In case you haven’t heard of Run-DMC, I’d really like to know what kind of stone you’re living under, because it sounds like a great refuge from the Internet age dumpster fire we’re all currently sweltering in. Jokes aside, the legendary rap group’s third album Raising Hell is turning 35 on May 27, so it’s only fair to include it here. And don’t worry if you really don’t know about Run-DMC yet – our own established hip hop duo Charles and David will show you the ropes.
When I first began listening to Run-DMC (I was about 13 or 14), Raising Hell was already 7 years old, and it sounded like it was 20. That’s how much hip hop changed between 1986, when Raising Hell was released, and the early 90s. In the interim, we got people like Rakim and Kool G Rap setting a new benchmark for lyricism, and digital samplers which transformed the possibilities of hip hop beats. Run-DMC were really the pinnacle of pre-golden age hip hop, and Raising Hell was not only their crowning achievement, but probably the first great hip hop album, period. And they remained culturally relevant.
We’d sit on the steps in the alley behind the pool hall, surrounded in graffiti, brandishing our laceless Adidas, and we’d listen to Run-DMC. We thought we were so cool, and that was the 90s. To this day you see their t-shirts everywhere, and those awful, stylized logos with anything that remotely rhymes with Run-DMC, bearing no cultural connection whatsoever. The music and the branding remain relevant 35 years on. That’s the legacy of Run-DMC.
Joseph ‘Run’ Simmons and Darryl ‘DMC’ McDaniels were childhood friends from Hollis in Queens, NYC, who began writing and rapping together as teenagers. They recruited their DJ, Jason ‘Jam Master Jay’ Mizell, while hanging out in Two-Fifths park, which was the hangout in Hollis for DJs and rappers to perform, compete, and hold cyphers in the early 80s. The trio became Run-DMC and released their first single “It’s Like That / Sucker MCs” in 1983, with their self-titled debut album released the year after. They were an instant success.
Their sound was characterized by minimal drum-machine beats with scattered samples and some scratching, as opposed to the more flashy, electronic production of hip hop at the time. This sound, along with lyrics that taunted and boasted about rapping as well as providing more social commentary, characterized hip hop’s ‘new-school’. But Run-DMC’s influence went far beyond their music. While the norm at the time was for rappers to wear flamboyant costumes, mimicking the disco and glam scenes of the time, Run-DMC wore tracksuits, Kangols, and laceless Adidas sneakers. This would shape street fashion for decades to come.
They followed their debut with Kings of Rock, which expanded on the rock influence they’d introduced with “Rock Box” on their debut. But while it was their first platinum record, Kings of Rock wasn’t their best effort, and they knew it. Feeling outdone by LL Cool J and his debut album Radio, Run-DMC turned to that record’s producer Rick Rubin to produce their follow-up. The result was Raising Hell – not only their best album, but an album that went triple platinum and single-handedly catapulted hip hop beyond its traditional urban black (and mainly NYC) audience. Hip hop became mainstream overnight.
The success of Raising Hell is inextricable from the success of “Walk This Way”, a remake of the Aerosmith song from 1975’s Toys in the Attic. Supposedly neither group were keen on the collaboration. Russell Simmons and Jam Master Jay convinced everyone to give it a shot. Technically, it’s far from Run DMC’s best effort; it’s little more than a remix of the original with rapped lyrics and only minor changes to match their cadence. But that’s not the point. It’s fun as hell, and more importantly, it was as fun for rock fans as it was for hip hop fans. It broke down the boundaries that had kept rap confined to its traditional audience. “Walk This Way” was everywhere: MTV, every radio station, and every dorm room across the country and beyond. It re-invigorated a dying career for Aerosmith, and it made Run-DMC the first global hip hop superstars.
But Raising Hell is so much more than “Walk This Way”. The album opens with DJ Run and DMC rapping one word each on the nursery-rhyme themed “Peter Piper” in an introduction to their legendary chemistry on the mic. “It’s Tricky” is probably the best song they ever made, going back and forth finishing each other’s sentences with quick-witted boasts over a signature hard beat and irresistable “My Sharona” sample. And of course, “My Adidas” was such a cultural phenomenon that it got them the first non-athlete sneaker sponsorship. Apparently Simmons dragged a reluctant Adidas CEO to a Run-DMC concert, who was quick to pull out his check book once DMC asked the crowd to show him their Adidas, and thousands of pairs of sneakers were raised in the air. Sportswear brands have looked to African-American culture for direction ever since.
There are a few tracks that let the album down. “Perfection” feels like a Slick Rick bite; “Dumb Girl” is overly simplistic and out of touch; and “Hit It Run” and “Son of Byford” are two human beatbox tracks when one would have been enough.
Nevertheless, the album is remarkably coherent and great fun from beginning to end. It’s still the go-to album for me when I want that old-school vibe. For all of the technical innovation and development in hip-hop since, there’s still nothing quite as pure as those thumping drum machines and peerless chemistry on the mic. By the time Run-DMC got around to making a couple of more albums in the late 80s and early 90s, their style seemed out of date, and they couldn’t match the panache of their early work. And when Jam Master Jay was tragically murdered in 2002, the group finally broke up. But Run-DMC will forever be one of the greatest to ever do it, and Raising Hell remains their crowning achievement.
This album is three years older than me, y’all. While I don’t subscribe blindly to the whole ‘respect your elders’ mess that people like to talk, there is a little element of that here with Run-DMC’s Raising Hell.
If y’all didn’t know, I’m a… pretty big fan of Beastie Boys. I’m here to acknowledge, as others have in time, that we very likely wouldn’t have had the rapping-ass Beastie Boys we know and love today without Run-DMC for a number of reasons (the undeniable stylistic influence, Def Jam Records likely wouldn’t exist as the tour-de-force it was without the success of Run-DMC, etc.). For that fact alone, the Hollis, Queens trio deserve all my respect, but they did so much more for hip hop music and culture than influencing one single band, more than I honestly could cover here. After all, we’re here to focus on one album, but this one album alone? Still a shitload to cover.
Let’s go down the line – not covering every damn thing, just the highlights. Rappers Rev Run and DMC, backed by the late, great Jam Master Jay on the turntables, open this slammer of an album with “Peter Piper”, which samples one of the most recognizable songs in hip hop history: Bob James’ “Take Me to the Mardi Gras”. The drums, other percussion, and the whole backbone rhythm has been sampled by hundreds of songs (including one by the aforementioned Beastie Boys), but “Peter Piper” was one of the first big songs that brought it to a lot of ears on a national level, despite the track not being a single (though it was packaged with the 12” single for “My Adidas”). Focusing on flipping nursery rhymes and bigging each other up with the lyrics, it’s a playful intro to the first multi-platinum hip hop record ever, and it only gets better from here.
‘Now Dr. Seuss and Mother Goose both did their thing
But Jam Master’s getting loose and DMC’s the king
‘Cause he’s adult entertainer, child educator
Jam Master Jay, king of the crossfader’
The very next track though? Definitely their most recognizable original track on this album, if not the group’s whole career. “It’s Tricky” is about as much of a jam as was possible to make back in the ‘80s (Jay wasn’t the Jam Master for nothing). Great flows, powerful production using a “My Sharona” guitar sample (The Knack would go on to sue the band for the sample, but settled out of court) without compromising their more stripped-down drum machine sound, and fun lyrics that endure to today. Didn’t hurt that it also got a bit of a remix-injected revival in 2001 with EA Sports BIG’s apex of arcade snowboarding video games, SSX Tricky, for which it was the theme. You even hear vocal samples from the song’s hook the better you perform in the game and achieve a powered-up ‘tricky’ status.
One big asset to Run-DMC’s success was their bucking of hip hop’s then trends, particularly when it came to fashion and presentation. A lot of artists and groups were flamboyant with it, wearing lush furs, more belts than a JRPG protagonist, rhinestone-pocked leather, all in bright and vibrant colors and costing thousands of dollars to make and upkeep with the help of tailors. These ran parallels with the sounds that these groups adopted into their hip-hop music – primarily disco, funk, and r’n’b artists – most of whom were wild with their clothing as well. Run-DMC though? These dudes were rocking Kangol hats, shoes with no laces and the tongues sticking up, jeans, or matching black outfits with either leather jackets or Adidas tracksuits. In other words, what the streets were wearing. It was relatable, just like their whole approach to rap which sounded more like a park cypher with friends than gussied-up, high-production music. Which brings us to the biggest hit off the album, “My Adidas”.
Already trendsetting with their style, their manager (and Run’s older brother) Russell Simmons saw an opportunity for great financial gain. The story is covered well in episode three, “The New Guard”, of Netflix’s Hip-Hop Evolution documentary series produced by Banger Films (yes, that Banger) with music journalist Bill Adler speaking on the situation: ‘Russell understood what these [Adidas] sneakers meant and how emblematic they were of the culture at large, so he suggest to Run and to D that they make a song called “My Adidas”’. Representatives from the athletic brand were invited to a concert at the great Madison Square Garden in New York where they played the song to a raucous crowd, telling them to hold their Adidas shoes up in the air to which hundreds, if not thousands obliged by holding up their triple-striped, shell-toed sneakers before they bust into the track that changed everything for them.
‘My Adidas walk through concert doors
And roam all over coliseum floors
I stepped on stage at Live Aid
All the people gave and the poor got paid’
Needless to say, they got an endorsement deal, one worth 1.6 million dollars, the first of its kind given to a non-athletic entity or person by a big brand like that.
You think that’s big though? Well, it is, but there’s something arguably bigger, something that made Run-DMC a household name and transcend the urban roots of the young, budding hip hop world. And the best part is that it wasn’t even initially planned; hell, it wasn’t even desired at first! Jay, being the artist he was, was always messing with samples and landed on the intro drums and guitars from Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way”, a rock hit from their 1975 album Toys In The Attic, for some live freestyles. Rick Rubin, the now legendary producer who was working with Russell Simmons in Def Jam Records at the time, knew how big Aerosmith were years ago and persuaded the trio to not just sample “Walk This Way” and rhyme their original raps over it, but to literally remix and cover it with Aerosmith’s lyrics.
Jay thought it just might work, but Run and DMC were, uh… not hot on the idea, especially after reading the lyrics themselves which DMC deemed ‘fucking hillbilly gibberish’, a generous sentiment if you’ve ever read the lyrics yourself – no offense, Aerosmith. Again in Hip-Hop Evolution, DMC talks about that moment, fighting with Russell, Rick, and the label against this idea: ‘y’all are taking this rock rap thing too far’. To break the tension and get the ball rolling, mad man Rick apparently went to Boston and brought Aerosmith to New York to do the damn thing with Jay cutting the beat up, Joe Perry’s guitar licks cementing the foreground, and Steven Tyler singing on the chorus of the track and punctuating select lines and words just like how Run and DMC did with each other, while the two MCs rapped the shit out of the verses of the song.
After all was rapped and done, DMC pleaded to not make the song a single for Raising Hell. Well, the label did, and it just so happened to become the first rap-rock ultra hit and one of the biggest songs of the 1980s, beating other crossover juggernauts like Beastie Boys‘ anthems “Fight For Your Right” and “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” by a few months, and “Bring Tha Noize” with Public Enemy and Anthrax by a few years. It just worked. The original track had Steven Tyler employ his trademark voice in more of a spoken, rapping style, which made it exceedingly easy for Run and DMC to mimic while still providing their own flair and flavor to it. It became a massively played track on radio stations of all kinds – rock, rap, pop, etc. – and sporting a neat music video also helped in its takeover. The group rapped about being the “King of Rock” years before, but they nearly became that very thing with this song. Famed writer and activist Kevin Powell reflects on what this meant to him and the culture as a whole:
‘When they made the record “Walk This Way”, it brought them into mainstream America in a different kind of way because now all these other kids – beyond the Black and Latino communities that created it and loved Run-DMC – they literally crossed over. I mean, people don’t understand how big that was. First rap group on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, first rap group on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, they were the first in so many different ways. They just busted down so many different doors, and yeah, that was as exciting to us as all those kids a generation before who sat in front of their TV shows watching The Beatles on [The] Ed Sullivan [Show].’
Speaking from a personal standpoint, I didn’t really get deep into Run-DMC’s catalog until the last decade or so when I decided to dive into the history and many hits of hip hop, which is also why you always see me writing about these rap albums for ASIR. By that time – hell, probably by the late ‘90s – the more old-school style of hip hop and rapping had fallen far out of favor as the craft had evolved to much more. Dense lyricism, searing sociopolitical commentary, unorthodox production, and gritty-as-hell street sense pervaded on many levels with hip hop heads for the last 30 years, and that’s all awesome too! But because of my connection with Beastie Boys, I was probably much more prepared as a young millennial to eat up Run-DMC’s minimalist production and sampling, along with the classic style of rhyming that was all the rage in the ‘80s.
I came to love songs like the title track which was backed by fierce guitars, strong drums, and no-nonsense lyrics from Run and DMC. It’s probably the heaviest song they’ve ever done (‘You see, it’s harder than hard, not one bit soft‘), which was indicative of their tougher (than leather) style when compared to their peers at the time.
“You Be Illin’” is a simple, cute track with playful piano and horn samples while Run and DMC rap about a couple scenarios with people who don’t seem to be all the way there, or ‘illin’’ as it was called in the ‘80s. Are you the dude walking into a KFC establishment and asking for a Big Mac burger? You go to a basketball game and yell ‘touchdown’ when a ball goes through the hoop? Well, you be illin’.
My favorite track on Raising Hell, though, is without a doubt the album closer, “Proud to Be Black”, a bold proclamation of their Blackness, an acknowledgement of the history of racial struggle and strife, and a statement of how things are going to be from now on (‘You know I’m proud to be Black, y’all/And that’s a fact, y’all’/And if you try to take what’s mine, I’ll take it back, y’all’). Run compares himself to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., DMC likens himself to Malcolm X, and together both set the damn track on fire:
‘The world’s full of hate, discrimination, and sin
People judgin’ other people by the color of skin
I’ll attack this matter in my own way
Man, I ain’t no slave, I ain’t bailin’ no hay
Written a deposition in any condition
Don’t get in my way ’cause I’m full of ambition
I’m proud to be Black and I ain’t takin no crap
I’m fresh out the pack and I’m proud to be Black, so take that!’
I’ve said more than enough here, but suffice it all to say that Run-DMC are certified legends and, personal preference aside, Raising Hell is arguably their best album; definitely the one that catapulted them fully into stardom. From Hollis to space – not a bad trajectory. I recommend anyone with a penchant for rap check out their catalog to see where things were and try to build the bridges in your head on how we got to where we are now with their help. I may not always respect my elders by that virtue alone, but I’d always take some time to shake Run and DMC’s hand and chop it up with them… you know, if ever presented with the opportunity.
RIP Jam Master Jay. Thanks for all you did for hip-hop and music in general. Hopefully, your family and friends will be getting some closure soon.