Run-D.M.C. - Biography
By Scott Feemster
To say that the trio of Run-D.M.C. were important to the early development of hip-hop would be an understatement. They were the group that were responsible, more than any other artist, for bringing hip-hop out of the urban ghettos and in to the mainstream of American music. They were one of the first groups to show that for a young person to be heard musically, you didn't just need a guitar, three chords and the truth. Now you could have a beat box, a turntable, and the truth. Run-D.M.C. were also one of the first hip-hop groups to construct whole, well thought out albums, instead of releases with a couple of singles and remixes thrown in. Every time you hear a fat, low beat pulsing out of a passing car, or see an MC rapping with a seen-it-all swagger, you can almost certainly trace some of their influence back to Run-D.M.C.
All of the members of Run-D.M.C. were born and raised in the ethnically mixed New York City borough of Queens, and more specifically in the middle-class neighborhood called Hollis. Because of Queens' ethnic diversity and proximity to Manhattan, Joseph Simmons, ( born November 14th, 1964), and Darryl McDaniels ( born May 31st, 1964), were exposed to all kinds of music, but were especially attracted to the block parties that Jamaican immigrants put on where a master of ceremony, called a toaster or an MC, would rap over an instrumental track provided by a dj behind a pair of turntables. By the time the boys were in high school, this approach had been taken up by mostly black and Puerto Rican kids and transformed into a new kind of music called hip-hop or rap. Joseph, often called Joey, got involved in the burgeoning rap scene and spent a short period of time as a dj behind legendary early rapper Kurtis Blow. Joseph's brother, Russell Simmons, had also gotten involved with the hip-hop scene as a promoter and manager, and encouraged his younger brother and McDaniels to form a rap duo. (Russell Simmons would go on to co-found, with Rick Rubin, the highly influential record label Def Jam a few years later.) The pair worked on their rhyming skills, and adopted the names DJ Run, for Simmons, and D.M.C., for McDaniels. After the duo graduated from high school in 1982, they joined together with their friend Jason Mizell, (born January 21st, 1965), who was a dj and was sharpening his skills scratching and mixing. Mizell took on the name Jam Master Jay. The trio began playing block parties and events around the city, and soon built up a reputation for their tough, back-and-forth rap style, heavy drum machine beats, and street level appearance. Most hip-hop acts up to this time had worn flamboyant clothes in the manner of many of the late 70's funk bands, but Run-D.M.C. distinguished themselves with their ever-present shell-toe Adidas sneakers, regular street wear, and fedora hats.
By 1983, the group was signed to Profile Records and released their debut single, “It's Like That/Sucker M.C.'s”. The single sounded different than any hip-hop that had come before it. The beats were hard and the production was sparse, but more importantly, Run and D.M.C.'s lyrics overlapped and wove in and out of each other, and had a street-level command of language and literacy that hadn't been heard before. The single climbed to the Top 20 in the R&B singles chart, and the trio followed it up with their next single, “Hard Times/Jam Master Jay”, which was another success. The group released two more hit singles in early 1984, “30 Days” and “Rock Box”, before releasing their self titled debut album later in the year. Both critics and fans hailed the album as a new chapter in hip hop. Gone were the good-time party raps of such artists as The Sugarhill Gang and Whodini. Run-D.M.C. Brought an urgency and grittiness to rap that had been missing previously, and Jam Master Jay matched Run and D.M.C.'s messages with furious scratching and beat construction that would influence generations of hip-hop artists to come. When the group's second album, 1985's King Of Rock (Profile) came out, Run D.M.C. were at the top of the hip-hop game, and were easily the most visible and popular hip-hop artists in the country. King Of Rock solidified that position, mixing in more samples of heavy rock guitars with the band's monstrous beats. The group scored several hit singles off of the album, including “King Of Rock”, “Can You Rock It Like That” and the humorous “You Talk Too Much”. Run-D.M.C. delivered an album that could not only appeal to their hard-core hip-hop fans, but also had crossover appeal to fans of heavy metal and alternative rock. The album also included the tracks “Jam Master Jammin'”, which showcased Jam Master Jay's incredible skills on the wheels of steel, and “Roots, Rap, Reggae”, which affirmed hip-hop's link to the earlier Jamaican sound systems. Later in 1985, Run-D.M.C. Appeared in the movie Krush Groove along with other hip-hop artists including the Fat Boys, Kurtis Blow and the Beastie Boys.
Run-D.M.C. around 1985 and 1986 seemed to be everywhere and unstoppable. They had almost single-handedly raised the profile of hip-hop in mainstream America and around the world, and their next album, 1986's Raising Hell (Profile), would only further their exposure. Led by the single “My Adidas”, which became a Top Ten single on the R&B charts, Run-D.M.C. scored what would become their biggest hit ever with their hip-hop interpretation of the Aerosmith song “Walk This Way”. It had long been a practice in hip-hop to loop and sample heavy drum breaks from hard rock and heavy metal records to use as backing for raps, but Run-D.M.C. took it a step further by re-doing a hard rock song in their own style. The track featured vocals and guitar from Aerosmith's Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, and the video made to accompany the track was a hilarious band battle between Aerosmith and Run-D.M.C. which climaxed with them joining together to perform the song. Not only was the song a huge hit for Run-D.M.C., but it also effectively re-started Aerosmith's career, which had been stalling out due to mediocre albums and substance abuse problems within the band. “Walk This Way” rose as high as #4 on the Pop Charts, a first for a hip-hop act, and the Raising Hell album became the first hip-hop album to reach #1 on the R&B charts, the first hip-hop album to to reach the Top Ten on the pop charts, and the first to go platinum. Because of the band's enormous popularity and widespread appeal and because they had always produced well-made, (and usually hilarious), videos for each of their singles, they were the first hip-hop group to receive regular airplay on MTV. Beyond “Walk This Way”, Raising Hell also spawned the hit singles “It's Tricky” and “You Be Illin'”.
The group spent most of 1987 recording their next album, 1988's Tougher Than Leather (Profile), and starring in a movie of the same name that was an affectionate send-up of the blaxploitation films of the 1970's. Though they were at the height of their popularity, the hip-hop landscape changed while they were away from the game. 1987 saw the rise of more politically conscious and sonically heavier hip-hop by the likes of Public Enemy, and by 1988, the new, even harder sound of West Coast gangsta rap was on the rise. By the time Tougher Than Leather was released, most of Run-D.M.C.'s core hip-hop audience had been eroded away, and even though the album managed to still go platinum even without any significant hit singles, it was largely because of the new cross-over audience the group had gained with Raising Hell. Many in the hip-hop community now saw Run-D.M.C.'s embrace of rock and the mainstream as a sign of 'selling out', and the group never really regained the respect of most hip-hop fans until years later when they were rightly hailed as pioneers of the musical form. Tougher Than Leather the movie bombed in theaters, and though the band had delivered a fine album that still sold in astonishing numbers, they were now viewed by many as being washed up. The group didn't return with another album until 1990's Back From Hell (Profile), and it was immediately obvious that Run-D.M.C. were trying to appeal again to the hard-core hip-hop fan again. Gone were the metallic guitars and overtly rock influences, replaced now with a more stripped-down, harder sound made to appeal to fans of the newer generation of hip-hop acts. The album sold only moderately well and received luke-warm critical reviews.
Run-D.M.C. didn't return with another album until 1993's Down With The King (Profile). In the intervening years between Back From Hell and Down With The King, Simmons was accused of rape and McDaniels sank into alcoholism. Simmons was eventually cleared of the charges, and McDaniels was able to make a recovery from his alcoholism. During those trying times, both rappers became born-again Christians, with Simmons even becoming an ordained reverend, and McDaniels a deacon in his church. Many of the raps on Down With The King reflected the band member's new-found faith, and the band were also able to gather together a parade of guest stars to contribute to the album and attest to the continuing viability and influence of the band. Guests included KRS-One from Boogie Down Productions, EPMD, Public Enemy, Pete Rock, Neneh Cherry, Naughty By Nature and A Tribe Called Quest, to name a few. The single “Down With The King” became a Top Ten hit on the R&B charts, and the album eventually went gold. During most of the 90's, Run-D.M.C., as a band, stayed mute, though Jam Master Jay stayed active with production projects and Run, who now called himself Rev Run, started his own church and a socially-conscious hip-hop label, Rev Run Records. During the late 90's, techno artist Jason Nevins remixed Run-D.M.C.'s early track “It's Like That” into a speed-garage dance track that garnered new interest in the band. The band regrouped to record 1999's Crown Royal (Profile), which was a hodge-podge of different musical directions and guest appearances that didn't add up to a consistent album. Though there were guest appearances from artists like Kid Rock, Sugar Ray, Nas, Prodigy, Method Man and JD, the album didn't add up to much, and didn't sell particularly well either. As a promotional push for a Greatest Hits (Arista) album released in 2002, Run-D.M.C. appeared live on MTV with Aerosmith and Kid Rock, and afterwards embarked on a U.S. tour opening for Aerosmith, where the band's used “Walk This Way” to transition between their two sets. A week after the tour's completion, Jam Master Jay was murdered in his studio in Queens. His passing was marked by many in the hip-hop community as another example of senseless violence, and his legacy as a pioneer in hip-hop and turntablism was secure. With Jam Master Jay now gone, Run and D.M.C. announced the band was now retired and would no longer operate as Run-D.M.C. Rev Run, as he is now called, went on to release a solo album, Distortion (2005), on his brother Russell's label RSMG, and is also the star of the MTV reality show Run's House, along with his wife and family. D.M.C. went on to record his 2006 solo album Checks, Thugs and Rock N Roll (DMC) and starred in the VH1 documentary DMC: My Adoption Journey, a chronicle of his search for his birth mother. (DMC found out in the late '90's that he was adopted.) Run-D.M.C. In the years since their demise, Run-D.M.C. have rightly regained their status as hip-hop trailblazers, and their early albums, though they may sound dated, retain their appeal to any fan of hip-hop music.