Published Sep 01, 2005Sometimes a music video is more than just an advertisement for a song, sometimes it so perfectly encapsulates a cultural watershed that you have to wonder if they were channelling the zeitgeist or creating it themselves. Maybe both. As "Walk This Way" begins, three young black men - Run, DMC and DJ Jam Master Jay - are banging on the wall of their rehearsal space. But they soon stop begging the wrinkly '70s rockers to "turn that noise down" and simply swipe Aerosmith's steez, kicking in a beat and tag-team rapping overtop the band's guitars. The pleading now comes from the other side and by the time Steven Tyler sticks his head through a hole in the wall to sing the chorus, it's like a dinosaur trying to hang with the mammals. Perhaps not the most political, popular or even the most important rap group, throughout the 1980s Run DMC set off a string of "firsts" that almost single-handedly transformed a New York-centric music scene into the most powerful pop cultural movement of our time. They were the first rappers nominated for a Grammy, the first to land the cover of Rolling Stone, the first to get played on MTV and perform on Saturday Night Live. They laid claim to rap's first gold album - first platinum and multi-platinum albums, too. Bridging rap and rock, they bum-rushed a billion boomboxes and pushed hip-hop further into the mainstream than ever thought possible. They boarded the rap train when it was still considered a "fad" and took that shit worldwide. In the years since, the Hollis trio have endured their share of hardship - tumbling sales, concert riots, alcohol and drug addictions, a rape trial and, most tragically, the loss of Jam Master to a gangsta bullet. But with their lives back in order and their revered classics getting the re-release treatment, both surviving members are readying to drop their first solo records. Thanks to the Kings from Queens, hip-hop has become such a dominant force that an unknown like the Game can debut at number one. But it is one thing to walk through a wide open door, quite another to kick it down. That's right, it's tricky. Here we go.
Seven-year-old Russell "Rush" Simmons welcomes his little brother Joseph, soon to be known as Run, into the world. Just down the street, Darryl "DMC" McDaniels is born. Their Hollis, Queens 'hood is decidedly middle-class and their parents are Cosby-type professionals - Mr. Simmons is an educator while McDaniel's father is an engineer and his mother a nurse. Joey and Darryl attend elementary school together and become BFFs.
1977 to 1980
As the hip-hop scene spills out of the Bronx, Russell Simmons is already showing a head for business, throwing parties and managing early rappers like Kurtis Blow. "I was fascinated that they gave a party and made money," remembers Run. "They were cool. They'd have money to go get sneakers in the morning. It was fascinating to see a couple guys that had a little bit of control over their destiny compared to me. They had a handle on something called rap and I was getting involved, I was getting my turntables together, hanging out with DMC." Practicing up in the attic, Run proves his talents and Russell gives him a shot as Blow's DJ, dubbing his brother "DJ Run, Son of Kurtis Blow." On occasion, he's even allowed on the mic. But as Kurt gets increasingly popular, scoring rap's first major label deal and gold single, Run loses his job because he's still attending school. "Then I put together my own group and presented it to Russell," he says, "and that's how I got Run-DMC on the map."
Though Run and DMC attend different high schools, they still hang out after class, practicing their rhymes and dreaming of success. Russell helps Run record a song, "Street Kid" but can't do anything with it. Run and DMC decide to become a duo, but D won't perform in public. At least not until a set at party when Run puts his friend on the spot. "He just handed me the mic and said, 'Rhyme for an hour.' I ran out [of rhymes] pretty soon," DMC later told an interviewer, "but I got better." While watching a local DJ battle at nearby "Two Fifth" park, they meet Jason "Jam Master Jay" Mizell - then known as "Jazzy Jase." He has a rep in the hood already for throwing parties and wearing the freshest gear. It is his high school street style - black hats, Adidas, leather - that the group will adopt as their trademark look. "He didn't go to school with us but I knew him from the basketball team," says Run. "He lived on 203rd Street, I lived on 205th Street and DMC lived on 197th street. Jay was a very nice guy and I promised that if I got a record deal I'd make him my DJ." It wouldn't take long.
Briefly entering college - where Run enrolls in mortuary science - they work on demos and play gigs with Kurtis Blow. With help from Blow's producer Larry Smith, they put together their first single "It's Like That." Russell, now their manager, takes it to indie label Profile and comes out with a record deal.
The "It's Like That" twelve-inch is released and not only wins over the local b-boys but surprisingly blows up nationwide. Its aggressive, minimalist b-side "Sucker MCs" (based on the drum break from Russell's first hit, Orange Krush's "Action") catches on too, becoming known as the first hardcore single. By ditching the disco sounds in favour of electronic drum machines and turntable scratching while bringing a harder lyrical edge than the party-oriented raps of the past, Run DMC usher in the end of the original old school era. Cracking the Billboard R&B charts, Run DMC head off on several short tours, returning with bills lining their pockets. "The impact was huge. Big. You can get more weed and have more money for hamburgers. We was on planes. From two dollars in my pocket wondering if I can buy weed and get something to eat to 'we made a thousand bucks last night and $333 of that is mine. I am rich. This is unbelievable. People are here to see us performing. This is bananas. I'm a genius millionaire.' Meanwhile, everybody else was still in school trying to figure it out." They follow-up with the single "Hard Times"/"Jam Master Jay"; the first is a cover of a Kurtis Blow cut while the latter celebrates their DJ's skills on the wheels of steel.
To further hype their full-length, the group drop what will be their first crossover hit "Rock Box," produced by Russell and Larry Smith. Boasting an addictive guitar riff, it lays claim to the first rap-rock fusion and breaks down MTV's colour barrier that had previously only allowed Michael Jackson through. "We didn't know what MTV was," Run remembers, "but everyone was jumping around us like it was a big breakthrough. So we jumped with them." Promoting the group as a rock act seems to work and soon they are all over the radio, too. When their eponymous debut final comes out, it defies even their high expectations and goes gold. Leading hip-hop's charge out of the urban underground, it also transforms rap into an album-oriented genre. "My brother was a genius," Run says. "He was always doing something out of this world. We didn't particularly love the idea that the guitars were louder than us but we knew we had something when our voices were all over the radio. It was a crazy moment." Eager to capitalise on the momentum, Russell uses Run's success to help put together Def Jam, his record label with white college kid Rick Rubin. Then he sends the group off on Fresh Fest, the first major national rap tour, pairing Run DMC with Kurtis Blow, Whodini and the Fat Boys. The group begins to party like, well, rock stars. "On this tour I discovered what an eight-ball of cocaine was," DMC wrote in his autobiography. "Woah, did I find out. We got to Miami and nobody went to bed, just about everybody on the tour stayed up the entire three days getting high. I mean, real high. After those Miami nights, every night of touring was like that. For the next five years all my nights became like those Miami nights. Even when I came home." Over 27 dates, the tour takes in more than $3.5 million and Run DMC's trademark look, now complimented with big gold rope chains, sets off a fashion craze. "There were guys that wore hats like those and sneakers with no shoestrings. It was a very street thing to wear, extremely rough," Run says. "They couldn't wear shoelaces in jail and we took it as a fashion statement. The reason they couldn't have shoelaces in jail was because they might hang themselves. That's why DMC says 'My Adidas only bring good news and they are not used as felon shoes.'"
Their popularity spreading, the group avoids a sophomore slump with King of Rock, which goes platinum on the strength of the title track and the LL-penned "Can You Rock It Like This." They also star in the cult classic Krush Groove, which loosely recounts the forming of Def Jam and Run DMC's rise to fame, though Run won't actually sign to his brother's label until 20 years later. "I was on Profile way before Def Jam. Russell made me before he ever got a deal. After he made me, I helped him to get a record company. We were involved with them, but never on the label. We helped to establish the Beastie Boys and we helped to establish LL Cool J. They had their talent, but they were put out on tour with Run DMC." After watching Fresh Fest the year before, the director of blaxploitation classics Cooley High and Car Wash approaches Russell about making a feature. Rubin and almost everyone else involved (including the Fat Boys, Beastie Boys, LL and Kurtis Blow) in the movie play themselves, but Russell has his role played by 21-year-old Blair Underwood, in his screen debut. Prince percussionist Sheila E plays the love interest, but her pathetic rapping is booed at theatres. Nevertheless, Krush Groove tops the box office and recoups its $3 million budget in the opening weekend. It also sparks "rioting" in theatres and, not for the last time, a media scare over hip-hop and violence. The group is the only rap act invited to Live Aid and they nail a rep-boosting set in Philadelphia. "They're trying to explain to us what it means. We're tired. Don't know why in the middle of everything this came up but we're here, we came," remembers Run. "We walked on the stage and some big rock band is playing 'Rock Box' and we were like 'Wow, people know us.'"
Run DMC cement their legend status with album number three - Raising Hell - which breaks even more records on its way to multi-platinum status. There are four hits singles but it is their Aerosmith remake - hip-hop's first top 10 pop hit - that acts as rocket fuel. "We used to have to find beats to scratch back in the day, whether it was 'Mardi Gras' by Bob James [which Jay cut up for "Peter Piper"] or Aerosmith's Toys in the Attic. We thought the name of the band was toys in the attic. We didn't care about the group, we didn't know who the group was. We weren't rock fans," Run says. "We were in there scratching it and Rick Rubin and Russell walk in. Rick says 'Hey, let's make the whole record over.' We're looking like he's crazy. We never even listened past the first 20 seconds of the record. We just like the drumbeat. It's hillbilly gibberish. We don't know what the hell he's saying. It sounded like some retardness. But we're just kids so we do what they say. And it became the biggest record in the world." They also land a classic with "My Adidas" and during a sold-out show in Madison Square Garden, the crowd hold their shell-toes in the air, creating a sea of Adidas. "Watching 20,000 screaming fans putting their Adidas in the air was a testament to the power of this group and hip-hop at large, for that matter," audience member Chuck D later wrote on his website. "For the third straight year, Run DMC ruled hip-hop, with sound, fury, and a total dominance reminiscent of the LA Lakers at the time. This was pure hip- hop. This was the house that Run built." A company rep in the stands is so impressed he quickly signs the trio to a $1.5 million deal, the first non-athletic endorsement, and the company puts out four types of Run DMC-approved kicks, including a laceless-friendly one with an elastic tongue. But their biggest year concludes in controversy. Taking their album title a little too seriously on the arena tour, the group is on a hedonistic kick. In Run's autobiography he notes that "on any given night you could walk out into the hallway and see topless girls running room to room." But it's not just sex. Violence plagues several stops on their ill-fated tour, culminating in a stadium showdown between Crips and Bloods in Long Beach. Sixty riot police are needed to quell the disturbance, 34 fans go to hospital and the media and politicians pile on, blaming the group for incitement though they had yet to get on stage. At a press conference the next day, Jam Master Jay tries to shift blame back to the gangs. "We didn't have nothing to do with it. We had no control over it. We only stand for positive things." But despite calling for a day of peace amongst gangs, the stigma of hip-hop violence sticks - though it does get them that Rolling Stone cover. Rather diplomatically, DMC later says "I had some qualms with some members of the media who tried to pin the whole Long Beach Arena incident on us."
Undaunted by the media uproar, Run DMC continue to tour, flipping the Beatles script and bringing hip-hop (and the Beastie Boys) to the UK for the first time. They also get a Grammy nomination, but as there is not yet a Best Rap category, Raising Hell is up for "Best R&B Vocal Performance." They lose to Prince. The rest of the year is largely spent battling their label Profile for more money, recording Tougher Than Leather, their fourth album, and shooting an accompanying movie.
Run dismisses the subsequent film by noting "we were just some guys having fun. That was it." DMC, meanwhile, proves less diplomatic in his book: ""It was retarded, really retarded." The stench of the failed blaxploitation flick coupled with the backlash from their unprecedented success is difficult to overcome. The album does go platinum, but despite classic tracks like the Monkees-sampling "Mary Mary" and "Run's House" it is widely considered a disappointment. Just as they had moved hip-hop to a new school sound, Run DMC are now being overtaken by the likes of Boogie Down Productions and Public Enemy, groups who had a little bit more to say.
Jam Master Jay launches his eponymous record label and begins developing artists, including Onyx. While it does no favours for their street cred, Run DMC release "Christmas in Hollis," on the benefit album A Very Special Christmas. It deservedly becomes a holiday staple thanks to light-hearted rhymes about Santa's lost wallet, festive collard greens and, of course, ill reindeer. It is also their last big hit.
1990 to 1991
With gangsta rap surging, Run DMC try to regain their throne with the hopefully-titled Back From Hell album. But hip-hop has moved on and the trio's overly agro attempt at a hard street record comes off as desperate and, even worse, fake. Even Rolling Stone disses it, saying "Run-D.M.C. has shot itself in the foot." It stumbles towards gold but bears no singles. On the disastrous, drug and alcohol-fuelled "Back From Hell" tour, a stop in Cleveland leads to a rape charge against Run by a college student claiming she was assaulted in his hotel room during an after party. Russell hires high-priced lawyers and the media runs wild with the accusations. Eventually someone comes forward to discredit the case and the judge dismisses the charges before the jury trial starts. Run suffers marriage problems, a nervous breakdown and even contemplates suicide. "For the first time in my life I felt as if I were failing. I had no - absolutely no - thoughts of going forward with life," Run later writes in his memoir, It's Like That. "People said, 'Get up and fight, Run,' but I didn't want to get up and fight. I was hurt. I wanted to lie down and die!" But the hits keep on coming. During a drunken bar brawl, DMC is charged with assaulting a police officer. He soon reveals a serious alcohol addiction - having down 40 ouncers of Old English for years to overcome stage fright - after being diagnosed with pancreatitis. Doctors tell him he must give up drinking or he will die. Struggling with finances, the group declares bankruptcy, though Profile argues it's a ploy to get out of their contract. The comparatively well-balanced Jam Master Jay, meanwhile, releases the Afro's Kicking Afrolistics album to decent success and gets ready for the impending birth of his son.
1992 to 1993
"Nineteen ninety-two, I revamped my image," said DMC. "No more hats, gold chains, and big glasses. Run, Jay, and I sought a new beginning." Specifically, both Run and DMC become born-again Christians and they rap about their conversion on Down With The King. With everyone from Public Enemy and Naughty by Nature to Neneh Cherry and Pete Rock paying tribute with cameos, the acclaimed album delivers their long-sought comeback. The title track is a modest hit and the album debuts at number 7 on the pop charts. Though not recapturing their sales strength, the group has at least regained respect. Meanwhile, the only non-convert in the group scores his own chart success when Onyx sells millions on Jay's label.
1994 to 1997
When not out on tour, each member heads off on their own. Jay continues developing and recording new talent while Run becomes an ordained Pentecostal preacher for Zoe Christian ministries, re-dubbing himself Rev Run. "I didn't mean to become a reverend," he says. "I was going to church and felt a little empty inside. I went in and this thing got stuck on my neck, this collar." No new recordings are planned as Profile gets bought out by Arista, who aren't interested in releasing a new studio effort. Around this time, DMC begins to lose his voice from overuse. Doctors and vocal lessons save it, but his rapping will never sound the same again.
Just when everyone had consigned the group to the history books, a club DJ named Jason Nevins remixes "It's Like That" and it sells four million copies. "We've been in this game so long," DMC said at the time, "they're pulling out our old records and making hits out of them again." The year's rise of rap-rock further demonstrates Run DMC's influence. Alas.
The group stars work on a new album, but DMC, still suffering from voice problems, is uninterested, telling XXL "I'm rappin' about more mature stuff: drivin' in my pickup truck, wakin' up in the morning and turning on the radio, kissin' my wife."
After lengthy delays, the new Run DMC record Crown Royal finally come out to poor reviews and a mostly absent DMC, who has been busy writing his autobiography and doing speaking tours of college campuses. The album simply tries too hard, becoming a commercial and critical failure, largely due to the presence of Fred Durst, Kid Rock, Sugar Ray and some dude from Third Eye Blind as well as the near-absence of DMC. Run still says he has no regrets over his MIA partner: "I don't feel bad, lemme keep it real."
Jam Master Jay discovers an unknown talent by the name of 50 Cent and begins recording sessions with him in his 24/7 studio. The group gets a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and two greatest hits compilations are released. They perform at the MTV Awards and go out on tour with Aerosmith and Kid Rock, performing "Walk this Way" to the crowds' delight. But on October 30, just blocks away from his childhood home, 37-year-old Jay is shot dead in his studio by a still-unidentified killer. "I was in church," Run says. "The phone rang when I was onstage with bishop. The guy told me that Jay passed, got killed. I went to the funeral and preached. It was strange. God brought Jay at a certain date and took him a certain date, he did his job. Jay, nicest guy in the world, he was not only the greatest DJ but he was the greatest character. He was accurate on the turntables but his unselfishness really stood out." The hip-hop nation falls into mourning, even as rumours swirl over possible drug connections, unpaid debuts and even possibly fallout from 50's smouldering beefs. Run and DMC soon officially retire the group: "Jay passed, you don't replace him like a drummer."
After several years out of the public eye - save for JMJ memorials and tributes - both Run and DMC attempt solo comebacks even as their entire back catalogue enjoys a deluxe re-release. Capitalising on the resurgence is controversial hip-hop chronicler Ronin Ro who gets ready to release Raising Hell: The Reign, Ruin, and Redemption of Run-D.M.C. and Jam Master Jay. With an "all-star" band comprised of a couple Aerosmith members and a CSI actor, DMC performs a somewhat embarrassing set at the Toronto date of Live 8, including a cover of Hendrix's "The Watchtower." Several years in the making, his upcoming album, Checks, Thugs and Rock 'n Roll is set to include appearances by everyone from Sarah McLachlan to Doug E. Fresh as well as his ex-partner. Meanwhile, the good Reverend films an MTV reality show called, what else, Run's House about his family life with his wife and five children. Produced by his brother and P Diddy, it's due to air in October. That month will also see the release of Run's first solo album Distortion on his brother's new label Russell Simmons Music Group. It's a rock-fuelled retro record produced by virtual unknown Whiteboy. "If you liked Run DMC, you'll like this," Run promises. "I didn't do anything different. I didn't add side-orders, I didn't add any great new modern producers, there's no Pharell or Timbaland. I can't call it old school, because when we worked in the '80s, nobody sounded like us. Nobody was able to duplicate that particular sound."
The Essential Run-DMC
With a "Rock Box" to knock your socks off, they roared out of Queens blasting a new style that made everyone before them suddenly sound wack. Trading back-and-forth rhymes praising their DJ, their hood and themselves, addressing ghetto concepts and mocking all opposing "Sucker MCs," Run-DMC nailed hip-hop's first gold record with a previously unparalleled (and still damn near perfect) artistic statement. Hip-hop may have started out in the park, but this was where it finally took to the streets.
Raising Hell (1986)
Though only 11 years old in a white-bread Vancouver suburb, I didn't know a single kid that wasn't rocking this cassette in their walkman at all times. Even ignoring the ultimate crossover track, "Walk This Way," this triple-platinum Rick Rubin-produced classic could do no wrong rocking rhymes over "My Sharona" samples on "It's Tricky," twisting tongues on "Peter Piper" and hyping sneaks on "My Adidas." From
beginning to end, Hell is hot.
Tougher Than Leather (1988)
You may argue King of Rock is a stronger album, but why you buggin'? Tougher holds up because of its edge-of-overconfidence sampling the Monkees on "Mary Mary," showing off their shining teamwork on "Beats to the Rhyme" and opening "Run's House" with: "there's a whole lot of superstars on this stage here tonight/but I want y'all to know one thing/this is... my house!" Unfairly underrated because their suddenly retro style had fallen from favour at the dawn of rap's golden age, TTL is actually the group's last gasp of greatness.