Kings of Rhyme

When I was eleven 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 eleven 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 sixteen 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 most recent 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 twenty shows a month and are preparing to record their seventh full-length album as a group.

Run-D.M.C. wasn't the first group to go on record -- Grandmaster Flash, Sugar Hill Gang, Kurtis Blow, and others preceded them by a few years -- but the threesome does hold some stellar singles ("King of Rock," "It's Tricky," "It's Like That," "My Adidas," "Walk This Way," etc.) in its grip and a king's share of hip-hop firsts: 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 of 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 albums peppered with Eighties R&B sounds, 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, 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 Eighties 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 A 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."

Maybe it's those eternal elements that have kept Run-D.M.C. on the road incessantly for the past five years, even without a new album to plug. ("We always say, 'Yo, we might put an album out and it could ruin us.'") Even at its lowest moments, like the 1988 cinematic and musical double-disappointment Tougher Than Leather, the group always seemed drawn to hip-hop for its power to communicate, not merely its power to set trends. In their multiplatinum heyday, the members perfected a kind of anti-style as style, decked out in matching outfits: black jeans, black T-shirt, black hat, and unlaced white Adidas sneakers. It was a simple look and it made the trio strangely fashionable while thumbing its nose at fashion consciousness. These days more than ever, the group focuses on what it considers to be the essentials.

"You come to a Run-D.M.C. show, it's not gonna be what you see on these videos nowadays," D.M.C. says. "It's not about the glamour and the ritz, it's all about 'just throwin' your hands in the air and makin' some noise.' We got all this momentum behind us -- I mean, we been in hip-hop sixteen years, and the notoriety and the juice that we've been able to soak up over the years wasn't just because of records."

With its achievements safely in the history books, Run-D.M.C. is aiming toward new goals these days. Although all three members are married with children, the trio has no intentions of letting up. D.M.C. insists that they still have something to prove.

"When they always say, What do you think about gangster rap? I think that everything that happened in hip-hop in the last seven years was important, but 50 years from now you'll see what was the realest of the real. Run-D.M.C. will still be there. Our goal is to be playin' the Vegas strip, Run-D.M.C., July 15 to July 30, Caesar's Palace. That's our vision for rap. We know it's not a fad, and I think we're gonna be the first to do that. Rap made so much money and became such an industry that so many people got money-minded, especially the record companies. But Run-D.M.C. isn't depending on the industry to keep our existence. If the record industry ended tomorrow, do you know how many groups would be over?"

In spite of the fact that it is indeed a producer's world in hip-hop today (witness Puff Daddy, Master P, RZA, Dr. Dre), D.M.C. sees new life in the current scene. "The status of hip-hop now is wonderful, y'know, number-one records, you can open up Billboard and see number ones, the big industry that hip-hop has become. The universal appeal hip-hop has -- white, black, Hispanic, Puerto Rican, Chinese, Japanese, Russian.... I mean, we travel all over the world and we can't believe there's so many hip-hop fans everywhere. We did Jerusalem, we went to the Ukraine, went to Moscow and it was like ridiculous, people out there in Public Enemy shirts and Boogie Down Productions and Run-D.M.C. and Naughty by Nature and Nas and Noriega, even all the new stuff, they vibin' on it. I just think now it's a turnabout period for rap. Like in the last five, six years, all rap has been the same, everybody looked the same, everybody rapped about the same things. Now I think it's comin' back where the hip-hop audience is starting to open up, especially with the success of groups like the Fugees and A Tribe Called Quest. So I think the mold has been broken now; you don't got to just keep rappin' about how many women you got, how much money you got, your fancy cars, and your diamond rings, which is a part of hip-hop, but I just think in the last five years, it's all been so monotonous. Everybody was tryin' to outdo everybody materially. Now I think it's comin' back to the thing with lyrics, socially conscious records, back to the performance thing, the live thing, and back to the DJ, instead of a rap group callin' themselves a hip-hop act and goin' out there rappin' over a DAT. How could you be a hip-hop group with DJs and MCs and you ain't got a DJ up there cuttin' records?"

Based on past glories, Run-D.M.C. could continue to make a solid living as a live act into infinity. The bigger question is whether they, or anyone, for that matter, can sustain a long-term hip-hop recording career in the way that John Lee Hooker has managed in the blues or the Rolling Stones have achieved in rock. Most of Run-D.M.C.'s Eighties peers have long since disappeared or become nostalgia acts, while others, like LL Cool J, have covered other bases with stabs at acting careers. But Run-D.M.C. was never meant for the all-around-entertainer approach. These guys were hip-hop artists first and foremost, and their skills, if not their commercial instincts, remain intact. In fact the brief freestyle that D.M.C. busts on the phone during our interview shows the same old-school, MC-slayin' verbal assault that Run-D.M.C. was raisin' hell with sixteen years ago. But you still get the feeling that even if Run-D.M.C. never reaches the heights again as a recording act, it won't exactly devastate the group.

"We're not gonna work too hard to impress anybody; we just gonna put it out," D.M.C. says of the next record. "We gonna make it, put it out; if you like it, you like it. If you don't, you don't. But we gonna stay on the road, you know what I'm sayin'? It ain't a thing like we gonna put an album out, we gonna sell 20 million records, and we gonna take a break. No. 'Cause we feel we can tour with Run-D.M.C. forever.

"If we never put out another album again, we can work until we're 85, and that's really our goal: to represent hip-hop and rap longevity. To do what Sinatra did, to do what the Temptations are doin', to do what Michael Jackson is doin' -- to be somebody that was not just in hip-hop, but in the music industry for over 30 years."

"Those are the actual things that are fads. The eternal thing about hip-hop is the DJ, the MC, and the crowd."

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


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