Here are some things about Run-DMC that you might already know: They were the first rap group to go gold, platinum, and multi-platinum, to perform on American Bandstand, to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone, to land in rotation on MTV, to endorse a sneaker, and to tour the country. Here’s what that impressive list of accomplishments tells you about the group’s music: just about nothing.
It’s hard to hear Run-DMC’s music as music in 2005. For 20 years, their singles have been dorm-room staples like Hendrix and Marley; they danced with Steven Tyler on a hundred VH-1 video countdowns, their fedora-clad images have fossilized into pop consciousness. The group hasn’t been relevant to rap in nearly 20 years; most of the music played on urban stations’ old-school mixes comes from years after the group’s peak. More importantly, the group spent the twilight of its career making embarrassing career move after embarrassing career move: performing at the VMAs with Kid Rock, endorsing Virgin Cola, releasing the god-awful 2001 failed-comeback album Crown Royal (featuring collaborations with douchebags like Fred Durst and the guy from Third Eye Blind), and performing at every college in the country again and again and again even though DMC’s voice was clearly gone and Run had to help him with all his lines.
Now that the group’s first four albums are being reissued, it makes sense to ask whether they’re worth buying, especially since multiple hits collections have already compiled their essential singles. The simple answer is no. Every one of these studio albums has filler, especially now that they’ve been loaded down with bonus tracks, and the excellent compilation Together Forever is still available at finer used record stores nationwide. But Run-DMC remains probably the most important group in rap history, and its albums deserve careful scrutiny, as historical documents and sometimes as more.
The group’s self-titled debut album, released in 1984, remains its most powerful and immediate studio record, the LP that forever tore rap away from disco and made it its own thing. Famously, the album’s production removed all the glossy live-band funk popular on the rap records of the day and replaced it with a harsh, spacey stripped-down electronic boom. Album opener “Hard Times” is a good case in point: Producer Larry Smith lays down a spooky, chilly electro beat, nothing but a few drum-machine ticks and claps, some heavy breathing, a couple of synth stabs. Run and DMC toss lines back and forth in a tag-team style that never really caught on, yelling rather than flowing, building up to the end of the verse where they’re both yelling in tandem. Lyrically, it’s nothing special; their street reportage is just another take on their first single “It’s Like That”, which is itself a vanilla version of Melle Mel’s rap on “The Message”.
But musically, it’s spare and hard and densely compelling, and it probably sounded terrifying in 1984. The rest of the album sounds pretty much like this, hard empty beats with yelled old-school catchphrase-slinging rapping, and it’s a strong and forceful time capsule from an era when rap’s hardness came from its sound rather than its lyrics or its’ practitioners’ biographies. The only real misstep is “Rock Box”, a track that buries a decent banger under layers of unbearable hair-metal guitar wheedling. The amazing early live track “Here We Go (Live at the Funhouse)”, included on the reissue, proves that Run-DMC were actually better rappers onstage than they were in the studio, but then that track is already on Together Forever, as are five of the original album’s nine tracks. So Run-DMC is pretty great, but you probably don’t need to own it.
King of Rock takes “Rock Box” as its starting-off point, adding a whole lot of heavy rock guitars to the group’s musical palette. The new approach endeared the group to suburban America, but it meant that they’d never again capture the dystopian heaviness of their debut. Fortunately, they improve on the precedent of “Rock Box”, finding more effective ways to throw rock into the mix. The title track rests on a huge, stomping AC/DC riff, and the two rappers sound pretty amazing yelling over it. “Can You Rock It Like This”, with its 80s synth and glossy oriental plinks, could be a Duran Duran song until the rapping starts. This is effective stuff, but it lacks the sonic oneness of the debut and thus carries an exponentially lesser impact. The rapping hasn’t gotten much better; they say it’s “never ever old school” before biting Melle Mel again on the token social-message track. Today, their lyrics sound archaic to the point ridiculousness (“You’re a funny-looking slop eating shish kabob/ You’re the reason that my eyes are on the doorknob,” “Why don’t you find a short pier and take a long walk?”). “Roots, Rap, Reggae” is a truly shitty and forced collaboration with Yellowman, and it captures absolutely none of what makes rap or dancehall great. The album offers little more than the still-thrilling rapping-over-guitars charge of the title track, but again: greatest hits.
Raising Hell is generally considered to be the group’s all-time classic, and it certainly has its share of classic moments. Rick Rubin had by this point taken over production from Larry Smith, and he kept the group’s thunderous stomp while adding a host of sly sampled musical touches: unbelievably funky bells on “Peter Piper”, a great cartoonish piano line on “You Be Illin'”, a dirty Southern-rock guitar riff on the title track. Run and DMC had also stepped their rap game up; “It’s Tricky” is basically as good as the two of them ever got, spitting quick-tongue witticisms and yelling booming threats with equal abandon. The album, however, has a ton of filler: the goofy human-beatbox jam “Hit It Run”, the ridiculously tossed-off dis “Dumb Girl”, the utterly blatant Slick Rick bite “Perfection”. And “Walk This Way”. “Walk This Way” totally fucking sucks, a weak and half-baked novelty-rap jam which got them (and Aerosmith) all over MTV but which sounds no better for having anticipated the commercial possibilities of rap-rock.
That record was the group’s commercial apex (it went triple platinum), but the band took too much time off after its release, spending a couple of years making a shitty movie and losing a court battle against its record label. During those couple of years, the landscape of rap changed completely; 1988 was the genre’s quote-unquote Golden Age, and Run-DMC looked like relics next to young, more skilled rappers like Rakim and Big Daddy Kane and hungrier crews like Public Enemy and NWA. Tougher Than Leather found the group playing catch-up, enlisting a new producer in Davy D and rapping on the Marley Marl-ish breakbeats popular at the time rather than the booming drum machines that they’d always used.
On tracks like “They Call Us Run-DMC” and “Radio Station”, they sound confused and out-of-touch, kicking old-school applause lines over anemic drum breaks. They also revert to formula a few too many times, coming with tracks that essentially amount to sequels of previous hits: adding weird parental angst to the honking goofball punchlines of “You Be Illin'” on “Papa Crazy”, awkwardly attempting to shoehorn breakbeats onto a “King of Rock”-style banger on “Soul to Rock and Roll”, biting Slick Rick again on “Ragtime”. But parts of Tougher Than Leather are just great, especially “Beats to the Rhyme”, which found Run and DMC quick-tongue rapping in tandem over an amazing state-of-the-art busy breakbeat with awesome sonar pings like Timbaland would use 10 years later. Tougher Than Leather is a failure, but it’s a noble one. The reissue includes “Christmas in Hollis”, maybe the first time they would allow themselves to become cartoon characters, kicking it with Santa, DMC chilling and cooling just like a snowman in a line that seems touchingly naïve in the Jeezy era.
And that’s it. Nobody is going to be reissuing the group’s 1990 album Back From Hell anytime soon, and the group became an old-school signifier, someone for rappers to quote or reference but never hire for features or anything. The group was essentially irrelevant only five years after releasing its first single– to put that in perspective, Bow Wow has been popular for a longer time. The group was hugely important in changing rap and making it an industry force, but you can’t really say they had much influence on the way it sounds today. They removed the flash and gloss of the disco-rap of the Sugar Hill label, and they influenced a young LL Cool J, who influenced Boogie Down Productions and Eric B & Rakim, who influenced the Juice Crew and Public Enemy and NWA, and on and on and on, as rap would undergo sea change after sea change. By the late 90s, much of the music was flashier and glossier than it ever had been in the Sugar Hill era, and any changes that Run-DMC made were changed themselves to the point of being unrecognizable. And so what we have now are four historical documents, each with at least a handful of thrilling moments. And most of those thrilling moments are on Together Forever or other singles compilations, so unless you’re a historian or a rich person, save your money.