To say, as I often do, that Run-DMC is overrated does not mean that you have to ignore the group’s historical importance and musical innovation. What made Run-DMC such a towering force in hip-hop is a mixed bag of sonic experimentalism and commercial crossover that faded fast, not because hip-hop acts have short shelf lives but because the genre left them behind with the emergence of more innovative, influential artists such as Rakim, the father of modern emceeing, and Public Enemy, which pushed the envelope in both subject matter and production. The group’s self-titled first album is comprised of near-classic old-school hip-hop, but by the fourth album, Tougher Than Leather, birthed in the sacred 1988, Run-DMC’s sound had become noticeably passé.
Run-D.M.C. (1984) is the album the trio should be remembered for. Created before virtually any relevant hip-hop LPs existed, the album was a shot in the chest to basically all other music ever made. Musically, the album is stripped down to the bare essentials: drum beats, synth hits, breathing switches channels and clicking bubbles to the surface twenty years before the Neptunes did. The basic building blocks of hip-hop, before Eric B’s funk and Prince Paul’s jazz, are laid out here in a blistering manifesto. “Rock Box,” clearly Run-DMC’s most self-influential track, has a depth to its guitar-riff-heavy production that none of the group’s later, lazily produced rock crossovers do. But the beats on “Jam Master Jay,” “Sucker MC’s,” and “It’s Like That” are the true triumphs.
If the album fails to achieve perfection, blame the vocals. Any old-school record must be approached with a different set of credentials than a modern-day hip-hop album. But compared to similar greats of the time, Run and DMC do not measure up. LL Cool J was a hundred times more charismatic on Radio, which was released one year later and displayed some of the same production style. Lyrically, the duo would be bested by Rakim and KRS-One just a few years later (and that’s just in New York). And their delivery, with overly excited accentuation, can get annoying after a full album. Even the most elementary listener could predict half of the couplets after hearing the first line, and complexity in rhyme schemes is nowhere to be found until the fourth record, by which time their superiors had already moved on to bigger and better things.
King of Rock was released a year after Run-D.M.C., and it’s the most disappointing of the reissues, with tracks either in a holding pattern or expanding on the regrettable rap/rock crossover decision that would end tragically the following year with “Walk This Way.” Too often the songs are repetitive and dull (“Jam Master Jammin’,” “You Talk Too Much,” “You’re Blind”). Then there’s “Roots, Rap, Reggae,” which is exactly how it sounds, moderately embarrassing, and best forgotten. The title track is a huge step down from “Rock Box,” though the latter’s breakthrough play on MTV had obviously ensured at least a sequel from producers Larry Smith and Russel Simmons (Run’s brother), who produced both albums.
These genre successes set the stage for the group’s most famous and popular album, the largely overrated Raising Hell, which arrived in 1986. Just about everything on this record is annoying yet catchy – think commercial jingles. “My Adidas” is better than its sponsorship influence, but history has not been as kind to “Walk This Way,” Run-DMC’s collaboration with Aerosmith. People say it’s one of the most important songs in hip-hop history, but people say Hitler was one of the most important people of the 20th century. Admittedly, I hate Aerosmith. I hate Aerosmith’s song and, consequently, I hate everything about the Run-DMC version. “It’s Tricky” uses another horrible song, “My Sharona,” for its regrettable beat. The only really great song here is “Proud to Be Black,” which is, not coincidentally, the only song that sounds like it was made by the same group that made a hardcore rap album two years earlier.
By Tougher Than Leather in 1988, Run-DMC was irrelevant, something proven by the album’s dated production. But the lyrics have improved, and if they aren’t up to their peers’ level, the emcees are at least trying to evolve as artists. Perhaps it was a mistake for hip-hop to drop one of its most important groups so easily, without giving it the opportunity to try new things. But take a look at some of the records released the same year as Tougher Than Leather: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Follow the Leader, Strictly Business, In Full Gear, By All Means Necessary, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick. Hip-hop had moved on without Run-DMC: Every one of those albums is better than all four of Run-DMC’s records to that point.
If you want to see the basic make up of hip-hop, Run-D.M.C. is a great place to start. But if you’re more concerned with where hip-hop is going, following the trail will only lead you to a dead end.
Arista Records: http://www.arista.com/
Run-D.M.C. Web site (with audio): http://www.rundmcmusic.com/
Run-DMC on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Run_DMC