Chart Week: September 16, 1989
Song: “Friends” – Jody Watley with Eric B & Rakim
Chart Position: #33, 14th week on the chart. Peaked at #9 the week of August 26.
For some reason I’ve struggled with this entry. I’ve been working on it for two weeks but can never seem to find the right tone. I’m setting a timer for 30 minutes and when that’s up, you get what I’ve got.
Jody Watley accomplished a lot in her career. Soul Train dancer. Member of the seminal dance-pop-soul act Shalamar. One of only two American artists who were a part of Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” A stellar solo run that featured two #2 singles – including her first-ever solo song – and four other top 10 singles. She was a fashion icon and one of the most influential female Black artists of her generation.
And one of her songs featured the greatest guest rap ever.
“Friends” is a good enough song on its own. Its bouncy rhythm and bright horns disguise lyrics that cut the cold realities of the world: friends will let you down. It was also an essential part of my summer between high school and college.
But Watley made a decision to open her song to another artists. That decision is what made the song really shine.
Guest raps in pop songs were just coming into vogue in 1989. They were often brief, sometimes had almost no direct connection to the main lyrics of the song, and for years were often not included on the official single release. You might have to go buy the single to get the B-side version that featured the rapper. The popularity of Bobby Brown’s “Don’t Be Cruel” and “On Our Own,” on which he dropped rap verses, showed that you could combine the two forms and still have a pop hit.
Watley saw that and fought her record company to not just allow her to include a rapper on “Friends,” but to give him and his DJ more freedom than any had received before.
There was no better rapper in the 1980s than Rakim. Period, point blank. His lyrics and vocal style revolutionized hip hop and has had, arguably, a greater impact through to the rappers of today than any other rapper of his era. By breaking out of the standard, expected framework that most ‘80s rappers worked within, he opened the doors for dozens of different styles. That, in turn, made hip hop an even more potent force, ensuring there was variety to keep the genre from becoming stale.
According to Watley Rakim was, at first, reluctant to join her. She loved his work, though, and was persistent until he and Eric B came around to joining her. The freedom she offered the duo turned their guest spot into an unforgettable performance.
The song begins following the standard format. Watley takes the first two verses and choruses. Right where the guest rap normal falls, Rakim comes in. But instead just a few bars where he gets in-and-out, it suddenly becomes an Eric B and Rakim track. He rolls on for a full 35 seconds before turning it over to Watley for another chorus. Then Eric B gets his turn, scratching out a 30-second solo. Finally, Rakim drops the bomb, another 35-second verse.
What the hell was this? A pop singer letting a rapper and DJ dominate her song? Unprecedented, that’s what it was. Today it seems quaint, since hip hop has utterly taken over pop music and the singers now guest on the rappers’ tracks. But in 1989? Whew…it was something else!
What makes Rakim’s presence great isn’t just the amount of time he got to rap. Beyond that there was the fact he clearly took it seriously. He didn’t just collect a check and manufacture some weak rhymes he could tag onto Watley’s song, or pull something leftover from his notebooks that wasn’t good enough for his albums. Nope, he treated it like his song. The lyrics are fantastic. His delivery is locked in. As Big Daddy Kane might have said, there wasn’t any half steppin’ in Rakim’s performance.
Watley claims that “Friends” was the first track to ever feature a guest rapper to crack the Billboard top 10. I can’t confirm that – sadly all the “best guest rapper” articles I found are about rappers joining other rappers – but it seems right.
Watley would have only one more top ten hit after “Friends.” Eric B and Rakim put out two more albums, but neither matched the heights of their first two. Just before the end of the 1980s, just before they began to fade, they joined forces at the perfect moment to pave the way for what was to come.