Though rap had been selling records and denting the lower reaches of the Billboard charts since 1979, it can be argued that Run-D.M.C.‘s self-titled debut — which peaked at No. 53 on the Billboard 200 on June 23 — was the first time that real hip-hop was pressed to vinyl.
Most rap hits until then (“Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang, “The Breaks” by Kurtis Blow) were R&B party records with rhymes flowing over them. Def Jam Records co-founder Russell Simmons, who managed Blow and Run-D.M.C., had been frustrated that the former’s records “had too much music” and “weren’t B-boy enough.” So, he and co-producer Larry Smith created a stripped-down aesthetic for Run-D.M.C. using a Roland TR-808 drum machine that emulated the way rappers spit rhymes over break beats in New York parks.
Joseph “Run” Simmons (Russell’s kid brother) and Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels, both 19, were not as technically gifted or as lyrically complex as MCs who came before and after, but they had the hard-rhyming style that perfectly complemented the minimalistic production. Backed by 19-year-old DJ Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell (who was murdered in 2002), Run hurled rhymes with a zealot’s fury, while D.M.C.’s hardy baritone invested every couplet with power.
The impact of their first single, “Sucker M.C.’s” (with a B-side of “It’s Like That”), far exceeded its No. 15 peak on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart on Feb. 18. The stark swagger of those songs and the searing heavy-metal guitar licks on the exhilarating “Rock Box” hit like a one-two combination thrown by Mike Tyson, heralding the 808 as the foundation of hip-hop’s future and Run-D.M.C. as the genre’s new kings.
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 1 issue of Billboard.