyrds' "Rock Creek Park," an oft-sampled 1975 soul track. It was included on the group's third LP, City Life. The track was especially popular throughout the golden age, appearing on tracks by De La Soul, Ultramagnetic MCs, N.W.A. and Big Daddy Kane.
"Musical Massacre" is another lyrical onslaught packed with vivid imagery, rich metaphors and no small amount of aggrandising intimidation. Elements of this track inform Eric B. & Rakim's "The Punisher," a song included on their fourth and final LP, 1992's Don't Sweat The Technique.
The track opens with a scratched sample of Rakim himself, sourced from 1987's "I Know You Got Soul": "get off the mic before I get too hot!" The track takes its name from the central sample throughout, "I Know You Got Soul" by Bobby Byrd.
The drums and horns throughout "Musical Massacre" are courtesy of The Jimmy Castor Bunch. The sample is sourced from the title track to their 1972 debut, It's Just Begun, a song that seems to predict the oncoming disco craze. The same track also appeared on other 1988 hip hop records, such as Ultramagnetic MC's "Watch Me Now" and Jungle Brothers' "On The Run."
The scratching throughout "Musical Massacre" actually incorporates a popular sample, one which previously appeared on "Microphone Fiend." Beside's "Change The Beat" features a sound effect conducive to interesting and malleable scratching tones, and as such, has become of the most sampled tracks of all time.
In keeping with Rakim's lyrics, Eric B. incorporates a blink-and-you'll-miss-it nod to the legendary James Brown. He does so by sampling the prelude to Brown's Revolution Of The Mind (Recorded Live At The Apollo, Vol. III), a 1971 live album.
The actual sound sampled is a drawn out introduction, where Brown's longtime MC, Danny Ray, shouts "James!"
"Beats For The Listeners"
The album closes with an instrumental version of "To The Listeners," an unorthodox choice of bookends for an LP. Providing "Beats For The Listeners" may reflect the duo's democratic vision of hip hop, a genre which flourishes through the efforts of the socially maligned or financially unstable. The pre-recorded beats allow for fans to devise their own rhymes atop the already-produced track, opening authorship to any with the will to write.
In time, hip hop evolved to prize the art of emceeing over the craft of deejaying. Follow The Leader would be one of the last hip hop classics to flaunt the wheels of steel, and by the mid-nineties, albums such as Illmatic, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), The Chronic and Ready To Die had firmly placed emphasis on rap itself. That's not to say the albums featured lesser production: the art continued to evolve under the guidance of artists such as Pete Rock, Dr. Dre, DJ Premier and The Bomb Squad, but dedicated turntable showcases were fewer. As turntablism gave way to more intricate forms of production, the craft became a subgenre in its own right - The 45 King's debut album, 1989's Master Of The Game, is generally considered to be hip hop's first instrumental album.
Follow The Leader, though critically revered, is often overshadowed by classic '88 releases such as Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton and Big Daddy Kane's Long Live The Kane. Whilst these projects did much to push the genre forwards, Follow The Leader finds Rakim using his innovative and intricate lyrical stylings in a distinctly old-school fashion. The album peaked at #22 on the Billboard 200, a commercial peak they matched with their fourth and final record, Don't Sweat The Technique.
As for the duo themselves, they went on to release two more critically lauded efforts: 1990's Let The Rhythm Hit 'Em and 1992's Don't Sweat The Technique. Whilst Rakim would never be as prolific as he was during his years alongside Eric B, the catalogue they left still stands as one of the genre's most consistent and groundbreaking bodies of work. Rakim's work would greatly influence that of Nas, who was often hailed as 'the second coming' in the anticipation-heavy days leading up to the release of Illmatic. Though Nas' come up was framed in religious terms, the title of 'God MC' is reserved for but one figure, a talented trailblazer and founding father of contemporary emceeing. All hail, Rakim.