Run-D.M.C; King Of Rock; Raising Hell; Tougher Than Leather
By: Eric Greenwood
Barring nostalgia and sentimentality, listening to Run-D.M.C. in 2005 is kind of difficult. It sounds so basic and primitive compared to how far hip-hop has come in more than two decades. It’s not too far removed from going back and listening to the Sex Pistols’ debut. Both bands exist in a vacuum, though, married to their respective breakout moments. Run-D.M.C. hasn’t been relevant in so long it’s hard to imagine that its debut kick started rap into the mainstream. Nevertheless, Profile has reissued expanded versions of its first four albums in hopes that the band’s legacy will reach a generation that probably has no concept of the roots of rap.
With simplistic, repetitive beats, Run-D.M.C. gave hip-hop the focus it lacked in the hands of early pioneers like Grandmaster Flash and Kurtis Blow, stripping the slickness and silliness of previous incarnations of rap. Run-D.M.C. used this sparseness and space to perfect its tough, street-smart rhymes delivered in a quasi-yell. Lines are traded with tag team adroitness on its groundbreaking debut single, “It’s Like That”, mounting with tension and anger as the song builds. The ape-simple electro beats are peppered only with occasional keyboard jabs, while Run and D.M.C. taunt with their hip hop street sermon.
Its sophomore album, King of Rock, aimed to fit more of Middle America under its ostensibly pioneering umbrella with a much heavier dose of guitar, underscoring its brutal drum machine stomp. And it worked. Suburban white kids gobbled this stuff up, propelling Run-D.M.C. into an elite level of fame no hip-hop act had ever enjoyed. Using volume instead of cleverness, Run-D.M.C. yelled far more often than it flowed. Lyrically, things sound fairly boneheaded by today’s standards, relying on cheesy rhymes and seemingly trendy catchphrases. The egotism of future gangsta rappers certainly found inspiration in the band’s relentless self-references. Though it sounds slightly more aggressive and sophisticated, King of Rock lacks the out-of-nowhere punch of the debut, despite the infectiousness of “Rock the House” or even the title track.
By the time Raising Hell dropped in 1986, Run-D.M.C. was poised for superstardom. With Rick Rubin behind the controls, Raising Hell perfectly married the rap/rock fusion that started all the way back at “Rock Box.” Rubin knew exactly what he was doing spicing up the sparseness of the group’s trademark sound with subtle flourishes and samples that smoothed out the inherent clunk of the previous records, which afforded the group an even wider audience. Run and D.M.C.’s rhyming had finally evolved past overlapping yells to a genuine artistic flow, perfectly encapsulated on classics like “It’s Tricky” and “You be Illin’.” Jam Master Jay’s mixing took on a whole new role as well, driving the band’s sound into the sample-heavy haven that would influence every rap record for the next decade. The fluke, mega-hit hit “Walk This Way”, which teamed the group with a then-fledgling Aerosmith, is little more than a corny cash cow. Sure, it made both band’s ubiquitous MTV staples, but its artistic merit leaves much to be desired.
With predictably out of whack egos, the group spent the next few years greedily suing its record company and filming a totally crap movie to cash in on its MTV fame. Little did the band know that hip-hop had moved far beyond a novelty to become a full-fledged genre, spawning countless micro-genres all over urban America. So, by the time the dated and goofy Tougher Than Leather hit the street in 1988, rap had completely metamorphosed and Run-D.M.C. were cartoonish dinosaurs in anachronistic shell toes and fedoras, whose archaic style had been supplanted by far more ingenious and subversive MC’s in acts like N.W.A., Eric B. and Rakim, and Public Enemy. The movie bombed, the record stiffed compared to its predecessor, and Run-D.M.C. had run its course in a matter of six years. Ironically, the fusion of rock and rap had become anathema to purist hip-hop progenies, who ignored guitars and white rock music in favor of primarily rhythm and blues samples.