Run-D.M.C. – Reissues

Music Reviews Run-D.M.C.
Run-D.M.C. – Reissues

Run-D.M.C. – 4 stars
King of Rock – 5 stars
Raising Hell – 4.5 stars
Tougher Than Leather – 3.5 stars

Kings Among Men: Meteoric East Coast rappers put “Soul To Rock And Roll,” ’80s-style

Construct a family tree of the New York rap scene, and you’ll undoubtedly place Run-D.M.C. at the top, a three-pointed star casting its light on the Rockaway, Bronx, Harlem and Queens branches. For most of the 1980s, Joseph “Run” Simmons, Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels and Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell ruled the East Coast, dropping wordbombs such as the epic “It’s Like That,” which ably depicted the era’s underground street culture.

Though no one realized it at the time, rap was poised to become a multimillion-dollar industry. Yet during Run-D.M.C.’s reign, it was relegated to public parks, tiny nightclubs, and word-of-mouth performances in community centers and apartment basements. There was no radio play, no paparazzi and, of course, no limos or bling. Instead, the scene was led by a handful of true innovators who MC’d, spun records or executed gravity-defying breakdance moves for sheer enjoyment. Survey Ricky Powell’s photography output, or read Jim Fricke and Charlie Ahearn’s Yes Yes Ya’ll, an oral history of the “first generation” of hip-hop, and you’ll see the homemade ?yers, the makeshift turntable rigs and the hungry, eager faces of the movement—minus the success tokens earmarking today’s stars, like Louis Vuitton-logoed gear, $500 sunglasses and the ubiquitous Cartier timepiece.

Run-D.M.C. was strictly a no-frills group. They dressed in matching black fedoras and leather parkas, brightly hued Adidas sweatsuits or obnoxious plaid jackets—clothes any aspiring B-Boy could obtain on the neighborhood racks. Their music, too, was utilitarian—primitively recorded vocals laid over barely-there instrumental tracks, a literally caveman-like sound compared to more modern wonders like Jay-Z and the Wu Tang Clan, who think nothing of rapping over complex beats and loops.

Nevertheless, in the mid ’80s, Run-D.M.C. represented rap’s cutting edge. With Run’s brother, ?edgling producer Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin behind them, the trio proved unstoppable, creating whole albums in a genre that was hitherto based on singles, pioneering the way for black Americans on MTV and, most importantly, merging rap vocals with hard-rock beats.

Run-D.M.C.’s self-titled debut, released in 1984, auspiciously marked the group’s arrival: Chock full of catchy hooks, clever lyrics and cunning name-checks (“Sucker M.C.’s,” drops a series of devastating disses), the album simultaneously documented and transcended the insular hip-hop scene, drawing a legion of middle-class, suburban fans who ?ocked to the group’s urban sound.

King Of Rock, released a year later, demanded attention. Blunt shout-outs and boasts laid over grinding electric-guitar riffs and a head-banging drumbeat, the album was an atomic blast, laying waste to pop fodder like Robert Palmer, Toto and Asia, as music scribe Andrew Graham judiciously points out in the liner notes. “I’m the king of rock / There is none higher,” Run claims on the title track, a visionary tour-de-force that blew open the doors for creative geniuses like Ice T, the Beastie Boys and Dr. Dre.

Raising Hell, released in 1986, showcases Run-D.M.C. in its prime. The epitome of rap-rock collaborations, the album features classics like “My Adidas,” a Top-10 hit and the first part of a one-two punch that begot “Walk This Way,” a B-Boy rendition of the Aerosmith smash, cut with Joe Perry and Steven Tyler. This cover song was the catalyst that pushed Run-D.M.C. into the pop mainstream, taking Raising Hell to the top of the R&B charts. It was also one of the first triumphs for Rubin, co-producer and, with Russell Simmons, co-founder of Def Jam Records. (Rubin built on the momentum of his groundbreaking early Run-D.M.C. recordings to become a name brand, helming records by Public Enemy, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Tom Petty, as well as rejuvenating the late Johnny Cash’s career.)

By the time Run-D.M.C. emerged from the studio after 1987’s Tougher Than Leather sessions the group had rendered itself obsolete. Politically obsessed East Coast rappers, like Public Enemy and KRS-One, had surpassed them, while out west, Eazy-E, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube—members of the group N.W.A.—popularized a harder gangster sound. White America latched onto the Beastie Boys, and Run-D.M.C. lost its core audience. Tougher Than Leather went platinum then quickly faded, although cuts like “Mary, Mary” and “Radio Station” stand alongside the group’s best work.

Two decades later, Run-D.M.C.’s rise—and fall—still sounds explosive. Measured against today’s cookie-cutter thug superstars, the group’s aptitude for wholly original music and its ability to translate neighborhood sounds into hit songs, are priceless. With the sheer number of ’80s groups attempting comebacks, Run-D.M.C. seems ripe for revisiting—but with Jam Master Jay’s murder in October 2002, a reunion simply isn’t in the cards.

Instead, we’ve got these reissue discs which, at first glance, seem as rudimentary as the group’s original output. Delve into the digi-packs, however, and you’ll find bonus tracks galore (must-hears include the “Crack” demo, an a cappella rendering of “My Adidas,” a live version of “Here We Go” and a blistering take on “King of Rock,” captured at Live Aid), and insightful, indispensable histories from Chuck D, journalist Sacha Jenkins and Run-D.M.C. biographer Bill Adler.

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