Funk Loops, Turmoil, and Reconciliation: EPMD’s ‘Business Never Personal’ Turns 25
Note from Gino: Business Never Personal turned 25 on July 28th, 2017. I wrote this piece for another site that ended up not running the story. Enjoy.
When Sleeping Bag records collapsed after the release of EPMD’s Unfinished Business album in 1989, Russell Simmons was waiting in the wings to scoop up the talented duo of Erick Sermon and Parrish “PMD” Smith. By taking a gamble and shelling out an unreal sum of cash in a then-emerging rap industry, Simmons secured Erick and Parrish’s position on Def Jam in a highly-scrutinized move. “We spent nearly $2 million before we even thought about releasing the third album [Business as Usual],” Simmons explained in a 1992 interview with Spin.
The aggressive acquisition likely had a fair number of critics, but with EPMD’s first album on Def Jam going gold and 1992’s much-anticipated Business Never Personal on the way the gamble seemed like a smart move. In a mere three years since their classic Strictly Business debut Erick and Parrish had established themselves as a rap powerhouse capable of a consistent, prolific release schedule. “They’re the most stable rap group, the most stable music group in the industry — artistically and business wise,” Simmons told Spin in his 1992 interview.
Yet despite the confidence displayed by Simmons at the time, all was not right in the world of EPMD. Several months before Business Never Personal hit stores in July of 1992, PMD was the victim of a home invasion. Nobody was home and no property was stolen, but when the suspects were apprehended and brought in for questioning, they name dropped Erick Sermon as being involved somehow. Then, adding insult to injury, PMD recognized the men as acquaintances of Sermon.
“He was like, ‘You drop that record [as a single] and that will be the end of your career.’”- Erick Sermon
Things took an even uglier turn when Sermon was arrested for his possible role in the break-in the day after the group shot the “Headbanger” video. Though no charges were filed and Sermon maintained that he didn’t know the suspects well, the awkward circumstances proved to be a breaking point in an already terse situation. Despite their impossibly bright future, EPMD took a five year hiatus after Business Never Personal as a result of the home invasion and other business disagreements. The move came as a shock to fans, but for Erick and Parrish it seemed inevitable. “The group was gonna break up anyway,” Sermon told Vibe magazine in 1997 after EPMD had reunited. “There was too much tension, and it was going on for years.”
Despite the bad vibes surrounding the album’s release, Business Never Personal holds up as a very stellar effort in EPMD’s remarkably consistent catalog. And although Russell Simmons may have missed the mark when assessing the group’s stability at the time, he offered them invaluable advice that proved crucial during the making of the album.
With Business Never Personal nearing completion, Simmons realized EPMD had a quality album that lacked a radio single to give it some necessary push. When EPMD proposed “Play the Next Man” as their lead single, Simmons knew it wasn’t a good fit and didn’t mince words in sharing his opinion. “He was like, ‘You drop that record [as a single] and that will be the end of your career,’” Erick Sermon recalled in an interview with Complex.
“The group was gonna break up anyway. There was too much tension, and it was going on for years.”- Erick Sermon
After picking up a greater share of the group’s production responsibilities on Business Never Personal, Sermon took it upon himself to craft a worthy lead single and went back to the drawing board. By taking an infectious talkbox sample from Roger Troutman’s final album and building a catchy hook around it Sermon produced “Crossover” — arguably the biggest record of EPMD’s career. Taking aim at radio stations that ignored raw hip-hop in favor of newer artists like MC Hammer, the single took EPMD’s raw, funk-infused production style and made it more accessible for a mainstream audience. “[It was ironic] because we dissed radio,” Sermon told Complex. “We had no idea that a record dissing radio was going to be that huge. But Russell knew. He didn’t tell us that, but he knew.”
Though the group nailed the appropriate radio-friendly sound with “Crossover”, the rest of Business Never Personal had enough of EPMD’s trademark gritty, funky as hell, and sometimes imperfect production to satisfy their die-hard fans. Weaving as many as seven different samples into one head-nodding beat, Erick Sermon sometimes surprised himself with the effectiveness of his ambitious, loop-stacking production. And if the samples didn’t match up perfectly, Sermon considered the imperfection akin to another genre that EPMD drew on for inspiration. “Funk music just goes,” Sermon told The Quietus in a 2012 interview. “It’s sloppy. We used to stack like four, five samples on top of each other, and the shit would sound good. That’s bugged out — it’s crazy, right? I don’t understand that shit either.”
In addition to Sermon’s impeccable production, Business as Usual is also notable for helping introduce the world to Redman. The predecessor to Whut? Thee Album, Reman’s verse on the“Headbanger” gave a preview of the funny, in your face, lyrical style that became his trademark in the years to come. The instrumental, which Sermon originally wanted to give to Ice Cube, served as a perfect backdrop for the memorable recording session that mimicked a classic R & B/soul group. “We had it set up like a Temptations thing, with the four mics set up,” Sermon told Complex. “Just screaming. It was hard to EQ that record because you had the leakage [from one microphone to the others] like back in the day.”
“It’s sloppy. We used to stack like four, five samples on top of each other, and the shit would sound good.”- Erick Sermon
Beyond the album’s two best-remembered singles, Business Never Personal shines with plenty of deep album cuts full of hard-hitting beats and quotable rhymes. Despite it’s muffled, questionable mastering, the opening track “Boon Dox” is a perfect piece of gloriously imperfect 90s sound quality — with Sermon and PMD setting the tone for the entire album by doing a memorable back and forth during the third verse to close out the song. “Chill” takes a classic rock loop, pitches it down, and turns it into a beautifully spacey instrumental. EPMD further enhance the song by sampling their own “You Gots To Chill” vocals while mixing them with catchy horns and D.O.C.’s famous “Funky Enough” vocal sample for the hook. And “Who Killed Jane?” brings it all together by closing out the album with a memorable entry in the “Jane” series EPMD featured on all of their albums.
Though not quite as heralded as their earlier work, Business Never Personal remains an essential moment in EPMD’s catalog. And despite the drama and bad feelings from the time it came out, it is nice to see that Erick Sermon and PMD have put the past behind them. “We got past all that,” PMD told The Quietus in 2012. “And that’s the lesson. If you sit on the negative side of it, then you don’t get to see everything that was really goin’ on.”