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Born to Run

On almost all accounts, Davey Molnar was the quintessential nightmare roommate. I met him freshman year in college, back in 1984, this pale bony kid from Jersey, a math genius utterly oblivious to the basic arithmetic of human interactions. He spoke in a slow, clogged manner, as if his sinus cavities had recently collapsed. It hardly mattered, though, because barely anything he said made the least bit of sense.

Grooming habits, as such, did not exist for Davey. His skin was waxy, his brown hair soggy with oil. Bugs swarmed the sty that was his room. I remember that when, after months, I finally prevailed upon him to brush his mossy teeth, his gums bled for hours. He might have been an endearing fella, I suppose -- like an incarnation of the Peanuts character Pig Pen -- except that Davey Molnar was a real person and he stank.

Faced with the prospect of another semester in his malodorous midst, I fled to a program abroad.

Despite all his pathologies, though, there is one thing for which I owe him a big, fat debt: Davey introduced me to Run-D.M.C. I spent my entire first year listening to his copy of the trio's self-titled debut, my Beatles-bred sensibility thoroughly jangled by the propulsive beats and sly lyricism of what was then called simply "rap." On days when I should have been slogging through Comparative Politics Today and inking thick-headed paeans to The Sound and the Fury, I was instead bouncing around my room, shouting along to "Rock Box." ("'Cause Calvin Klein's no friend of mine/Don't want nobody's name on my behind/Lee on my legs, sneakers on my feet/D by my side and Jay with the beat!")

Exotic as it all seemed to me, my experience was hardly unique.
As any long-time rap artist or fan will tell you, Run-D.M.C.'s first two records (King of Rock was to follow in 1985) were the first to faithfully translate the New York street sound for the great stone-washed masses (read: suburban white boyz like me). Sure, the Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash did the rhythmic lyric thing earlier, but Run-D.M.C. laid the foundation for modern rap by dropping the radio-ready R&B riffs and setting the rhymes squarely out front of a pumped-up beat.

"What we did in the studio was just what you heard out in the park: two rappers and a DJ on the turntable," says Darryl McDaniels (D.M.C.), in a recent phone interview from his New Jersey home. "Where we grew up, Hollis, Queens, there was always somebody in the park with a crate of records and a turntable. We all had DJ equipment in our basements. Run [Joe Simmons] was the one who put the group together. Jam Master Jay [Jason Mizell] didn't like me too much at first. He thought I was too 'street.' But Run said he wasn't gonna make a record without me. He loved me, 'cause I could rhyme forever. We used to sit in his attic and rhyme for hours."

With Mizell laying down fearsome drum grooves, vocalists McDaniels and Simmons developed a unique style of completing one another's verses. Their rapid-fire delivery quickly dispelled the notion of rap as a playground for the undereducated. And the trio struck gold on their first effort, 1983's sassy "It's Like That."

The single's B-side "Sucker M.C.'s" climbed into the Top 20 by introducing an element that would become a staple of the rap lexicon: the dis. "You're trying to rap, but you can't get down," Simmons scoffs."You don't even know English, your verb or your noun/You're just a sucker MC, you sad-faced clown." The third single, "Rock Box," brought an infectious, heavy-metal guitar lick and tinkling synth into the mix, merging rock and rap as never before; the accompanying video was the first rap clip ever aired on MTV.

The anthemic "King of Rock" used the same formula to propel the band's second album to platinum status. "I'm the king of rock," McDaniels boasted. "There is none higher/Sucker MCs should call me sire." The emphasis, worth noting, was on the rock, because the Hollis Crew never allowed itself to be pigeonholed as strictly a rap act. Instead, they recognized -- and capitalized on -- the genre's crossover potential. The disc's braggadocio was balanced by the social commentary of songs such as "You're Blind," a scathing indictment of ghetto excess.

Album number three, Raising Hell, rocketed to number three on the rock chart and won Run-D.M.C. a place on the cover of Rolling Stone. In a stroke of marketing magic conceived by producer Rick Rubin, the rappers were paired with Joe Perry and Steven Tyler, of the nearly washed-up dino-rock group Aerosmith, for an explosive cover of the latter's "Walk This Way." Not only did the song establish the rap trio's commercial powers; it revived the career of the sagging Seventies rockers and paved the way for their current multiplatinum status.

What followed was a series of setbacks. The 1988 album Tougher Than Leather and the film of the same title were both financial and critical bombs, and 1990's Back From Hell didn't fare much better. In 1993, however, the troupe bounced back with a Christian-theme seventh disc, Down With the King, which entered Billboard's R&B chart at number one and the rock chart at number seven.

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