A look back at the landmark first Run DMC LP 35 years later
It’s some kind of wonderful that “Rock Box,” the first appearance of rap on MTV (at least not rap vocalized by a Boho white lady) has none of the hip-hop video cliches — save the fancy limo the MC’s pop out of, but instead features one of the most unlikely openings as Professor Irwin Corey, a septuagenarian standup known for his rambling, tangent-happy routines laid out his “definition” of the genre.
It’s all nonsense, of course, as that was Corey’s style. But in a way, it’s a perfect introduction and counterpoint to Run-D.M.C.’s simple, sensible technique.
About midway through the song, they describe their lyrics as “nothing too deep and not too dense.” It’s stark opposition to Corey’s babbling brook of overbaked philosophy and expensive words purposefully made to sound important, but are ultimately gibberish. While their boast “all our rhymes make a lot of sense” holds some dubiosity — I can’t rightfully say Run has NEVER physically “baked a little cake with Duncan Hines,” for example — for the most part this piece of braggadocio stands up. If anything, their lyrics may make too much sense at times, to the point of simplicity, but that only softens you up for doses of pure genius as when “do not be a fool who’s prejudiced” is followed by “because we’re all written down on the same list.”
Professor Irwin Corey on Late Night. Corey leads off the “Rock Box” video answering the question, “What is Rap Music?”
Queens trio Run D.M.C.’s 1984 self-titled debut is a gamechanger for many reasons. It’s all real, no gimmicks. There’s no skits, no filler. This is before they revolutionized rap promotion with their Adidas deal (it’s all “sneakers” here) or brought in Aerosmith to recreate “Walk This Way” for rap’s first Billboard Top Ten pop single.
While not hip-hop’s first full album — that title semi-officially goes to Kurtis Blow’s 1980 self-titled debut — one could easily assert it’s the genre’s first important LP and as its first Gold record, perhaps the first to suggest its viability as a format. Rap had initially been a movement that resisted the permanence of recording; from the days of DJ Kool Herc’s 1973 house party, hip-hop was about the moment. While “King Tim III” by The Fatback Band is given general consensus as rap’s first recorded single, it’s a B-side by what’s essentially a disco troupe. For all intents and purposes, it’s fair enough to call the controversial 14-minute exploration of Superman’s prowess and a friend’s mom’s inedible chicken dinner hip-hop’s first recording — or at least significant recording.
When a light bulb popped up above Sylvia Robinson’s head to capitalize off the excitement around this burgeoning new music scene, she found few takers for her Sugarhill Gang and wound up collecting a crew of misfits to spit rhymes, many of which were stolen (or at least borrowed). “Rapper’s Delight” would become a worldwide hit and creep into the Top 40 in late 1979, at which point Robinson did bother to build an album around the track, but it was mostly weird remixes, and tossed-together R&B tracks. While there’s some awkwardly placed puzzle pieces on Run-D.M.C.’s first record, there is a definitive logic to the song order.
The album instantly asserts itself with “Hard Times,” a dank track that hints at what would later be called horrorcore (but the sort of Requiem For A Dream-style horror that draws from mankind’s defects), as an eerie wisp of melody creeps over an insistent beat — one you’ll hopefully like, for one of the few valid criticisms of this record is that Jam Master Jay, while worthy of his bandmates’ boast “the master of the disco scratch,” does kind of recycle a version of the same heavy pulsation through many tracks on the record.
In fairness, this repetition has more to do with the odd evolution of a record where five tracks could be said to come out of re-workings of one and a track subtitled “Krush Groove 2” follows “Krush Groove 1.” Ultimately, it’s more impressive that they built three different hip-hop classics out of a very similar beat. “Hard Times” is a dope opening salvo, for sure, but a bit (if unfairly) forgotten as it’s followed by one of those three absolute classics.
More than just the first African-American rap video on MTV, the aforementioned “Rock Box,” buoyed by Eddie Martinez’s electric guitar crunch, stands as one of the top singles of the 1980s. It’s a showcase for two of the most distinguishing features which would elevate Run-D.M.C. from the rest of the rap pack: their acrobatic trade-off flow and the incorporation of rock and or roll music.
While most early rap features each of the MCs taking his (and occasionally her) time at the mic, Joseph “Run” Simmons and Darryl “DMC” McDaniels’ innovated a more collaborative style where each rapper built off each other’s rhymes in a less predictable, yet logically rhythmic, pattern. The pair were never as in sync as on “Rock Box.” In the video’s cheesiest, director-messing-with-the-graphics moment, the duo’s heads detach, with each bounce passing onto the other’s body. It’s dopey, but it’s not unrepresentative of the expert level of their cooperative flow as Run punctuates DMC’s rhymes and vice versa, each lyrically leaping in and out with flawless timing.
Their infusion of rock into the mix can be somewhat chalked up to serendipity, although producer Larry Smith had some inkling of the beautiful havoc he was about to wreak when he invited session guitarist Eddie Martinez into the mix. Eddie’s casually brilliant solos are so breathtaking and brutal, we can absolve them from blame for partially paving the way for rap metal and thus bands like Limp Bizkit. Besides, it also laid the template for acts like Public Enemy and Cypress Hill, who in turn begat Rage Against The Machine (we’ll leave Linkin Park in the murky middle where they’ll always reside). That the overarching riff does not feature on “Best Of” lists for that sort of thing boggles my mind.
“Sucker MCs” opens with the band’s origin story, the legendary lines “two years ago a friend of mine asked me to say some MC rhymes.” And from there it’s a treasure trove of lines so memorable they’ve become cliches. For an album that’s this organic, this loop-free, it’s almost mind-blowing how many of this track’s lines have fueled other MCs’ innovation, through reference or sample. Lines like “first come, first serve basis,” “Dave cuts the record down to the bone/and now they got me rockin’ on the microphone,” not to mention both rappers’ intros have been referenced by everyone from 2Pac to indie rock sound collagists The Go! Team, not to mention many times by Run-D.M.C. themselves, culminating on D’s re-imagination of his intro on their final Top 40 hit “Down With The King.”
The second half of the album (side B, if you will) opens on the third straight-up classic track, the unadorned, unrelenting track “It’s Like That,” which had been (with “Sucker MC’s”), the band’s first single. While it’s a favorite for a reason, the lyrics, while hypnotizingly poetic while spit, as alluded to earlier, don’t entirely hold up to scrutiny, to say the least. At times, it even comes across as Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” re-written by a totally 80s girl named Becky for a 10th grade paper about “change.” However, the sheer confidence with which the observations are delivered is a reminder it simply does not matter — they’re still genuinely satisfying and while I’m a pacifist and Run’s a reverend, they would have every right to beat my ass for simply suggesting that. And oh that beat, that inventive, superlative beat that doubles over, flips, reverses, blurs, and slithers in and out of the mix — that alone would be enough for Jason Mizell’s legend to live on had he never DJ’d on another song. Thankfully, he did, before tragically being gunned down at age 37 in a to-this-day unsolved crime.
VIDEO: Run-D.M.C. concert at the Capitol Theatre 9/25/84
Ultimately, 35 years after its release, it’s tracks like the relatively forgotten “30 Days” that cement the enduring vitality of Run-D.M.C.’s debut. Those “Big Three” songs may not be played out, but are so seared into hip-hop heads’ consciousness that iwt’s hard to separate the nostalgia from the authentic moments of connection. Hearing the playful “30 Days” and its easy, deft lines like “If you’re lookin’ for a car, I will buy you two/ And if you’re lookin’ for a pet, I’ll buy a kangaroo” for the first time in decades brought a gentle joy to my heart.
What may be most remarkable about this record, and the reason it holds up so well, particularly in the age of Migos, is that for all its bombast, the record is practically a Master’s thesis in minimalism — we’re talking Kraftwerk-levels of minimalism here. Most of the lasting power generates from Run and D.M.C.’s “fast-talking, slow-walking” dualistic flow combined with Jay’s tumbling, thumping beats. Even the seemingly ornate “Rock Box” only adds two more elements: Martinez’ guitars and jingling bells to get such a fierce sound. There’s a reason why critic Robert Christgau in his initial review suggested it would “be studied by all manner of creative downtowners.” Run-D.M.C. practically created the subgenre “Old School” by ushering (or helping to usher hip-hop) into its next phase with its raw efficiency of words over beats, paving the way for future groundbreaking albums from BDP’s Criminal Minded to Eric B. & Rakim’s Paid In Full to De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising.
VIDEO: Run D.M.C. “Run-D.M.C.” (Full Album)