Run-D.M.C.'s 'Run D.M.C.' at 30: Classic Track-by-Track Review
It's been thirty years since the release of Run-D.M.C.'s self-titled debut LP, which made its way to record stores on March 27, 1984. The album is a cultural landmark, introducing legendary rappers Joseph "Run" Simmons and Darryl "D.M.C." McDaniels, plus their DJ Jason "Jam Master Jay" Mizell, each of whom hailed from Hollis, Queens.
Originally calling themselves Orange Crush, the group formed in 1982. After a solo single ("Street Kid") from Run failed to garner much interest, his older brother, Russell Simmons, was swayed into taking on the group as a trio. He changed their name to Run-D.M.C. and began shopping around their demo. He got a bite from Profile Records co-founder Cory Robbins, who inked them to a deal shortly after hearing an early version of "It's Like That," which they recorded with producer Larry Smith in his home studio in Queens. Robbins gave the group $2,000 to re-record the single, and they returned with it, plus "Sucker M.C.'s." The pair of songs were released together as a twelve-inch in 1983, and while urban radio at the time was still slow to embrace hip-hop, Kiss FM in New York City took a chance on playing "It's Like That." Other urban radio stations followed suit and eventually the song rose to No. 15 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, while selling upwards of 250,000 copies.
But despite the strong sales, hip-hop, in its infancy, was still ostensibly a singles-driven business. Even the thought of selling a full-length LP was adventurous at the time. That is, of course, until another Run-D.M.C. song, "Hard Times," rose to No. 11 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs. The Hollis boys were hitting on something. Their sparse-but-aggressive tracks stood in stark contrast to the smooth R&B-inflected rap songs of the day, and it was hard to not be captivated by DMC's booming voice, Run's shout rap and Jay's proficiency behind the wheels of steel. What's more, while other MCs dressed in glitzy disco-inspired costumes, Run-D.M.C. wore tracksuits, Cazal glasses and Adidas. They looked like the people in the street they were making their records for. They were authentic before authenticity in hip-hop was even a thing.
Another song on their debut, "Rock Box," holds the distinction of being the first hip-hop video ever played on MTV. That exposure, paired with the group's relentless performance schedule — the 27-date "Fresh Fest" tour, for example — helped the album become a success. It also effectively made Run-D.M.C. into superstars. On the LP's 30th anniversary, we revisit its nine classic cuts.
The song was originally written and recorded by Kurtis Blow — who Russell Simmons also managed, and who Run had previously DJ'd for— but his version, included on his 1980 self-titled debut, is more funk-oriented than Run-D.M.C.'s. Theirs is stripped of all melody and reduced to a lurching drum machine pitter patter. Over it, DMC and Run go line-for-line, an old school party-rocking tradition that assuredly didn't seem out of place back then. Lyrics like "P-p-prices go up, don't let your pocket go down/ When you got short money you're stuck on the ground," summed up the hard-scrabble eighties-era New York environment they were living in, and brought a dose of reality to rap that wasn't quite en vogue just yet.
The group was reportedly hesitant to record "Rock Box," as they felt the song's initial bass groove wasn't up to par; Later, producer Larry Smith won their approval by changing the keyboard patch to something with more girth. And then Eddie Martinez, a popular session musician, came in and played the track's signature lead guitar line, which gave it the rock element it needed to play to white audiences. The video famously became the first clip from a rap act to play on MTV, and when Run screamed out "Our DJ is better than all these bands!" it was like a rallying cry for the rap generation. As if to say, move over rock n' roll, hip-hop is the new sound of young America.
"Jam Master Jay"
Because early hip-hop music was an outgrowth of the live music and party experience, DJs were extremely important. (They were the first rappers.) "Jam Master Jay" is an attempt to highlight the backbone of Run-D.M.C., the guy who keeps the party going. It features a copious amount of cutting and scratching, which serves to showcase Jay's skills. Structurally, there wasn't yet a format for making rap songs, so what you have here are a series of short verses which sit between moments of Jay cutting it up. It's less of a song than an experience, something to be played at a party.
"Hollis Crew — Krush Groove 2"
"Hollis Crew" uses the staccato hand clap from Lovebug Starski's "Live At the Disco Fever," which was released two years prior. But while it shares that track's rhythmic sensibilities, it's deep kick and snare sounds are much sharper and more mechanical. It's the aggressive sound of a drum machine gone wild. A precursor to "Sucker M.C.'s," — it's sonic mirror — the song finds Run and DMC trading braggadocio rhymes, filling in each other's lines and perfecting the chemistry that would make them so powerful when paired together.
"Sucker M.C.'s — Krush Groove 1"
The most famous hip-hop drum pattern in the history of the genre originates here. It slightly varies from the one heard on the previous cut — "Hollis Crew," respectively — scaled back to just the core kick, snare and hand clap from the Oberheim DMX drum machine. They're programmed so simple even a baby can tap along to them. And lyrically, Run's classic opening lines are cemented as some of the most widely-remembered rap lyrics of all time: "Two years ago, a friend of mine/ Asked me to say some MC rhymes/ So I said this rhyme I'm about to say/ The rhyme was def and then it went this way." In rap's competitive landscape, this was the group's way of saying the thrown was for the taking.
"It's Like That"
Released at a critical juncture in rap's early years, "It's Like That" embodied societal frustrations finally put to record. It was hardly the first song to do such a thing, but it's primary asset was that it offered commentary on hardship, without selling people false hope. The song's refrain ("It's like that, and that's the way it is") hammered that point home. Its minimal production — sparse drum track, a synth stab and a blast of white noise — provided the space that both Run and DMC needed to deliver their rhymes with undeniable conviction. Seemingly overnight, they became the voice of an entire disenfranchised generation.
One of the more clever productions on the LP, "Wake Up" features a steady bass note that hits along with the kick drum, giving it a distinctly old school swing. In sticking with a pop music theme that permeated the eighties, the MCs go back and forth pledging for world peace and unity. By modern standards, the lyrics are nothing to write home about ("Between all countries there were good relations/ There finally was a meaning to United Nations/ And everybody had an occupation/ Cause we all worked together to fight starvation"), but at least the group's heart was in the right place.
Run throws a shot at the Weather Girls' 1982 hit "It's Raining Men" at the beginning of the song ("Heard that they said that it's rainin' men/ but the offer that I make, it won't be made again"), and then the pair go to town over Larry Smith's squelchy synths. Certainly one of the more R&B-centric cuts on the LP, but they couldn't ditch musicality for an entire LP. It's impossible for a drum machine by itself to sound that interesting for that long.
A final nod from Jam Master Jay, who cuts up a series of phrases by his bandmates ("J-A-Y are the letters of his name…. real Jam Master"). Perhaps it's fitting that he'd wind up closing the album out, as he was always the group's binding tie, the thing that brought them together and made it all make sense. Though he'd be tragically murdered years later, it was here at the start, in 1984, that it became apparent that Jay, too, was a star in his own right. And his fingerprints are all over the LP; if not sonically, then at least aesthetically. Even when it's understated, it was on this introductory effort where it became glaringly apparent— there is no Run-D.M.C. without Jam Master Jay.