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Check the Technique: Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies Paperback – June 12, 2007

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In his introduction to Coleman's new volume, recording artist Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson laments the lack of liner notes in hip-hop recordings, and it's this void that Coleman seeks to fill in this significantly expanded and updated version of his 2005 title Rakim Told Me. Each of Coleman's 36 "liner notes" cover one album by a particular artist, beginning with a thorough background essay from Coleman and continuing with comments on individual tracks by the artists, which range in length from a single line to page-spanning dialogue. Covering the period between 1986 (Schoolly D's Saturday Night! The Album) and 1996 (Fugees's The Score) sometimes described as the "golden age" of rap, Coleman's introductory essays are easy to read and informative, but the artists' comments are the more enlightening read. The artists focus largely on lyrics and their origins, but make many references to budgets, studio techniques, drum machines and sample sources (and the occasional lawsuit they engender). Though words like "genius," "masterwork," "legend" and "immortal" are tossed around too liberally, Coleman's volume, covering 400 tracks and 75 artists all told, is a valuable, entertaining inside look at the creative processes behind some of the best-selling albums of their (or any) time. (52 b/w photos)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Paid in Full
(4th & Bway/Island, 1987)

“I came in the door, I said it before/I never let the mic magnetize me no more.”
When you hear those first lines, your whole body starts to shiver. You’re instantly transported to New York, 1986. The verses are so ill that your mom could say them and they’d still move a crowd. And they don’t stop for the duration of Eric B. & Rakim’s unsinkable classic, “Eric B. Is President.” A song like that only comes along maybe twice a decade, and few of them stay with you like the duo’s master tome. Eric B. and Rakim set off a lot of things in 1986–an onslaught of raids on the James Brown sampling archive; a rebirth of anti-party, pro-scientific lyricism; and a 500 percent rise in purchases of dinosaur-choking gold medallions from Bushwick to Bangkok.
Interestingly, William Griffin Jr.–the youngest of three Griffin brothers and better known to hip-hop as Rakim–didn’t figure their booming single (first released on Zakia Records, B-sided with the also mind-blowing “My Melody”) would change hip-hop the way it did. “I had no idea it would impact like that, but maybe that’s because I’m my own worst critic,” Rakim Allah says, adding, “I had already been rhyming for so long at that point that I wasn’t looking to pursue a recording career. To be honest, at the time I was hoping to play football at Stony Brook [University, in Long Island], since my cousin had a scholarship there. I played quarterback and had met with the coach there. He told me to get my grades up and we could talk.” Luckily for hip-hop fans, fate turned Rakim away from the gridiron and
gave the duo a monster hit.
Although he had deep family roots in Brooklyn, William Jr. was born and raised in Long Island’s Wyandanch, New York, and came up through an established hip-hop scene that wasn’t as flashy as New York’s–though skills were most certainly required at the door. “Wyandanch played a big influence in my life,” he says. “There was always block parties and DJs at the park. DJs like Pleasure, Nelson PR, DJ Motor, and DJ Maniac. These guys were around–like, back when I said in ‘Microphone Fiend’ that I was too small to get on the mic. There were a lot of parties in the school gyms. We had a lot going on.” He adds, talking about his New York experiences, “I had lots of family in Brooklyn and cousins in Queens, so I used to go to their cribs and go to the park in Jamaica [Queens]. I’d also make sure I always saw the Cold Crush Brothers. [Grandmaster] Caz was a big influence on me. We’d go to DJ battles in New York all the time, like Mike & Dave Productions. I remember joining in on a rap convention back then, I think it was on 127th Street. Biz Markie was there, I remember that.”
Aside from his cousins and local friends who introduced him to the hip-hop life, he also had an important musical influence in his family: his aunt, legendary R&B vocalist Ruth Brown. “She used to keep her eye on me, babysit me,” he says, also adding that he saw her perform on several occasions in his youth. “Being in that environment, watching her do what she do, that kept me grounded once I got on for myself.” Did the music legend approve of her nephew making hip-hop? “Once she heard my first record she called me up to let me know how much she liked it,” he says. “She told me to keep doing my thing and to stay focused. She definitely appreciated it, because what I was doing was about poetry and rhythm. She respected that.”
Back in his earlier teens, before he picked up a mic and started dropping supreme knowledge, young William flexed behind the turntables as Kid Wizard (he says he started using Rakim in late ’84 or early ’85). “I started DJing before I was rapping. I didn’t know which one to do, so I did both. Back then you had to do everything. You had to break-dance, beatbox, all that,” he recalls. “But after a while a lot of crews were trying to recruit me on the mic, even when I was too young to even hang out. Plus it was always easier to get on the mic than it was to get on somebody’s turntables. Once I started rapping, a lot of people forgot I could even DJ. They started realizing that I had more skill than anyone in the area, and they wanted me.
“Melle Mel was always using big words and ill rhythms, but he’d break it down and get a little political, too, like ‘White Lines’ or the joint he did on Beat Street,” Rakim says, discussing one of his biggest influences on the mic. “He was scientifical with it. Kool Moe Dee and Caz [from Cold Crush] were conscious and lyrical with their skills, and witty, too. I knew that Melle Mel and Caz and Moe always put something into their work, and every time I sat down to write a rhyme I always wanted to make sense and show that I went to school and I took language and social studies and that I knew how to write a book report. That’s the way I took my rhymes, because of those guys. Listening to them coming up was the best thing that could have happened to me.”
Around 1985, as his MC skills were beginning to hit full stride, he made an important trip to the crib of DJ Maniac (a friend of his older brother Stevie). “I went over to his house and made a tape, so when I went to college and cats start yappin’ off about how great they were, I could put in my tape and shut all that talk down,” says Rakim. “I had ninety minutes with different beats and me rapping on the whole thing, all the way through.” That tape was soon heard by an up-and-coming DJ and producer named Eric Barrier through a mutual friend–future record exec Alvin Toney, also from Wyandanch. Eric B. was engineering mobile broadcasts for New York’s WBLS-FM at the time. “Eric was looking for an MC, and Alvin brought him to my crib and we played him the tape that me and Maniac made,” Rakim recalls. The rest, as they say, is history.
“I told Eric that I wasn’t really interested in the rap game, but I said that if he popped something off I’d be a special guest,” Rakim explains. Eric wasn’t so casual about what might go down. He knew they had chemistry and something big could be made of the situation. As such, he started shopping rough demos around, and literally didn’t have to go far before he found their first home: Robert Hill’s Zakia Records. “I think that’s the first place that Eric took our music to,” Rakim says. “Zakia was right around the corner from his mom’s place. She lived on 124th Street, and Zakia was between 124th and 125th on Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard in Harlem. They liked what they heard and we did a deal with them.” With Zakia behind them (“Robert Hill ran the label and took care of studio costs,” Rakim says), they went in the studio and the duo was born–the single even reflected Rakim’s request for “special guest” status: “Eric B. featuring Rakim.”
The Marley Marl—overseen single (technically and nominally Eric B. produced it, but Rakim claims that Marley’s sonic input truly made it what it was), was recorded in late 1985 and hit streets in early 1986. It straight-up sideswiped the hip-hop world, boasting a new sound, a slower tempo, and Rakim dropping quotable line after quotable line. “Whenever I heard a slow track, what would click in my head was that I could put more rhythms and more words into it,” explains Rakim. “I could triple up on words, take the rhythm, syncopate it, and take you where you’ve never been before. That was my little trademark. When a track is fast, there are only so many rhythms and so many words you can throw in four bars.”
After the single’s success, it wasn’t hard to find suitors for an album deal. “4th & Bway kind of bought Zakia,” Rakim explains about the biz angle back in ’86 and ’87. “It was kind of a joint venture. Robert Hill ran into some . . . [pauses] . . . business problems; he got into some trouble with the law. But whatever he was doin’, it didn’t affect me. So our deal with 4th & Bway was nothing bad for my career. Either way, sometimes you don’t need a major label to get you where you need to be.”
The group also benefited from running with a talented crew back in ’86 and early ’87. “At first we was running with the Juice Crew,” Rakim says. “We was doing shows with Shan and Marley, and Fly Ty was booking us. Eric knew Mr. Magic from WBLS and Kool G Rap used to live around the corner from him in Queens, so that’s how we got in with them at first. The Juice Crew guys kept me on my toes. When you hear some hot shit, like what Kane and G Rap was doing back then, you can’t wait to go home and try to top it.”
As anyone who recalls from promo shots and album covers back in the day, Eric B. & Rakim, like many of their peers, wore gold on a level just below Mr. T. “Me and Eric never really competed with wearing gold, because we knew if one of us bought something, the other one would go up the block and buy something too,” Rakim laughs. “If I came through with a piece, he’d go out and get another piece. Eric was getting a new piece like every two weeks. The biggest piece I ever bought was like fourteen thousand dollars back then. A necklace, with diamonds in it. Someone went into this shop and ordered it and then got locked up. It was like eighteen thousand dollars but they were stuck with it, so I got it for less.”
After 4th & Bway signed off on a full album, the duo quickly dispatched eight more classic cuts (six vocals and two DJ workouts) and the ultimate classic Paid in Full was born. “That album to me was like experimenting,” Rakim recalls. “We went to the studio, we laid the beat down, I took the notebook and did the rhymes right there. And that was a wrap. Today I like to perfect and shape it a little bit more. But back then that rawness was what was good about it. We just went in there, we wasn’t shootin’ to do a single, we wasn’t trying to cross over. I was just going into the studio doing what I would do before going to a block party. Give me a beat, I’m gonna write some rhymes to it and I’ma say this shit tonight. Everything now is more like tunnel vision. If you ain’t talkin’ about what everyone else is talkin’ about, it’s a different language.”
As untouchable as the group’s first classic was, Rakim states, “Those were just beats and rhymes that I would always do out in the park.” He also says that although Eric B. got album credit as sole producer, Rakim did a decent portion of the work in the studio. “Most of the tracks on the first and second albums, I done those myself, no question,” he states. “Back then Eric B. wanted to be the businessman, so I said, ‘Okay, you can take care of business, I’m going to stick with this notebook right here.’ So by not getting involved, he was right there telling them [at the record label] to print whatever he wanted them to print on the album cover. That was my mistake. If we did ten tracks on the album, I did like seven of the beats myself. A lot of times they was just old park records. I had a record collection, I had turntables, I had all the break beats.” Regardless of how the credits on the album were given, Eric B.’s musical input was undeniably a big part of the album’s success, and his DJ skills were some of the most innovative heard on wax during that era.
Even though Rakim tends to downplay the depth of the first album, when pressed he will admit to its lyrical importance. “Lyrically I took things from the nursery-rhyme frame of mind, writing things that rhymed and sounded good, and put the ghetto on it,” he explains. “I just wanted people to see what I was talkin’ about, wanted them to see the scenery. So they could put themselves in my place and live out what I was saying. The things I spoke about was things we did in the street, and we wanted people in the street to relate to them.”
He adds, casually, “I wasn’t planning on the rap game, but after the first single, the door opened and I walked in.”

That was the first single we did for the album itself, and the first video we ever did, too. That sample was just another James Brown record that I used to rhyme off. At first we was going to sample more of it, but then we decided to have Eric just scratch [the horn riff] in. I used that song a long time before I met Eric, so that’s another Rakim banger right there. With the drum programming on the album, our engineer Patrick Adams did a lot of that. I just spoke with him the other day, actually. He’s a real talented cat. I’d basically just take my break beats and ideas in, and he’d sample it up and put the [Roland TR-] 808 on it. Patrick was the guy who first turned me on to the 808. We’d dress up the beats. I titled the song that way because that’s how I wanted people to perceive me on the mic. Back then I tried to think of slogans that somebody would want to put on the side of their car, or say all day. So that was like the ultimate thing you could say.

That was the first song we ever made. We did that one and Marley Marl made it sound like it was supposed to sound. He played a big role in that record. I always used to rhyme off “Standing on the Top” so we used that. [Author’s note: Rakim likely means Keni Burke’s 1982 R&B hit “Risin’ to the Top.”] We replayed it on keyboard, Marley did a lot of scratchin’, Eric did some scratchin’ too. MC Shan helped engineer it when we finished the mix at the crib. After Marley’s help on that first single, we took it and ran with it. If you notice, that song was like five verses and they was like twenty-eight bars long. Those was all just different rhymes I had, and most of them was on that tape I made with DJ Maniac back in ’85. So I took ’em and put ’em on one joint. Then I wrote one more verse in the studio, the one with “Marley Marl synthesized it.” But those were some of my favorite older verses and I took them and shaped them into that track. That version on the album is a little different than the single that came out on Zakia. I guess back in the day they would change the single up and remix it for the album so you’d buy both. It was a squeeze play. “Eric B. Is President” definitely got more play than “My Melody” because it was more of a dance track. “Melody” was more of a listener type of track. But I’ve got more love for the lyrics on “Melody” than “President.” When I see people in the street today, they always talk about what I said on “Melody.” I say, “Writin’ my name in graffiti on the wall” on there. I wrote KID WIZARD or WIZ KID or whatever saying was hot for that week. Graffiti always just amazed me. Back then we covered all the elements, and graffiti was an important part of it. I used to write my rhymes in graffiti, fucking up the school hallways and shit like that.

Eric B. brought in that drumroll [Funkadelic’s “You’ll Like It Too”] and I always used to rhyme off that James Brown track [Bobby Byrd’s “I Know You Got Soul,” produced by Brown]. Those drums Eric brought were a real good idea because that just set it off.

My brother Steve did the music for that track. My oldest brother, Ronnie, played piano and Steve played sax and some piano. If I wasn’t sampling something, like on there, we would play it on keyboards, and Steve was my keyboard player. That beat I think was Chick Corea “Return to Forever” and the horns were James Brown. We put it all together. My family’s musical background at the crib was crazy. My mom played jazz all day and my pops played smooth shit. My mom sang in Brooklyn sometimes, opera and jazz. She was definitely a big influence on me.

When we got the deal with 4th & Bway, we got the check and it said PAID IN FULL on it, so we was lookin’ at it and Eric said, “Yo, that’s what we’re gonna name the album.” I wasn’t sure about it at first, but that idea definitely worked. It was a statement. With that track, I always used to rhyme off that Dennis Edwards [“Don’t Look Any Further”] in the park. Eric put that beat up under the bass line. I think that was Patrick Adams [their engineer] replaying the bass line. I really dug the [Coldcut “Seven Minutes of Madness”] remix of that song [which appeared on the twelve-inch release in 1987]. When we did [the original album version], it wasn’t even sixteen bars–it was kinda plain. I was gonna write another verse but Eric was like, “Yo, that’s it. You said it all right there.” But when they put the remix on it, it added a bit of flavor to it, and they put the universal sound in there, so I was feelin’ it. The remix was done in London. We didn’t hire them to do it, they just did it, and we ended up using it in the end.

We did that in between, after the two singles were done [“Eric B. Is President” and “I Ain’t No Joke”]. I used to say that rhyme over a more up-tempo beat, then I added more to it when we recorded it. But that’s just an old freestyle that I used to rock.

That’s all Eric B. cutting on there. Eric did most of the turntable stuff, of course, but I did all the cuts on “Musical Massacre” [from 1988’s Follow the Leader album].

We laid “My Melody” down and then Marley was like, “We need a B-side.” I went home and played with a little something on my turntables, got the “Funky President” [by James Brown] out, did the rhymes to it, and it was ready. I used to always rhyme off of “Funky President” back in the day, so I grabbed it off my mom’s shelf. That woman’s voice at the beginning [of the album version] was just a stock record with different sayings on it, like they used for the London [Coldcut remix of “Paid in Full”] record. That was a cool way to set it off on the album version. We put that track way at the end of the album because that single had been out for a long time–people had already heard it. I remember the first time I heard that song on the radio I was walkin’ home one night at about ten o’clock, to get ready for school the next day. And this kid was sitting in his car and the song is playing and the kid is nodding his head. Back then people used to always steal my tapes, so I went over to the car and I said [his tone gets more aggressive], “Where the fuck you get that tape from, man?” And he looked at me and said, “Yo, this shit is on the radio.” He didn’t know who I was, and he was an older motherfucker on the block and I was running up on him. But I had the best walk home that night. We knew that track was larger than life when they started playing it on the radio during the day. Back then we didn’t have hip-hop all day on the radio, so prime-time was when they played a joint from noon to one. We jumped in the car one afternoon to drive to New York and we heard it on the jump-off. That let me know, All right, Ra, it’s getting serious. Frankie Crocker [WBLS’s legendary program director and personality] played it. Shit like that. That song is still one of my favorites to perform live. Everybody gets their whop [dance] on–it’s still a classic joint. I always try to save that towards the end of a show, if not last.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Villard (June 12, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0812977750
  • ISBN-13: 978-0812977752
  • Product Dimensions: 7.4 x 1.2 x 9.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #208,738 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By PFS on July 19, 2007
Format: Paperback
I bought Mr. Coleman's 'Rakim Told Me' when it first came out and was very impressed, so naturally I was excited when I heard he had an expanded volume in the works. This book is a true gem for real hip hop heads looking for anecdotal stories on the histories of their favorite groups/albums as well as an impressive examination of the many facets of the creative process as told by the artists themselves.

This book is also a must for anyone with aspirations to make hip hop music, as it shows that there is much more to creating a classic album than simply rhyming 16 bars over a hot beat. Blood, sweat and tears; as well as lots of luck and a healthy dose of serendipity also play a major role in making an album come together in the right way.

But, as essential as this book is, it's not without its disappointments. Sometimes Coleman gets artists to focus on albums that don't actually represent their best work. Examples: The Geto Boys discussing 'We Can't be Stopped' instead of 'Grip it on That Other Level'. Or Redman's rather shallow examination of 'Whut? Thee Album' when 'Dare is a Darkside' would have been a much more interesting read. And I would have much rather seen the Beastie Boys explain their masterpiece 'Paul's Boutique' instead of 'Check your Head'. But these are minor quibbles. Much more glaring is the ommission of the brilliant Ultramagnetic MCs chapter concerning 'Critical Beatdown' which was one of the highlights of "Rakim Told Me" but is inexplicably absent from the new volume.

Of course, there are also classic albums that didn't make the cut for whatever reason. I would have loved to have seen a chapter on Black Sheep's 'A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing' or Ice Cube's 'Amerikkka's Most Wanted'. Alas, like Mr.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By A. Rehm on July 1, 2008
Format: Paperback
Huge, ludicrously detailed accounts of the creation of pretty much all the most important albums in my life circa seventh grade. Warning: read near your stereo so you can put these back on as you read about them. You'll want to.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Jonathan Gray on September 27, 2007
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book is essential for any fan of hip hop. It goes through classic albums track by track, and the forwards at the beginning of each chapter, describing where the artist, the music, and america was at the time of the albums creation, are very interesting themselves. The writing is competent, which is all we need since it is mostly interview style writing and the words are coming directly from the artist (and in some cases, industry execs) involved. Of course the choice of albums could have been different, some were unecessary (the Marley Marl record which only made it because of the track "The Symphony") and some just werent classic (Poor Righteous Teachers? huh?) but most are undeniable classics and have so much lore and mystery surrounding them it is nothing less than a blessing that Brain Coleman uncovered the story behind these records. Of course there are crucial records he left out, but i assume that he's saving those for the sequel.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Stiv White on July 28, 2008
Format: Paperback
For all of us who grew up in the Golden Age of rap, the 80's and early 90's, Check The Technique is a must read. When these ground breaking albums broke, I was starved for information on how these artists began and found their inspiration. This book enlightens the reader to the rap scene of the time period, and truly provides an insight into what drove these artists to produce the best rap ever, and consequently inspire other artists around them. Though not all of the major artists and infuences from the time period are covered, the albums that are are the foundations of rap that many of today's artists would be well served in reading this book and getting back to the roots of the most important genre of music in the past 50 years.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By AB the Genius on July 2, 2013
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I just received the book last night and had to tear myself away after 80 pages and get some sleep! This is truly a captivating experience that author Brian Coleman has assembled. It's refreshing to see someone who is passionate about documenting the period of hip hop music that was so essential in the genre's life cycle. As an owner of many of the albums that are covered (sorry, never did like 2 Live Crew) it made me want to go back and listen to these classics (as another reviewer also pointed out). You will learn so many interesting tid bits of information that you had absolutely no idea were occurring when you were buying these LPs back in the day. This is a must read for all hip hop heads and those who need to be educated on the origins of Hip Hopo's Golden Age. If you appreciate hip hop as art then this is for you!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By J.Storm on April 17, 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
A must read for anyone who want's to know about "Classic" hip-hop! Before all this garbage on the radio. Yes i am a "Hater". Stuck in the days of true lyrical hip-hop. From Hip-Hop's "Golden" Era, The Early 90's to Mid-90's, New York's Reign, The West Coast Resurgence & The South's Uprising. Most of it is in this book. A inside look to creation of true hip-hop classics. Would love a sequel.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By G. Shubs on November 23, 2008
Format: Paperback
This is a great book for all hip hop junkies. There is a lot of information on how groups were formed, and stories behind all. I got this book, because I'm big on hip hop. I wanted to do some reading on the history of all the great hip hop legends that you don't hear much of nowadays. I really recommend this book for anyone who's into the old school underground hip hop. You'll love it!
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