It’s nearly impossible to fully capture the importance that Run-D.M.C has on the growth of the Rap Music industry. They are a perfect example of what can be achieved when hungry creative energy and great business minds link to push the boundaries and capitalize on new ideas and in some cases, what was apparently the ignored obvious.
Most labels sought to take Rap, an urban and hard edge based music, and clean it up, in an effort to make it as similar to R&B as possible. For most, it was a quick cash scheme, with little to no respect for the artists or the music for that matter. Labels focused on releasing a flurry of singles just hoping something would stick. When something did gain traction then perhaps they would hastily throw together an album, generally composed of the “hit” and another Rap song or two and just fill the rest with ballads, studio musician instrumental jam sessions, or R&B fueled tunes.
On the other hand, Run-D.M.C, assumingly with some assistance/direction from Rush Management, pretty much ignored all of that. They didn’t feel the need to chase the buying power of the money wielding sophisticated-feeling adults. Run-D.M.C/Rush trusted in the excitability and influence of the youth. This meant they didn’t need horn sections or a full band (in the traditional sense). Their success rested on the existence of the fairly new revolutionized technology of the Programmable Drum Machine, a DJ (armed with turntables, mixer and loud percussive and/or wailing record sounds), and some minimal instrumentation from any one of the progressive musicians in their camp, mainly Larry Smith, Davy DMX, and to a lesser degree (until the “Raisin’ Hell” album), Rick Rubin.
It should have really been obvious that Rap music was growing in popularity, so if someone actually put together a solid straight-up Hip Hop album people would likely have jumped on it. For whatever reason, Run-D.M.C (and Whodini, who were also Rush related artists) were the first to capitalize on this idea and after they reaped the successes on their debut and sophomore album’s other labels rushed to throw together albums from their artists, often just taking 5 or 6 older singles and repackaging it as the album…some people never quite learn…
Anyway, as for the music, the album was 9 tracks deep, which basically breaksdown to 6 great songs a.k.a classics, 2 cool/fun songs, and one instrumental scratch track, an impressive way to pioneer the future of Rap albums. Clearly the maximizing of the album format wasn’t an excuse to skimp on the singles, 7 of the 9 album tracks are available on 12” with instrumentals.
Run-D.M.C hit the scene just post-Mele Mel and Duke Bootee“The Message” and they contributed in adding on to what had blossomed from that breakthrough with a third of the album’s topic selection; “It’s Like That”, “Hard Times”, and “Wake Up”.
I don’t know if it is standard knowledge, but “Hard Times” is actually a song from the Kurtis Blow debut album. The lyrics are virtually identical (which I believe were written by William Waring a.k.a Billy Bill), but with the harder edge production and vocal approach on the Run-D.M.C version the relation to the two songs is hardly recognizable. It’s a great example of how style and delivery can turn a fairly unmemorable track into an unforgettable one.
“It’s Like That” was their debut single and is sneakily fairly up-tempo without sounding so. The minimal drum beats and rhyme style, filled with a pause-phrasing style, helps cause the audio illusion of the track’s speed. However, most people would likely agree that the true testament of their skills and the larger groundbreaking moment was the alternate track on that same single. Before “Sucker MCs”, Rap songs had used Drum Machines for at least a year prior, but for nearly all those instances the artist’s hadn’t completely abandoned the live band approach that defined the first few years of Rap records. Layered on top of the Drum Machines were synthesizers, echo effects/reverb, guitar riffs, etc… “Sucker MC’s” peeled away all the extra layers and let the statement be made with the Drum Machine, the rhythmic scratches of Jam Master Jay, and the powerful voices of the two MCs. The beats weren’t the only place where Run-D.M.C stripped things down. Some Old School MCs didn’t particularly appreciate their fashion approach of jeans, tennis shoes (Adidas to be specific) and t-shirts. Previous to that, MCs dressed flashy with spiked jewelry, eccentric accessories and/or full-blown costumes. The idea was to set themselves apart from the audience. With the dramatic get ups it was easy to distinguish the stars from the fans. Run-D.M.C defied the concept and won, but at the same time, for better or worse, it arguably resulted in doing what the pioneers feared. By Run-D.M.C dressing in a way that the fans could relate and felt connected to, it also gave the message, ‘That could be me!’ Fans didn’t have to feel like they couldn’t afford to be a star…they were just like the stars*.
“Sucker MCs” also slightly, but noticeably pulls back on the over-the-top braggadocio often associated with battle raps and freestyle songs of the era. Run’s tale of what happened to him “Two years ago…” and how that lead to his Rap career is very personal and is to imagine as attainable. Often times in this era the use of “I” in Rap lyrics was followed by tales of mansions, yachts, expensive cars, flashy clothes, unlimited sexy women, blinding jewelry and other lavish living that was presented as fact, although it was nearly always (IE: always…) fantasy. Run’s story isn’t completely devoid of embellishment though. He does speak of chauffeured Cadillac’s, limo rides, and “Champagne, Caviar, and bubble baths”. Although there is likely some exaggeration there, it is still easier to accept this as truth than most other braggadocio of the time (though his “Dressed To Kill” Detailed Caddy pushes it over the top). In contrast, he gets back to the human element when he challenges MCs on their lack of intelligence with, “You don’t even know your English, your verbs or nouns!” As for D.M.C, he is more focused on keeping it down-to-earth. He tells you were he is receiving his higher education and later gives the extra detail of how that came to be, “Since kindergarten I acquired the knowledge/And after twelfth grade I went straight to college!” He alerts the listener of some favorite dietary choices, “Chicken and Collard Greens” and making a point really gets no plainer than, “If I got a new rhyme, I’ll just say it…”**
“Hollis Crew (Krush Groove 2) picks up where “Sucker MC’s” left off. This time there are no traces of fantasy-based lyricism. It’s basically 100% a day in the life of Run-D.M.C., purely what they do, how they do it and how it came to be. D.M.C taps into the idea of blurring that line between artist and fan that I mentioned above with, “The things I do make me a star/You can be one too if you know who you are/Just put your mind to it, you’ll go real far/Like the pedal to the metal when you’re driving a car…” Simple as that.
“Wake Up” and “30 Days” are the two OK songs on the album. They are the tracks that sound more like what was standard fare for the time. They have fun, slightly corny, vibes to them, including slapstick comedy worthy horns on “30 Days” or the gimmicky slowed-down, for a tired effect, voice stating the song title on the hook of, “Wake Up”. Truthfully, “Wake Up” probably has the most creative and universal lyrical approach of their “Message Raps”, simply because it covers some different subject matter (IE the idea of ending world wars, racism, starvation, unemployment, etc…), but it just lacks the musical finesse and vocal impact of the others. “30 Days” is likely included to showcase the guy’s (primarily Run’s) humor side. This is something they would continue to showcase with at least one track on their future albums. It rarely produced great results, but it did get better than this early example.
“Jam Master Jay” is the tribute to the man behind the wheels of steel. Jam Master Jay (R.I.P!) is legendary, in part, for his amazing accuracy and finesse as part of the Run-D.M.C live performance. His barrage of cuts and open-fader scratches on here (and elsewhere on the album) are aggressive and rugged, but also reflect a fine understanding of musicality. This is definitely one of my album favorites. You get an additional taste of his turntable skills on the simple, but well executed scratch track, “Jay’s Game”.
Perhaps the finest and most defining moment on the album, in terms of taking them to the next level of the game is “Rock Box”. It’s the lone track on the album that captures what they became most popular for, the blending of heavy rock-ish guitars and Hip Hop. The heavy guitar had been tampered with in Hip Hop previously on Treacherous Three “Body Rock” (1980), but although heavy, it kept it tucked somewhat low in the mix. “Rock Box” unapologetic turns the guitar up and puts it kindly in your face. Lyric content-wise, it is the vein of the Hollis Crew series and is probably also the best example on the album of them bouncing the lyrics off one another with exciting back-n-forth displays. You combine the raw strength of this song with strong MTV support and the marketing genius based Music Video and you have the formula for the future success of Run-D.M.C.
The “Rock Box” video features an intro featuring a caricature of the classic college professor who intellectualizes the importance of Rap Music***. All the while, a young White (assumed suburban) kid listens on with unmatched enthusiasm. The black and white (probably not a coincidence either….) colored video has the young kid following Run-D.M.C as they rock a culturally mixed party of a wide age range. I think the clear message projecting is that if a young white kid from the suburb is here, safe and enjoying himself then Rap is for everyone. The college professor is also hanging out at the party and mouthing some of the song’s lyrics. As an additional nod, early on in the video you briefly see a hardcore all black Hip Hop entourage thoroughly enjoying the sounds of the heavy guitar (at the 1:34 mark). This is a point that was worth making, but was probably of a lesser concern since Run-D.M.C already a firm grip on that market****.
Of course, their next album, just a year later was titled “King Of Rock”, which is a very bold statement actually. A Rap group completely skipping past being the Kings of Rap and taking a far more challenging goal of conquering Rock? Quite ambitious, but based on their unprecedented successes, I think it’s safe to say they won….again…and again….
Written By Kevin “Give Me Some Guitar!!*****” Beacham
-Editor's Notes and Trivial Somethings:
*Also, it was also encouraging to many MCs that Run-D.M.C were coming out of the Queens suburbs, so that sent another message out about where a star could be born. It didn’t have to just be the Bronx, Harlem or the streets of Brooklyn.
**This is a tradition that carried on in a few Queens MCs, a technique of basically stating the obvious, but with flavor. Prodigy of Mobb Deep used this to great effect a decade and one year later on “The Infamous” album, as did Tragedy the Intelligent Hoodlum before him.
***This intro is over a minute long, which is probably an early example of that long of an intro before a song even started. I can’t verify that because I’ve never been much for watching music videos.
****I have an interview with Sugar Daddy (a pioneering DJ, MC and former Columbia Records employee) that speaks on the different mixes of “Rock Box”, with an without guitar. Coming Soon!
*****Shout out Jewel T, for those in the know…