Monday, April 6, 2009
Combat Jack Salutes RUN-DMC
If you're younger than say, 34, 35, close your eyes for a minute and as impossible as it may be, try to imagine a world without Hip Hop.
My first experience with Hip Hop was in the summer of 1978. My best friend Frank, who lived up the block and was two years older than me, used to be a messenger working at a courier service down in the Wall Street area. At work, Frank would hang with some brothers from the Bronx and Uptown and as they would build during their lunch breaks, they would tease my man with snippets of live performances from groups with bugged out super hero sounding names like Grand Master Flash and The Furious Five, Kool Herc and the Herculords and the Cold Crush Brothers as they performed musical routines in an art form then unknown to the world. It was most definitely unknown to cats like me in Brooklyn. For a couple of weeks after coming home from work, Frank would desperately try to explain this new sound called rap coming from Harlem, banging from the Bronx. I had no concept of understanding what the hell my man was talking about, or what the fuck a Melle Mel or a Grand Master Caz was, only that it had the homie Frank amped. This one Thursday night, before payday, Frank convinced me to pony up $5 and go half with him on one of those cassette tapes he was going on about, said he would cop a Grand Master Flash & The Furious Five joint. Little did I know that after that night, my was life was never going to be the same.
That next day, on Frank's stoop, on Lincoln Place in Brooklyn, as he popped the tape in, and emcees Cowboy, Raheim, Kid Creole, Scorpio and Melle Mel invaded my senses, hypnotized by how Flash was savagely raping beats with his furious cuts and scratches, my whole d.n.a. metamorphed into something else, something new. As a young teenager trying to find his way in a changing world, the music that I heard that day seemed like it spoke only to to me, the lyrics was about shit that only I could relate to. Growing up on r&b, soul, funk and disco was cool, but on that very day in 1978, in discovering the beginnings of a culture that I would wholly become a part of, in speak, in dress in attitude, in perspective, I became a B-boy. On that fateful day, I became complete.
Over the next year, my cassette collection blossomed with the likes of Kool Herc and The Herculords, Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde, Busy Bee. On top of Melle Mel becoming my first rap idol, The Cold Crush Brothers stayed being my favorite crew because they kept their routines sounding fresh and on the way they sounded in their famed battle against rival crew The Fantastic Five. I still have that CCB vs. FF cassette, and even though the FF officially won that, I claim the Cold Crush the true winners. In school, I stayed having an edge on my peers since I was so much more up on Hip Hop than they were. Some cats began to think my shit was a bit weird in how I kept my jeans creased, how I would flip if a sucker scuffed my Adidas, my Hush Puppies, my Puma's, how I stayed with the ice grill when cats I didn't really eff with too tough was around me. Hip Hop was my own little private world, and the more private I kept it, excluding clowns that wasn't down, the happier I was. I was steady tripping on that young teenager shit. My definition of nirvana was sneaking out after dark to the park, packed with other teenagers crowded around our local deejays with their makeshift turntables and speakers blasting the break beats of "Seven Minutes of Funk" by The Whole Darn Family, or "Mardi Gras" by Bob James as our local rappers lined up, waiting patiently for their chance to rock the microphone, their only shot at a brief moment of stardom, weed smoke from all the burning joints further expanding our young consciousness as we danced, grooved, romanced, postured and thugged out in this very private, intimate world of ours. All this without a record deal.
On an October morning in 1979, as I was getting ready for school, I was listening to WBLS when my world was changed again. That morning was the first time I heard "Rapper's Delight" on the radio. Although it was the first rap record I heard on the airwaves, I was pissed. Pissed at how these Sugarhill Gang rappers sounded fake, nothing near as authentic as the cats I had been following on cassette, even though they rocked that Chic "Good Times" beat that had flooded every hood in the US. Plus they looked whack and had corny sounding names like Wonder Mike and Big Hank and Master Gee. Out the gate the record industry betrayed me by insulting my Hip Hop intelligence with a rudimentary Mickey Mouse ass sounding song as it's very first rap single, still and all, I grew to like, grew to love that record as they started playing it at all the little parties I was going to, how the girls who wasn't up on Hip Hop loved to dance to it. How that record was the first official corner stone that went into the construction of the rap music industry. Right after "Rapper's Delight", it seemed like every one was rushing to put out a record, further gelling the makings of a growing musical genre. My favorites, Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five and The Cold Crush Brothers got a chance to do their thing on wax, and even though some of their records took off and it felt good to hear my original rap heroes on wax, the sound that I first heard on cassette, primal, raw, fresh was replaced by slick production, almost a smooth blend of Hip hop beats with a lil of that r&b. No doubt I stayed fiending for that next single, that next banger, but over night, the era of the sound of rappers performing the most original of routines as their deejays spun, mixed, cut and scratched records with the crowd screaming in the background was replaced with the rap record. My private little Hip Hop world was now part of a growing industry and teenagers from Brooklyn to Beijing began to take note, began to become a part of this new culture.
Mr. Magic kept me up late on weeknights, trying to catch the latest joints way before anyone else. Rap albums started being released and even though they rarely felt quite cohesive in content and theme, we kept dancing. In 1983, I started hearing "It's Like That" by a group with the unique name Run-DMC. "It's Like That" was cool, but at the time, it was nothing that made me take note. Shortly after, I heard "Sucker MC's" at a block party in Bed Stuy and me along with the crowd went ape. That record was the first time I heard a single that fully captured that feel that I had when I used to rock my earlier rap cassettes, a parse driving beat, cutting and scratching, two rappers spitting fire, nothing more. No chorus, no r&b inflected baselines, no chorus, just that out in the park late at night vibe, packaged neatly as the b-side to "It's Like That". "Sucker MC's had Run-DMC standing out and apart from the herd, right out the gate. Even though they released the follow up single "Hard Times" that was similar in nature to "It's Like That", the heat rock single next launched from the Run-DMC chamber was the instant classic "Rock Box". "Rock Box" was that perfect mix of hood rap and rock strings, what with that electric guitar riff making that joint sound hard as hell. In addition, the single was accompanied by a video, an artsy looking black and white piece that visually showcased the young rappers, Run coming off with the most arrogant of emcee swagger, DMC looking like the B-boy hard rock version of Frankenstein, stiff, menacing, hard, [||], Jam Master Jay showing off his Hollis cool as he manhandled the turntables. Not only did these cats have the hottest song and video out. They also dressed like me (or like how I wanted to dress). Gone were the coked out, older looking rappers with the Jheri curls, leather, lace and leopard, who were desperately trying to jack r&b's and disco's smoothed out and slightly homo-erotic glam look [||]. Run-DMC were the new niggas on the block and with one fell swoop, they declared with "Rock Box" the death of Hip Hop's "old school" generation artists that laid the foundation. Looking like it was shot at a party representing New York City's then downtown scene filled with Punks, whites and a smattering of Black faces, "Rock Box" is known as the first hip-hop music video to air on MTV. Cementing their place in history with the release of their eponymous debut album in 1984, Run-DMC dropped what some consider to be the first true rap album.
Becoming Hip Hop's first true widely recognized stars, Run-DMC set out to conquer not only rap, but the rock genre as well with their follow up release "King Of Rock" which dropped in 1985. Because of the noise they made with their first album, many esteemed critics from the rock establishment began dismissing the group's accomplishments, shitting on them and rap as a whole as not being a true art-form, that Hip Hop was just a passing fad for ghetto kids, that it wouldn't be around that much longer. In what was a shot aimed against it's critics, Run-DMC's next single and video, named "King Of Rock" had the group dissing major pop acts like Michael Jackson, the Beatles and even Elvis. On an intense drum beat and a scathing base line loop, further expanding on the rock feel introduced by "Rock Box", Run-DMC boldly claimed themselves to be the new kings of rock, kings of pop even, and dared every one out there to test them. In retrospect, this was such a brilliant effin move, shutting down all potential rap competitors and aiming for the top spot in one shot. It also helped that the single was fuego and MTV stayed jocking the video in major heavy rotation. Matching Hip Hop's street intensity with rock and roll's colossal instrumental sounds, Run-DMC convinced the world that they were here to stay. The album also broke all Hip Hop records in that it was the first to go gold and then platinum.
If "Run-DMC' is considered to be rap's first complete album and "King Of Rock" it's first major crossover, the following album "Raising Hell" released in 1986 is deemed rap's first masterpiece. Taking over most of the production, legendary producer and co-founder of Def Jam as then partner to Russell Simmons, Rick Rubin went in deep with this one. Whereas their prior records had combined elements of dense and sparse production, "Raising Hell", at the time, was simply the best produced rap record ever. The hits on the album were plenty with classics like "Peter Piper", "It's Tricky", "My Adidas", "Walk This Way" and "Raising Hell", what on earth was effin with this? Run-DMC's 4th album went triple platinum. Even though the group would drop further classics in their subsequent albums "Tougher Than Leather" (1988), "Back From Hell" (1990) and "Down With The King" (1993), "Raising Hell" proved to be the last monster album released by the group.
I can't even begin to get into the highlights surrounding Run-DMC's career in connection with their impact on touring, movies, magazine covers, endorsement deals and merchandise without having to write another coupla thousand words. This past Saturday, April 4th, Run-DMC became the 2nd rap act ever to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame, second only to Grand Master Flash and The Furious Five. Funny, how Melle Mel was my first rap idol and Run-DMC was my second. Not known for their true lyrical skills and rarely mentioned in anyone's top 5, top 10 or top 100 emcee lists, it was great to see them receive the highest props for their contribution spanning back 25 years. Run-DMC may not go down as anyone's favorite G.O.A.T. emcee's of all time, but they remain arguably, Hip Hop's Greatest act of all time. From me to you, a sincere and heartfelt salute from Combat Jack to Run-DMC, the Kings from Queens.
So I'm asking, what's your favorite Run-DMC song?