Please fill in the blanks: I was ____ years old; I was at/in ____; the song was ____; I was with ____ (and ____); and ____ happened.
Better still, how many can answer these questions? Hard to tell, but if the group’s worldwide sales of 20 million-plus records are any indication, the numbers are sure to rock straight to the…
Run-DMC, Run-DMC (Arista) Run-DMC, King of Rock (Arista) Run-DMC, Raising Hell (Arista) Run-DMC, Tougher Than Leather, (Arista) Release dates for all:
US: 6 September 2005
UK: 26 September 2005
Best of all, Run-DMC took their place in pop culture history with their backs straight, arms crossed and screwfaced. Three young, black men from working-class Hollis, Queens—Joseph “Run” Simmons, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels and Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell—came up on the heels of hip-hop’s first wave, but the two MCs and one DJ laid an indelible imprint of a proud culture on popular music, fashion and media. In a dizzyingly short span of time in the ‘80s, the group crafted four consecutive albums—Run-DMC, King of Rock, Raising Hell and Tougher Than Leather—that sealed both their reputation and hip-hop in the public consciousness. Their list of firsts quantifies this assertion:
- First hip-hop artists to have a video added to MTV - “Rock Box”
- First African-American artists to have a video added to MTV after Michael Jackson
- First hip-hop artists with a gold album - Run-DMC, 1984
- First hip-hop artists with a platinum album - King of Rock, 1985
- First hip-hop artists with a multi-platinum album - Raising Hell, triple platinum, 1986
- First hip-hop artists with a Billboard Top 10 single - “Walk This Way”
- First hip-hop artists to perform on Saturday Night Live (18 October 1986) and American Bandstand (24 August 1985)
- First hip-hop artists on the cover of Rolling Stone - 4 December 1985
- First hip-hop artists to receive a Grammy nomination - Raising Hell, Best R&B Vocal Performance
- First hip-hop artists to star in their own feature film - Tougher Than Leather
- And the only hip-hop artists to perform at Live Aid in 1985, a contrast to the presence of hip-hop in more than half of the Live 8 concerts in 2005
What once was thought to be confined to the narrow streets of South Bronx, NY was devoured by Everytown, U.S.A. One group helped shape and raise an entire aesthetic to mainstream chic. Innovators had come before, the Sugarhill Gang even took it to the airwaves, but Run-DMC became pioneers by shaping a significant portion of ‘80s culture and its subsequent offspring.
Roughly two decades later, Run-DMC’s first four albums are now the focus of a digital re-mastering and expansion campaign. The group’s catalog has remained relatively in print and even received a digital bath in 1999, so posterity and sound quality are not the highlights. Rather, the loving and in-depth essays from former Def Jam publicist Bill Adler, journalist Andrew Graham, ego trip co-founder Sacha Jenkins and Public Enemy’s Chuck D, rare and previously unreleased tracks, additional photos and a glossy digipak make the project a tribute. Fortunately, the reissues have not become bloated with useless addenda, but rather garnished with just enough trim; a bonus cut like studio chatter between Russell Simmons and producer Larry Smith suggests a box set worth of material, but only four to five tracks bolster each album. The lean approach is consistent with the group’s lucid nature. And, most important, the emphasis remains on these four albums as four independent statements that form the four corners of Run-DMC’s legacy.
The foundation for the House of Run-DMC remains astonishingly rough and abrupt. The taut and naked debut was an affront to the full-bodied, boogie-booty productions of the Sugar Hill powerhouse, making it a back to basics move at the time. Today, it is still a Friedman-esque image of hip-hop’s raw essence, a fisheye frame sucking in the plum drank Planet Rock thud of “It’s Like That” on one end and the sharp, dis-slangin’ “Sucker MCs” on the other. Smith intentionally drafted a barebones outline; as Graham observes in his King of Rock notes, the approach was inextricably linked to the circumstances: “the sparseness of the beats reflected the sparseness of [the] recording budget.” However, as Adler’s notes point out, the group’s reputation grew with each successive single, culminating in the center of Run-DMC‘s attention, “Rock Box.” A product of Smith’s genius, the fusion of metal melodrama and blastin’ big beats would track the group’s pathway into another America. As Run says in the notes, “That is the record that makes us Hendrix… That’s the record that took us out of the hood.”
Building upon this solid base, King of Rock built the framework up to the top. Although the album appears skeletal, especially with lighter hits (notably the playground staple, “You Talk Too Much”), it remains firm in its commitment to expand the group’s influence, notably through the Yellowman collabo, “Roots, Rap, Reggae.” More important, in the face of its first taste of success—they had headlined the first national tour of hip-hop, Fresh Fest with Kurtis Blow, Whodini and the Fat Boys—the three still rocked hardcore on the title cut and the LL-penned “Can You Rock It Like This”. While the album proved that Run-DMC was on the cusp of something (inter)national, producer Prince Paul reminds us of the group’s influence within the hip-hop community: “They made people step their game up… It’s funny, because everybody’s like, ‘yo, back in the days, it was real.’ But at one point, it was not real. Until Run-DMC came along.”
With the groundwork complete, Raising Hell fully realized the vision of the blueprint. The album opener “Peter Piper” quickly established the group’s workman-like approach: two emcees freely trading everyman rhetoric (“Jack B. Nimble / was nimble / and he was quick”) and street wit (“But Jam Master cut faster / Jack’s on Jay’s dick”); while a DJ bridged the verses with bold and precise cuts. In this manner, each track built upon the preceding like bricks rising upward to form steadfast walls. The roof that united these efforts was the fullest realization of the group’s big beat sound. Rick Rubin heard the group juggling an Aerosmith break and proposed covering the entire song; the resulting runaway hit “Walk This Way” summarized the album’s ability to bridge the familiar (rock guitars) with the forgotten (the reintegration of rock with its African diasporic roots). Topped off with the product placement coup “My Adidas” (as Jenkins notes, they were the first non-athletes to score and endorsement from an athletic brand), Raising Hell was, well, perfection. And the best part was that in Run-DMC’s house, the welcome mat read: c’mon everybody let’s all get down…
Although Tougher Than Leather is often forgotten in the deluge of Raising Hell praise, it was a welcome embellishment to the house that Run-DMC built. Phat furnishings and stoopid accents; nothing necessary, but fresh nonetheless. “Mary Mary” went back to the crates to bridge the b-boys with the Leave it to Beaver set, while “Beats to the Rhyme” updated the boom bap. The trouble with Tougher was that it arrived at a completed job site; as Chuck D writes in his notes, “[the album] was like coming back to score 97 points in a losing playoff game—a spectacular performance against all odds and expectations.” In the context of the times, the album simply buckled under the pressure from a new element that was bum rushin’ the neighborhood.
The triumph of these reissues is their respect and understanding of history. More than a nostalgia trip, these discs use storytelling as a means to contextualize the Run-DMC mythology. Bonus cuts merely provide subtle context. The legendary “Here We Go” routine sounds right at home amidst the b-boy stance of Run-DMC. The pre-Beastie Boys demo of “Slow and Low” on King of Rock is raw uncut, and yet the group is already so rich with hits they can afford to just let it go. Commercial spots for performances at the Apollo and a feature in Penthouse flush out Raising Hell and Tougher Than Leather, charting the group’s quick rise. And even the quaint “Christmas in Hollis” arrives a tad late, signaling the end of an era. Indeed, this is a mighty When We Were Kings tale. But one for the kids to learn from.
As for me?
I was six years old and I was on a school bus. I was quite shy, so I saw my fellow riders as fellows along for the ride. I didn’t really like school so, needless to say, even bus rides were relatively nerve-wracking experiences. Additionally, the bus driver’s no-radio-in-the-morning policy only exacerbated the daily air of tension. However, it was on that bus that I had my baptism in hip-hop.
For some unknown reason on this fateful morning—maybe the driver was quitting that day, maybe he had just gotten some sugar from the Mrs., maybe the normal driver wasn’t even there and I just don’t remember—the driver agreed to indulge us. The heretofore, unheard radio crackled and cracked the regular morning silence. More like a shot heard across a lifetime, the radio was cranked—and to KDAY, Los Angeles’ first and premier all-hip-hop station, no less. Run-DMC’s “Peter Piper” and the Beastie Boys’ “Brass Monkey” came on. The entire bus—from first to sixth grade—became united in one volcanic ERUPTION. Choruses were sung along to in perfect unison. Students stood on seats. Arms flailed and then returned to wrap the chest in a b-boy stance. In between were laughs, cheers and screams of pure joy. I clutched my bookbag in wide-eyed rapture. I exchanged looks—no, unspoken bonds—with peers I never before had the courage to engage. What had been presented to me as a quaint alternative to Duran Duran and Judas Priest in the bedroom I shared with my older brother was instantly transformed into a communal phenomenon. I could not get enough of it. I actually thought (for a brief moment), “This (almost) makes school worth going to!”
I don’t remember much after that. Reason dictates that the driver would not have allowed the bus to continue on with kids literally bouncing off the steel frame like marsupials high on coca, Curious George Yayos. But that’s my memory, set adrift on memory bliss. And anything else, of course, would be quite…
// Notes from the Road
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