Wednesday, July 21, 2010
While I may have heard a few songs before this, I'm pretty sure RUN-DMC's "It's Like That" was the first track that knocked me for a loop. I was somewhere around seven or eight years old when I heard it, which was late 1984/early 1985. It was just immediate, my reaction. This was before my family had cable, so I didn't see it on MTV. I think the clip was on some late night program, and I lucked out changing the channels just in time. It wasn't a music video. I can't exactly remember what it was, besides a few photos while the song played. RUN-DMC was like nothing I had ever heard before. An abrasive, thunderous beat intertwined with a creepy, high pitched synth wailing in the back. So new, so original, so perfect. My eyes were fixed on the screen for that five minutes.
The next day, a Saturday, I went with my mother to go grocery shopping. I ended up in the magazine section, looking at a Rolling Stone article on none other than the (now) Rev "Run", Darryl Mac, and Jam-Master Jay. Just the way they presented themselves was so cool to me. The track suits, the hats, the b-boy stance in the photos. They seemed larger than life.
After reading the article, I wanted to do nothing more than hear the record. The only problem was I had no stereo. I had no cassette deck, no walkman....nothing in my room where I could let the music flow and soak it in. There was a small cassette player and turntable in our living room, but the odds of making a purchase and having the freedom to press "play" in there was null.
So, I did what you do when you feel the obsession starting. I waited. I started paying attention to late night television and to music magazine articles. I knew that at some point, I'd have a way to listen to music on my own, and when that time came, I'd be ready. In the meantime, RUN-DMC kept reminding me of what I could look forward to. New singles kept popping up randomly on late night weekend television, "Rock Box" and "Sucker M.C.s" were heard on the local college radio station, followed the next year by "King of Rock" and "Rock the House".
The college radio station saved me late at night on those weekends. There was a pair of headphones in the living room, and nights where my parents went to bed first, I'd plug them in and listen to a hip-hop show that aired for an hour. I was introduced to Afrika Bambaataa, Kurtis Blow, Funky Four plus One, Fat Boys, Doug E. Fresh, and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (whose "The Message" became a song I crossed my fingers I'd get the opportunity to hear every week).
I'd take trips to the mall only for two things: to look for Star Wars figures and to go into music stores and look at the cassettes and records, taking note of the artists I'd heard. I wanted to start filing away in my brain the releases they had....I was taking inventory. When the time came to have a tape deck in my room, I'd be ready to spend allowance and birthday money on the right selections.
RUN-DMC gained more and more attention. 1986 was a huge year in hip-hop for me. Two words: Raising Hell. Where to start with the sound of this LP is beyond me. "It's Tricky" is, to me, one of the most incredible songs of all time. RUN-DMC blew up. Oddly enough, the song that catapulted them into mainstream success was my least favorite. "Walk This Way", a duet with Aerosmith was played everywhere (to this day, I can't stand Aerosmith. Steven Tyler's obnoxious screeching ruined the song for me....it was even worse when I saw the band in the video, looking like ridiculous rock stars). We had just gotten cable, so my music options and gateways had started to unlock and slowly open. The video for the single was constantly in rotation. At least three times a day you could flip the channel to MTV and see it. Once I had heard "It's Tricky", though, I was so hooked, there was no option. It was time. I needed a tape deck.
My birthday fell two months after the release of Raising Hell. I told my parents that all I really wanted was my own stereo. Nothing special, just something that would play tapes. September 26th, 1986 landed, and so did that stereo in my lap. It was no boom box....it was like the dwarf cousin of a ghettoblaster. A small, six inch by eleven inch tape player with one speaker. But, to me, it looked like the holy grail. I don't think I've ever been so thankful for a birthday gift. My parents could tell what was about to happen. With the stereo, they bought me two cassettes to start my collection. The Ghostbusters soundtrack and Micheal Jackson's Thriller.....both are still records I can listen to and appreciate.
About a month later, Raising Hell was mine.....all mine. I was in a department store with my mom, and while she was going through the aisles shopping, I slipped away, bought the tape and shoved it in my back pocket before she could see what I was doing (sorry, mom....you're probably reading this. I had no choice....I figured you'd feel the same about hip-hop as your parents felt about rock and roll...that it would corrupt the youth.). My elation over having a RUN-DMC record in my possession was through the roof. I couldn't wait until I was the only one home, able to press play and listen to Jam-Master Jay on the wheels of steel, while Run and Darryl Mac shouted crazy lines at me though that mono speaker.
The first listen was out of control. Here I was, listening to twelve consecutive RUN-DMC songs in a row. "Peter Piper"? "My Adidas"? Nine years old and my perception of music as a whole was drastically altered. Much later on, as I dove into the world of producers, you realize just how very essential Rick Rubin was to the beginning of the new school of hip-hop. The hybrid of rock and dense, heavy, minimal beats were groundbreaking. He was smart enough to manipulate the mainstream into taking notice of this rising art form.
There was a ton of press for the album. You saw these three guys' pictures everywhere, profiled in a hard stance, Adidas with no laces and the tongues sticking out. Between them and the Beastie Boys, hip-hop was starting to become recognized as a true art form. There are a lot of records that I consider much better, but this would be one of the top five I consider as most important.
I continued to follow them throughout their career. Tougher than Leather was next up for the trio, and like it's previous effort, was just as crucial. Most of the rock was gone. The heavy beats still remained, but was surrounded by a lot of samples. Both RUN and DMC were still shouting, though. And, in turn, were still making impressive, abrasive songs.
They fell off the map, for me at least, for a few years. Down With the King was the album and single that brought them back for me. A classic in my eyes. To be off the radar for a bit and then come back with one of the hardest songs they ever recorded was nothing less than praiseworthy. Pete Rock's production on this song was nothing short of a perfectly executed east coast beat, bass-heavy and driving. To top it all off, C.L. Smooth's verse in this song is, to this day, the epitome of a guest appearance. Short, confident and leaving you wanting more.....just an extra eight bars would have filled me up.
After this album, I lost touch. with them. I ended up seeing them once in 1997 on an "Old-School Reunion" tour, with Sugarhill Gang and a few others. I think Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five was there, though I can't be sure. I wish I could remember.
Between Run becoming Reverend Run and DMC losing his vocal cords to a point where rapping wasn't possible the way he used to, we were left with what history they had already made, knowing there would be nothing more that would be considered classic material. The murder of Jam-Master Jay sealed that with a defining key into the lock. You heard the click, and then watched it thrown into the ocean to never be touched again. Occasionally, there's a reunion of sorts, Simmons and McDaniels performing songs individually or together, backed by many of the artists they inspired.
Though they'll always be a cornerstone in my hip-hop memories, their time to truly shine was from 1984 up until 1993. That's the golden era of their own that they created. I still frequently revisit my Raising Hell and Tougher than Leather tapes, and every time I watch Die Hard I get to hear them do a holiday rap. Some day I'll be able to afford all the deluxe versions of these albums, re-released with a ridiculous amount of bonus tracks and material. Until then, I can be one-hundred percent satisfied with the original albums. Why? Because they are fucking awesome.