EPMD’s “Business As Usual”: A 30th Anniversary Retrospective
Erick Sermon, Parrish Smith and DJ Scratch get called up to the majors and release their first LP on Def Jam with their new protegé Redman in tow. The end result was one of the first classic Rap albums of 1991, the first being Main Source’s Breaking Atoms.
EPMD, the Long Island Rap group comprised of Erick Sermon, Parish Smith and DJ Scratch, were recognized as one of the premiere groups in Rap following their Gold certified debut Strictly Business and sophomore album Unfinished Business.
However, due to financial issues with their label Sleeping Bag/Fresh Records, Erick and Parrish weren’t going to be making any more dollars with them. Luckily, EPMD was rolling with Russell Simmons owned Rush Artist Management so Def Jam Records acquired their contract, along with another Rush group signed to Fresh, Nice & Smooth. Afterwards, EPMD focused on crafting their Def Jam debut. Based on earlier EPMD albums, anticipation was high for what E Double & PMD had been cooking up in the lab.
EPMD and DJ Scratch crafted bangers on Unfinished Business such as “So Wat Cha Sayin’,” “The Big Payback,” “Total Kaos,” etc. but being on Def Jam meant they had to raise the bar and deliver material on an even higher level of quality than what already drove heads crazy in years past. Rap was halfway through a post Golden Era transition period that we now refer to as the Pop Rap Era but at the time had no name. In late November of 1990, EPMD dropped the lead single from their forthcoming album “Gold Digger” on an unsuspecting populace.
The uptempo beat coupled with DJ Scratch’s cuts made for an instant head-nodder that packed dance floors. “Gold Digger” took a while to gain footing in a highly competitive space, but eventually entered Billboard’s Hot Rap Single chart on January 5th, 1991 at #14 on its way to becoming the #1 Hot Rap single (February 9th, 1991) and even broke the Top 20 of the Hot R&B charts before stalling at #15 on March 16th, 1991. The video made the rounds to BET’s Rap City, Yo! MTV Raps and the syndicated Rap video show Pump It Up!, gradually building buzz until the album Business As Usual dropped on January 11th, 1991, the Friday after Main Source’s Breaking Atoms was released by Wild Pitch.
Not only that, but it actually came out days before the release of Gang Starr’s Step In The Arena, DJ Quik’s Quik Is The Name and Digital Underground’s This Is An EP Release on January 15th, 1991 so it not only had serious competition for the hearts and minds of Rap fans, but it was part of a wave of excellent Rap releases right out the gate. 30 years after the fact, Breaking Atoms, Business As Usual, Step In The Arena, Quik Is The Name, and This Is An EP Release are all considered classics… And to think, were only halfway through the first month of 1991!
Business As Usual received the full marketing treatment from the new label. Def Jam’s legendary in house art department The Drawing Board handled graphic design and famed comic book artist Bill Sienkiewicz painted the album’s cover art, as if to further give off the impression this project was an event. Business As Usual was also the first Def Jam release to bear the Rush Associated Labels (RAL) logo as CBS Records became Sony at the top of 1991.
Cosmetic stuff notwithstanding, the important thing is the album itself. I’ll never forget the first time my boy Zach popped the cassette into his tape deck after buying it across the street at Skippy White’s on Mass. Ave, pressing PLAY and we all heard “Let’s take it to the stage, sucker!” before the beat to “I’m Mad” dropped. I can remember nodding my head while feeling like my face was melting as it played with DJ Scratch’s cuts serving as the icing on the cake.
Once “I’m Mad” faded out, the sinister “Hardcore” began playing. PMD and E Double traded dope verses but the third verse was our introduction to Redman who went on to deliver an epic 90-second rhyme using alitteration that instantly put the entire Rap world on notice. The next track was the kinetic “Rampage” that opens with a hard PMD rhyme followed by a monster LL Cool J verse, who was hot off his recently released smash album Mama Said Knock You Out. It sounded like he was going at EPMD on their own song… Years later we discovered he was. The story DJ Scratch told me about the “Rampage” video shoot almost 30 years later was epic. LL Cool J gave his side in an interview with Torae (Carr) last year on IG.
Heads were only three songs into the new EPMD tape but they were already calling their friends asking them if they’d heard it yet then playing songs for them over the phone. Mind you, this was back when everyone didn’t have cordless phones. If you did, sometimes they had an extendable antennae and you needed to switch channels because you sometimes heard other people’s conversations on your line. The early ‘90s… what a time to be alive.
“Rampage” became the album’s second single, peaking at #2 on the Hot Rap Singles chart on June 8th, 1991 while featuring an amazing remix by Pete Rock. The video got serious burn on Rap City, Yo! MTV Raps, Pump It Up! and The Box. Part of the video’s popularity can be attributed to the fact it featured many attractive models and dancers, one of which being a young Jennifer Lopez. “Rampage” and its remix got considerable radio play and were also big on the college radio and mixtape circuit. Another thing that made the video notable were the rumblings that it wasn’t really LL Cool J in the video, but a lookalike. Turns out, it was actually LL but he was on one at the time riding his album’s overwhelming success.
As “Rampage” was climbing up the charts it was competing directly with LL Cool J’s “Around The Way Girl”, Yo Yo’s “You Can’t Play With My Yo Yo” and Kool Moe Dee with Chuck D & KRS One’s “Rise N’ Shine”. The album proved so successful that it became the #1 LP on the Top R&B Albums chart for two straight weeks (March 23rd & March 30th, 1991) after it knocked off Whitney Houston’s I’m Your Baby Tonight. Business As Usual’s reign at the top would ultimately be dethroned by Ralph Tresvant’s self titled debut.
On May 7th, 1991, the RIAA awarded EPMD a Gold plaque for sales exceeding 500,000 units. Def Jam’s acquisition of EPMD yielded big dividends for both the Def Jam brass as well as Erick, Parrish & DJ Scratch.
Of the 14 tracks on Business As Usual there is only one clear weak link, that being “Rap Is Outta Control” which is strategically placed between “Give The People” and “Brothers On My Jock” on Side B of the cassette so you can fast forward it and it wouldn’t negatively affect the overall listening experience. On their previous album Unfinished Business they made sure to place the tracks “It’s Time To Party” and “You Had Too Much To Drink” in places where they could be fast forwarded without taking you completely out of the zone as well.
Redman’s second guest verse on “Brothers On My Jock” had everyone anticipating hearing more from the hungry young emcee. Little did we know he’d drop his classic debut on Def Jam Whut? Thee Album almost two years later. The final track on Business As Usual, “Funky Piano” was one of the first beats ever credited as being produced by DJ Scratch to appear on an album (although he actually produced “Rampage” as well). It was a portent of his own successful production career which would take off near the end of the decade. What was the final verdict on Business As Usual? It was universally considered one of the greatest Rap albums of the ‘90s even before the second Golden Era was officially underway.
Beyond being a great album, Business As Usual had an impact on the culture that would outlast EPMD’s tenure at Def Jam. Business As Usual was one of the several tapes Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose & Jimmy King had playing in their Walkman headphones when they all played at the 1991 McDonald’s All American High School Classic on April 6th, 1991 at Springfield Civic Center in Springfield, MA with local (MA) products Ric Brunson and Travis Best.
When Chris Webber and Jalen Rose both officially declared they’d attend Michigan, signed their letters of intent and become part of the Fab Five with Ray Jackson, Business As Usual was the top album on the R&B charts. Jalen Rose still pays homage to Business As Usual to this very day by singing the hook of the final single “Give The People” to kick off episodes of his ESPN show/podcast “Jalen & Jacoby.”
When The Source magazine published their list of the “100 Greatest Rap Albums Of All Time” in 1998, Business As Usual was ranked at #37, with their previous releases Strictly Business and Unfinished Business ranked at #38 and #39 respectively. It was listed as one of the top 5 albums from 1990 in Ego Trip’s Big Book Of Rap Lists… which is disappointing since the album was actually released in 1991. Designer, marketer and producer Frank The Butcher named his apparel line Business As Usual partly due to him being inspired by this same album as a youth.
In the 30 years that have passed since Business As Usual dropped, it has held up incredibly well both sonically and lyrically. These are the attributes and hallmarks of timeless, classic music and a testament to why in 2021 I’m writing this piece about an influential piece of art that inspired so many the world over.