For his most recent single, “Feel It,” Erick Sermon didn’t invite the reggae vocalist Sean Paul into the studio to sing the song’s chorus. Sermon didn’t even call Paul — he just sampled him instead.
Owing to the high cost of samples, mainstream hip-hop producers do very little actual sampling these days, but Sermon, an ambassador from the old school, still relies on such tried-and-true methods for his solo career. Three years ago, he scored a hit with his song “Music,” which borrowed an obscure, soulful riff from Marvin Gaye.
“[That] cost me $200,000, cash-money,” Sermon explained recently. “But it [brought] me another four years in the career, you know? I feel I put down a sample not because I’m trying to grasp an audience or get any type of sales, I just grasp whatever feels good at the time.”
That approach has worked for Sermon, who just released his fifth solo album, Chilltown, New York. The album is Sermon’s homage to his hometown, similar to what the Beastie Boys did with their latest album, To the 5 Boroughs. In fact, the albums’ covers are very similar, both showing a profile of the vaunted city skyline.
“It’s bugged out, but that’s the kinda vibe I was singing about,” Sermon said. “They must’ve felt the vibe. I wanted to represent home because we had strayed and lost our identity and what we represent as hip-hop music. It feels chill to know they’re on the same page as me and I’m on the same page as them.”
Unusually, Sermon has managed to maintain a healthy, consistent solo career without having the fame and fanfare of some of his peers. He, of course, is celebrated as one-half of the influential rap duo EPMD, whose records in the late ’80s and early ’90s still impact young MCs today. His career seems to be propelled by well-timed singles, like “Music” and “Feel It,” that buy him more time as a frontline artist.
But in addition to being a solo artist and a rap icon, Sermon has also forged a third career as a producer, making records for artists like Jay-Z, Ludacris, LL Cool J and Method Man. “I get more excited about producing other people’s records because those other artists get more liked than I do,” Sermon said. Still, the sound he cultivated with EPMD remains his stock in trade. “I’m still bass-line driven,” he said. “I got a lot of groove and melody in my music. People know me for that.”
Sermon said his solo material arises from tracks he has left over that haven’t been used by other artists. He may not have many of those to choose from in the foreseeable future: Busta Rhymes, Nas, Juvenile and Game are all slated to work with Sermon in the coming weeks.
Although they both appear on Chilltown, Sermon admitted that Redman and Keith Murray were probably too busy to resurrect Def Squad, the supergroup they and Sermon formed in 1998. But he’s got a new group of rappers he’s putting out as a young group called Squad of Death. “I’m making some great material,” he said. “I’m coming.”