"Every jam we play, we break two needles /
There's three of us, but we're not the Beatles."
- Run-DMC, "King of Rock"
In the liner notes to Sony's reissue of Run-DMC's self-titled debut, Public Enemy honcho Chuck D observes that the pioneering trio's first album had the impact of Meet the Beatles. I'd go even further and add that Run-DMC's first four albums are as important to contemporary popular music as the Beatles' first four albums were to post-'50s pop.
With dazzling creativity and previously unheard-of sonic juxtapositions, Run-DMC, in the early- to mid-1980s single-handedly brought rap into the big leagues. Like pre-Beatles rock & roll, pre-Run-DMC hip-hop was still a marginal art form that looked more like a fad than it did the durable and viable musical force it's become today. And like Beatles-era pop and rock fans, most rap fans can trace their love of hip-hop back to the first time he or she heard Run-DMC. The three bad boys from Hollis, Queens, literally changed music - and lives.
But if the Beatles comparison works to an extent, in terms of Run-DMC's sound and attitude, a better "rock" comparison would be the Rolling Stones. In a period when rap was still a singles medium whose biggest hits had been Sugarhill Gang's goofy "Rapper's Delight" and Blondie's fake "Rapture," Run-DMC forcefully showed haters that hip-hop was serious music and that the twin-turntable was a legitimate new percussion instrument. Run-DMC had already scored several rap hits with metal-based tracks - "Rock Box" and "It's Like That," from their debut Run-D.M.C. (Profile, 1984; ****), and "King of Rock," from their second album, King of Rock (Profile, 1985; *** 1/2) - when the trio teamed up with Aerosmith in 1986 for a pivotal song on Run-DMC's third album, Raising Hell (Profile, 1986; ****). The two groups' update of Aerosmith's '70s rock classic "Walk This Way" proved to be a turning point not just for hip-hop, but for popular music.
Before "Walk This Way," no rap song had ever experienced such a clean crossover. Not only did young, urban African American kids rock to it, but suburban white kids - from Long Island to the San Fernando Valley to Charlotte's Providence Plantation - were cruisin' to the song's big beat and screaming guitars. It was the moment hip-hop took over, and the music has gained massive power and momentum ever since.
The forceful delivery from rappers Joseph "Run" Simmons and Darryl "DMC" McDaniels, along with the turntable hi-jinks of DJ Jam Master Jay, paved the way for Public Enemy's hard politics and avant-garde musical bedrock, as well as the urban grit of early West Coast gangsta rappers like Ice-T and N.W.A. All of today's hip-hop - from the sermonizing of alternative rappers like Mos Def to the mainstream gat-slinging of Eminem and Fiddy - can trace its roots to either P.E. or N.W.A, and thus Run-DMC.
In the Run-D.M.C. reissue liner notes, Eminem is quoted as saying the trio "broke down the barriers. They were the first real rap stars. Everyone in the game today owes something to them." Kid Rock is more succinct; he says, "Before Run-DMC, there was nothing."
Of course, more than two decades after the release of that debut, hip-hop still has a hard time getting respect in some quarters, and that old thorn racism is at the root. Last week, in some letters CL received from readers blasting the paper's criticism of the Rolling Stones, angry writers somehow jumped to the conclusion that our critic was a rap fan (which she isn't) and began criticizing the music as noisy and violent. It's an odd way to defend the Stones, a band once known as one of the noisiest and nastiest outfits in rock. In the early '70s, my parents wouldn't let me attend a Stones show in Charlotte because mom and dad considered the band too violent and too vulgar - unlike the Beatles, who were comparatively clean.
Which brings us back to Run-DMC, a group whose Golden Age hip-hop style fused the Beatles' early innocence and later musical adventurousness with the Stones' cocky attitude. Run-DMC's nursery-rhyme lyrical style, atonal backing tracks and proud, fierce delivery taught pop music fans a new way to hear music. The trio's sound thus paved the way for both the rise of hip-hop and the popularity of the discordant alt-rock that would come from Sonic Youth and, ultimately, Nirvana.
What's most amazing about these Run-DMC reissues - even the inferior Tougher Than Leather (Profile, 1988; ***) - is how well the music stands up. It's spare, like the earliest hip-hop, and the lyrics are comparatively tame, but Run and DMC's tag-team delivery is timeless (check out the a cappella alternate tracks) and the late Jam Master Jay's turntable scratching is mind-blowing. It should be mandatory for every rap fan to own the debut and Raising Hell, and those who are even slightly more serious about hip-hop should have all four.