1999 was a funny year for Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith. They had already seen their duo, EPMD, both break up (for reasons I've already documented elsewhere and am too tired to retread) and reunite, all to the tune of dollar signs and cash register chimes, as their fans rushed to snatch up any release from the seminal team (but not necessarily any of their solo offerings, at least when it came to PMD). That reunion project, Back In Business, went especially far in rebooting EPMD for a new era within our chosen genre, one where multitudes of funk samples were overridden with New York street talk and gloomy beats, and both Erick and Parrish acquitted themselves quite nicely. It helped that neither man had ever left hip hop during their group's hiatus, obviously.
So the only thing that remained was to retire.
Out Of Business, EPMD's sixth album (and ultimately their final one for Def Jam Records, their label home since 1990), was designed as the defining statement that would end this particular chapter in hip hop history. It offered the intended audience a little bit of everything. For younger newbies, it could be seen as a continuation of Back In Business (which, incidentally, was their fifth gold-selling album in a row), showcasing E and PMD over harder instrumentals (most of which came directly from either Erick or Parrish, as they both kept their respective ears to the streets during the preceding years) alongside some of their favorite peers, including, M.O.P., Busta Rhymes, Method Man, and, um, Lady Luck. For veteran hip hop heads, not only did EPMD record yet another collaboration with their Hit Squad apprentice Redman (Reggie has enjoyed an easygoing chemistry with these guys ever since they first introduced him to the game on their third album, Business As Usual), the limited edition set of Out Of Business came with a bonus disc full of what was purported to be EPMD's greatest past hits, so that one could track the progress of both Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith throughout their joint career.
(Sadly, the Greatest Hits disc fails to honor the solo careers of either member. So there's a free idea, at-home mixtape deejays: a compilation of all of E and PMD's highlights, both together and separately. You're welcome.)
Out Of Business hit store shelves in the summer of 1999, and went on to sell not quite as many copies as the rest of their catalog, essentially forcing that retirement into actuality due to economic concerns (read: Def Jam doesn't want acts that don't move units on their label, unless they happen to be The Roots). Of course, hip hop retirement tends to be joined at the hip with quotation marks, so it wasn't really that much of a surprise when EPMD resurfaced nine years later with another project, albeit one that was lauded much less so than Out Of Business.
But that's a story for another day.
Although I remembered the Bill Conti “Going The Distance”-sampling instrumental (it's actually been stuck in my head since 1999, no lie), I had completely forgotten that this rap album “Intro” is actually an ode to EMPD's deejay (and oft-forgotten third member), DJ Scratch. Both Erick and Parrish praise Scratch's abilities and skill over the dramatic beat, one that will remind listeners of Puff Daddy's “Victory” (released a couple of years earlier), which samples from the same source material, without sounding like a rip-off. Also, “Intro” works in a sound bite from The Notorious B.I.G. (taken from “One More Chance (Stay With Me)”), which could be seen as DJ Scratch's middle finger to “Victory”, a banger that, surprise, also features the late Biggie Smalls. Is this the last time a rap crew would ever praise their deejay? I'm not sure, but it has to be among the last of its species, anyway. This is also Scratch's lone contribution to Out Of Business, so.
A jarring transition from Scratch's dramatic intensity to what could be seen as a beat Erick Sermon had been saving for his Def Squad Presents Erick Onasis project before saying “fuck it”. “Pioneers” doesn't bring back the sample-heavy tone of the duo's earlier works, as it instead adopts the menace that Parrish Smith attempted to perfect on the dollar sign-heavy Bu$ine$$ I$ Bu$ine$$, with E-Double riding shotgun. It's not that these two can't pull it off: although I miss their playful shit-talking, E and PMD acquit themselves nicely, upgrading their style for the then-pending new millennium. But that instrumental is boring as shit, and the Jay-Z vocal sample serves almost no purpose at all, other than to prove that the duo is cognizant that they shared a label with Shawn Carter. Well, now that we've all come back down to Earth, let's see how the rest of this disc holds up.
3. RIGHT NOW
Instead of, oh, I don't know, asking Noreaga and their own labelmate (at the time) DMX to contribute, as they were pretty popular at the time, E and PMD choose instead to swipe sound bites from both artists for the hook on “Right Now”, which sounds alright overall, but forgettable, as Sermon's instrumental keeps things moving in a pedestrian fashion. Our hosts are serviceable, but neither man is invested in the outcome. Maybe Nore and X should tackle this beat today: they're bound to pump a bit more energy into the proceedings than the original participants. Sigh.
4. CHECK 1, 2
Over a PMD / 8-Off instrumental that resembles, but does not mirror, Sermon's work on Jay-Z's “Reservoir Dogs”, Erick and Parrish make sure their microphones are working properly. The duo trade off verses multiple times throughout, going with the typical boasts 'm bullshit that they always have, until E-Double's final verse, which is among the most aggressive I've ever heard on an EPMD album, even with the incredibly egregious grammatical error (um, “maricon” does not mean “fuck you”, Erick, nor is “Puerto Rican” a language. Perhaps you've never heard of “Spanish”?) made just so the bars would rhyme. This wasn't bad, but Sermon's final verse threw me the fuck off.
5. SYMPHONY (FEAT. M.O.P.)
The Erick Sermon beat so nice that our hosts used it twice. This first version of “Symphony” features a guest turn from both halves of the Mash Out Posse, so given PMD's past work with the duo, this take could be seen as the one that appeases him, while the other version that appears later on in the evening is meant to satisfy Erick Sermon's need to employ his friends. Why the two songs weren't merely combined I will never know. Sermon's instrumental still sounds pretty good today, a string-laden loop that surprisingly doesn't really ever get old, and both E and PMD sound excellent with their shit-talking. Lil' Fame and Billy Danze both elevate the material, though, and if you never felt the need to smash someone's face into some exercise equipment while listening to an EPMD song before, well, you'll probably want to skip the gym entirely now, as most of you two don't need an assault charge on your record. For reasons that will become clearer later if you're not already familiar with the situation, I prefer the other version of “Symphony”, but this one is still pretty goddamn good.
6. HOLD ME DOWN
I'd rather not, thanks.
7. RAP IS STILL OUTTA CONTROL (FEAT. BUSTA RHYMES)
On this sequel to Business As Usual's “Rap Is Outta Control”, E and PMD recruit cameo king Busta Rhymes to spit not so much a hook as it is a mixture of different ad-libs (including a goofy “For sure, dude!”, performed in a surfer voice that is so corny that it threatens to take the listener out of the experience), while the duo's darker-than-expected instrumental chugs along. I remember liking this shit back in 1999, and I still do, even without a Busta verse, although the track still cuts off before PMD's final verse (also performed with a goofy voice, for some reason, unless I've been mishearing this all these years: it's almost as though Erick and Parrish place the blame for our chosen genre being outta control at the feet of one particular race – hmm...) ends, which, as you two already know, annoys the fucking shit out of me.
8. THE FAN
Not so much a storytelling rap about a fan of EPMD, crazed or otherwise, than it is some random bullshit about how Erick and Parrish are so great at rapping and have been around long enough to have fans in the first place. Sermon's beat sounds like two or three of his instrumentals being played at high speed at the same time, which, weirdly, has an off-putting effect that our hosts seem comfortable working through anyway. Still, though, bleh.
Begins with an overlong Wild West-themed skit: PMD doesn't begin rapping until we cross the minute-and-a-half mark. E-Double's instrumental approaches the sound of a Western as run through an Erick Sermon filter, but both halves of the group sound alright, so even though “Draw” isn't anything special, it isn't objectionable, either. Some vocal samples from Method Man and LL Cool J are mixed in, neither of which connect in the intended manner, but you'd rather enjoy a song than be bored, right? So EPMD land on the correct side of the fence, I suppose. Don't be so shocked if you immediately forget what this sounded like, though.
10. U GOT SHOT (FEAT. 8-OFF AGALLAH & 215)
Goes with the same Ol' Dirty Bastard “Brooklyn Zoo” sound bite as Prince Paul's “You Got Shot” did (from A Prince Among Thieves, released a few months prior), although it runs a bit longer. Gifted with a second song to feature his friends on, Parrish Smith invites his weed carriers 8-Off (who contributed a lot to Bu$ine$$ I$ Bu$ine$$) and something called a 215 (yeah, me neither), who actually isn't bad, while PMD and Erick bookend the track. Sermon's instrumental after the vocal sample is both moody and simple, leaving everyone in a good place to talk their entertaining shit. Pretty decent today, too.
11. HOUSE PARTY
Another overlong, unnecessary interlude opens up “House Party”, leading, lazily, into the Parrish Smith-produced beat for “House Party” after another minute-and-a-half. The song itself hardly has anything to do with fucking house parties until the very end. This may have been alright had it not kicked off with that dumb-as-shit skit that went nowhere, but when taken as a whole, the best description is “meh”.
12. THE FUNK
Erick and Parrish didn't like how the energy at the party was getting antagonistic, so they switch it up to “The Funk” instead, a track that, strangely, doesn't sound funky at all. Damn it.
13. SYMPHONY 2000 (FEAT. REDMAN, METHOD MAN, & LADY LUCK)
Of course Max would gravitate toward the version featuring fucking Method Man, right? “Symphony 2000”, the first single from Out Of Business, improves upon the original formula by swapping out Fizzy Womack and Billy for Method Man and Redman, two artists Sermon already had an established chemistry with, and they threw in the long-since-vanished-from-the-rap-game female emcee Lady Luck, not for good measure, but because Def Jam thought it would be a good idea. Unlike when Jimmy Iovine convinced 50 Cent to let The Game into G-Unit, though, “Symphony 2000” was actually the peak of Luck's career (which was also chronicled in a series of articles in The Source, alongside two other rappers who I forget at the moment, as they had that much of an impact on our chosen genre.). I'm convinced E and Parrish recorded this version first, since their verses sound more like a natural fit alongside Red and Meth, even though these exact same verses are present on the other take. A video was also commissioned for this version. I like the entire song overall, but the “How High” duo steal the show, with Reggie Noble's genial delivery (complete with allusions to an R. Kelly song that was a hit at the time, one which I can't remember the title to at the moment and can't be bothered to look up) and Meth's obvious enjoyment of his surroundings.
14. JANE 6
Out Of Business ends with round six in the ongoing saga of Jane, a woman of questionable moral character who Parrish Smith keeps running across for whatever reason. As this tale grows increasingly convoluted, our heroes find themselves teaming up with a pair of chicks who apparently are fantastic in the sack, so much so that Erick becomes discombobulated at one point, rhyming “in” with “in”. Both cops and chicks with dicks get involved, somehow, but none of this matters because the story itself has long since blown past the line of ridiculousness. It's like a precursor to R. Kelly's “Trapped In The Closet” at this point. However, PMD sounds concise enough (this series was always more about him than Sermon anyway), and his beat kind of thumps in the best possible way. Still, I could not wait for this shit to end.
The limited-edition version of Out Of Business comes with a bonus disc chock full of EPMD's greatest hits. But not really: songs allegedly taken from the duo's first two albums, including “It's My Thing” and “You Gots To Chill”, are actually rerecorded takes. Def Jam doesn't own the masters for EPMD's first few albums, which were originally released on Sleeping Bag Records, and EMI, who later picked up the rights, stingily refused to license the songs for use on this project. The rest of the songs on the bonus disc are intact from their original album homes, though. Hey, at least it's not like that bullshit Boyz II Men album Twenty, with its second disc fulled with rerecorded versions of their hits including only the three remaining members after Michael McCary jumped ship. Talk about fucking useless. But anyway.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Although not nearly as popular as its predecessors, and for good reason, there's still some good to be found on Out Of Business. Erick and Parrish ultimately succumbed to the closed-minded idiocy that hampers our chosen genre to this day, discarding their own unique personality traits and funkiness in an effort to win over new fans, none of whom would flock to an EPMD album regardless. What's most strange about Out Of Business is that you can predict the failure of the album while still in the midst of listening to it: both E and PMD not only abandoned their own solo niches for one last (or second-to-last, in reality) shot at the crown, they also turned their back on what made them popular as a duo in the first place, turning this project into a bit of a generic mess that has entertaining spots, but is a failure in general. Sorry, but it is what it is.
BUY OR BURN? Yeah, that last paragraph was fairly damning, but of you can find this for a penny, you may as well pick it up. Don't bother with the deluxe edition, though: you're better off just picking up all of the rest of EPMD's back catalog. Fuck that rerecorded bullshit: go and get the real things separately.
BEST TRACKS: “Symphony 2000”; “Intro”; “Symphony”; maybe “U Got Shot” if you're nasty