Review Summary: Old School Rap 101 - Run DMC's self titled debut.
Run-D.M.C was different from the early rap sound established before they arrived. The way they would rap was completely new. The music they would rap over was completely new. Shared vocals, back and forth, line by line. Percussion based musical accompaniment. Sometimes nothing but. This was raw. Sugarhill Gang's “Rapper's Delight”
was based around a funk bass-line. Kurtis Blow rapped about “The Breaks”
to a transition disco song. Melle Mel delivered “The Message”
for Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five over mixed beats, altered sustained notes and a jangling disco line. All beat-heavy funk with electronic disco hooks. In 1982, Afrika Bambaataa set the ball in motion by fusing electro and breakbeat rhythms with “Planet Rock.”
This would serve as precursor to the sound that two young rappers and one DJ from Hollis, Queens would bring beyond the music's inner-city home and into the living rooms of white suburban America. In 1983, Run-D.M.C. arrived with “It's Like That.”
Nothing but beats and one hard note on the keyboard to be found beneath the trade-off delivery of Joey Simmons (Run) and Darryl McDaniels (D.M.C.). Jason Mizell, the resident DJ known as Jam Master Jay, was responsible for the cuts and scratches that gave the trio their signature sound. Backed by Run's older brother (co-founder of Def Jam), Russel Simmons, Run-D.M.C. was a well organized, timely executed, grounding breaking act that would do more to change the future of hip-hop than any act before them or long after.
“It's Like That,”
with flipside “Sucker M.C.'s”
would set hip hop on its ear and kick open the doors for the new school, second generation of rap to take shape. The track was an abrasive commentary on life, money, poverty and shortcomings that aimed to educate and redirect ways of thinking. Spreading a positive message would be a recurrent theme throughout Run-D.M.C.'s self-titled debut. “Sucker M.C.'s”
was the group at their harshest. A rapid-rhyme lyrical assault, aimed at lowly rappers lacking the skill to rock the mic like the polished and practiced Run-D.M.C. What sets the song apart is its complete lack of instrumentation beyond beats and claps. The group would return to the sparse sound on “Hollis Crew”
with a harder, pounding beat and aggressive wordflow. “It's like that y'all / It's like that y'all / Like that-a-tha-that a-like that y’all”
No longer experimenting at this point, Run-D.M.C.'s sound and swagger is firmly established by the end of “Hollis Crew.”
The signature sound of Run-D.M.C. could best be exemplified by the album opener, “Hard Times.”
A thick, one-note hit on the keys, followed by a bass drum beat, all covered over with a heavy breathing backing track. Run-D.M.C. display their trademark trade-off rap style to glorious effect. Another track that deals with the desperate state of life and affairs, “Hard Times”
encourages its audience to stay strong through adversity, inspiring its listeners to fight the good fight, because it can be won. Of all the songs carrying a positive message on Run-D.M.C.'s eponymous debut, none do so much to spread hope as “Wake Up.”
Based around a funk bassline, backed with the usual heavy beats, the group uses the song as a motivating call for people to unite and work together for the common good.
Everyone was treated on an equal basis
No matter what color, religion or races
We weren't afraid to show our faces
It was cool to chill in foreign places
It was a dream (wake up)
Just a dream (wake up)
The album as a whole has no weak spots, filled from top to bottom with the kind of genre-shaping, air-tight compositions that would set Run-D.M.C. apart from those who came before them. An early highlight of the album comes in its second track, the riff-laden rap/rock jam, “Rock Box.”
A heavy electric guitar riff, a steady snare beat and Run-D.M.C.'s signature turn-taking rap style combine for a song strong enough to convert the most stubborn holdout fan of the rock genre. In the '90s, the idea of rap/rock was executed shamefully. In 1983, Run D.M.C. did it properly, and the door to the sound should have been sealed shut after them [with exemption passes given only to early Beastie Boys and Rage Against the Machine.] “Jam Master Jay”
and “Jay's Game”
are a couple tracks that praise the talents of the group's DJ. Giving him the opportunity to take center stage and demonstrate his craft, with the scratch-heavy songs serving as evidence the DJ is in top form. “In '84 he'll be a little faster / And only practice makes a real Jam Master.”
When the work of Run-D.M.C. comes up in conversation, people quickly drop titles like “King of Rock”
and “Raising Hell.”
Songs like “My Adidas”
and “It's Tricky”
are great staples in the catalog of Run-D.M.C. This fact can cause people to forget the modest album that laid the foundation for the future of not only Run-D.M.C., but the entire genre that, had it not been for this seminal record, would have had a much tougher time emerging as the music changing force it would ultimately become. Run-D.M.C.'s self-titled record should be considered first and foremost as a starting point when educating yourself or someone else about the history of hip-hop. Those who rapped before them only made ripples in musical consciousness, while Run-D.M.C. crashed the first big waves over the sound landscape around them --- and it all began in 1983 with this release. Because it's like that. And that's the way it is.