Rap’s relationship with money has been marked by the cliché of ‘gangsta’ and its derivatives, with its monomaniac display of riches, its ostentatious exposition of expensive whims and brand objects, and its disturbing assimilation of the lifestyles of musicians and criminals. Eric B. & Rakim’s ‘Paid In Full’ predates that trend and does not incur its vices, although in some ways it can be considered a much fresher and more naive precedent for that blustering and criminal drift. The Long Island duo marked a before and after in hip hop history with their debut album, ‘Paid In Full’, released in 1987: the foundation laid by DJ Eric Barrier, irresistible musical fragment banquets, and the Free and creative phrasing by MC Rakim Allah, emancipated from the forced metrics of so many predecessors in the genre, laid the foundation for what was to come next. And ‘Paid In Full’, the song, questioned that future from an economic point of view: it was still too early to predict the large fortunes that the future would bring to successful rappers.
In ‘Paid In Full’, Rakim considers the viability of his rhymes as a way of life and enrichment. He sees music as a third way that can free him from crime (which the narrator of the song already says he knows) and from conventional work (which is not very tempting for him), although he is also not entirely convinced of his chances of leaving ahead. «I am thinking of a master plan, / because I have nothing but sweat on my hands. / I search in my pocket and I have spent all the money, / I look deeper and I only get lint. / So I start my mission, I leave my residence / thinking ‘how can I get some presidents dead?’ ”He explains, referring to the effigies of the American bills. Until then, his work experience has been on the fringes of the law: “I used to be a robber, / so I think about all the twisted things I’ve done. / Used to roll me up: this is a robbery, it is not a laughing matter, / stop smiling, be still, do not move more than money. / But now I have learned how to earn it, because I am honest / and I feel good, so maybe I should just look for a 9 to 5 job. / If I try hard, maybe I will stay alive ». Submerged in routine, the narrator misses his notebooks of verses and the rhythms of his buddy Eric: Will hip hop be enough to afford that huge and delicious fish dish he dreams of? “This is a test to see if I succeed,” clarifies the lyrics.
They got it, of course. That album became one of the cornerstones of hip hop and the song, thanks to the seven minute version remixed by the British Coldcut, it reached audiences who were not yet accustomed to American urban rhythms. Rakim has explained on some occasion that the title ‘Paid In Full’ (something like ‘all paid’ or ‘debts paid’) came directly from the first check they collected from his label, sealed with that phrase. “The album ‘Paid In Full’ points to what it was, at the time, the amazing possibility that ghetto African Americans could earn a decent living by recording their stories, on a rudimentary musical production, and selling them to the world, “says hip hop scholar James Peterson, for whom the desire of Eric B. and Rakim to be paid in full, without the robberies and armholes they suffered throughout the history of so many black musicians in the United States, “is a precedent for the scope that the obsession to get ‘dead presidents’ would have in hip hop culture.”