Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith‘s legacy is built on consistency. As EPMD, the hip-hop group’s formula for success was delivering hardcore raps over laid back funk grooves, resulting in their first two albums – Strictly Business(1988) and Unfinished Business (1989) – going gold. With the popularity of gangsta rap rising in the ‘90s, EPMD injected the genre with a harder edge and dense storytelling, often sampling funk masters like George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic and Roger Troutman. More importantly, they steered clear of industry trends and stressed the importance of being independent while taking control of your brand.
By the time they released Business As Usual in 1990, they were hitting a creative stride that was unparalleled in the rap game. Although EPMD would later tellBillboard that their first album is held to a higher regard than Business As Usual by fans, the release is still significant, marking their Def Jam debut after transitioning from Sleeping Bag Records. The LP yielded collaborations with LL Cool J(“Rampage”) and Redman (“Hardcore,” “Brothers on My Jock”), who EPMD claimed as an early discovery.
Present-day EPMD still possesses the same fire as the Brentwood brothers on the come-up. While their previous mission was to keep hip-hop culture alive, they’re now zoning in to the business side of the music industry to help further EPMD. Sermon and Smith, now 47, have an idea in the works to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Business As Usual in 2016. “We’re trying to put together the tour forBusiness As Usual,” Sermon says. “And do it really big where we have EPMD 25th Anniversary Business As Usual [tour] featuring Red & Meth, possibly Mobb Deep,Keith Murray. Possibly De La Soul.”
Would they play the album in full on said tour? “We would play the majority of the album in full, but also give [singles] like what Bruce Springsteen is doing,” Sermon says, referencing the rock vet. “Bruce Springsteen is doing his tour right now for that one album, but he’s also saying you’ll hear some of the hit records though too.”
Smith continues, “It’s hard to do. You in there doing one album and they’re like, ‘No, ‘You Gots To Chill?’’ Yo, what the f**k?’ You know? We trying to get LL [Cool J] to come out support for “Rampage.” Get Kanye [West] to come out for “Gold Digger” and support us.”
Those hefty plans come after months of brainstorming a way to bring attention to one of their classics. At the Def Squad offices in Long Island, EPMD and their Hit Squad collective’s accomplishments adorn nearly every wall, including their gold plaques. The space is also home to Def Rugs, Sermon’s latest business venture with Fox Floors that produces rugs with the Def Squad logos, as well as artists he respects like X Clan, D Block, Beastie Boys and more. There’s enough room for a fully equipped studio as records stuffed in shelves and crates line the building’s second floor. About an hour drive away from the major labels in Manhattan, it’s easy to see why the pair chooses to base their operations in Long Island. Their successes in the past can only motivate their future.
As veterans of the golden era, EPMD shared with Billboard their insights on how to sustain longevity in hip-hop while reflecting on the 25 years of their third studio album. Take notes.
Parrish Smith: “On all our business titles, our first album was basically titled Strictly Business because we put everything on the line. We gave up a lot just to be a part of the hip-hop culture so [the name of the album] had to be Strictly Business. You couldn’t lose. Once you get into the game, people kind of put the pressure on you, like the sophomore jinx or [saying] you can’t do it. So Erick and I came back around with Unfinished Business [which hosted] “So Wat Cha Sayin’” and “The Big Payback.” So we always answered into response to way the fans and the way the game responded to us. It’s always been about business to us no matter how much fun we were having in the music.”
Parrish Smith: “We just was doing [music] because of the love of hip-hop. Us coming from Long Island, we always felt like we had to work harder than the artists from the five boroughs. So once we got the opportunity to step up, we just kept doing it and doing it, bringing dope talent with us, but just really trying to represent hip-hop and trying to get that approval from our colleagues. And they was more advanced. [Big Daddy] Kane would have the robe on after the shows. The slippers. The bottle. We wasn’t advanced like that, you know?”
Erick Sermon: “And not knowing that we found out later that we was the threat for [other artists]. That’s the part that bugs me out. Everybody feared us. While we are trying to get approval from them, they fearing us cause we had consecutive No. 1 albums, consecutive selling Gold albums. They wasn’t doing that.”
Parrish Smith: “If you feel something in your heart musically and want respect from a culture that you respect, stick to what you step forward [with]. That should be the path that you stay on because that’s what the artists and fans know you for. Hip-hop has always been a problem. That’s why we did the song “Crossover” with Large Professor. I just think that’s the biggest thing to stay true as an artist.”
Erick Sermon: “Stay in your lane, stay true and also know that it is a business. It comes with a lot of work; it keeps you staying on your job because again you could be put in predicaments. If people would know that it is a business from the door, it won’t be that much turmoil and problems [in the industry].”
Erick Sermon: “Russell Simmons told us to stay humble. That was a gift and a curse for us because we didn’t step out there [showing off] and act like what we were ‘cause we were the shit. We wasn’t upfront as somebody with that much fame and success would have been. What we did [was stay with] our own crews. We were Long Island people. We liked it. We weren’t the [kind of] people to be out there flossing. We had some jewelry, but after a while, that all came off.”
Erick Sermon: “We still have fun but it is mostly business things that we do. Parrish is getting up to it too about social media. I’m not really a big fan but I do it because of [the fans]. We [have already blown up]. Now, it’s about knowing our brand. We trying to get the recognition of something we haven’t done in a long time. God bless the dead Jam Master Jay is not here. When [critics] speak about groups—Run-D.M.C. [comes up], EPMD comes next. We are trying to put that into play.”
Erick Sermon: “I think it’s cool to be able to call the shots but it comes with responsibility.”
Parrish Smith: “Again, that goes back to the work ethic because if we never went on the Business Never Personal tour, we would have never met Das EFX. We was like, ‘Oh, it’s a war. It’s snowing. We ain’t going.’ The people were like, ‘Yo, listen, you better go.’ We went. And here comes Das EFX.”
Erick Sermon: “Being independent, it comes with responsibility but we come from that. Sleeping Bag [Records] was independent. Def Jam was independent. They was all subsidiary through a major label. We know that now but it feels good too because me and Parrish ’cause we always [had control]. Our labels didn’t know what we was making. Sleeping Bag was like, ‘This is dope.’”
Parrish Smith: “[We] never went by our contracts. E would tell me all the time. We only sign them and that was it. Every company we was with let us do what we want.”
Erick Sermon: “We kind of know that we come from that. We come from knowing cause nobody questioned us, especially when we started really making hit records. Like, ‘Yo, what are you gonna tell them? Look at what they are doing. Whatever they touching, it’s working.’ The only fact about independent right now is that you have to do everything yourself. There’s not a label doing it. That’s what’s happening to a lot of acts that’s shocking.
Red and Meth had a situation with that too adjusting to being independent. Like, ‘Oh, shit, we don’t have a major label. We don’t have nobody doing this for us. Things are different.’ You gotta do it yourself. So it is a gift and a curse because it could be a gift like a Macklemore. You could have that [level of] success. Then, you can have other the success of a lot of independents who didn’t get nowhere because they didn’t have the right backing or the know-how on how to move this record so you could be independent, but you have to have the know-how on how to move this record like a major would do it.”
Erick Sermon: “Me and Parrish working on a new single right now. Hopefully, we do something that’s dope and maybe even an EP. But like L said, ‘If you’re gonna do an EP, that’s four more songs until an album.’ You do an album [next]. Again, you don’t want to go out there and do something and it doesn’t [feel] right. That’s the only thing you worry about. You try it so you don’t disappoint fans. “