Run-DMC emerged early in the development of recorded hip hop. They helped to transform the genre from an underground movement with a handful of important singles, like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s ‘The Message’, into big business. They smashed sales records – their debut was the first hip hop album to go gold and their second was the first platinum album from the genre. Run-D.M.C.’s third album featured Aerosmith on its huge crossover hit, a remake of the Boston rockers’ ‘Walk This Way’, and was the first hip hop album to go multi-platinum.
The group featured two MCs – Run was born Joseph Simmons, the brother of Def Jam founder Russell Simmons, while DMC was born Darryl McDaniels – backed by DJ Jam Master Jay. The pair were notable for their rapid fire duo vocals – the pair would swap lead vocals mid-sentence or mid-word. The group came from Hollis in Queens, New York, a middle class neighbourhood, but their image was more down to earth than their predecessors, with their Adidas sneakers.
Their music was purposely stripped back, with Russell Simmons aiming for a lean and muscular sound. Often their early songs have little more than the pair rapping over a primitive drum machine. They’re skillful enough that it creates some incidenary singles, but the minimalist sound can become wearying over the course of a full album.
Run DMC lost momentum after 1986’s Raising Hell – a dispute with their record company meant that they didn’t release another album until 1988’s Tougher Than Leather. By then they’d transformed from trail blazers to well behind the chasing pack, and never had the same impact. Jam Master Jay was shot in an unsolved murder in 2002, effectively ending the group’s tenure.
Run-DMC Album Reviews
Often heralded as one of the greatest and most influential hip hop albums ever made, Run-D.M.C. was notable as the first hip hop album to attain gold sales. It’s often acclaimed as one of the seminal albums of its genre, spawning hits ‘Sucker M.C.’s’ and ‘It’s Like That’. But decades later, this material from the first wave of hip hop sounds painfully dated; while Run and D.M.C.’s MC skills are without question, often they’re restricted to rapping over paper-thin backing. It’s regarded as important, as it’s the first album to capture the sound of street hip hop, with just a drum machine and a DJ to support our two Adidas wearing heroes.
Even if the thinness of the sound is ignored, the quality of the compositions is uneven. ‘Rock Box’ sounds less dated than anything on the disc, because it features a live guitarist, Eddie Martinez. ‘Sucker M.C.’s’ is also strong, a boast of Run-D.M.C.’s origins and credentials. But the rest of these songs are hard to take. The lyrics are often clever, and often positive and affirmative, but they’re hard to listen to with such bare-bones backing. Some of this material would also sound better if they picked up the tempo; the duo’s skill at trading lines becomes more impressive at breakneck speed, while ’30 Days’ and ‘Hard Times’ both drag.
Run-D.M.C. may be an excellent document of the hip hop school of 1984, but the slow tracks with their minimalist sound are tough going. If you’re interested in checking out this talented and influential group, a compilation is probably a better option.
King Of Rock
1985, not yet rated
King Of Rock is the early Run-DMC album I didn’t find in a closing down sale, so I’m catching up with it via Spotify.
Run-DMC’s third album, Raising Hell, established the group as mainstream stars. The group blended hip hop rhythms and rhymes with rock guitars to create cross-genre appeal, years before Rage Against The Machine or Limp Bizkit. The transcending song from Raising Hell is the fantastic cover of Aerosmith’s ‘Walk This Way’, while ‘It’s Tricky’ acquires the guitar riff from The Knack’s ‘My Cherona’. The video of ‘Walk This Way’ had Steve Tyler symbolically smashing down a wall between the two bands, and the song resuscitated Aerosmith’s career. Run-DMC were initially reluctant to cover Tyler’s lyrics, referring to them as “hillbilly jibberish”, but it was a transatlantic top ten hit, bringing new fans to hip hop.
Raising Hell gets off to a very strong start with the superb sequence of ‘Peter Piper’, ‘It’s Tricky’, ‘My Adidas’, and ‘Walk This Way’, before it loses momentum almost entirely. Most of the remaining tracks feel like after thoughts, performed over sparse backings, rendering the irritating vocal hooks of ‘Dumb Girl’ and ‘Perfection’ even more irritating.
Raising Hell is a landmark album, opening more doors for hip hop, but the steep drop-off in quality after the first four tracks disqualifies it as a great album.
Tougher Than Leather
Tougher Than Leather is the soundtrack to a reportedly hideous film, in which Run-DMC attempted to revive the blaxploitation genre. Despite the lack of progress from Raising Hell, imprudent inertia in the quickly evolving hip-hop scene of the late 1980s, it’s by no means their worst album. In fact, it’sthere’s nothing on the level of ‘It’s Tricky’ or ‘My Adidas’, but on the whole Tougher Than Leather is substantial.
Released just four years after their debut and the progression in hip hop is staggering; Run-D.M.C. was released on the cutting edge of hip hop in 1984 and sounded like it was made using a drum machine and a cheap Casio, while Tougher Than Leather, in the vanguard of the genre just four years later, sounds positively futuristic in comparison. Compared to the political conscience of Public Enemy everything’s either bragging or party fare, apart from some social commentary in ‘Papa Crazy’.
Key tracks include the opener ‘Run’s House’, which sets up an uncharacteristically intense sound collage, and ‘Beats To The Rhyme’. The title track and ‘Miss Elaine’ follow the successful guitar formula of previous albums, while ‘Ragtime’ provides diversity.
Run-DMC were past their commercial peak by 1988, but Tougher Than Leather is just as solid as their earlier records.
Ten Best Run-DMC Songs
Walk This Way
King of Rock
Beats To The Rhyme
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Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person.
Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate both Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Based in Fleet Street (New Zealand), he's been writing this blog since around 2000. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.
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