[19 April 2007]
When I was a kid and my older brother was a huge hip-hop head, listening to stuff like Boogie Down Production, EPMD, Slick Rick or Eric B. and Rakim. If you asked him what he thought about Run DMC, he would have laughed and shrugged. He thought they were too pop, too gimmicky. I guess sometimes it takes a couple of decades to see clearly the path that was paved by the true innovators and originators.
Run DMC defined the entire rap music industry and set the standards for future generations. None of the booty-shaking, bling-blinging, hip-pop songs that are currently in heavy on MTV would even be there if Run DMC hadn’t made it possible (they were the first rap act to get airplay on MTV). Three friends from Hollis, Queens (Joseph “DJ Run” Simmons, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, and Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell) blew rap music into the mainstream consciousness with their 1983 hit, “It’s Like That”. Managed by Run’s older brother Russell Simmons (yes, that Russell Simmons) they set the blueprint for hip-hop and expanded our ideas of what rap music could be, most notably by blurring the boundaries of rock and rap with 1986’s “Walk This Way”, an innovation that is still affecting popular music to this day.
Run DMC Live at Montreux 2001 is the last filmed performance by the iconic rap group before the shooting death of Jam Master Jay in October 2002. The remaining members of the group officially retired from performing soon after his death. This DVD is at once a rocking concert experience and a sweet tribute to the late, great Jay.
The release of this concert also puts Run DMC among the illustrious ranks of other artists that have been featured on a “Live at Montreux” series, such as Nina Simone (1976), Lou Reed (1980) and Johnny Cash (1994). The annual show held on the shores of Lake Geneva, Switzerland has featured artists from just about ever musical style, although hip-hop has been under-represented, so it’s validating to see Run DMC up on that stage. At one point Jay even says, “Run DMC is in Switzerland, [we] come outta Hollis Queens!”
As far as concerts go, this one is pretty straightforward. Clocking in at just over an hour, their performance is refreshingly simple. In contrast to much of today’s over-accessorized hip-pop, this show doesn’t feature background dancers, or fancy lights and lasers. It’s just two MC’s and one DJ. They’re even dressed like they did back in 1984: black t-shirts, black jeans, black fedoras, and white Adidas (no laces).
The show starts like any classic hip hop concert: with the DJ riling up the crowd and getting everyone pumped before he introduces his MC’s. Jam Master Jay was truly a master of his craft, and his mixing and scratching skills are really on display here. He makes you appreciate what a good DJ can add to a live performance and add to the group as a whole. Throughout the show, Jay is the one filling the interludes, keeping the crowd pumped, and moving things along. It would be a lie to say that his death doesn’t hang over one’s viewing of this concert, because it totally does, but because Jay is such an integral part of the performance, this show ends up being a really sweet tribute to him.
The trio performs all of their classic songs from their earlier and later career: from “It’s Tricky” and “Mary Mary”, up into “Down with the King”, and through a rocking rendition of “It’s Over” from their 1999 album. Run and DMC are such charismatic performers, joking with each other, joking with the crowd, and their energy is infectious. All three seem to genuinely enjoy being onstage together. That more than anything is what makes their performance so good. It’s the kind of chemistry that doesn’t need pyrotechnics.
By 2001, the group was older, with their bodies and voices wearing the markings of time. And it is strange to see currently ordained priest Reverend Run using the word goddamn so freely. Incidentally, since this performance, both Run and DMC have been featured in their own reality shows: Reverend Run is currently on the aptly titled Run’s House on MTV, while DMC was featured on VH1’s 2006 DMC: My Adoption Journey, which chronicled his search for his birth mother. But watching these three childhood friends onstage together, it’s easy to forget those distractions, and just enjoy this legendary group doing what they do best.
My only quibble is that the concert is too short, and there is too much banter in-between songs, including a completely unnecessary t-shirt and hat giveaway contest. The DVD does not include any extras. However, it is being released simultaneously as a CD, which will be Run DMC’s first live album.