DESPITE WHAT you may have read, there is no such thing as a monolithic black American style. The attempt to pigeonhole black creativity into narrow avenues of economic and emotional predisposition is nowhere more apparent than in music, where mavericks must overcome tremendous commercial bias. With rap music, which barrelled out of America’s urban environments in the late Seventies, full of the sass and sexual vigor that had all but vanished from disco, commercial acceptance was slow but inevitable. While rock reworked creaky cliches and disco lay dying, the energetic, agile imaginations that animated street-party music were having big fun. Aggressive young Jewish and Italian entrepreneurs who’d capitalised first on the girl group era, then on disco, were now — as critic Aaron Fuchs once put it — selling quickie rap records out of the backs of their station wagons.
Russell Simmons of Rush Productions was one of the few black producer/managers to get into rap at ground level and continue developing the field. He helped break Kurtis Blow to a national audience with mainstream novelty material like ‘Christmas Rapping’ and ‘The Breaks,’ and maintained open lines of communication between rough-hewn street talent and the jaded executives of New York’s major labels. While Sugarhill continued to encourage rawer themes of sex, ego and cash in rap acts that seldom if ever wrote their own music, Kurtis Blow’s production team crafted albums which pioneered new directions, paving the way for the kind of street-funk-rock fusion that would shape the Baker-Robie sound.
Larry Smith is the musical director behind most Rush acts, smoothing the transition between live band and synthesizer dynamics, dropping instruments and incidental percussion in and out of the mix with more finesse and more respect for R&B tradition than many of his competitors. In the wake of Blow, a new act from the Rush stable is throwing down a sound and an image to compete with the Streetwise, Tommyboy, and Sugarhill combines. Run DMC, a pair of MCs from the upwardly mobile New York borough of Queens, came out of the box with back-to-back hits. ‘It’s Like That’ and ‘Sucker MCs’ were an open challenge to what people were expecting from American rap at the time. The vocal teamwork (see ‘Double Trouble’ in the movie Wild Style for another example) was very Jamaican in its crisp timing and clear enunciation; the lack of Rick James or P-Funk-inspired visual excess marked Run DMC as two young men with more to sell than a macho lyric and bizarre spectacle.
Joseph Simmons (Run), the younger brother of producer Russell, was a student of Kurtis Blow and followed the careers of many more first generation MCs. Having watched the business from the sidelines through high school and college, this 19-year-old knew exactly how and why he wanted to enter the recording arena.
“I’ve been rapping since about 1977,” says Run, “when I was 12. Then I billed myself the Son of Kurtis Blow, and toured with him a little. In high school I started writing a lot of typical lyrics: “I’m the coolest, and the baddest with the rhyming apparatus…” But my brother told me I had to write something more commercial, things that would appeal to a bigger audience. So I thought I’d just tell people what the world is like, and how to improve themselves. This was the seed idea for ‘It’s Like That’.”
“Back when Run was touring with Kurtis,” added Daryll McDaniel, better known as DMC, “I was mixing and deejaying on cassette at home. He would come over sometimes and I’d spin while he rapped. After bein’ on the road he’d come by with tapes of Blow, Love Bug, Starski, D.J. Hollywood, and tell me all about how great the shows were.
“So one day I just wrote a whole book of rhymes and the next time Run came by he said ‘teach me to mix so you can rap.’ After that we used to switch — me mixing and him on the mike, then him deejaying under my raps. Eventually we did a show together in the neighbourhood, at a club called the Chalet in ’79. We worked up about five routines over different tracks, and shared a bill with Sweet G — who had the record ‘Heartbeat’ out then, and Kid Flash. Everybody liked us so well that we started writing a lot together after that.”
Run had already let his elder brother know he wanted to make a record, but Russell had insisted that he finish high school first. Once the team of Run and DMC graduated they went on to different colleges, and Daryll DMC didn’t think the partnership would last.
“But when I was working up ‘It’s Like That’,” Run admits, “I wanted some help with the rhymes. I went to D and sure enough he came up with some important hooks and plugged up gaps in a few verses.”
Once they were in the studio with the finished tune, Russell Simmons could tell the team had the necessary magic and started to groom them for the neo-pro circuit. As with Kurtis Blow before them, Russell got Run DMC. opening spots with established acts that could teach the kids a little showmanship and at the same time introduce their sound to important new audiences. A stint with George Clinton’s funk mob came through, after which they did a quick tour of the downtown rock venues where rap acts were just becoming trendy, performing their short, fast and funky set of five songs.
By this time the duo had teamed with a young jock tagged Jam Master Jay (Jay Mizell), and had released an LP which balanced established hits against radical new material. The current single ‘Rock Box’ is a heavy metal rap track and the only rap video Profile Records has ever done — at the princely investment of 27,000 dollars.
“We’ve written almost all our own lyrics thus far, even a lot of the music,” insists Run, against the charge, often levelled at rap acts, that they are just a producer’s vehicle. “The ‘Hard Times’ backing track I wrote — though not the lyrics, and the forthcoming single ‘King Of Rock’ is my music.”
“See,” Run continued, “I used to play drums so I do a lot of the DMX programming. And the synths basically just follow the drum beat. For the record ‘Sucker MCs’, the track was all drums and claps. For ‘It’s Like That’, the groove was mostly our yelling with very little music . . . just a pulse syncopated by our vocals. ‘Rock Box’ contains the most music we’ve ever made, with Eddie Martinez’s guitar taking the record in a rock direction. It’s how we change up on each single that sets us apart from other rap groups.”
Warming to his theme, Run leaps to his feet. He begins singing the chorus of a new tune. The song is an upcoming collaboration with Jamaican toaster Yellowman. Titled ‘Fake Dance And Crap Music’, it was inspired by a movie marquee hyping hip hop culture.
“If you gonna break don’t be fake,” sings Run. “If you gonna rap I won’t hear no crap!”
“I was going past one of these movie houses and I saw this sign,” recalls DMC. “‘Break Dance and Rap Music’ — I just thought to myself, all that flick probably has is fake dance and crap music!”
Run seized on the lines as the core of a new tune, and together they’ve worked it into a bitingly direct critique of rapsploitation made pan-cultural by Yellowman’s contrapuntal contribution.
Like most city youngsters, Run DMC. are good mimics, especially when it comes to Latin or West Indian accents. Run performs the first stanza of the new song, swapping his Queens inflection for Yellowman’s patois.
“If ya gwan rap den I won’ ‘ear na crap!”
Run DMC are on a roll, and that’s the way it is.
Published in: The Face, November, 1984