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EPMD Is Just Coolin’ With Another Smash Album : Rap: It’s ‘Business as Usual’ for hip-hop masters Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith, who are part of Saturday’s ‘A Gathering of the Tribes’ concert.

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On a hot July afternoon in ‘88, the rap group Public Enemy made an appearance at the Wherehouse Records store at La Brea Avenue and Jefferson Boulevard promoting its second album, “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back”--a record that would soon be considered the greatest rap album of all time.

Rappers Chuck D and Flavor Flav grabbed microphones, and the deejay, Terminator X, dropped the turntable needle on . . . EPMD’s “You Gots to Chill,” the hottest rap record of the summer. As D and Flav rapped over the grooves in their own style, the record store began to rock. Even as Public Enemy’s noisy, radical sound was transforming the very nature of rap, the group knew that an EPMD jam was the easiest way to kick a hip-hop crowd into overdrive.

Three years later, EPMD--which appears on the eclectic rock-pop-and-rap “A Gathering of the Tribes” bill on Saturday at the Pacific Amphitheatre--still makes the kind of hip-hop that hip-hop fans like best: direct, honest, simple B-boy rhymes thrown over slow, bass-heavy beats; raw grooves made to pump from Jeeps, solid and uncompromisingly hard-core.

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EPMD’s Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith perched recently on the end of a bed in a Hollywood hotel suite, finished each other’s sentences, gave each other frequent high fives and dissolved into giggles. Their friend Tone Loc slumped in a chair in the corner of the room.

Sermon, 20, is the one whose delivery--which has been compared to a man rapping through a mouthful of marbles--defines the group’s distinctive sound. Smith, 21, raps too, and also lays down the beats.

The two became friends as they grew up in roughly the same Long Island neighborhood as rappers De La Soul and Eric B & Rakim. Smith was on a visit home from college in 1988 when he and Sermon recorded their first raps.

“We thought you were supposed to produce your own stuff,” Smith said, “so we just went in there and said, ‘Yo! Let’s make a record.’ Then we got in the business, and we found out that mostly every rapper has a producer who comes in and does the music. We just put it out. It was slammin’!

“So I was home on spring break, I signed (Sermon) out of school, saying I was his brother and he had to go to the dentist and the doctor’s. Yo, we chillin’. And we go to Manhattan and we just drive in there, man. And it only took one day. Took the tape to three companies, and the last one took us.”

The songs on the tape that EPMD submitted, “It’s Your Thing” and “You’re a Customer,” sold half a million copies for the small, independent Sleeping Bag Records as a two-sided single. As is.

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“They gave us the money to go redo it,” Smith said, “and we spent the money, man.”

“We got cash! We was coolin’! We was large!” Sermon bubbled, then gave Smith a complicated, six-part high five.

EPMD’s 10-song album “Strictly Business,” powered by the 12-inch singles for “It’s Your Thing” and “You Gots to Chill,” quickly rose to the top of Billboard’s R&B; chart. So did the ’89 follow-up, “Unfinished Business.”

If there seems to be something mercenary about the album titles, there is: EPMD, which stands for “Erick and Parrish Making Dollars,” has always concentrated on hip-hop’s subject A--getting paid--and the duo often seem as proud of their brand-new Mercedes 560s as they do of their music. Def Jam Records chief Russell Simmons reportedly paid $1.7 million to sign them to his label, which released the album “Business as Usual” in February. It topped the R&B; charts too.

But for all of EPMD’s fascination with money, the group has been remarkably reluctant to record anything that even smacks of crossover potential.

“I don’t want to start confusing my fans,” Smith said, looking up with alarm at Tone Loc. “Anybody can be EPMD, know what I’m saying? The fans are the same exact people as we are. If I wasn’t in EPMD, I’d be buying the EPMD tape. So if we do something stupid on the tape, they’re going to stop and think: ‘Would I do something stupid like this?’ ”

Tone Loc nodded approval.

“We’re not trying to do anything else,” Smith concluded. “We’re just fellas riding over in the service lane of rap. We like to chill.”

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