Reviewed on this page:
Run-D.M.C. - King Of Rock -
Raising Hell - Tougher
Than Leather - Back From Hell - Down With The King - Crown Royal - Live In Montreux 2001 -
Distortion - Checks, Thugs and Rock 'N' Roll
In the early 80s, hip-hop, which had started in the 1970s as the
expression of poor and working-class black youth in the South
Bronx, relocated to middle-class Queens. Run-D.M.C. was the
standard bearer for this second wave of hip-hop, maintaining the
music's minimalist "street" sound but writing their own music
(most, though not all, of the first wave's tunes were lifted from
popular songs of the day), and raising the standard for complex
wordplay in lyrics delivered at high speed, internal rhymes and
puns all over the place. The pair of vocalists swap parts in mid-sentence and even mid-word, often to dazzling effect. And while
their sense of humor was always evident, they weren't self-parodying clowns like the Sugarhill Gang and some other early
rappers. Although Grandmaster Flash and the Sugarhill Gang (and
Blondie, for that matter) had released hit rap singles years
before, Run-D.M.C. was the first rap act to hit the album charts,
the first rap act to release a CD, and they really launched rap and
hip-hop into the public consciousness. For the first couple of
years they towered above their nearest competitors, Whodini and the
Fat Boys. They then sabotaged their career by fighting with their
record company for two critical years in the development of the
music, fell off the cutting edge, and became irrelevant with
appalling speed. Although there are faster talkers (Young MC, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony),
better lyricists (Salt-N-Pepa, Rakim), more
sophisticated musical collagists (The RZA, Public Enemy), they were at the top of
the wave at a critical moment in history; I still haven't heard any
duet or group that's even close to them at trading lines. (DBW)
Run (Joseph Simmons), vocals; D.M.C. (Darryl
McDaniels), vocals; Jam Master Jay (Jason Mizell), DJ,
various instruments. Jay shot and killed, 2002; group disbanded.
This was the record that started it all, with their first single
"It's Like That," their first blend of hip-hop with rock 'n' roll
("Rock Box" - while the Treacherous Three had mixed heavy guitars
with hip as far back as 1980, Run-D.M.C. actually used live guitars
playing original music), some of their best bragging songs ("Jam
Master Jay," "Hollis Crew"), the inspirational "Hard Times"... I
heard "Sucker MCs" at the AIDS Dance-A-Thon in NYC in the late 90s,
and the people out on the floor (including yours truly) were
rapping along word for word, including people who must've been in
diapers when the thing first came out. (DBW)
King Of Rock (1985)
Another collection of great songs, but it's missing some of the
impact of the first collection. The only new thing stylistically is
a reggae number recorded with Yellowman ("Roots, Rap, Reggae");
otherwise, it's more heavy guitars (title track, "You're Blind,"
"Can You Rock It Like This" written by LL
Cool J), comedy numbers ("You Talk Too Much") and great raps
("Darryl & Joe"). (DBW)
Raising Hell (1986)
This was their commercial breakthrough, containing "Walk This Way,"
which unfortunately also resurrected the career of Stones clones Aerosmith. There is some real
good stuff on here, although the socially-conscious numbers ("Proud
To Be Black") are soft-pedaled in favor of harmless humor ("You Be
Illin'"), corporate endorsements ("My Adidas") and misogyny ("Dumb
Girl"). The title track is another rock number, but it drags like
nothing on the first two records ever did. (DBW)
Tougher Than Leather (1988)
After two years of feuding with their record company Profile, they
came back with this album; in the meantime, hip-hop had moved so
fast they sound almost retro, although they are trying to keep up
with trends, making innovative use of sampling techniques on "Mary
Mary," sampling themselves on "They Call Us Run-D.M.C." and "I'm
Not Going Out Like That," and copying flash-in-the-pan Dana Dane's
fake British accent on "Ragtime." But there is a lot of great music
here, from the album-opening "Run's House" to the Hendrix-inspired title track to the
breakneck samplefest "Beats To The Rhyme." (DBW)
Back From Hell (1990)
Boy, the band didn't react well to having a flop album. This
record's very angry and diffuse, and not very entertaining. The
only track that really generates excitement is the single "Pause,"
released a year or two before the album. Otherwise, I can't really
say from listening to it what they expected the hits to be, and
what they thought was filler. (DBW)
Down With The King (1993)
By this album Run-D.M.C. was born again, and they seem to have
adjusted to their status as elders, respected for their
contribution to history but no longer innovators or idols. The
record is cluttered with guest stars paying tribute - LL Cool J, Slick Rick, Rage
Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello - and it's occasionally entertaining but nothing special. Producers include
Jermaine Dupri, CL Smooth & Pete Rock, and the Bomb Squad.
Crown Royal (2001)
After years of delays, everyone expected this to suck (myself included), and sales were dismal.
But if you ignore the hype and just spin the disc, there's not much to complain about.
D.M.C. barely contributed to this project, so Run hauled in an endless procession of guest stars, some of whom are restricted to reciting
choruses (Everlast on a remake of Steve Miller's "Take The Money And Run"), while others make more substantial contributions (Nas and
Prodigy - the Mobb Deep guy, not the electronica band - are the main rappers on "Queens Day"). Jam Master Jay does most of the production,
and while he sometimes just remakes old Run-D.M.C. hits ("The School Of Old," with a brief Kid Rock appearance), more often he keeps things
interesting with quick changes ("Here We Go 2001," one of the few cuts with D.M.C., also featuring Sugar Ray) and amusing heavy guitars
("Rock Show," with some guy from Third Eye Blind). On "Simmons Incorporated" (with a perfunctory verse from Method Man)
he's thoroughly up-to-date with funky keyboards atop a slow-moving groove, and even when he sounds stuck in a time warp it's fun
(the early 80s drum programming on "Let's Stay Togther," with Jagged Edge singing the Al Green hook).
Jermaine Dupri worked on one of the few tracks Jay didn't produce, using church organ and choir to create a majestic backdrop for "It's Over."
The only real problem, in fact, is Run: he has absolutely nothing to say aside from his usual boasting about the group's commercial
success, which fifteen years after their prime is more sad than anything, and without D.M.C. as a foil, his delivery is equally
monotonous. He's one step away from doing an album of King Of Rock remakes a la Chuck Berry or Little Richard. (DBW)
Live In Montreux 2001 (rec. 2001, rel. 2007)
A live gig in Switzerland, which turned out to be one of their last after the 2002 murder of Jam Master Jay, released in 2007.
Run-D.M.C. was my introduction to hip hop, they're from my borough, and I'll always love them no matter what they do. That said, this project is superfluous, dismal, and redolent of rip-off. Recorded during the period when D.M.C.'s voice was on the fritz, he sometimes adds squeaky, frequently cracking vocals, but more often you're hearing his original vocals from the record. Combined with the fact that all the backing tracks are pre-recorded, the only "live" factors to the performance are Run's rhyming ("Run's Freestyle") and Jay's stale crowd-working (e.g. "Everybody say ho-oh!"). The catalog of seminal 80s hits is impressive, of course, from "It's Like That" through "Mary Mary" (the two songs from Crown Royal fall flat), but you're better off pulling out the old LPs.
Distortion (Rev Run: 2005)
Afire with religious fervor, Run is purposeful again, declaiming about everything from teenage pregnancy (title track) to urban poverty ("The Way") to his own spiritual awakening ("I Used To Think I Was Run"). He's still leaning heavily on Run-D.M.C.'s early hits ("Don't Stop Y'All"), but at least he is bringing new approaches and images this time ("Mind On The Road"; the Jam Master Jay eulogy "Home Sweet Home"), and it's a kick to hear his precise shouting after all those mealy- and mumbly-mouthed rappers.
Produced by Whiteboy and Run, and they stick to a bare-bones palette of big beats and loud guitars, which is good. The songs are short, focused, and devoid of guest stars, which is very good. But most of the tunes are based on predictable samples of overplayed AOR tunes like "Sweet Home Alabama" and "I Love Rock And Roll," which is very bad... The one clever sample is the repurposing of KISS's demonic "God Of Thunder" into the divine "The Way."
Checks, Thugs and Rock'N'Roll (D.M.C.: 2006)
Like Run's recent album, DMC's solo debut is greatly indebted to 70s rock hits, but makes much better use of them: "Watchtower" doesn't loop a sample of the Dylan song, it boasts Elliot Easton recreating most of Hendrix's solo. The unlikely use of Harry Chapin's "Cat's In The Cradle" ("Just Like Me") has the crashing drums and power chord production of "Rock Box," Sarah McLachlan incongruously crooning the chorus, and DMC telling the story of his difficult childhood and subsequent rise. Most of the album is similarly self-centered, but not self-absorbed: his soul searching ("Find My Way," with Kid Rock) is honest, frequently biting, and tied in to larger issues ("Cadillac Cars").
Produced largely by Romeo Antonio and DJ Lethal, with other guests including Ms. Jade ("Cold") and Rev Run ("Come 2gether"), the album is far from current hip hop norms, but if you go way back with Run-DMC it's worth checking out.
And in a nice twist on the "album of bitches and bling followed by perfunctory paean to God" hip hop cliché, DMC ends his album of upward-facing social commentary with the strikingly foulmouthed "Sucka Sucka," a leftover Jam Master Jay production.
Wilson, you talk too much.