“Two years ago a friend of mine/Aksed me to say some MC rhymes.” With those humble words on a 1983 12-inch entitled “Sucker M.C.’s (Krush Groove 1),” 18-year-old Joseph “Run” Simmons launched a career — and set off a cultural revolution. Run-DMC weren’t the first (or even the best) rappers around New York in the early ’80s, but superb rhyming skills, diverse subject matter, artistic integrity and unprecedented stylistic imagination made the Hollis crew — Run, DMC (Darryl McDaniels) and DJ Jam Master Jay (Jason Mizell) — early, enduring and influential old school pioneers, a potent singles group of wide appeal. Their importation of rocking electric guitar into “Rock Box” and “King of Rock” led directly to the trailblazing 1986 crossover monstrosity, “Walk This Way,” with Joe Perry and Steven Tyler of Aerosmith (and similar efforts by others); the “My Sharona” riff used for “It’s Tricky” furthered the outreach program. What’s more, no other hip-hop group was as quick to incorporate reggae into its music. The Beastie Boys certainly owe the interjectory vocal arrangements of their rap records to Run and DMC; countless other debts to the trio could be enumerated.
Run-DMC contains all the early hits and is an utterly essential record. Even though the repetitious rhythms get tiring if you’re not in the dancing mood, the funny, perceptive interwoven raps remain captivating centers of attention. Most pointedly, “Rock Box” melds a simple bass riff to the thunderous rhythm tracks that provided the entire accompaniment for their early raps, the song’s coup de grâce is blazing rock guitar, played by Eddie Martinez (for a while an adjunct member of Blondie). The perfect combination — verbal acuity and theatrical drama matched by an inexorable pounding beat and the power of electric guitar — made the single huge, setting the stage for a whole meeting of the races that has helped chip away the barriers that kept “black music” and “white music” segregated all through the ’70s.
King of Rock takes some chances — like a reggae/rap blend long before such things were common — while repeating the functional formula of “Rock Box” on the title track, which simply inverts the riff and recasts the rap. Co-producers Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin add characteristic rock-funk touches to Raising Hell — like “It’s Tricky” and “Walk This Way.” On the downside, most of the rhymes are nothing special, making the racial consciousness of “Proud to Be Black” stand in strong contrast to the litany of typical “I’m Run / He’s DMC” business, the commercial culturalisms contained in “My Adidas” and the predictable words of “Dumb Girl.” Overly spartan backing — simple beats (some of which actually sound man-made) and Jay’s percussive turntable action — hurt some of the tracks (especially since the group has proven itself equal to more active and complex arrangements). More familiar than inherently exciting, Raising Hell could still use some more heat. Regardless, the record sold millions, elevating Run-DMC (alongside L.L. Cool J and the Beastie Boys) to the top echelons of the pop world.
Preceding (if scantily related to) the film for which it’s named, Tougher Than Leather is much better, a self-assured superstar record with a dense, rock-influenced sound that’s become as distinguishable as the crew’s trademark verbal jousting. Sampling classic records and building original songs around them, the trio grabs the Monkees’ “Mary, Mary” and turns it into a hysterical putdown, while the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” becomes “Papa Crazy,” the same paternal disenchantment given a modern chop job. (Bites of James Brown, Malcolm X, Led Zep — even old Run-DMC — crop up as well.) At the record’s strangest, Run, DMC and Jay (affecting snooty accents) rap over a mock-Dixieland band. Throughout, the witty writing, deft delivery and riotously crowded production make Tougher Than Leather a progressive and peerless statement of the art that neither excludes nor panders to any audience segment.
Facing potential obsolescence — due to rap’s massive popularity, the platinum proliferation of soft-headed rappers unworthy of lacing the trio’s Adidas and the raised ante of sex and language — the once-lighthearted Run-DMC aggressively (a little too aggressively) reinvented itself as a serious organization on Back From Hell, a tough, rugged album that holds its own against the crew’s onetime disciples. With a new emphasis on solo vocal performances (by all three) and few of the band’s familiar sonic traits, the largely self-produced record bears little resemblance to Run-DMC’s prior works, but the up-to-date tracks are no less dynamic or effective for it. With power and intelligence (not to mention plenty of swear words), the deadly “Pause,” “Word Is Born,” “Back From Hell,” “The Ave.” and “Kick the Frama Lama Lama” all speak bluntly and sharply to the black community about social problems. For contrast, the sexy “Bob Your Head,” “Party Time” and D’s silly reggae-rhythm fragment “P Upon a Tree” keep things from getting too heavy.
Few hip-hop acts of their vintage have stuck around long enough to justify, much less release, greatest hits albums while still active, and no one else save Public Enemy, Ice Cube and LL Cool J had, by 1991, amassed enough essential tracks to fill a collection as firmly packed with high-grade hits as Run-DMC’s first Greatest Hits. A nostalgic trip through several eras of beat-box music — from the minimal voice/drums simplicity of “Sucker M.C.’s” through the pumped-up hubbub of “Pause” and “The Ave.” to “Rock Box,” “My Adidas” and “Walk This Way” — Together Forever gathers 18 almost all-prime cuts that cover the story in ample detail. (The similarly titled 2002 release, which is prudently subtitled 1983-1993, offers the same number of tracks but omits the early Profile singles, which makes it a lot less helpful as a career summation.)
In light of the next album, Together Forever marked a pivotal point in Run-DMC’s lives. More significant than the shaved heads pictured on the cover of Down With the King is the religious fervor announced within. (Simmons reinvented himself as Reverend Run, and has since been more dedicated to preaching than rhyming.) Coming off a troubled three-year layoff, the three inaugurate their second decade by revisiting their birthplace: before exalting the heavenly ruler, the title track repeats the couplet that opens “Sucker M.C.’s.” Besides heaping praise on the Lord (“Can I Get It, Yo” invokes the old “Run’s House” as “God’s house”; the album scatters minor references to both the band’s history and its new devotion throughout), the other item on the King‘s hardcore agenda is to get the respected veterans back into what has become a very different young man’s game. Without diving off into gangsta pandering (as Back From Hell very nearly did) or making too much of this funky God thing, the concerted catch-up employs a cross-section of early-’90s studio hipsters (Jermaine Dupri, EPMD, Q-Tip, Pete Rock, the Bomb Squad, Kay Gee) and guest stars (Onyx, Mad Cobra, KRS-One and Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine) to modernize, diversify and commercialize the group’s determinedly East Coast sound. For all the activity surrounding them, however, Run and DMC still dominate with their distinctive flow. (Jay’s scratches also help keep the present tense at bay.) What Run-DMC doesn’t dominate, unfortunately, is the record’s artistic vision. Evidently unwilling to devote an album to God and suddenly lacking anything else they can fully get behind, the MCs say rhymes that circle around very little (and thereby make a stronger old-school statement than the choice of beats ever could) in uncohesive settings. Despite some fine music and its announced purpose, Down With the King is an unsteady and deeply uninspired drag.
While raising his creative profile within Run-DMC, Jason Mizell began doing side projects on his own JMJ label. The Afros’ album, which he co-wrote, co-produced and does a bit of vocalizing on, is a frivolous, overlong rap/soul romp (partly delivered in a theatrical pimp whine) through a jokey world of women and hairdos — or, in the record’s vernacular, “hoes and fros.” Thin humor doesn’t excuse the exaggerated misogyny; the promising idea of lampooning ’70s culture in rap evaporates early on, and Kickin’ Afrolistics (which occasionally veers selfconsciously towards Digital Underground before taking an incongruous Public Enemy-style turn on “Federal Offense”) winds up annoying or dull more often than funny.
Mizell was murdered at his studio in Queens on October 30, 2002. In 2006, the Knack filed a stunningly belated suit over the use of “My Sharona” in “It’s Tricky.”