I Know You Got Soul – Eric B & Rakim
…I got soul – that’s why I came, to teach those who can’t say my name
first of all I’m the soloist the soul controller Rakim get stronger as I get older…
The first rap I could recite all the way through, so hooked was I on its combination of beats rhymes and lyrical wisdom. Rakim remains my favourite rapper as a technician and for his flow – second to none. I’m very fond of Chuck D and Busta Rhymes and Eminem, people keep telling me about Big Pun but Rakim is the man in the end. For me. He almost always raps about one fairly narrow topic : ie what a great rapper he is : “Ego to M.C. is my theme”. He manages to explore this potentially barren subject matter in ways that indicate major creative talent. The subject of how great he is at rapping appears to be an inexhaustible source of words and rhymes, quite extraordinary. In another song he states “I can take a phrase that’s rarely heard, flip it, now it’s a daily word.”
Eric Barrier and William Griffin are from Long Island, New York City. They came together in the mid-80s and hooked up with Marley Marl who they paid to produce their first single Eric B Is President. In 1987 they recorded their first LP “Paid In Full” also with Marley Marl and MC Shan. Reportedly, Rakim was writing the rhymes on pieces of paper in the studio and then reading them in the booth when he was recording. The result was dynamite and possibly the greatest hip-hop album ever made, certainly one of the most influential. “I Know You Got Soul” samples Bobby Byrd, James Brown and Original P on a dry tough rhythm bed laid down by Eric B. Rakim’s delivery of the lyrics remains unmatched in hip hop history except perhaps by himself on “Follow The Leader” – there’s no shouting, no threats, no guns, no wasted energy, just a beautiful display of lyrical talent and finesse.
I was obsessed with this song and this LP in 1987 when it was released. Along with Raisin’ Hell by Run DMC and It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back by Public Enemy it remains one of the three cornerstones of the golden age of hip hop. The sides of the pyramid are filled with great singles by KRS-One, EPMD, Kool Moe Dee, Salt-n-Pepa, Big Daddy Kane and Roxanne Shanté.
These songs became the essential research materials for the play I was writing for Joint Stock Theatre Company, which was to be a rap musical. I’d pitched it to the Joint Stock steering committee with Paulette Randall my friend and director and after Caryl Churchill had asked me “wasn’t I nervous about writing my first play?” and I’d answered “not really, I just want to do it…” they’d given us the thumbs up. This meant we had a three week workshop to research the play, I had a ten-week gap to write it, we then had a six-week rehearsal period to mount the finished product. It remains for me the best way to create new work which is based around a community, which the community then hopefully get to come and see. In this case the community was homeless teenagers around London and the South West, including the hippie convoy people who became the 1990s squatting movement. We cast my girlfriend Rita Wolf (she was the best candidate frankly), David Keyes, Kwabena Manso, Carl Procter, Gaylie Runciman & Pamela Nomvete. Jenny Tiramani was our designer and joined Paulette and I on the workshop. The rehearsal/workshop room in Bethnal Green had a permanent hot-seat at the end of the room where people would sit and testify, about who they’d met and talked to (real people living rough, in bed and breakfast, cardboard city etc) and about their own experience of housing, and often we all had homeless moments (particularly Paulette and I). I was busy at the other end of the room writing furious notes on these encounters, research for the play I was about to produce. And then we went en masse to see Run DMC, Public Enemy and The Beastie Boys in Brixton, and I saw LL Cool J & Eric B & Rakim (and someone else?) in Hammersmith. Marvellous times.
I was convinced that rap was inherently dramatic as a form, and totally suited to drama and plays. We called the result “Sanctuary” and it was a kind of rap musical, with raps instead of songs. We didn’t have the money for a DJ or to sample tunes, but the crowds came, it was deemed a hit, we toured the UK, and the following year the play won the Samuel Beckett Award for best first play. I should publicly thank Karen Mistry for that, Joint Stock administrator at the time, since she insisted on sending in the manuscript to the judges (C4, Royal Court, Faber & Faber). I had lunch with a C4 who asked me what I wanted to do. I said “direct a film”, and she snorted in derision. The Royal Court shunned me completely, and Faber & Faber didn’t publish the play.
Very little rap drama was forthcoming after Sanctuary. I did the play in Washington D.C., and wrote a new one which was all verse, like a rap opera, but the BBC rejected that and it has never been performed. There have been the odd moments – Ragamuffin in London, but little else until “Hamilton” which Jenny and I saw this year at The Public Theatre, NYC. It was a bio-play about Alexander Hamilton, Founding Father of the USA, written entirely in verse and rapped and spat by a multi-ethnic company where George Washington was played by a black man and the lead was a Puerto Rican American Manuel Lin Miranda who also wrote the play and the music. It’s opening on Broadway in July. I was smiling all the way through it. I was right. Rap is inherently dramatic. Only took everyone 25 years to work that out.
It’s been a long time, I shouldn’t have left you
Without a strong rhyme to step to
Think of how many weak shows you slept through ?
Time’s up – sorry I kept you
Thinking of this you keep repeating your miss
The rhymes from the microphone soloist
So you sit by the radio hand on the dial soon – as you hear it
Pump up the volume…
Sampled of course by M/A/R/R/S for their number one hit single of the same name. I Know You Got Soul is a massive massive tune which I could never do justice to in a single 1000-word blog. It’s still my all-time favourite hip-hop tune. Thanks for reading.