EPMD Celebrates Def Jam’s 30th Anniversary
By Kyle Eustice
Hailing from Long Island, New York, Parish Smith and Erik Sermon of EPMD burst onto the scene in the late ‘80s with their groundbreaking debut, Strictly Business. Rather than using disco breaks that many hip-hop acts of that era were accustomed to, EPMD lifted rock and funk samples to create their unique brand of the genre. “Erik and Parish Making Dollars (E-P-M-D)” quickly began doing just that thanks to a slot on the 1988 Run’s House tour, which featured many of their heroes, including Public Enemy and Run DMC. In 1989, the duo released Unfinished Business and followed up with 1990’s Business As Usual and 1992’s Business Never Personal. After their first label, Fresh/Sleeping Bag Records, went under in 1992, EPMD signed with Def Jam and joined an esteemed roster that included LL Cool J and Public Enemy. As Def Jam Recordings celebrates its 30th anniversary on October 30 at the Barclay Center in Brooklyn, Parish Smith talks New York City in the ‘80s, his DJ background and the Def Jam anniversary.
Shout Omaha (Kyle Eustice): In the ‘80s, the hip-hop scene in New York was exploding. What was it like to be a part of that and witness the birth of an entire culture?
Parish Smith: One, it was like if you were to get the respect of your peers in the hip-hop community, you knew you had arrived. Back then, it was based on your skills as an emcee, beat maker, dope graffiti artist or dope DJ— all the elements of hip-hop. In our case, we were the last guys to come in. Public Enemy, Run DMC, Grandmaster Flash, MC Lyte, and Big Daddy Kane were already there. EPMD came on the scene last and next thing you know, we’re on the Run’s House tour with Public Enemy. I was 19 at the time.
Were you blown away?
We were in the front of the stage every night. It was an incredible experience because we were already fans. So to be buying Run DMC and Public Enemy CDs and then you’re there going, ‘Look, there goes Chuck. There goes Flavor Flav. There goes Run.” That was unreal. We got to ride on Run DMC’s bus for free so it was wild to Erik and me.
You use some really interesting samples from The Zapp Band to Eric Clapton’s version of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff.” What was your process like when you were constructing these songs?
I was a DJ before I was an emcee. I was always on the turntables. I was with a group my older brother started called Smitty D and the Rock Squad. Being a DJ and DJing at house parties and stuff, you had to be well rounded. You had to have the rock, the hip-hop. I grew up in a multi-cultural environment. I had all nationalities. The same thing in school. In the dorm, one morning you could wake up and hear Beastie Boy’s “Brass Monkey,” Run DMC’s “Rock Box” or Public Enemy’ s first album. Or you could hear ZZ Top or Eric Clapton. That’s just how it was. Being a DJ and being around all that stuff, once I got in the studio and started producing, it was fresh on the mind.
With a DJ background, it seems it would be a lot easier to come up with ideas because you have such a vast knowledge of music. That’s kind of the essence of hip-hop, right?
That’s right. That would be a great piece, too. How many famous artists started off as DJs [laughs]? Dr. Dre [of N.W.A. fame] was a DJ and I was a DJ before I started rapping, too.
You and Erik have split up as EPMD quite a few times. Erik seemed to gain some traction with his solo career, but you guys always end up back together as EPMD. What’s the force that keeps you coming back to each other?
We’ve had a friendship since 8th grade so there’s a bond there. Regardless of what indifferences we’ve had, our love of hip-hop keeps us coming back. We have a solid body of work, not only with EPMD, but also with the Hit Squad and the Def Squad, you know what I mean? To know we have the power within to make a difference and not utilize that is kind of selfish. No, it is selfish [laughs].
You’ve accomplished so much in your career. How does that feel to come from being a 13-year-old fan to defining part of the culture yourself?
It’s a super blessing, but also we’re still active. We’re working hard and still focused so we don’t really get to see that because we’re still in it.
Let’s talk about that. What are you doing now?
We were on the Masters of Ceremony Tour with Slick Rick, DMX, Big Daddy Kane, and Rakim. Then we were on the Golden Era Tour and The Hip-Hop Legends Tour, which was in Las Vegas. Now we’re coming full circle with the Def Jam Recordings 30th Anniversary show at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. We are working on some EPMD music and our own solo projects. It’s kind of up in the air when they will come out because we’re not rushing and we are really taking our time. We want to make some really good music because that’s what hip-hop is lacking now.
Is it a different feeling playing to such big audiences?
To me, it’s the same whether it’s 10,000 people or one person. I always come from the point of view like this fan took the time to purchase a ticket and come see us so I give it all I’ve got.