‘Strictly Business’: Why EPMD’s Debut Album Is The Real Deal

‘Strictly Business’ may be EPMD’s debut album, but it left calling cards for their future work – and influenced numerous MCs that followed it.

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Cover: Courtesy of Priority Records

Business? Not cool, is it? Stiffs in suits and ties grafting at a desk and thinking only of profit? Where’s the fun in that? EPMD found it. And let’s be clear – these guys were serious about profit. That’s why they were called Erick And Parrish Making Dollars. Their debut album, Strictly Business, did it for them; they made plenty of Benjamins. And the rest of us? We had a party from hearing them do it.

Listen to Strictly Business now.

Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith emerged in the mid-80s. These united microphone princes of Brentwood, Long Island, cut their debut single, “It’s My Thing,” in 1987, for the Manhattan-based indie label Sleeping Bag, who put them on its Fresh imprint, which until that point had a rap roster mostly comprising the underrated giants T La Rock and Just Ice. EPMD would soon become Fresh’s biggest-selling act, enjoying a rise to pop chart success that began with Strictly Business, the 1988 album that made No.1 on Billboard’s R&B chart. It’s not hard to see why: downbeat, effortlessly funky, lean and raw, Strictly Business is strictly bigness: it’s irresistible.

Perfect product

Kicking off with the title track, EPMD make their style clear from the off: their dry, relaxed voices talk to you without haranguing, stating their business and telling it as they see it. It’s here that you can immediately hear the numerous others they influenced; the vocal flow of UMCs and a proportion of the phrasing of Shock G of Digital Underground, for example. The deliberately unfussy use of beats, keeping it funky and direct, would sway some of the artists on Delicious Vinyl a few years later. And EPMD took beats where they found them: did Eric Clapton ever sound as funky as he does in inadvertent support of “Strictly Business”?

Strictly Business

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“Let The Funk Flow” beautifully slices and re-edits The JB’s “(It’s Not The Express) It’s The JB’s Monaurail” to create a slow and heavyweight grind that churns below a here’s what’s happening right now lyric: you’re listening to the moment we’re creating while you’re hearing it. The mission statement “You Gots To Chill” (there is none more chilled than Erick and Parrish) betrays the influence of Eric B & Rakim’s “Paid In Full,” dropping as ashy as a saltfish in the Gobi desert and making good use of Zapp’s rubberfunk classic “More Bounce To The Ounce.” Chill? They do nothing else, even sounding utterly languid when warning off bitin’ rivals. The record went on to sway Snoop Dogg, one of many MCs to give it a nod of lyrical approval.

Even when the guys are messin’ wit’ ya, as on “The Steve Martin,” a dance-craze tune that didn’t quite start a dance craze, the beats still slide like an oiled sidewinder. “You’re A Customer,” with its alluring snatches of Steve Miller Band’s “Fly Like An Eagle” and the album’s second chunk of Kool & The Gang’s “Jungle Boogie,” still resonates through hip-hop today, with the mighty Parrish being particularly lyrically ripe, comparing rivals to something toilet paper might wipe off, and Erick paying off with the line that other MCs are basically paying to be sustained by their perfect verbal product.

EPMD’s debut single, the Lyn Collins-sampling “It’s My Thing,” and the “give the DJ some” “DJ K La Boss” are both in perfect step with the rest: this is an utterly cohesive affair. “I’m Housin’,” which made an exploratory showing in the UK charts after a chunky dance remix, shrugs along on a sample of Aretha’s “Rock Steady” that’s total groove. Like “Get Off The Bandwagon” and virtually every other track on Strictly Business, this is an assertion of EPMD’s right to be where their rivals are not.

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The real deal

You could argue that EPMD’s debut record found a formula and stuck with it. But it never loses its gleam, being sufficiently varied and, yes, genuine enough to retain your attention. For purists, this is the real deal. For casual listeners, it shakes the butt and tickles the brain with mentions of, say, fabric softener and a brand of cooking oil. And there are innuendoes aplenty, delivered without the slightest mugging: when they suggest you take off your coat, you think they wanna leave it at that?

Released on June 7, 1988, Strictly Business may be a debut album, but it fed numerous other MCs as well as EPMD’s own soon-to-be-soaring status. And they left calling cards for their future work: all their albums have “Business” in their title, plus the record closes with “Jane,” the opening assault in a sex and dissin’ saga that has helped sustain the duo for decades. Strictly Business is strictly cool. And when an album is this good, no wonder Erick and Parrish made dollars.

Strictly Business can be bought here.

Hip-Hop 50 logo

In celebration of hip-hop’s 50th anniversary, uDiscover Music is publishing 50 album reviews throughout 2023 that highlight the breadth and depth of the genre. The Hip-Hop 50 logo was designed by Eric Haze, the mind behind iconic graphics for EPMD and LL Cool J.

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