The world changed in the first few bars of “Rock Box”. Track two of the 1984 self-titled debut album from Joe “Run” Simmons, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels and Jason “Jam-Master Jay” Mizell took a novelty black pop noise called rap and hooked it up to bleeding metal guitars, crushing beatbox and dubwise echo. Rendering Sugarhill, Kurtis Blow and electro redundant overnight, this bunch of pork-pie-hatted street satirists from Hollis, Queens sounded alien, young, funny, unstoppable. The trio, their visionary white producer Rick Rubin, and Joe’s manager-brother, Russell Simmons, had Def Jammed rebel rock’s codes, and Run-DMC made everything else in the Live Aid era sound lame and tame. From now on, hip hop’s rise to commercial supremacy was only a matter of various LLs, Chucks, Eazys and Dres taking their cue and adding ever more dirt and danger.
Not that Run-DMC were among the main beneficiaries of rap’s inevitable rule. This reissue of all seven studio albums may have been prompted by the shocking murder of Jay in November 2002 and the unavoidable end of Run-DMC but hip hop’s key pioneers had been struggling to keep an audience since 1988 and fourth LP Tougher Than Leather. Ironically, they were never truly forgiven for crashing through Aerosmith’s doors in the video for “Walk This Way”?and crashing the mainstream?as blacker-than-thou became hip hop’s disingenuous pose. Run’s other career as a preacher and DMC’s voice-slaughtering drug problems didn’t help any either.
But with current corporate rap’s reliance on styling and over-production creating nostalgia for the old school’s whiplash wit and sonic punch, those first four albums sound fresher than bluey-white laundry. Run-DMC and 1986’s Raising Hell may have been the milestones that forced the music biz to take rap seriously, but the gritty King Of Rock bridged the gap, and Tougher… ?deconstructing The Monkees and The Temptations?now sounds like their masterpiece.
How quickly falling sales and personal problems began to sap the muse. The inspired purloining of “Fool’s Gold” on “What’s It All About” from 1990’s Back From Hell showed how clued-in Run-DMC remained, but the set’s reality themes and ‘bitten’ rhyme styles sounded like a band trying too hard to prove their relevance. Down With The King from 1993 bigged up The Lord, wheeled in the guest producers, and saw the great Run coming off like an impersonator of lesser, if more successful, talents. No surprise that it was eight years before another guest star-crammed affair, Crown Royal , emerged to tell us, with Jay and DMC barely audible and all original character absent, that Run-DMC used to be good. Sad, but maybe not that truly tragic in the light of subsequent events.
Rediscover those first four vivid, sly, thrilling, visionary albums and remember them walking this way.