Kings of Rhyme

Run-D.M.C. keeps pushing to earn respectability for hip-hop

When I was 11 years old, my older brother gave me a tape that changed everything I thought I knew about music. The tape was called King of Rock, and it was the second album by the rap group Run-D.M.C.

I thought I was pretty hip for an 11-year-old, but I'd never heard anything like this. The songs--stylized boasting over guitar riffs, beats and scratches--represented an entirely different musical world, and tracks like "You're Blind" and "You Talk Too Much" quickly led to a whole new dimension in sibling dissing.

Thirteen years later, Run-D.M.C. is still kicking out its jams, but its members are now (and have been for quite some time) rightly considered the kings of old school, respected elder statesmen in a genre whose fast turnover does not always accommodate respect for elders.

During the 16 years that have elapsed since the first Run-D.M.C. single, "Sucker M.C.'s," Run-D.M.C. has established itself as the epitome of hip-hop endurance, despite the fact that the group's last album, Down With the King (that would be the heavenly King), was released nearly six years ago. But Run-D.M.C. is far from retirement: Run (Joseph Simmons), D.M.C. (Darryl McDaniels) and Jam Master Jay (Jason Mizell) continue to play nearly 20 shows a month and are preparing to record the group's seventh full-length album.

Run-D.M.C. weren't the first rappers to go on record--Grandmaster Flash, Sugar Hill Gang, Kurtis Blow and others preceded them by a few years--but the threesome does hold a grip of stellar singles ("King of Rock," "It's Tricky," "It's Like That," "My Adidas," "Walk This Way," etc.), and a king's share of hip-hop firsts. Among them: first rappers on MTV, first rappers to go gold, platinum and double platinum, first on Saturday Night Live and American Bandstand, and first rappers on the cover of Rolling Stone. These accomplishments have reserved them a huge permanent place in the hip-hop pantheon, but they're not what motivates the boys from Hollis, Queens.

"Even though we had all these hip-hop firsts, which we're proud of 'cause we feel we opened up the doors for a lot of artists, we feel there's a bigger vision than to just come out and sell a lot of records and have your video playin' on a video channel," D.M.C. explains from his home in New York. "I think the people love us because what we're doin' represents, not 'cause of the fact that we're celebrities."

He's right, of course. Run-D.M.C. has contributed far more than just statistical records to hip-hop. While their peers were putting out records peppered with the R&B sounds of the day, Run-D.M.C. was rapping over guitars and drum beats culled from rock bands, culminating in the classic crossover track "Walk This Way," performed with Aerosmith's Steven Tyler and Joe Perry. According to D.M.C., rock and rap were never strange bedfellows in the first place.

"The only reason we started doin' the rock thing was because before rap records were made, we used to rap over rock records," he says. "Rock records was the best records for a DJ to have because they had loud guitars and a lot of drum breaks. So when we started makin' records, the thing that distinguished us from those before us, like Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa and Sugar Hill Gang, is we kept doin' what we were doin' in the street and we just put it on record.

"We just kept it so varied, we'd rap over the R&B and we'd rap over the up-tempo records and we'd rap over the rock. We grew up lovin' their music; we wasn't lovin' Aerosmith for Aerosmith, we was lovin' Aerosmith for that beat and that guitar, we was lovin' Billy Squier for Billy Squier's big beats."

In D.M.C.'s veteran eyes, the rampant innovation and versatility of '80s hip-hop were the most compelling distinctions from today's scene.

"You had the Fat Boys--dope on the mike, dope with the beat box, but they was rappin' about food, and you loved it and you respected it; Run-D.M.C.--rappin' over guitars, you loved it and you respected it; KRS-One, Boogie Down Productions--teacher, philosopher, intellect, but dope and you loved it; Public Enemy--militant, oh my God, what's this? But they was dope and good at what they was doin'; you got Tribe Called Quest--'I left my wallet in El Segundo'; De La Soul--comin' out like some hippies bringin' some Daisy age, but you loved it and you respected it; Eric B and Rakim--wearin' the big old chains drivin' the Rolls Royce and flauntin' the money, but droppin' knowledge; Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince--'parents just don't understand,' and you loved it.

"Then right after the N.W.A thing, it became, 'we gotta do what everybody else is doin' 'cause that's what's makin' money.' Nobody was bold enough to come forth and do their own thing, except Hammer, and when he came out of left field with that Las Vegas show, James Brown, hardest-workin'-man-in-show-business-style, he sold 11 million records. But once he got too big, everybody playa-hated him, and he couldn't sell another record. But that's the thing that happens, everybody hops onto the look, the image, the concept of that moment, but those are the actual things that are fads. The eternal thing about hip-hop is the DJ, the MC and the crowd."

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