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.

The band is hoping to release an eighth album next year, with Rubin tentatively slated as producer. "The next one is going to be hard," McDaniels reports. "It's gonna be something historic, something that goes back to the days of the rhyme and scratch. We're looking at the face of rap today and saying we got to cut through all of that."

For most other rappers, such grandiloquent statements would ring hollow. But with more than a decade under his belt as a ranking member of rap's pioneer generation, McDaniels is not shy about voicing his distress over the recent trends in rap. "The record companies are looking for some boys who carry Gatts and smoke blunts," he observes. "These bands who jump around and talk about how tough they are. It used to be that the biggest thing was who had the best DJ and the best rhyme. That was the way you stomped another crew. The way you excelled was verbal. If you didn't have the words, the vocabulary to express yourself, you were a sucker MC. The word is the one thing that's real in rap. That will never die, and that's why we've been around so long. Because we keep it real."

At the same time, McDaniels says, he's dead set against the denigration of rap by self-appointed cultural watchdogs who are, in fact, judging the culture from without. "There's no such thing as gangsta rap," he argues. "There's just rap records with certain subjects that scare people. Gangsta rap is just a label someone came up with to disrespect what everyone's doing."

Though Run-D.M.C. never enjoyed the pan-cultural success of recent artists like Coolio, McDaniels doesn't begrudge the new generation. Just the opposite. He views their prosperity as a byproduct of, a tribute to, his own efforts.

"When we came out we opened a lot of doors, and I'm happy to see rap at the top of the charts, happy for the achievement of our culture, not just in music but in the movies and the media. Rap has become a big creative force. You can't make a movie these days without rap. Most music has to have something that pertains to hip-hop. They gotta drop a beat. And you can see the things hip-hop has done in the fashion industry.

"I'm not really a Coolio fan," McDaniels concedes. "But me and Run were just talking about this and we can see that Coolio is part of what's needed in rap today. He's a tough guy, but he doesn't sit there just telling people what a killer he is. He makes music that people like, about partying and having a good time, not violence or selling drugs. He may look like a gangbanger, but he's making pop records that sell. And he's giving props to guys like Stevie Wonder and George Clinton.

"Look, we grew up in this game, and obviously we've got a different approach. We don't use no DAT or dress up in outlandish outfits. We just put out the mikes and turntable and go with our arsenal of hits. But we support anyone who's a talented musician."

Mutual respect, it turns out, is the basis of Run-D.M.C.'s remarkable longevity. "It's just like a marriage," says McDaniels, who has a wife and son. "When you respect each other and you work together, you can't let it go to waste. We look at all these bands who broke up and never have the same impact and said, 'That's not gonna be us.' When you come, you gotta keep coming or you're gone."

And McDaniels is well aware of the social responsibility he bears as an elder statesmen of rap. "People tell us all the time how we inspired them. Not just young stars, but doctors and lawyers, guys who were in jail and told us, 'Man, you inspired me to do something with my life.' That's what it's about. We're not trying to make people into rappers. We're trying to make them successful people."

If this sounds like a pretty Christian attitude, it should. Both McDaniels and Simmons have turned to God, after battling through drug and alcohol addictions.

"We're not a Christian rap group, but we are rappers that happen to be Christian," McDaniels says. "Run is a licensed minister and I'm a deacon. Run's label, Reverend Run Records, showcases gospel singers. We're still saying the same things we always did -- stay in school, get an education -- but now we're confessing our belief in God. If other rappers can sing about guns and drugs, or give props to Jah or Islam, we feel we can give props to Christ and not be written off."

"It's almost like God is using us to spread His word, because kids aren't going to listen to teachers or parents or preachers, but they may listen to us. They may say, 'If God is the path they took, maybe I should check it out.' And that's all we're asking.

"The reality is, we still get down," McDaniels concludes. "We just played a show at the Olympics, at this disco they got for all the athletes, and didn't none of them know the words but we still brought the house down. 'Cause we still got the word."

Run-D.M.C. performs tonight (Thursday), August 15, at Club Boca, 7000 W Palmetto Park Rd, Boca Raton; 407-368-3333. Showtime is midnight. Tickets are $10.

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