by Ed Biggs
Although they hailed from the comparatively affluent neighbourhood of Hollis in Queens, the trio Run-D.M.C., consisting of rappers Joseph “Run” Simmons and Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels and music Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell were arguably the most respected and authentic voices back in the mid-1980s of the then-embryonic genre now known as hip-hop. The authors of several classic singles that mark the development of rap, their status as legends was secured by the massive success of their third album, Raising Hell.
1985’s King Of Rock had made them critically respected and performed well commercially, but its successor shot their profile into the stratosphere, selling more than three million copies and making the group into the first internationally recognisable rap stars. Displaying more musical ideas and increased depth to its sound, Raising Hell still rocked really hard. With the rock-loving Rick Rubin on board as producer, he was careful not to overpower the album with his vision, allowing his charges to demonstrate the same lyrical dexterity with which Run-D.M.C. had always been associated.
Raising Hell was arguably the first great rap album, changing the industry’s views about hip-hop’s place in music. Sure, there had been great rap songs for over half a decade, but up until 1986 many who worked in music had viewed rap as a disposable singles-based genre, unable to translate into full-length works and therefore gain the artistic credibility of rock. Reggae had suffered a similar prejudice in the ‘70s until the success of Bob Marley, who had a similar crossover impact that helped alter perceptions.
The success of Raising Hell, despite the impressive number of iconic tracks it contains that have subsequently passed into the highest echelons of hip-hop’s canon (‘It’s Tricky’, ‘Peter Piper’, ‘My Adidas’), is essentially down to one song alone. ‘Walk This Way’, nominally a cover of Aerosmith’s 1975 original that boasted Steven Tyler and Joe Perry on backing vocals, is essentially a meeting of minds from two different worlds, with a jackhammering beat meeting a killer riff. It was a watershed moment, as hip-hop was able to access a worldwide audience for the first time, with the result that other artists were emboldened to bring elements of rap into their own sound, and the cross-pollination of genres that would characterise so much great music subsequently could begin with earnest. The track itself revitalised Aerosmith’s flagging career, and is still a guaranteed party-starter 30 years later.
This sound had already been locked down by Run-D.M.C.’s hit single ‘Rock Box’ the year before, but on Raising Hell it was explored more fully. The prominent sample of ‘My Sharona’ on the equally iconic hit ‘It’s Tricky’ was another obvious example, as well as the chunky, dirty chords on the title track, the turntable-scratching frenzy of ‘Hit It Run’ with its Cerrone sample. The mid-album sequence of ‘Is It Live’ and ‘Perfection’ drops the histrionics to focus on Simmons’ and McDaniels’ compelling back-and-forth.
Elsewhere, when Run-D.M.C. weren’t rocking out, they were still being consistently inventive, marrying deep bass, thudding beats, distinctive breaks and clever production flourishes to create excellent tracks like ‘Peter Piper’, the B-boy anthem ‘My Adidas’ and the trademark piano riff of ‘You Be Illin’. Even the 27-second long beatboxing interlude ‘Son Of Byford’ stands out before it leads into the cutting and scratching civics lesson finale of ‘Proud To Be Black’. However cheery some of their more famous singles, it must not be forgotten how much Run-D.M.C. helped hip-hop evolve into something more concussive, with the powerful, slamming beats of Raising Hell and earlier hits like ‘Rock Box’ sounding a world away from the comparatively radio-friendly early rap hits in the early ‘80s.
But Run-D.M.C.’s impact was not limited to the way hip-hop sounded, but also affected the way it looked. The first wave of rappers and DJs, such as Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash, dressed pretty much the same clothes that were associated with the glam-rock and disco acts of the late ‘70s, with tight leather trousers, chest-baring shirts and rhinestone-encrusted gloves and hats. Run-D.M.C. eschewed that for a simpler, informal look – leather jackets, tracksuits, Kangol hats, chunky Adidas shoes, giving off a more ‘street’ vibe that made them appear accessible, without the trappings of superstardom. Beastie Boys took that same casual look and went even more cartoonish with it the following year with their legendary debut Licensed To Ill, and the same image informed a second wave of great hip-hop artists, from the socially switched-on likes of N.W.A. and Public Enemy to the more pop-oriented likes of De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest.
Revisionists might now argue that all Run-D.M.C. did was to sell a sanitised, safe xerox of hip-hop for the MTV-consuming suburban white middle classes, with little in the way of edge in order to not to frighten the horses, but there was certainly a lot of street-level wisdom and cautionary tales in their lyrics, in much the same vein as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five had offered in the early ‘80s. What those modern-day critics cannot deny is the cultural impact that Run-D.M.C. and Rubin had, not only expanding the idea of what hip-hop could sound like and changing people’s perceptions about the commercial and artistic viability of hip-hop forever.
Influenced: Eric B & Rakim, N.W.A., Public Enemy, Beastie Boys, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Cypress Hill, Busta Rhymes
Influenced by: James Brown, Parliament, Aerosmith, Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, Whodini
Listen to Raising Hell here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!
Tags: album, Darryl McDaniels, Ed Biggs, Jason Mizell, Joseph Simmons, Raising Hell, review, Run DMC
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