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To EPMD, hiphop was a sport, not a popularity contest. The group never claimed to be the prettiest, smartest, or strongest, only to put out some of the best hiphop—pure, un-pop-friendly funk—you ever heard. And in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when the pop world wanted only clean-cut preppies like Young MC or dancing dilettantes like MC Hammer, EPMD’s iconic b-boys Erick Sermon, Parrish Smith, and DJ Scratch scowled at the world and clutched their gonads. They made music that sounded as if it had been mixed in a New York City sewer—even when talking about luxury cars or fly honeys. And, despite the group’s rugged image, it still pushed out four straight gold albums.
People round town talking this and that
How we sound like the R and how our music is whack
Dropped the album Strictly Business and you thought we was bold
30 days later the LP went gold.
—”So Whatcha Sayin’”
You can’t make people love you, but you can force them to respect you. Anybody within earshot of some b-boy’s booming system became privy to EPMD’s platform: We don’t care what you think.
Never did the group, in its original incarnation, care less than on its last album, Business Never Personal (1992). The two singles off that album, “Crossover” and “Headbanger,” are two of rap’s most prescient tracks. “Crossover” directly disses MCs who proffer mindless music in hopes of hitting it big. Over an intentionally dirty track, Parrish Smith rhymes: “The rap era’s outta control, brothers selling their soul, to go gold/Going, going, gone, another rapper sold.” The song’s parodic, radio-friendly hook (“Whatever you want, whatever you need, I’ll do it for you”) gets undermined by its extremely antagonistic text.
Meanwhile, with the underground nationalist anthem “Headbanger,” the group praised hiphop in all its macho, misogynistic glory. EPMD was, as Smith put it, “hard-core, no R&B singers.” Sermon called for his hoodie, the symbol of thugdom, so he could “be hard and cause some ruckus/Talk with the b-boy slang and blast some suckers.” At the time, Business Never Personal read like another grand chapter in the story of one of rap’s greatest groups—but it turned out to be a Dear John letter. In 1993, a few months after the album’s release, the group split up over an ugly money dispute.
EPMD’s breakup shook my faith in hiphop. I’d watch Rap City, waiting in vain for a new EPMD video, only to see some loser pimp rhyming about his car with a flock of G-stringed women fawning over him. In 1997, allegedly having seen what hiphop had become without them, the group members resolved to hook up again and try to save hiphop from itself; hence the unremarkable Back in Business. Now the reconstituted EPMD gives us Out of Business, half of which holds new stuff while the other half serves up the group’s greatest hits. Presumably, we’re supposed to let our faith pick up where they left it.
But Out of Business fails because it sounds too much like an EPMD album—one we’ve already heard. Before its collapse, each album advanced beautifully past the one before it: Strictly Business merely dealt with mike-rocking. Unfinished Business moved on to the hustles of shopping a demo. Business as Usual peered at male-female relationships through the lens of the almighty dollar, and Business Never Personal gave the middle finger to the pop charts.
Out of Business, like Back in Business, deals with subjects that EPMD has covered to death. And I’d rather have a Dear John than a Johnny One Note any day. Nowhere is EPMD’s weakness for habit more evident than in the sixth installment of the Jane epic. “Jane 6” chronicles EPMD’s miss-adventures with the fictitious woman who’s half round-the-way girl, half femme fatale. But we’re tired of Jane—and have been since the third time we heard about her.
Does EPMD think its fans have amnesia? When not invoking old characters, the group is remaking old songs—or new ones. Out includes an empty remake of “Rap Is Outta Control,” a song off Business as Usual. This ground’s been covered, and the soil is now sterile; not even the unavoidable presence of Busta Rhymes can bring it back to life. Talk about covering your ass….Perhaps more offensive is the presence of two rehashes of the classic posse cut “Symphony.” Sermon devises a lovely track, but, in both instances, he comes up way short of the original, with chronic shouters MOP on the first version and stalwarts Method Man and Redman, with the indistinguishable rookie Lady Luck, on the second.
The band members would have every reason to pick up where they left off in 1992 if only a host of other MCs—Heltah Skeltah, for instance—hadn’t already beaten them to it and made good on the group’s ruffneck aesthetic. Maybe it’s because the chemistry that made EPMD’s earlier collaborations magical has run its course. Smith once bragged that “A partner like E-Double don’t come a dime a dozen/Not kin or blood-related, but you can call us cousins.” By now, though, EPMD sounds like two rappers who have just bumped heads in the studio. Sermon’s production remains decent, and Smith’s still working his lyricism, but they barely seem to know each other any more—watching the two of them together is like observing a divorcing couple putting on an act for the family’s sake. There’s no putting a smiley face on EPMD’s ugly split, because nobody seems to care about the group these days—least of all Sermon and Smith themselves. CP