MusicWeekend

Fagen’s Critical Catalogue: Run-DMC Special

by Lucas Fagen on November 10, 2012

CHICAGO — Inspired by Michael Tatum’s Downloader’s Diary, where Tatum has so far published two full-artist reviews, I tried my hand at this form, and this is where it got me. It’s a great excuse to extensively play records I otherwise wouldn’t have enough time for, not to mention a way to understand a type of chronological progression that most people listening to music retrospectively often miss. Why I picked this one specifically I’m not quite sure, but it was worth it. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Run-DMC, the hardest-rocking band in hip-hop.

Run-D.M.C.

Profile, 1984 [BUY]

The loudest, simplest, and most aggressive of the hip-hop groups so far: if Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five is closer to pop, and Afrika Bambaataa closer to techno. Run-DMC’s strategy is much more straightforward — they shove their music at you, command you to like it, and you will. They have yet to prove their significance, but even the weakest bands in a style as up-and-coming as this can have lasting impact, and these guys are pretty strong.

Authoratative yet quite austere, the chief innovation on this album is formal. Centered around Jam-Master Jay’s primitively heavy drumblasts, the mix always asserts itself whether kicking in the killer guitars on “Rock Box” or sticking to synthesized percussion on most of the other tracks. The rappers practice a certain kind of bigheaded opportunism characteristic of privileged pop-metalists, among whom it’s a sickening attitude, no doubt about it. But these college kids belong to a subculture that at least in theory embodies the lower-middle-class. That’s why their various social protests ring true, why they get away with a sound whose various vulgarities would wear thin in almost any other context, why it’s a miracle they manage to be this emphatic. Their tight sonic impositions thrill like going on a roller coaster for the first time.

Telling you to get an education one moment, calling you a sucker the next, they already have the makings of great rock stars. Their aesthetic is summed up in the way they shout at the top of their lungs, rejecting vocal/lyrical nuance in favor of energy, energy, more energy. A-

King of Rock

Profile, 1985 [BUY]

If you liked the first album, you’ll like the second one too, which follows the same formula pretty closely. Since nobody else sounds remotely like them, it’s easy to mistake this elaboration of their basic style for mere repetition. But even so, their basic style is so raw, so spare yet powerful, that I’ll take all I can get.

Their up-and-coming crew-that-can-never-be-beat routine suits the blunt percussive violence that fuels even the more musically complex tracks, but they’ve shifted perspective a little. In terms of hip-hop society, their place in a working-class subculture is naturally undercut by commercial success, which has not only made their gross ambition harder to take, it’s made them complacent in the manner of the biggest multiplatinum titans: now that they know how great they are, they’re no longer rubbing it in our faces. Still, Eddie Martinez’s bristling guitar riffs add a fierce musical potency very much in tune with the rappers’ vocal bravado. And Jam-Master Jay rocks with a drive that’s pointless to deny, whacking each note like he’s beating up the turntables.

Compared to the debut, this good-not-great record lacks focus somehow. But come on. Can you really resist lines like “I’m the king of rock/there is none higher/sucker MCs should call me sire/to burn my kingdom you must use fire/I won’t stop rocking till I retire”? I don’t think so. B+

Raising Hell

Profile, 1986 [BUY]

They’re a great band on a mission, and their biggest-sounding record is at once more consistent and more musically varied than anything else they’ve done. As their sound gets more intense, so do they, saying much not only to their street-oriented college audience, but to the middle-class establishment whose values they share and whose aesthetic they disdain. They also make a bunch of good jokes and boast a whole lot.

The blasting guitars and beefy beats would make this album a giant piece of muscle regardless, packed so tightly together it explodes in your face by default and then takes it from there. But despite the arena-rock ambition typified by the Aerosmith cover/cameo, this is where they reveal what I’ve always suspected was the driving force behind their music: tough, uncompromising moralism. Other rappers fuck bitches and smoke cheeba and drink malt liquor, but Joseph Simmons, Darryl McDaniels and Jason Mizell stick to the straight and narrow — endorse education, reject drugs, preach about race, yell at “stupid sex fiends.” Even better, they’re arrogant about it. Usually puritans like these are guilty of the worst sort of misanthropy. But the delight with which they bellow their peerless rhymes makes it clear they’re enjoying themselves a great deal and would like you to join them. As long as you accept their terms.

Incorruptible but still funny, they really work hard. It’s rare for pop stars to have such an uncompromising worldview. Rarer still for the worldview in question to make sense. A-

Tougher Than Leather

Profile, 1988 [BUY]

The kind of formal intensity these guys specialize in is simply too great a trick to sustain for an extended period of time, so it’s no surprise that on this album they suddenly run out of things to say. Old-school rappers have always accused them of expedient crossover, and on this record, marked by commercial aspirations that get less and less charming the more they succeed, those suspicions are confirmed.

Though they still rhyme spectacularly, they’ve started fussing over technique. After five years of changing the game for the better, the Beastie Boys have stolen their guitars, Public Enemy has one-upped them with political rhetoric, and the kings are a little worried their sound no longer belongs in the modern world. So here they make some minor adjustments to their sonic attack so as to pander to a larger audience for once, a rock audience. The rappers are now using microphone effects; the beats are coated in electronic polish. As far as egotism goes, always a crucial factor with this band, they’ve been slicked up enough to avoid any semblance of being principled. In short, they’re a couple steps closer to the pop-rock smugness previously dispelled by their strong work ethic.

“Run’s House” and the rest of the singles are highlights, which is to be expected on an album as pro forma as this. The rest is great product, but nothing more. B

Back From Hell

Profile, 1990 [BUY]

Musically, this is a departure from the smarmy minimalism of Tougher Than Leather, but like the previous album, they’re mindlessly following a trend. Although they could never wholeheartedly buy into the gangsta ethos, here they come as close as they can without sacrificing their youth culture heritage, which in a way is worse, as it implies they’ve taken up the deceitful opportunism they used to be too good for.

I mean, really. This is 1990. Dozens of rappers are out there fucking da police, playing the pimp game, and telling freaky tales, and what are the genre’s three honest moralists doing? Shooting each other over cocaine. Even if you can tolerate N.W.A.-style hostility, an attitude whose severity they never match, it’s hard to hear this record as anything but a pointless, depressing attempt at going ghetto. Cluttered with extraneous background noises that never quite mesh with each other, the layers of murk splattered all over the synthesizer-swing are almost as dull as their violent tales of breaking the law, which play out like a bad action movie, cop sirens and all. This new style is marked by a pervasive loss of principle that removes the edge regardless of how often they claim street cred.

If this is supposed to be some sort of social statement, it trivializes a subject these guys, of all people, should know to take seriously. Keeping up with the times has knocked them off their game. C+

Together Forever: Greatest Hits 1983–1991

Profile, 1991 [BUY]

Released right in the middle of their career, this compilation cashes in on the eight years they’ve been around rather than making a definitive statement. It’s a decent illustration of their hallmarks and idiosyncrasies, with some dynamite material on it.

This includes all of their great songs, as well as some really good ones. Though each one steamrollers you in its own distinct way, they all belong to a unique sound that, whether you love the guitar shredding or the drumshots or the heavy vocal attack, is about power first and foremost. The sheer physicality of the music is a force to be reckoned with. But the songs are sequenced in no particularly compelling order, which does too make a difference. It sounds like a list of singles, not the great album you’d expect to cohere, and anyway, there’s no way these guys could ever be a singles band – if only for their lower-middle-class authenticity, their style is opposed to what’s intrinsically a commercial artform. The end result is considerably shallower than individual tracks would imply.

You don’t get a good sense of their focused energy or even their musical dependability here. Still, this is an album that includes “It’s Like That,” “Rock Box,”“Sucker MCs,” “King of Rock,” “It’s Tricky,” “You Be Illin,” “Walk This Way,” “My Adidas,” and “Run’s House,” so I should probably shut up and enjoy the thing. B+

Down With the King

Profile, 1993 [BUY]

Though I’m glad they’ve ditched the ghetto posing of Back From Hell, they’re still creatively confused: ever since the ‘90s started, they’ve been mortally afraid of becoming irrelevant. Commercially, this is a comeback, as “Down With the King” is their best song since “Run’s House,” if not “It’s Tricky.” But it’s also an explicit attempt to show the world that they haven’t lost their puritanical ideals. It winds up way too puritanical.

Demonstrating their hard edge yet again, they’ve bulked up the music as they haven’t for years. The rhymes are entertaining even by their standards, and they’re careful about who does the guest verses. But with the exception of the awesome title single, this album is just a bunch of beats, and austere ones at that. No sharp one-liners, no explosive hooks, not much of anything besides percussive DJ scratching that obscures the rhythm rather than foregrounding it. Occasionally some weird jazz sample will rise above the heavy turntable dynamics, but that’s it. Either Jam-Master Jay was in a sour mood when he cut the record or their discipline has devolved into a dubious asceticism. Or maybe DJ Run’s new religious conversion has turned them from the best kind of moralists to the worst kind of moralists.

Unlike the last one, this is obviously a Run-DMC record, with their trademark shouting and tough musical assault. But they’re just not saying anything compelling, which is what matters when we’re dealing with revered elders like these guys. B-

Crown Royal

Arista, 2001 [BUY]

I have no idea why they recorded this. They’ve been inactive for eight years, preaching and fighting depression and whatnot. Why would they suddenly make a record that sounds nothing like them? The beats are bland, clean, sounding fresh off the production line; all they talk about is how they still matter, which just goes to show that they don’t.

Though they never rock out here like they used to, the music’s electronic smoothness asserts itself plenty. They’ve started foregrounding the hooks a little, and the Steve Miller cover is a nice throwback to “Walk This Way” and “Mary, Mary.” Even the orchestral horns, whose regal grandiosity completely opposes their artistic vision, somewhat fit the new groove. All this might add up to a good album if there were more of the kings themselves on it. Guest verses dominate: despite Nas and Method Man’s respective talents, they don’t make up for Mobb Depp, Kid Rock, Fat Joe, and Fred Durst. Each one proves the record a half-assed attempt at a comeback. The pioneers are suddenly fawning on any young rapper who tells them they’re great, and their own personality gets crowded out. The overall effect is that of a bunch of sucker MCs blabbering about how much they love Run-DMC.

Most revealing factoid: DMC himself, apparently disillusioned with the record, shows up on only three tracks. Most of the work is left to DJ Run and the hangers-on enjoying his hospitality. Maybe now that Run’s become Reverend Joseph Simmons, he’s opened his house to all and sundry. B-

Greatest Hits

Arista/BMG Heritage, 2002 [BUY]

Run-DMC’s second greatest hits package has even better sequencing and selection than the first. It flows from track to track more compellingly, and there’s not a single clinker. With the exceptions of “Christmas In Hollis” and “Down With the King,” everything is from their first and best four albums. Since their hits were mostly where they let out their pent-up intensity, it’s even sturdier than Raising Hell.

Arranging all their classic material so that every track builds on the next one, this configuration clearly and confidently demonstrates what made them great. DJ Run and Darryl Mac rapped straightforwardly, opting for a nearly matter-of-fact vocal energy. Everything was guided by the hand of Jam-Master Jay, whose less-is-more approach to the harsh, muscular beats provided the music’s backbone. Compressing turntable minimalism, awesome heavy-metal riffs, and rhymes bellowed at the top of their lungs into explosive musical powerhouses, they synthesized respectable middle-class principles and street aggression, and in doing so vindicated both – an attraction for the crossover audience and hardcore ideologues alike. Because of this, they rocked harder than anyone else in hip-hop.

I once suspected them of expediency, but here it’s clear their blatant ambition has paid off triumphantly. If you don’t believe that having good judgment and having a powerful aesthetic are compatible, Run-DMC will blast their music at you until you do. A

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