By Tony Sclafani
At the time, the song was something of a curiosity. Rock fans pretty much ignored it, while some of the group’s core audience were hostile to the idea of mixing rap with rock, considering the song a bow to mainstream conventions.
A quarter of a century on, Run-D.M.C. is getting inaugurated into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. And part of the reason for that stems back to the pioneering approach to rap they started with the audacious “Rock Box” — a record that’s Led Zeppelin-esque in the way it manages to seem as powerful now as it did then.
Run-D.M.C. is better known for its later blend of rap and rock with its Top Five 1986 cover of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” (which helped revive Aerosmith’s career since Steve Tyler and Joe Perry appeared on the record). But it was “Rock Box” that changed the rules of both rap and rock.
After “Rock Box,” no longer would rappers have to shout rhymes over disco or funk-inspired backing tracks. And rockers found their musical vocabulary expanded.
By the 1990s, groups like Faith No More, Rage Against The Machine and Red Hot Chili Peppers were mixing rhymes and rock. Rap rock gained mainstream popularity as a genre in the late-’90s and Kid Rock, Linkin Park and Limp Bizkit (among others) achieved mega-success with this style. And if rockers weren’t rapping, they were picking up on the vocal rhythms of hip hop (i.e. No Doubt).
“People think ‘Walk This Way’ was the first rock-rap record,” says Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels, who made up Run-D.M.C. with Joseph “Run” Simmons and Jason “Jam-Master Jay” Mizell. “But the first rap-rock record was ‘Rock Box.’
“In a typical DJ’s crate, there would be James Brown records because there was always a funky drummer break, where the beat would break down and the emcee could run his mouth,” McDaniels continues. “But in those same crates, there was always a record from a rock band, like Billy Squire’s ‘The Big Beat.’ So when we started making records, we noticed everybody was doing James Brown, everybody was using funk records, but ain’t nobody using the rock records that we used to love. So we just started doing what we loved to do -— rap over the rock beat.”
But Run-D.M.C. did more than marry rap to rock. They’re also largely credited with bringing rap and hip-hop culture to the mainstream. Their third album, Raising Hell, was the first rap album to go platinum, selling more than three million copies according to the “Billboard Book of Top 40 Albums.” They were also the first rappers ever to be awarded with a coveted Rolling Stone magazine cover and get a video on MTV (“Rock Box,” according to band biographer Ronin Ro).
These days, it’s largely taken for granted that hip-hop culture is part of mainstream culture. But that wasn’t the case in Run-D.M.C.’s era, when MTV wouldn’t play videos by African-American artists. Their music helped tear down a wall between cultures in much the way the music of other Rock Hall members like Little Richard and Chuck Berry did in the 1950s.
McDaniels, 44, says he still vividly remembers the days when “nobody took rappers seriously.
“At every press conference we did, they would ask us, ‘Is hip hop a fad? Where do you think you’ll be in five years?’” he recalls. “Because people did not believe in hip hop. Even when Grandmaster Flash got nominated and inducted, we couldn’t believe it.”
Run-D.M.C. started out when Joseph “Run” Simmons decided he needed to branch away from being a protégé of rapper Kurtis Blow. He recruited McDaniels and eventually Mizell. Simmons’ older brother Russell (who would later go on to found Def Jam Records with producer Rick Rubin) managed the group and helped get them signed to the fledgling Profile label.
Run-D.M.C.’s stark debut single (“It’s Like That”/”Sucker MC’s”) changed the rules of rap by using little more than a drum machine as a backdrop. The group also pioneered the idea of trading off vocal lines and/or words, a concept later picked up by The Beastie Boys and Public Enemy.
At the time, Run-D.M.C.’s early records were thought to be a reaction against the more mellifluent works by the aforementioned Flash, Blow and others, who used mellow intonation and rapped over disco beats. But McDaniels says his group was, in fact, influenced by those early rap acts. The difference was, Run-D.M.C. took their cue from the way those artists played live, not on vinyl.
“When emcees and DJs started getting on records, they stopped doing what they used to do live at places like (the New York club) Harlem World,” McDaniels recalls. “We didn’t change when we became showbiz. The way we rapped in Joseph’s basement is exactly the way we did it on record. We used to tell Flash and the Cold Crush Brothers, ‘We just did what we heard you all doing on tape before there really was rap.’”
That street style spilled over into the group’s b-boy clothing, which proved hugely influential, especially after The Beastie Boys brought it to white America years later. That, too, was influenced by early rappers, McDaniels says.
“We dressed like Flash and them before they made records,” McDaniels says of the group’s penchant for Adidas, leather jackets and Kangol hats. “People don’t know this, but when you would go see (Grandmaster Flash’s) Melle Mel and them live, they all had godfather hats on. When you went to Harlem World and saw The Treacherous Three or the Force M.D.’s, those guys were dressed exactly like us. But when they made records, their wardrobe became what their show-business idols wore.
“I have to take back 10 years of teasing them, because think about this -— the first rappers had no rappers to look up to. Their idols were Funkadelic, Rick James and The Rolling Stones, so Mel and them were dressing like their idols.”
Throughout the mid-1980s, Run-D.M.C.’s popularity was on an upward trajectory. Their first two albums, Run-D.M.C. and King of Rock, were hits on the R&B charts, while their next two, Raising Hell and Tougher Than Leather, went platinum. McDaniels says he sees 1986’s Raising Hell as the group’s high-water mark.
“There was a whole lot of creativity going on in hip hop,” he says, noting the rise of LL Cool J and others. “The competition was positively influencing us, and we were able to take our game to a higher level. When we did Raising Hell we had to go to a place where nobody else was going.”
That album saw the group record two of its biggest hits, “You Be Illin’” (Top 30 in late 1986) and “It’s Tricky” (Top 50 in early 1987). “Proud To Be Black” paved the way for Public Enemy. The Beastie Boys also picked up on numerous musical and lyrical ideas from the album (Run-D.M.C. would later write “Slow And Low” for the Beastie’s debut). In 2006, Time magazine named Raising Hell as one of its All-Time Top 100 Albums. And then there was the cover of “Walk This Way.”
“The way we were gonna do ‘Walk This Way’ as a cover originally,” explains McDaniels, “We were just gonna steal the beats and rap how good we are: ‘I’m D.M.C./ K-I-N-G/Not another MC could mess with me/Been rhyming on the mic since ’83.’ But (co-producer) Rick Rubin said, ‘No, what you guys should do is do the record over.’”
While most of the group was against that idea at first, they relented, says McDaniels, and found themselves with their biggest hit ever, followed by a massive tour that saw rap music start to achieve the popularity of rock. For McDaniels, the group’s music at this point also reflected his influences, which were also in rock and pop.
“There was a radio station in New York, AM 77 WABC, and they used to play everything: Sly And The Family Stone, Bob Dylan,” he says. “But for some reason, Led Zeppelin and the rock ’n’ roll bands caught my ears. I think (I liked) the rock groups because they wrote songs about things — they wrote about economics and Civil Rights and politics and society, where the R&B and the funk groups were just singing about love and sex and funky stuff.”
1988’s Tougher Than Leather contained Run-D.M.C.’s remake of the Monkees’ “Mary Mary,” which was also a minor pop hit. But after that album, the group’s popularity waned. Part of this was due to internal troubles, like the disjointed filming of the movie “Tougher Than Leather” (a box-office failure). But part of it was also because of the rapidly changing climate of rap, where Run-D.M.C.’s popularity was supplanted by groups they influenced, like Public Enemy.
The group followed up Tougher Than Leather with the commercial disappointment Back From Hell in 1990. On this release, the group seemed to lose focus when they began rapping over the mellow R&B tracks they’d once rebelled against.
The follow-up album, Down With The King, gave the group a comeback in 1993, with the title track being a substantial hit. In 1997, producer Jason Nevins remixed several of the group’s early tracks, including “It’s Like That,” and the band found itself with a hit in Europe, which resulted in a successful tour.
The comeback was short-lived. On disc, Run-D.M.C. ended with a whimper on 2001’s Crown Royal, an album on which Simmons barely appeared. The band did later mount a successful tour with Aerosmith, but it was cut short when Run decided to leave the band. At that point Run-D.M.C. effectively ended.
Any hopes of a reunion were dashed Oct. 30, 2002, when Mizell was shot to death in his recording studio. His murder remains unsolved.
“Jay was always ready to do something different,” remembers McDaniels. “Even if it meant taking a chance with something and not liking it. Remember, in hip hop, the emcees are just the voices — the deejay was always in charge of the direction of hip-hop culture. When it came to Jay, he was the musical director — not just a guy playing records.”
Run-D.M.C.’s influence is sure to be cited at the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction, but it’s ultimately the music they made that’s their real legacy.
“You know, we believed in the music,” McDaniels concludes. “Jay was always saying we thought hip hop and rap was gonna be big because it was already big to us before it even was on a record. It was the biggest thing in the streets where we lived. But we didn’t project or foresee we were gonna be big. It was just something we loved to do.”