[8 December 2004]
Fat Beats and Skinny Boasts
When it comes to the culture of hip-hop, Erick Sermon is a passionate conservative. His lyrics demand from other rappers the kind of quality professional ethics he’s set for himself throughout his illustrious fifteen-year career. And nothing less that perfection will do from any rapper around him. Off and on, Sermon’s been half of EPMD with Parrish Smith, one of the most respected hip-hop duos ever. Sermon has always been a vaunted producer, from hyping careers for Busta Rhymes and Too $hort, to making Shaquille O’Neil and Ja Rule sound good with his laid back “funklord” style. EPMD might not have been the big name in the hip-hop game for very long, but they put out banging records that have endured through rap’s squillion new styles.
Sermon’s new solo record, Chilltown New York, drops mad Sermon propaganda on unsuspecting streets. And because the album is so good, as strong as anything Sermon’s done, I believe it can withstand a bit of serious, respectful scrutiny.
A part of hip-hop is laying down the law. Every rapper’s got to lay down the law. And Sermon loves to lay down the law. He knows the game, and he knows how to respect the game, and—most important to his lyrics—Sermon knows how to spot the clues when someone else is screwing the game. The same passionate but ultimately conservative professional ethic he holds to, he also believes is central to the health of all hip-hop everywhere as it ages. Nothing but the Sermon’s way.
Now, I’m not arguing that hip-hop’s been exploited on fewer dates than Kirsten Dunst, but Sermon, you can’t expect everyone to act the same just because their records are found in the record bins. Hip-hop is more than labels, it’s a sustainable culture, a city of a shared consciousness. But it’s nothing without the preservation of the music, and this idea is where Sermon’s lyrics get perplexing and contradictory.
So even though he raps in the song “Relentless” that he agrees with Missy, “No creativity in the game no more”, there’s a part of his soul that’s thinking “back in the day, back in the day”. He loves hip-hop, but he’s jaded. He’s seen too many stars fade too soon, and too many cheats that are nothing but flashlights make it big for too long. His music is nostalgic, because back in Sermon’s day, everything was better than it is right now.
But Sermon has not got the “next level shit” going on that’s made Ghostface Killah the most important MC in New York since the vacuum left by Jay-Z. His flow is trustworthy and familiar, and I’ve always loved Sermon’s style for its honorable consistency, for not being another shape-shifting producer like Timbaland. The only time Sermon’s music hasn’t been old school inflected was when he put out Strictly Business in 1988. His guests are Talib Kweli, Redman, and Keith Murray, and the album sounds like a rowdy high school reunion at times.
Sermon’s remembrances of bling’s past have him a little grumpy about the glaciers of ice the youngsters are tugging around without paying some dues. But Sermon must know from experience that money is blind. Money doesn’t care how hard you worked to get it. Money doesn’t care if you earned it. And when’s money not money? When it’s credit. Sermon’s beef with fame as a producer, where he’s always shined brightest, is that he has to put up with all the little stoners who pay his bills when a Funklord Productions credit appears in another unit-moving debut’s liner notes.
Nevertheless, in the Egyptian-funky, serpent-hypnotizing track “I’m Not Him”, Sermon raps a little history lesson to what are surely bored kindergarten Chingies sitting around him with platinum records stacked like notepads in the back of class. “I’m hip-hop elite, the one who signed Redman, the one who signed Keith”, he gives as evidence of his authority. So, in other words, J-Kwop, or whoever you are: Sermon’s been around the track upon which you rap, and in fact, now that you mention it, he owns the track.
On “Relentless”, he raps the suggestion of retirement, and in a somewhat stinging final remark:
“And this might be my last hurrah /
I’m a rock now until tomorrow /
Some ask about EPMD’s prognosis /
But it won’t happen til’ P get focus /
I won’t be compared to Nas or Jada /
But I’m a punish the game for its foul behavior /
And y’all got it backwards /
Those ain’t real MC’s, those are actors /
Cast as Fear Factors /
And I agree with Missy /
No creativity in the game no more”
But Sermon isn’t about breaking new ground. His tracks are surely the most trustworthy in the business, because you can’t fail with that fat bassline and the R&B licks. He sticks to the roots of rap music, the subject of how fucking awesome he is. Rap has always been one boast after another diss. Say what you will about Suge Knight, if rappers didn’t boast and diss, Tupac and Biggie wouldn’t be dead. Whoa! Breaking news? No, it was pretty obvious back in the ‘90s that the worst that could happen in the grim feud between Pearl Jam and Nirvana was a suicide. Do you know what I’m saying? You can either express an internalized pain, or you can press the nine to externalize pain. What remains true in all three deaths is that everyone involved was way too obsessed with how other people lived their lives. Sermon’s track “Street Hop”, is one of many on the record that expresses his intolerance for MC’s that don’t measure up. “All them rappers who can’t rhyme”, he says, “What you doing is a crime, singing that garbage all the time [shotgun goes off, garbled but congratulatory rapping]”. I’ll tell you what, Sermon: It doesn’t matter if some rappers can’t rhyme. You can rhyme.
Don’t retire, Sermon. Lead by example. Miles Davis died playing the trumpet. Sermon has a gift for music that is inarguable. But on this record it’s clear he feels restricted and frustrated by the rap world. I don’t blame him. If he does retire, his career will be remembered as one of hip-hop’s true artists, an MC who produced ALL his own music, who never gave up, who respected hip-hop’s roots and could rhyme like nobody’s business: “I walk this way cause I paid my dues / I’m a giant and you need platform shoes”.
Chilltown New York is as amazing a record as Sermon has ever made, and if it’s his last, it will stand as one of the finest in his career. But his expectations for hip-hop are beyond his control, and the creativity he finds lacking in others could be found in himself. The Funklord’s sound is an unbreakable beatbox groove. Over all these years it has never failed him, so it’s been a good box to be in. Sermon might need to think outside of it, though, if he hopes to raise the bar in rap music again.