Weekly Wire
Gambit Weekly Kings of Rock

By Rich Collins

JANUARY 12, 1998: 

Kings from Queens. From Queens come Kings. We're raising hell like a class when the lunch bell rings. ...

Four high school goobs were cruising in a late-model Toyota Celica down a street that looks a lot like Veterans Memorial Boulevard. From the speakers of the goob leader's car blasted a symphony of trash can drums, guitar fuzz and fierce vocals.

The guys had skipped school to prowl their home turf: the American suburbs of the mid-1980s. Maybe they would play some pick-up football and get grass stains on their corduroys. Maybe they'd sneak into a movie, drink some Stroh's and flip through records at the shop in the mall.

Without a doubt, they'd blast a cassette copy of Run-D.M.C.'s Raising Hell at top volume.

Run-D.M.C. didn't sound like anything kids from the suburbs had heard before. The group trimmed the fat (cheesy melody) from its music and left nothing but pure muscle (killer beats). In so doing, it hooked a whole new batch of fans.

His name is Jay. To see him play will make you say, 'God damn that deejay made my day.' ...

Run-D.M.C. was formed by Joseph Simmons, Darryl McDaniels and deejay Jason Mizell in 1982 in New York City. Students of the city's rap scene (Simmons' older brother, Russell, managed artists Kurtis Blow and Whodini), these guys were influenced by the artists who came before as they forged a sound that would affect everybody who came after. The Run-D.M.C. trademark was a combination of enormous drum parts and spare bass and guitar riffs that worked as a skeleton for strident raps. The sound owed as much to the rock tradition as it did to R&B or soul, and it hit big.

Run-D.M.C.'s eponymous debut was rap's first gold record. The group's 1985 followup, King of Rock, was the first to go platinum, and the smash Raising Hell (1986) was the first to go multiplatinum, grabbing America by the throat in the process. Run-D.M.C. was the first rap group to appear on MTV and on the cover of Rolling Stone. And, when the band collaborated with members of the rock band Aerosmith for a version of the tune "Walk This Way," it virtually invented a new genre.

Run-D.M.C. helped define New York rap culture through it's language, clothes and attitude. But always more important than image was the group's "voice." Simmons and McDaniels were angry but optimistic. Not at all melodic but very, very musical. Not exactly rock 'n' roll but completely rocking.

Now you can debate, c-c-c-concentrate, but you can't imitate D.M.C. the great. ...

Young people -- mostly testosterone-fueled males -- devoured the Run-D.M.C. sound with the same intensity they reserved for Playboy and beer. Pool parties were bettered by a soundtrack of "It's Tricky," "You Be Illin'" and "Walk This Way." The cooler kids donned Adidas track suits and, if they were really daring, big gold chains. They painstakingly incorporated words like "fresh," "def" and "cold chillin'" into conversations.

It was a good time to be Run-D.M.C., and the radio was soon rife with imitators. The Beastie Boys borrowed the group's sound and made it safe for Middle America. Variations on the Run-D.M.C. oeuvre included Tone Loc's "Wild Thing" and Young MC's "Bust a Move."

Yep, it was right about the time that Joseph Simmons and Darryl McDaniels were comfortably surveying their subjects from the top of the hip-hop mount that their reign ended. As the '80s came to a close, Run-D.M.C.'s earnest raps lost cache in the big cities, which were embracing the nihilism of gangsta rap, and white kids tuned into Paula Abdul or whatever it was they listened to until the grunge revolution came along. Run-D.M.C. had run out of steam.

It's tricky to rock around. To rock around. That's right on time. It's tricky. ...

Today, Run-D.M.C. plays the small-club circuit. It's likely that the group's influence will allow it to play smaller rooms for years to come, and it's even more likely that a wave of '80s hip-hop nostalgia will launch it back into the spotlight just in time for a 20th anniversary celebration. By that time, of course, the people who first discovered Run-D.M.C. will be hungry for the excitement they felt when they first heard "It's Like That" blaring on their car stereo. These guys will fondly remember the years when Simmons, McDaniel and Mizell turned the music world upside down -- and made life for suburban teens more bearable in the process.

My Adidas walked through concert doors and roved all over coliseum floors. When I stepped on stage at Live Aid all the people gave and the poor got paid.


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