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Eric B & Rakim 30th Anniversary of Paid In Full

Venue: Apollo Theatre, Harlem, New York

Date: 7th July 2017

By Andrew Kay | 12 July 2017

This event had all the delicious anticipation and potential hallmarks of a classic hip-hop concert. The kind that gave you a hankering and a passion for the music, laying the groundwork for what has come after it. “Paid in Full” has to rank as a top-10 rap album of all-time; Rakim is rightfully known as the greatest rapper of all-time. So, what could possibly go wrong?

Well, where to begin?

Having never been to the Apollo, it’s a rarified sight -a lovely old theatre that has been preserved over the years and has played host to countless artists in its illustrious history. It’s smaller than the TV appearances would have you believe, and its three-tier design recalls a real wiff of history. For many I spoke to, this was their first time at the venue. With a gentrified landscape outside, where the well-off air-kiss cheek by cheek with others, this isn’t the edgy Harlem I remember from 25 years ago. Famed soul food restaurant Sylvia’s was still doing brisk business on this Friday night. The grilled BBQ Salmon was lovely. But the change in landscape and time has meant Whole Foods moving in, and a very expensive restaurant called Red Rooster (booked up for weeks; lousy name for such an expensive place as it sounded like a chain,) had taken some of the edginess away.

There was a palpable buzz about tonight, and people were in high spirits. Famed NYC DJ Stretch Armstrong held court and pressed the flesh of some of his fans, including some other famous DJs. You would have thought that if he was in the audience, or had something to do with the gig, then it would have had some quality-control or protective forcefield to stop it being the mess it eventually spilled out and became.

The first hour was a case of people milling around, not ready to take their seats, and a female DJ playing the usual hotch-potch of old school tracks, whilst reminding people what was in store this very night - as if we needed reminding??!! Someone from the Apollo went around the Lower Orchestra holding up a flyer offering a $100 ‘meet and greet’ with Eric B. And Rakim after the show. I’m not sure how many took up this offer, but as the seats ranged from $55-280, it probably wasn’t many. A lone T-shirt seller sold the merch for this memorable night, and the queue for the drinks snaked around the venue. The average age of the attendees was over 40.

By 9pm the atmosphere had hit its apex. Nobody really knew what to expect. Live, Eric B. and Rakim have been often frustratingly erratic: some memorable performances mixed with other excruciatingly bad ones, with Rakim often being accused of being a studio performer, unable to cut it live.

Even though the MC was meant to be Rakim, Eric B. seemed to be the real Master of Ceremonies, setting up with ageing old school artist Lovebug Starski, who whetted the crowd’s appetite, hyping up his set-up by baiting and teasing the sold-out, capacity crowd.

But right from the off something didn’t feel right. Within minutes the stage was filled with a lot of people no-one had heard of; most of whom hadn’t realized that this was a theatre and you might have dressed correctly for such a historic night (the date was chosen, as it was exactly 30 years to the day that “Paid in Full” was released,) in such a historic venue. So we had a bunch of people showing up like they were ordering cheeseburgers, many scowling into the crowd, giving it that misgiven played-out machismo that hip-hop is so famed for; iPhones’ were directed into the crowd, as if we were the ones being surveyed. A larger-than-life Eric B was front and centre in a tux with something of the Suge Knight about him: he seemed to be on-edge, eying many with suspicion, but doing little to manage or quell the “cheeseburger posse" on the stage. His well-spoken accent belied Rakim’s street-slang accented poetry.  

Freddie Foxx turned up looking like a bouncer in an ill-fitting tux, and trying to make sense of the donut-shaped crowd, but he wasn’t there to perform. Having him shouted out by Lovebug, (the first of several), it gave the impression that the paying audience were getting value for their money. Joeski Love came out to perform “Pee Wee Herman” - a nice nod to nostalgia, but still an irrelevance for this specific occasion. Again, Love didn’t bother to present himself to the audience; he just turned up, did his one-shot-wonder single, and the crowd were expected to be carried away by this nostalgia. It wasn’t so much a palpable elixir, as the sniff of out-of-date Kool-Aid that filled the Apollo. VJ Ralph McDaniels popped up, pounded ErIc B, hugged him and left the stage. New Edition’s Michael Bivens was shouted and pointed out from one of the private boxes, and we were supposed to swoon…. More shout-outs, more perceived value for money!

Also-ran soul singer Keith Washington came out to the adoration of women of a certain vintage. He hadn’t had an album for 27 years, so played some of his songs that no-one had really heard of and which caused a flurry of testosterone to return to their seats, perplexed and frankly annoyed.

Producer Alvin Toney came on stage to get the hugs, pounds and head-nods of approval from those on the stage; those in the crowd were fairly non-plussed. People were already restless that this was turning into a badly-managed circus. Anna, a slightly-built white lady, brought on as the Apollo’s stage manager, (and ultimately responsible for what we were witnessing on the venue's intimate space), seemed overwhelmed by the occasion, and to want to leave proceedings to Eric B, who hugged Anna like a child being squashed by a large-togged duvet. It was a bizarre scene. One of many, I’m afraid.

Twenty minutes in and still no sign of Rakim. Instead, Eric B. asked the crowd if “the Bronx was in the house?” The usual deep voices hollered in the affirmative. Out of nowhere, 1998’s one-shot-wonder-that-got-sued-by-Steely-Dan, Peter Gunz came out to the “Black Cow”-sampled refrain of “Déjà vu (Uptown Baby).” One nice moment of '98 nostalgia and Gunz was done. Kool Herc popped up and we all had to pay homage, even if we didn’t want to, and resented, as a captive audience, having to swallow this mess of something and nothing.

“Prince of Harlem”, (more like court jester,) Mase came on in a tracksuit, did his bit from “Mo Money, Mo Problems” and did Biggie’s verse, just to get the usual special pleading, when Mase’s career was more checkered than Kwame’s polka dots.  

Finally, 35 minutes in, and Rakim took the stage as we all swooned with approval, believing the hype, for once... or was it contractual obligations?  Rakim performed “My Melody” in rushed fashion, truncating the song to get the adulation from the crowd, and to negotiate the scores of people still milling around on stage with no specific purpose. Rakim tried to get his spotlight, both literally and figuratively, but he was feted and surrounded by the cheeseburger posse. There was a lack of a run-up to add more anticipation, so when Rakim came out, finally, it felt a bit muted; a bit rushed; a bit like obligation. “I Ain’t No Joke” got repeat value when Flavor Flav recreated the dance from the video of the song of the same name. Flav gave his usual act of self-effacement, and danced like the born entertainer he is. He played excellent folly with Rakim, who seemed caught up in the Rakim of his youth, as he grinned with glee.

If the crowd were expecting “Paid in Full” to be played in full in one uninterrupted session, they were to be sorely disappointed. Most people would expect the headliners for an seminal album to at least recreate the entire album, but Rakim exited stage right.

Large Professor and Joe Fatal came on stage and did “Looking at the Front Door” and “Fakin’ the Funk.” To their credit, Pro and Fatal were excellent. All the while most of us were thinking Eric B and Rakim, (who never really liked each other, and still don’t on the evidence of the reluctant chemistry on display here,) came on like a tantalizing cameo, similarly to De Niro and Pacino in “Heat.”

T La Rock came on soon after for “It’s Yours.” Again, a fine performance, but one which had nothing to do with what the night was about. It wasn’t a celebration of hip-hop through the ages, or from different parts of New York City. This is not what people paid good money to see. Harlem’s B-Fats came out to do a few songs. Not bad, but there was no organisation to the whole evening - just throw mud at the wall and hope it sticks. It was also a cynical way of suggesting to the audience that they were getting value for their Buck.

More murmurs and rumblings on stage ensued. Until Eric B came back on in a polo shirt and subtle gold chain, asking the crowd if anyone from Mount Vernon was in the house. A few whoops and hollers was the response, and we all expected Pete Rock and CL Smooth to come out. Imagine the disappointment when also-ran R&B singer Al B Sure showed up instead. He did some of songs, (no names, no pact drill,) in an American football shirt with “Mount Vernon 4 Life,” on the back... even though he lives in Goshen, upstate New York. Again, appealing to the ladies in the house meant all the blokes in the audience all sat down. Sure surely played himself by doing a tribute to Rakim, (bear in mind what was this night was about,) by partially rapping “Eric B. Is President"!

Note to Al B not-so-sure-of-himself:  If this was a celebration of a seminal album, with the actual artist in the building, don’t ever take away his shine with a poorly thought-out tribute. This - amongst so many other incidents - summed up much of the night. Al, though he may have been been produced by Eric B. in the past, was an utter irrelevance tonight, and the audience just had to sit there, captive, if not exactly captivated. In fact, pretty underwhelmed.

EPMD made up for the previous shambolic fifteen minutes, doing “Music”, “You Gots to Chill” and “So Watcha Sayin’?” amongst others. Eric Sermon was pretty puffed-out after his and Parish Smith’s fifteen minutes, but at least it was a solid fifteen minutes.

A much slimmer Fat Joe did “Lean Back” and “All The Way Up”, with Rosie Perez playing wing lady to Fat Joe from the side of the stage.  Not two of Joe’s classic songs, but they were entertaining enough.

DJ Chuck Chillout came out for little purpose other than to join the celebrations; the audience had paid good money to see something other than Cheeseburger Posse.

As Eric B mentioned bringing out a West Coast artist - or maybe two or three - the crowd tried to guess who it might be. Of course, this being all done on the cheap, with little stage-management, rehearsal or production values, it was Ice T who represented. It helped that he had only been doing his Art of Rap tour a few days previously in New Jersey, so was imminently available. A workman-like rendition of “O.G”, “New Jack City” and “Colors” was welcome, but, yet again, this is not what was this night was about.

Sweet T and Roxanne Shante represented Queens and did “It’s My Beat” and “Have a Nice Day.” Lost Boyz extended that borough’s reppin’ with “Renee”, and Rich Boy from Brooklyn did a superfluous set. Special Ed kept the time filler agenda going with “I Got it Made.”

Eric B softly reminded Cheeseburger Posse and the exacerbated and bemused paying audience that “they still had a day job to do”, (don’t do us any favours, Eric, please don’t!!) and finally Rakim came on again in safari fatigues for ‘Eric B. Is President” and “I Know You Got Soul”, (both rushed, both truncated). Rakim basked in the glory and took selfies with the crowd, while the Bobby Byrd beat played out from Eric B’s laptop. Slick Rick turned up. Did nothing, But it gave even more perceived value for the audience. Rakim was either too lazy or bored or just didn’t want to be there, as he asked the audience to sing the words to “Paid in Full,” while he mimed the song’s narrative.

DJ Kid Capri rounded out a soggy evening that barely, legally fulfilled obligations. A night that could have been so different and with so much potential, but ended up classic amateur vaudeville that set back hip-hop as an artform by about 10 years. Not all the tracks from Paid in Full were played... especially the instrumentals... or in full. Rakim didn’t seem to want to be there. The stage-management was a joke. I couldn’t tell you who 90% of the people on that stage were. Rakim’s elder brother and the bloke who sold Rakim his gold, and a Latino dude who was on the cover of "Paid in Full" aren’t remotely interesting, as there was little backstory. Strangely, too, the recently deceased Prodigy was ignored the whole night, but for one of the Cheeseburger Posse wearing a hat with "Prodigy" written on it.

The whole night felt like a self-indulgent circus farce, which exemplified the worst of live hip-hop. Instead of a celebration of a seminal album, it was a night to forget.

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