During the ’80s, hip-hop was primarily a singles game. Tracks by Grandmaster Flash, Whodini, Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaata, Kurtis Blow and The Sugar Hill Gang introduced hip-hop to an audience outside of its urban origins. However, few of these artists, save for Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, were responsible for creating a solid hip-hop album. Enter Run-D.M.C. Beginning with their self-titled album in 1984, Run (Joseph Simmons, brother of Russell), Daryl McDaniels (D.M.C.) and DJ Jam Master Jay (Jason Mizell) refined and perfected the sound and style of hip-hop in the ’80s. With its follow-up, King of Rock, they continued to blaze a trail of innovation, much like its title suggested, adding rock samples and a heavier sound. Their crowning achievement, however, was 1986’s Raising Hell, helmed by Rick Rubin’s production and packed with the trio’s best songs to date.
Run-D.M.C.’s approach was much more aggressive than their predecessors, and far less tied to the remnants of disco, which lingered in much of early rap music. Instead, they created something much closer to rock music, but distinctly and definitively hip-hop. In fact, they were one of the first groups to bring together the sound of rock and rap, featuring heavy metal samples in many of their songs, partly due to influence by Rubin. And with Raising Hell, Run-D.M.C. launched their first true crossover hit, a cover of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way,” which not only featured Joe Perry and Steven Tyler in the song, but was paired with a memorable video that saw the two groups feuding in neighboring studios. The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Beck would later pay tribute to this video in their own for “Flavor.”
Raising Hell spawned several other singles, including “It’s Tricky,” which sampled “My Sharona”; “My Adidas,” a tribute to their number one choice for kicks; and the hilarious “You Be Illin’,” with goofball lyrics about ordering Big Macs at KFC, screaming “touchdown!” at a basketball game, and eating a can of dog food. Yet there was no shortage of great album tracks, among them the rapid-fire nursery rhyming of “Peter Piper,” the minimalist “Perfection,” and the super heavy title track. Since the skit track hadn’t been overdone just yet, only one track, the thirty second “Son of Byford” is throwaway material.
After Raising Hell, Run-D.M.C. had attempted a feature film with the faux Blaxploitation flick, Tougher Than Leather. The accompanying album sold more than a million copies, but was considered a commercial flop after Raising Hell which made triple what Tougher did in sales. At this point, trends had shifted toward the more hardcore sounds of Public Enemy and N.W.A., and groups like Run-D.M.C. were somehow lost along the way. Though the group never quite returned to the same level of quality, or popularity, on Raising Hell they remained together for another 16 years until Jam Master Jay was shot and killed in 2002, at the age of 37. Without Jay, there was no Run-D.M.C. As Run once said in a 1988 interview, “we don’t need a band,” then pointing to Jay and commenting, “he’s our band.”
It’s difficult to gauge just how “influential” any musical artist is, though it’s easy to suggest hyperbolic levels of influence being spawned from an artist known for an innovative and trailblazing sound. But it’s no stretch to say that Run-D.M.C. were one of the most influential hip-hop gropus of the ’80s. Though I don’t know to what degree of influence the group held over the hip-hop acts that came afterward, but you can hear Run-D.M.C. in just about all of them.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.