Before their (first) breakup in 1993, the rap duo of Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith – known together as Erick and Parrish Making Dollars, or EPMD – exercised a huge influence on the “hardcore” Hip Hop scene with their funk-based grooves and laid-back rhyming. A string of hit albums featuring the word “Business” in the title conveyed an ethic that helped them live up to the extravagant promise of their name: EPMD controlled every aspect of their business lives and signed and managed other acts through their various management entities. In the wake of their separation, the two “Strong Island” natives left not only a substantial body of recorded work, but the possibility of long and lucrative solo careers. They also provided an example of self-reliance in the music business that has few parallels.
Sermon and Smith met in high school in their hometown of Brentwood, on New York City’s Long Island. Influenced by funky hardcore acts like Eric B. and Rakim and Public Enemy, the two shared an ambition to conquer the rap world. “We’d listen to the Rap Attack every weekend and be like, ‘We could do this,'” Smith–who started out as a DJ–told Ronin Ro of Spin. Smith dropped out of college and used his financial aid money to finance the duo’s 1986 maiden voyage into the studio. A small label called Sleeping Bag/Fresh Records was impressed by the duo’s demo tape and signed them to a contract; their first single, “You’re a Customer”/”You Gots to Chill,” hit stores soon thereafter. Even noted rap impresario Russell Simmons, of the pioneering rap label Def Jam, was impressed: “The A-side was aw-ite, but the B-side was like, damn, so we started managing them.”
EPMD’s relaxed rapping and relentless funk got noticed, and the group’s first album, 1988’s Strictly Business, went gold. As Spin’ s Ro put it, the record “gave hip hop a much-needed boot in the ass.” It included a sexual tall-tale called “Jane” that became a club favorite; each subsequent EPMD release updated Jane’s saga. The duo’s 1989 follow-up, Unfinished Business, sold as well as Strictly. Sleeping Bag, however, did not survive. EPMD fared better, getting a solid offer from Simmons and moving to Def Jam. Simmons “paid a substantial amount of money,” Smith reported in Spin, allowing, “But when you got a group like EPMD, that’s a good investment.”
Rappers like to brag about “gettin’ paid,” but Smith and Sermon soon came to understand that the key to surviving and prospering in the music industry is to have control. To that end, they became involved in the business side of the business. “C’mon, regular black kids from the boondocks; what did we know about taxes?,” Smith asked in New York Trend. Indeed, the duo had no financial background, but, as Smith continued, “Erick and I had to learn. So we went away for about two months and sat in the woods and started seeing what the world really was seeing.” At the same time, Sermon and Smith realized that industry short-sightedness and meddling had caused a lot of hardcore rappers to go pop, a phenomenon they particularly despised. “Some white guy sitting behind a desk tells a young brother, ‘I can make you huge if you behave like this, speak and dress like this,'” Sermon complained to Errol Nazareth of the Toronto Sun, “and boom! another rapper’s sold.”
EPMD stuck to business, releasing their third smash album, Business as Usual, in 1991. Featuring more of what Billboard’ s Havelock Nelson called their “loopy, often amusing basement style,” the album, like its predecessors, went gold. Usual was the pair’s first Def Jam release. One of their discoveries, Redman, appeared on the track “Hardcore.” By this time EPMD had become the exemplars of funk-inspired Hip Hop, sampling heavily from 1970s “P. Funk” hero George Clinton’s work with Parliament and Funkadelic; as Dream Hampton of the Village Voice remarked, “They’ve dipped into the Clinton catalogue so often that 12-year-olds simply refer to [P. Funk stalwart] Bootsy [Collins]’s bass as the EPMD sound.”
In 1992 Erick and Parrish discovered the go-for-broke duo Das EFX at a talent show; they soon took over the pair’s management and oversaw the recording and release of their album. They also signed on rapper K-Solo; along with Redman, these new associates formed what EPMD called the Hit Squad. Sermon and Smith’s business ventures had ballooned to include Shuma Management and GMC (for Generating Mad Cash). “We don’t go out looking for talent,” Sermon told New York’s Daily News. “People come up and give us tapes and we listen to see what we like. We’ve got a lot of others on the back burner right now.” Shuma’s approach, Smith told Billboard’ s Nelson, is “to find artists who have goals and can stay focused. We don’t just look for artists who can make a def tape. It’s also about their attitude and mind.” This attitude consisted of three provisos, as outlined in The Source: “1. See the big picture. 2. Focus on yourself and where you want to go. 3. Don’t take any steps backwards.”
With the 1992 release of their fourth album, Business Never Personal, EPMD looked ready to conquer the Hip Hop world. The Hit Squad appeared on various tracks, and the singles “Chill” and the pop-scorning “Crossover” scored big, the latter ironically living up to its title. The album also contained the telling “Who Killed Jane?,” though the duo insisted reports of her death were premature. Reviews of Business Never Personal were largely favorable. Rolling Stone awarded it three stars, lauding EPMD’s consistency within its limited formula, namely “a funky joy ride through a gangster-fantasy universe.” Option declared, “EPMD may have a classic album in them; Never Personal comes awfully close.” Adario Strange of The Source was probably closest to street level, though, writing, “I can honestly say that Business Never Personal is one of the most stoooopid mad, extra down low, beneath the toe jam, sewa sauce LPs I’ve heard in a while. The album is dark, black milk with hard chunks of cookie on the bottom of the glass.”
EPMD began their promotional efforts for Personal with a performance at the famed Apollo Theater in New York City’s Harlem that also featured Redman, K-Solo. and Das EFX. The increasing acceptance of hardcore by rap audiences gave every indication that 1993 would be a huge year for Sermon and Smith: “Crossover” landed in the Number One spot, and the album that yielded it went gold. “They’re the most stable rap group, the most stable music group in the industry–artistically and business-wise,” Simmons declared to Ro.
But Simmons spoke too soon; tensions between Sermon and Smith caused the operation to fissure. Smith told Reginald Dennis of The Source, “We had a major blowout in the cockpit … that wouldn’t have allowed me to be in there at 115 percent like I had always been with EPMD.” Although it was rumored that financial concerns had caused the breakup, Smith would not corroborate such speculation. Sermon, meanwhile, wouldn’t comment at all. Simmons held out the hope that once the two founders “sit down in a room and talk, they will be able to work things out and get back together. Erick told me that in his heart, he still considers himself … a part of EPMD.” The Source, with a weary sense of irony, called Dennis’s report “Out of Business.”
Despite this pronouncement, it soon became clear that Sermon, Smith, and the Hit Squad would be getting on with their careers. Smith, Dennis reported, had decided to move away from rapping and toward producing; he signed a gigantic production and distribution deal with RCA/BMG. Sermon, meanwhile, was working on a solo project.
In the high-casualty world of Hip Hop, EPMD enjoyed a particularly long and successful run–and went out with a bang. Perhaps as important as the legacy of their hardcore funk recordings, however, is their hardcore realism with respect to the workings of the infamously brutal music industry. In the aftermath of their disintegration, Skoob of Das EFX told Dennis that “the music will be missed,” but that the Hit Squad would continue. “It’s just a tangled web,” he said. “That’s the music business, a tangled web.”
Out of Business followed in 1999, but the rappers continued pursuing their own projects through the late ’90s and early 2000s. Both released solo albums, and Sermon partnered with Redman and Keith Murray as part of the Def Squad supergroup. Nevertheless, they also found time to continue performing together as EPMD, and 2008 saw them returning to the studio for We Mean Business.