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Hip-hop’s Eric B. and Rakim hit Las Vegas on reunion tour

Eric B. knew he’d made it when James Brown hit him with an F-bomb.

The pioneering DJ-producer earned the wrath of the Godfather of Soul when he sampled the latter’s “Funky President” on ahead-of-their-time hip-hop duo Eric B. & Rakim’s first single, “Eric B. Is President,” released back in 1986.

“James Brown hated me until the day he died,” Eric B. recalls during a phone interview from Baltimore. “People told him, ‘Eric B. is the one who brought your career back.’ He said ‘(Expletive) Eric B.’ I said, ‘If I can make James Brown say, ‘(Expletive) Eric B.,’ I have arrived.”

Decades later, Eric B. & Rakim are back.

Touring for the first time in 25 years, they’ll be bringing a little mic-to-mouth resuscitation, some rhythm with radiation to the masses once again.

Before they stop at the House of Blues on Saturday, let’s go back to the future and highlight why Eric B. & Rakim remain one of the genre’s greatest acts:

‘Lyrics of Fury’

A smooth operator operating correctly, Rakim exploded previous conceptions of what it meant to be a rapper with an arsenal of verbal hand grenades.

It’s hard to overstate his influence on the form as one of the greatest MCs and lyricists ever.

In terms of sheer delivery, Rakim was a game changer, one of the genre’s first true technicians.

A John Coltrane fan who played saxophone when he was younger, Rakim brought a jazzbo’s presence to hip-hop with his unbounded, free-form approach to the music, deviating from the straightforward rhyme patterns favored previously.

Moreover, he just sounded different.

Steely yet laid-back on the mic, Rakim rapped deliberately, with poise and command, eschewing the let’s-get-the-party-started energy levels of so many of his fellow MCs — we’d call ’em peers, but really, Rakim had few.

“A lot of people were rhyming fast and doing party stuff,” recalls Eric B., who relocated to Las Vegas a year ago. “(We were about) what was happening in the streets. It wasn’t just saying a bunch of stuff because they rhymed, like a bunch of nursery rhymes. There was a consciousness to what we were doing.”

‘Eric B. Never Scared’

Turning the tables on turntablism, Eric B. had as much impact on what it meant to be a DJ and producer as his partner did on MCing.

Like Rakim, Eric B. possessed prodigious technical skills — dig his robo-wristed scratching on any of the three instrumentals on their 1987 debut “Paid in Full.”

But it’s as a producer where Eric B.’s influence is most deeply felt.

For starters, he played a significant role in popularizing sampling in hip-hop on “Paid.”

About those samples: Eric B. favored old-school soul sounds, a then-novel approach that would quickly be absorbed by everyone from A Tribe Called Quest to the Wu-Tang Clan.

“It was listening to my parents’ records, Al Green, Barry White, Marvin Gaye,” Eric B. explains. “I listened to those soulful guys and remembered the way that it made my parents feel, the way that it made their friends feel when they came over to the house and listened to the records, the excitement that you saw in their eyes with certain sounds and certain things that were said. It was just being a fly on the wall.”

‘Teach the Children’

“Competition is none, I remain at the top, like the sun,” Rakim asserts on “No Competition” from the duo’s second record, 1988’s “Follow the Leader,” and he may as well be speaking for both of them. That record and “Paid in Full” are hip-hop hallmarks that supplied plenty of luster to the “Golden Age of Hip-Hop.”

In both sound and content, Eric B. & Rakim moved the genre forward, influencing a broad swath of descendants, from future indie backpack rappers who marveled at the duo’s musical progressiveness to the next wave of gritty New York City rappers who found stardom the following decade.

All these years later, the music remains resonant.

“It’s amazing, watching people’s reactions,” Eric B. says of touring once more. “I’m taking the fader up and down and people are singing every word of the record. It feels good to have a body of work that, 30 years later, people show up and say, ‘Man, we appreciate you.’ ”

Preview

Who: Eric B. & Rakim

When: 7 p.m. Saturday

Where: House of Blues at Mandalay Bay, 3950 Las Vegas Bvd. South

Tickets: $39.50 and up (702-632-7600)

Contact Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476. Follow @JasonBracelin on Twitter.

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